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.
I 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.
We 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!
The 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.
On 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.)