Grandpa and the Great Depression

In the spirit of Labor Day, I am bringing forward two posts that were written by my wife’s grandfather about his life during the Great Depression. He wrote these posts back in 2008. He is 98 now.


April 2008 – At my request, my wife’s grandfather (who just celebrated his 93rd birthday) wrote a bit about living during the Great Depression. He asked that I not use his name, but I would like to publicly thank him very much for taking the time to put this together and for allowing me to publish it. (This post extends to Grandpa and the Great Depression, Part 2.)


My life is reflective of the fact that we moved a lot, sometimes yearly or more often. My father was the victim of his early success. He was a railroad ticket agent and had a wife and me – three years old – when World War I broke out in 1918. He rushed to join expecting to be off to war, but the Navy used his experience to route enlistees to various bases by train.

He was discovered to have tuberculosis (TB) and was sent to the Naval hospital in Colorado and later discharged with arrested TB. Somehow he became a partner in a general store. I think with the help of money from my maternal grandfather. He had good success, had three cars and only he knew how to drive. Then the hospital put in a post exchange and that ended his business.

We moved many times, mostly in California, after that but he never felt he was promoted soon enough or high enough so he quit often and we moved.

Radio towers atop the Pickwick Hotel in downtown San DiegoI have been to school in Colorado, San Diego, Reno, Fallon Nevada, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, maybe some others that I forgot, and Oakland. But in 1930 we were in San Diego and I was about to start high school, in the sophomore year, a new school, Hoover High. I think my mother insisted that we stay in one place, so I could go through one school. So we stayed until I graduated in 1933. My father had a job as Adjutant (Secretary) of a large American Legion Post and also received $50 a month pension from his TB. It wasn’t a lot, but we could get by. We lived in a house that in theory was ours through some kind of Vets program.

My mother was a wiz at managing money. She was part Scottish. The Scots are given credit for being tight, but they are not any more so than anyone else.

So we got along fairly well. We never had a lot of clothes. The “uniform” for boys in high school was a pair of cream-colored corduroys. Worn all year long, they eventually got discolored, helped along by most everyone writing initials or designs on them. Girls had to wear skirts and white blouses. In summer it was white skirts or pastel colored plain dresses, all the same plain style.

We heard about the Depression a lot and it affected us. We didn’t have a lot of meat and we were very careful in giving out portions. Dad got the best and we took what was served. I didn’t think much about it at the time, that was just how things were.

I didn’t have a coat since So Cal is warm. One night I was going to a school play with a girl and we wanted to dress up. So I asked a friend if I could borrow his white sweater. He said of course. When he gave it to me at his house, I could tell his mother wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but let it go. It so happened that we sat in front of them at the play.

For shoes, my folks always got me those high top shoes that wear well. For graduation the boys were all supposed to wear white pants. I asked if my parents would buy me some. Mom was reluctant; she said I already had good pants, not white. I said all the other guys would have them. They finally bought some white pants. At graduation it tuned out that a good many boys wore navy-colored pants. My mother reminded me about that later.

I remember one meal dish we had – it was made of a large can of tomatoes and some rice. We thought it was horrible. Looking back, it doesn’t seem that it was so bad. It certainly was filling.

In the 30s bread was 10 cents a loaf and milk was 12 cents a quart, school lunch (which I never had) was 25 cents, with milk it was 30 cents.

I took my lunch to school, 3 sandwiches, and I was usually given a nickel to buy milk. I frequently didn’t buy milk but saved the nickel up to buy luxuries like candy, etc.

I was in the ROTC that supplied uniforms, so it saved on clothes.

My parents never went out anywhere. One exception, my father was a racehorse gambler. So we now and then would drive down to Tijuana, Mexico to go to the race track. Once in a while, he would win some but mostly lose. I don’t know the net effect, but I think it was mostly lose. We also went to Tijuana for the dog races, for some kind of betting, with the same result.

