Life During the Depression

Life During the Depression
Julie Lassa
Senior at
Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH)

I would like to thank Mr. Anton Anday and Mr. Tim Siebert for their guidance on this paper.

I have always wanted to know inure about my grandmother's life. So many things have changed since the early nineteen hundreds that my experiences today are quite different from when she was my age. With our advanced technology and changing society the United States has grown, to be a very complex country. Now that we are closing the nineteen hundreds few things in this century have had such a great effect on the whole country as the great depression. The depression had a direct impact on my grandmother's generation that is still with them to this day.

Before I considered writing this paper, I really had very little knowledge about the depression. In school you only get basic knowledge, such as the date the stock market crashed and what kind of effects it had on the economy and society, but it does not explain the feelings of the individual who really experienced the event.

For my research on this paper I interviewed Theresa, my grandmother, who is seventy. For the interview I used a recorder to make sure that I gathered with accuracy all the important information entrusted to me. Further, I did a literature search to put all the pertinent facts in a chronological order.

To really understand what happened to my grandmother's generation we must start analyzing the progression of the depression from the time after World War I.

No one really anticipated the depression. What everyone wanted after World War I, was to return to their individual normal lives. They soon found this contentment in the post war “prosperity boom” which was also called the “Roaring Twenties”. The automobile business was expanding providing jobs for more that four million people. Other companies that were thriving manufactured consumer goods. They were producing rayon, cigarettes, household appliances, telephones, and cosmetics.

Since the war left the North American continent untouched, the factories of the United States found an easy transition from producing war materials to consumer products. All the newly created jobs gave more Americans money to spend, which in turn helped the growth of these industries.

During this time production and employment was increasing along with company profits. The prosperity achieved by business did not flow to the workers. Disparity in wages caused the growth of a gap between the owners and workers.

Many people began to dabble in the stock market. Many investors were caught up in the “get rich quick” fever. Because of this “fever” the market began to grow at an incredible rate. Many economists and businessmen knew or suspected that such grow could not go on for much longer.

The biggest problem was that everyone was taking advantage of the new credit system. Money was not coming into the market, as the growth would indicate. It was just an illusion of money, created by the credit system. Soon many, investors had overextended themselves and had to sell their shares on margin to pay for their financial responsibilities. This wave of selling set off fears, which broke the confidence of investors, so that soon everyone wanted to get out of the market before their stacks became worth less.

To end the downward spiral of the market some of the most powerful bankers of the time pooled their bank's money together, about forty million dollars, to buy stocks at a reasonable price. For awhile this did stop the panic and leveled out the prices, but not for long. Five days later bankers began to sell their stocks to avoid financial ruin. By mid November the market had reached rock bottom.

Stockbrokers sent out “margin calls” requesting that their clients pay cash for remaining margins that they had outstanding. The brokers needed the money to pay their debts to the bank, but the broker's clients had no money to give a since they speculated on the market. Banks, who had also invested in the market, could not raise enough money for their customers to cover their deposits because of the money shortage. The depositors wished to withdraw their money to pay their debts.

During the period of boom in the industry, business kept the prices artificially high to increase profits coming in. They also increased the number of products they produced. However, as I stated before, wages did not keep up with the prices of the products. So as time went on fewer and fewer people could buy the items, creating the surplus.

Since people were buying less, businesses had to cut back production by closing down factories and laying off considerable numbers of their employees.

At the same time the farming industry was having a similar problem. During World War I, farmers had to grow great quantities of food. At the conclusion of the war they kept at the same level of production, causing a surplus. This surplus drove food prices down, driving many farmers into bankruptcy.

Due to large scale, unemployment lines grew everyday to get a stale crust of bread and watery soup. Many children were hungry and starving, while groups of homeless men huddled in groups around fires at night that were made out of scraps of wood and debris.

People were digging in garbage either to feed themselves or to produce moonshine for extra money. Customers, who always paid cash, were now in debt at the grocery stores. People who were well off still bought the best meat. Whatever was leftovers was simply thrown out into the garbage, instead of giving it to people who needed it.

