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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Child of the Great Depression

My mother was married in 1929 and I was born a year later. Not good timing. By the time I was five my parents were traveling around the country with two kids in tow, my sister and myself. I don't think we were headed anywhere. We lived in our car, and city cops did not like transients to take root so we kept moving. My mother bathed us in service station bathrooms, using their soap and hot water. She also would rinse out a few things in the basin while there. She had the door locked, and we were in there some time, however no one ever banged on the door or chased us out. Attitudes were different then. Now you would be a bum, but then there were so many in the same boat, most people were tolerant.

Once my father was out of the picture my mother went on relief, called that for obvious reasons, and we moved into an apartment in a run down tenement filled with fellow depression casualties. Surplus food was made available to those on relief. In our area you went to a big, green warehouse and stood in line. As you moved past a table you were given staple items such as coffee, canned milk, flour, p-nut butter, cheese etc. You were also given whatever surplus there was of subsidized food. You might get a whole bag of grapefruit or oranges, things of that kind. One thing I remember clearly, you always got margerine. Margerine was a new product and was packaged as a white block that looked like lard. A capsule of orange/yellow food dye came with it. You dumped the margerine in a bowl, broke the capsule and poured the contents over it and then used a fork to mix it. That was my job, and I can tell you you had to mix until your arm about fell off. Then there was a major improvement. The margerine started coming in a plastic bag. The capsule was in there too. You squeezed the capsule until it broke then kneaded the bag to mix it all together.

I don't know about every state, but in California a major effort was made to insure children were getting enough to eat and medical treatment. This was done through the schools. There were not ony lunch programs for those who could not afford lunch, but breakfast programs as well. We were often asked questions that now a days would be considered an invasion of privacy, but at the time were accepted as the norm. "What did you have for breakfast?" "How many baths do you take a week?" These two I remember as they got me in hot water. When asked how many baths I took I said one. When I told my mother she asked, "Didn't you tell them you took a shower every night?" "No, they only asked how many baths." When asked about breakfast I said I drank coffee. My mother put a tablespoon or two of her sweetened coffee in my glass of milk as I liked to pretend. That one resulted in a call from school.

We had free eye exams and free glasses if needed as well as physicals, and you got vaccinated at the health department for no cost.

As a child I didn't give it much thought at the time. I can only guess now at how scared the grownups were.


  1. I just started to subscribe to your blog after your post on ravelry- it is wonderful to read about "the olden days". I can't begin to imagine what life must have been like, but your post provides a little window of personal experience into that era. Keep up the good work, I love history and in particular when it is filled with the voices of normal, "small" and "unimportant" people, instead of kings, queens and battles.

  2. I'm also here from Ravelry.

    Can I ask... you mentioned in your post about your grandfather that he owned a company, yet at this point in your life you were homeless. Did he start the company after the depression? Did your fortunes change with WWII? And I understood that there were more kids besides yourself in your family? Were they siblings, cousins? Please, don't think I am being nosy-- I am just fascinated with your story. It's true living history... plus knitting content. Perfect!

    BTW, my oldest son (11) is just like you were. He will only answer exactly what he is asked, and rarely elaborates. It has made for some uncomfortable moments with the grandparents, that's for sure!

  3. Third from Ravelry!

    My father passed away at age 79 this March, and he too was a child of the Depression but he lived in Cuba. Times were lean there too.

    He used sell bananas and platains in a pushcart for 20 miles. (Uphill both ways, natch). He was also a street urchin after his mother divorced his father and would steal food from the local markets or from churches.

    Yet somehow he went to school (we assumed up to about the 8th grade. He was literate in Spanish and English and had a great mind for numbers) and became a shoe shine boy and later was apprenticed out to learn how to cobble shoes.

    My mother is alive and well at 68. She was left motherless and in those days, she said that was the same as being left orphaned. Her older sister (I assume she must have been in her early 20s when Mom was about 11) would remind her that their father could put my mom in an orphanage if she misbehaved.

    She remembers using the sacks of flour from the bakery my grandfather ran to make clothes and aprons. Shopping, both for food and clothes, was a man's job in those days in Cuba.

    I'm still left dumbfounded at the idea that my dad came to the US by himself at age 22. Didn't know anyone (he was able to track down a long-lost aunt) and with out a dime in his pocket.

    Mom came here when she was 17, three months after they had married. She hardly knew my dad and also didn't know a soul in New York.

    They always attributed their success to a combination of hard work, determination and luck. My mom always points out that there was no going back after 1960 when Castro took over (they came in 1952 and 1958 respectively). It was sink or swim for them.

  4. I am so enjoying your blog. Thanks for posting the link on Ravelry! I don't have as interesting a family story, so I won't bore ya'll with it - just wanted to say keep posting - I'm loving it!