One year, I had a part time job in a restaurant washing dishes, etc. My mother said I had to save for clothes. After about six months I quit to have more time for school activities.

I don’t remember much talk about the Depression while in school, but I did notice that a lot of kids couldn’t go to plays, etc., and were poorly dressed.

My two sisters, who were younger than me, wore dresses that Mom made. Mother did a lot of sewing, etc. She was good at it. At some point all of our shoes had holes in the soles and we were always putting cardboard in to keep our socks from wearing out on the pavement.

Golden Gate under constructionWe didn’t go places or do things, but at the time, we didn’t think about it much. That was just the way things were.

I graduated in 1933. I didn’t have any plans for college then. We moved to San Francisco in 1933. In 1934 I found a job. I wanted to go into Chemistry. I went around to a lot of firms and the first thing they asked was if I had a degree. Then, no soap. I tried a smaller firm that did wine chemistry and tank capacity measuring. The girl in the office was part time and the daughter of the owner’s wife. She sent me into another office and I met the daughter of the owner. For some reason she thought I was a friend of hers and told her father that he could use a lab assistant. So the owner hired me but said he could only offer a dollar a day. I said OK.

My job to start was washing bottles, etc. The chemist asked me what was in a couple of bottles that had only chemical symbols on them. I remembered enough of my high school chemistry to know the right answers, so I was in!

Wine barrelsThe owner had one other employee and the two of them would go out to the local wine bottlers to measure their tanks and barrels. For tax purposes, they had to have exact measurements.

On many Saturdays, the owner would ask me to go with him and the others to wineries in the country. We would measure the big tanks, 20,000 gallons and more. We would climb over them to get the tapes around them, as well as the depth. The tanks curved in from the bottom to the top. We could get the capacity well enough, but they also needed depth charts so they could tell how much was in a barrel at any inch of depth. The owner was pretty good at math and he devised formulas that could give him the needed figure for any depth.

Happy daysOn those trips, he provided a picnic lunch and it was usually late in the day when we would come home, so he would also take us to dinner at some place good like Venetto’s.

After a while I got raised to 35 dollars a month. Not bad for a kid out of high school.

(This post continues at Grandpa and the Great Depression, Part 2.)


28 thoughts on “Grandpa and the Great Depression

  1. Thank you for sharing your story.

    What I hear in your voice is that adversity did not stop you. True, you didn’t have a college degree; however, you kept looking. God graced you with helpful people and you were able to get a foot in the door. Your own persistence and character then allowed you to grow and succeed in your craft.

    I hope you post, again. I, and I’m sure others, would love to hear more.

  2. @Coyote and @Kathryn,

    Thank you so much for your kind words. I love hearing and reading these sorts of stories, too. I tried not to be too much of a bother to my wife’s grandfather, but I knew others would like to see his remembrances.

    I have also asked him to tell me about his times leading up to, during, and after WWII.

    I have forwarded your comments to him. (He may have read this post, since I emailed the link, but I am not sure if he will check back and see your comments.)

    Thanks again.

  3. Thanks so much for asking him to write this ! I enjoyed reading and learned more about his experiences during these years . . . Barb, his eldest daughter

  4. This is a wonderful story. It really puts the current fear mongering about the economy into perspective. The generations before us (up through the WW2) had to work hard. Their perseverance is what’s made our rich standard of living possible.

  5. Pingback: The Paragraph Edition | Festival of Frugality 122 | On Financial Success
  6. Wow. It sometimes amazes me what they all lived through. My grandfather was put in a boys home because his widowed mom couldn’t raise all her children, so she kept the daughters. But he worked and he made it and succeeded pretty well (though he went on to get a college degree after a bit).

