Wall Street’s ups and downs, whirlwind changes in the mortgage industry and real estate’s dizzying nosedive are enough to make some think this country is on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and headed straight back to 1929.
While the next decade likely won’t be your grandma’s Great Depression revisited, thanks to a host of safeguards in place, there’s inspiration in the sage advice of those who actually lived through the bleakness of the pre-war years of the ‘30s.
Eagle Creek resident Bob Allen, 84, places the credit for his work ethic squarely at his father’s feet.
“Father covered West Philadelphia on foot,” recalls Allen. “We were not rich, certainly, but we were never on welfare.” The senior Allen lost his sales job shortly after the crash of ’29, but parlayed his marketing skills into a business procuring things — furniture from North Carolina, a wedding dress in Philly or a ton of coal — to meet customer demand. He started the business simply by printing stationery and envelopes with his name on them in order to look official.
Allen said his family saved everything from newspaper and metal to the foil wrappers in a package of cigarettes, to recycle or resell.
“Back then, I had to repair my own shoes. You could get a patch kit with a scraper and terrific glue for the bottom of your shoe at the five and dime,” he says, noting that people did all manner of jobs to get by.
“My brother worked setting up pins in the bowling alley. People sold apples on the street corner. My uncle was a painter and mother cleaned rooms at a famous men’s club.”
Everyone pitched in to keep the family afloat, including Allen, who says at the tender age of 8, even his religion was affected by the Depression.
“We always attended St. Barnabus Catholic Church,” he explains. “One day, somebody asked me if I would sing in the choir at an Episcopal church downtown. ‘They’ll pay you,’ the person said, so off I went. Before my voice changed, I sometimes earned $30 or $40 a week, because they paid you for two rehearsals, Sunday services and your trolley fare.”
That was nearly a windfall in an era when butter was 10 cents a pound.
“Dad was old-fashioned. He’d say, ‘You’re living here with a roof over your head and food to eat. Give me your money and I’ll give it back to you according to circumstances.’ ”
One of the most striking differences Allen says is that there were no supermarkets.
“If you needed to buy food you went to the corner store or the deli,” he said. “Every neighborhood had its own shoe repair and bakery shop.
“Breakfast was two slices of bread and some hot cocoa; if you wanted more bread that would just mean less for lunch or dinner, but we never turned anyone away who needed a meal to eat or a place to stay,” says Allen. “We wore hand-me-downs. What you couldn’t make do with we repaired or took it apart and made it over.”
A self-confessed capitalist, the former Hershey Trust Company CFO says one of the biggest problems with today’s portfolios is that nobody knows who owns what.
“I learned from the best that you don’t buy anything you don’t understand — like hedge funds,” he said, offering calming advice for the future. “If your investments were good to begin with, hold on, don’t panic; the market will come back.”
A few miles outside of Youngstown, Ohio, 11-year-old Betty Freeman was considered an experienced babysitter in 1929, by virtue of having three younger siblings and a passel of young cousins. That would earn her 25 cents — not per hour, but per night — until midnight and an extra 10 cents if she stayed later.
During the summer strawberry season, she once picked an astounding 100 quarts and made $1.50. At a penny-and-a-half per quart, it was considered big money for the day.
Freeman said there were many meals with no meat, but there was always canned food in winter and fresh food in the summer, because everybody had a garden.
As for clothing, Freeman feels blessed her grandmother was a good seamstress.
“There was no new material, so she would make coats and dresses or trousers out of clothes people sent us. She’d rip that discarded clothing apart, clean the fabric with gasoline if it wasn’t washable, press it and sew it into a pattern,” said Freeman. “The other kids in school who didn’t have anyone to sew for them wore clothes too short or ill-fitting. We didn’t appreciate what we had. We wanted store-bought clothes, but we were told we couldn’t have any unless we earned our own money.
“I couldn’t wait to use that strawberry money to buy shoes and a dress. Boy, I felt I was up in the world, even though the clothing wasn’t near the quality of what grandma made.”
Later, Freeman earned enough to transfer from the local junior college to Ohio State University where tuition was somewhat higher — $15 per quarter.
“I grew up not knowing too much about money,” recalls Al Stickles. “I had a second-hand bicycle my father took in trade. I never thought about it except that it was my bike.” Stickles’ father was a doctor who eventually became well-known for his tuberculosis research. During the Depression, however, the patriarch was at a loss for money, because his patients paid for his services with beef, pork or chicken.
“We always had plenty of food,” says Stickles. “But we didn’t have money to pay for the mortgage.”
As a result, the Stickles packed up and headed to California in hopes of finding a more lucrative existence. His father’s practice there stayed busy, but was unsatisfactory, so after little more than a year, the family returned to Colorado.
Stickles, who was just 7 during the 1929 crash, says he and his siblings were well-cared for and as youngsters, weren’t aware of what was happening across the country.
“It didn’t hit us quite the way it did in some other parts of the country,” he says. “People in our community were mostly farmers. It was a railroad town and the railroad kept running so those people got paid. It just wasn’t terrible in our community.”
Despite his sense of well-being, Stickles remembers wearing hand-me-downs, going barefoot and having to work for pennies to have spending money.
“Fifty cents was a lot to me,” he says. “I worked at the movie theater so I could get in for free. I watched those trailers and knew I wanted to go to the Naval Academy, but I didn’t think much about my life after that.”
Henriette Rosenak married her husband in 1933, after he graduated No.1 in his class at engineering school.
“I’d been living at home, going to teachers’ college,” said Rosenak. “I never thought about money. I had everything I needed. But I had to face reality after I got married.”
It was the height of the Depression and despite his education, her husband had a hard time getting a job.
All summer long, he pounded the pavement, knocking on doors and filling out applications. Finally, he landed a job carrying tools and sweeping floors. The pay was $26.40 a week.
“It took the whole summer for him to get a job he didn’t want, but he was happy to have it,” recalls Rosenak, 95. “We didn’t know we were poor, because everyone else was, too.”
In their tiny East Chicago apartment, the Rosenaks got by on very little. They talked and ate — very little — at a card table with two chairs and looked forward to going home to Terra Haute, Ind. to stuff themselves once a month.
“I wore the clothes I had, and wore them and wore them. We learned to get by on very little. Still, we saved enough each week for insurance and to put some in our savings account. When we had a few dollars, we’d splurge and eat out. A full meal with two drinks was 25 cents,” she said. “The only fight I can remember we ever had was over spending 35 cents to go swimming. He wanted to go; I didn’t think we could afford it.
“Whenever we acquired anything, it was a major triumph. Nobody handed us anything, it was a wonderful feeling.”
She admits she still has issues when it comes to spending money, noting attitudes toward saving money have changed.
“I don’t think people are as thoughtful about saving as we were then,” she says. “I can’t conceive of the debt this country owes and I don’t know how we’re ever going to get out of it. Even the bright people don’t know how to do that.”
As to the future, Rosenak’s advice for young families in these trying times is plain and simple: “Hang in there and stay together. Cherish each other and put something away for a rainy day.”