  7. My grandma just passed away last September 7th, on her 93rd birthday. She was the most frugal person I’ve ever known in my entire life. She conserved water, electricity, money, food, clothes, she hardly spent any money but had two nice pensions when she retired. Found you via Festival of Frugality. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Mrs. A

  8. Thanks for the comment, Barbara. As I mentioned above, I am hoping your father will write some more.

    @Aaron, thanks for the comment.

    @Mrs. Micah, that’s an amazing fact about your grandfather. Even with that, his spirit stayed strong. I often wonder how people persevered through really hard times like that. I like to think I would have been able to make it though those tough times, as well, but I am thankful I didn’t have to.

    @Mydailydollars, thanks also for the nice comment.

    @Mrs. Accountability, I am sorry about your grandma. Yes, many people from that era were extremely frugal. It was a way of life they grew up with. My parents were both 6 years old in 1929. My dad was a lot like your grandma. He made sure we never wasted anything, water included. He always took GI showers (get wet, turn off water, soap up, rinse off) and had clothes that he regularly wore that were older than me.

    But he also made sure we were not wanting. And he did spend on important things: he and my mom helped all 4 kids with our 1st houses and gave all grandkids $50k college funds. They also invited quite a few foreign exchange students into their house over the years, and supported their church, food banks, and other charities, as well as several scholarships.

    Thanks for your comment.

  9. bryce,

    I like the way you weaved in those old pics. Times were sure different back then. People weren’t standing at the government treasury waiting to fill their pockets like they are today.

  10. @barry b. – Thanks for the comment. I agree with you.

    I recently ran across this great quote from the Depression, “Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do or Do Without.” Pretty much sums up people’s attitudes back then.

    The quote was posted at Got a Little Space to Fill: Just Hack It, which was in the Festival of Frugality #124. There are some other good quotes there, as well.

  11. Loved reading “Grandpa and the Great depression.” He is a little older than I (age 85) but I found it so very interesting to hear about his experiece in California and compare it with mine in Georgia. I hope he will write more.

  12. Dear Ruth, thank you so much for dropping by. You have some great memories on your web site, as well as some interesting tales of the past. It appears many people are happy you are sharing these wonderful memories. I will read some more when I get the chance.

    My wife’s grandfather just sent me a new letter earlier this week. He is not so good with email. He types on his computer, prints letters out, and I transcribe back into the computer. Whatever works!

    (I have been working on getting my mom to write something, as well. She was born in 1924 in Athens, Georgia. She worked in the War Department in Washington, D.C., back in the Forties. I have really been trying to get her stories about those days.)

  13. I love reading things like this because it really puts things into perspective. It’s also nice to see a recount of how things were in a personal manner, instead of a general “well this happened and that happened, and that was the depression”. Little details are interesting.

    1. Thanks, Daisy. I enjoy the personal details of history, too. I keep bugging my mom, who was born in 1924, to write something about those times, too, but I don’t have anything from her, yet. A few decades ago, we tried to get her father, who flew a biplane in WWI to write or tape his adventures, but also nothing. Lots of people figure that no one wants to read about their lives, but everyone has a story to tell. I am thankful I was able to get my wife’s grandpa to tell a small part of his.

  14. Fantastic perspective, thanks for sharing! It’s fascinating how different life was in other times and especially during the great depression. As a SF resident I think that’s awesome he came to SF and got a job here. The pics I’ve seen of historic San Francisco are incredible to look at. How neat to have experienced it!

    1. @Untemplater, Thanks for the nice comment. I’m not sure I would describe the experience of living through the Great Depression as “neat,” though. Remember the line about shoes, “At some point all of our shoes had holes in the soles and we were always putting cardboard in to keep our socks from wearing out on the pavement.” I had seen that in old movies, but I didn’t know if people really did it. I guess they did.

  15. I just loved this post and cannot wait for the next one to come up. Not having a college degree and starting a job at chemistry for $1 per day, incredible journey.

  16. Thank you for sharing this story, very interesting. There is so much that we can all learn from people with a lot more life experience than us, as they have wisdom that is hard-earned.

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