The coming of the winter of 1931 brought along with it eight million unemployed workers. By December, 13.5 million people were out of work. Because they were jobless and penniless many of these took to riding railroad boxcars to nowhere in particular, looking for employment.

Between 1930 and 1931 farm prices fell more than thirty percent, while farm expenses had not. Banks were forced to foreclose on farmers to regain a stable economic base. Soon American farmers joined other homeless, who roamed the land in hopelessness and despair.

During the second winter the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army were running out of resources, since the need was nationwide. The federal government refused to help. They claimed that the homeless would become dependent on charity and would refuse to look for work. President Hoover, while refusing to lend a helping hand, did give optimistic statements that the depression would “blow over. Hoover and his administration had expressed indifference about the homeless, the country was soon frustrated and angry. Violence and looting became wide spread, as the homeless became more desperate. Still the president refused to budge, he stated that “Nobody was actually starving. The hobos, for example, are better fed now than they have every been.”

1932 the unemployment level reached fourteen million and was still growing. Now the bread lines included businessmen, storekeepers, and middle class housewives. So desperate were people to find food they ate roots, dandelions, and weeds. The government had to act.

The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was started by Hoover in 1932. It's objective was to lend money to business and banks to keep them from going under and ruining the economy. This program was kept under wraps, because the government did not want the public to lose confidence in banks over these “handouts”.

In July 1932, the Emergency Relief Act became law. It loaned up to $300,000 of government money to states for relief purposes. Hoover soon became a symbol of the desperate life the population had to live.

The intellectuals of the 1930s in support of the people started to join the Liberal and radical political parties of this country. Books such as John Strachey’s The Corning Struggle for Power and the Autobiography by Lincoln Steffens greatly influenced the intellectuals in their thinking. Some were influenced by what they saw. This was expressed by Thomas Wolfe who wrote “...the unending repercussions of these scenes of suffering, violence, oppression, hunger, cold, and filth and poverty going on unheeded in a world in which the rich were still rotten with their wealth, left a scar upon my life.”

My grandmother, Theresa, was born in November, 1918 in Peplin, Wisconsin.

In her family were twelve children, both her parents, her grandmother, and uncle. They lived in a two-story house. On the first floor was the kitchen, front room, and a bedroom with two beds. The upstairs was not used until later when there were more people in the family.

Her father, Joseph, worked two days a week in the paper mill while also maintaining his farm. They had four cows and grew three acres of potatoes for a cash crop. The four cows provided meat in the winter.

In the summer her mother grew a large garden which included strawberries, carrots, and other varieties of vegetables. When it was time to harvest the potatoes she and her brothers and sisters stayed home from school for three weeks to help.

During the winter things were tougher for the family. Instead of eating sour milk and mashed potatoes or onions as in the summer they ate fried potatoes for breakfast. For lunch at school their meal was a lard sandwich with sugar. After school every night my grandmother had to run to the store to get five cents worth of rice so her mother could make rice with milk. The only meat they had was if one of the cows was butchered and hung out in the barn so it would keep frozen. Every night her mother had to cut a strip off the carcass. Bakery goods were never present in the house because it was too expensive and they already owed money to the grocery store. From the Red Cross they received a sack of flour, which was to last two weeks.

Her other grandmother, who lived a mile away, also owned four cows. In the winter my grandmother had to walk a mile to her grandmother's house to carry milk and to sleep at her house because she was afraid to stay by herself. Great, great grandmother shipped the cow's milk to the cheese factory, but when the cheese factory ran out of money they gave her cheese in exchange for the milk. My grandmother's family always had plenty of cheese.

More children were born into the family. The older children slept upstairs in two beds. In the winter it was so cold they slept under blankets draped over the beds. 

There were two stoves in the house. One was for cooking and the other for heating. When it was too cold to cut wood outside it was brought inside the house and cut for burning on two wooden horses. On wash days either my grandmother or one of her sisters had to stay home for two days to turn the wheel on the wash machine.

School was three miles away from their home. Men from Bevent used to log in the vicinity so my grandmother would try to hitch rides on the sleighs during the winter. This did not always work because of the added weight. They walked most of the way. It was a very cold walk, since they only had light clothing and patched leather shoes. Some children went barefoot even when snow was still on the ground. In spring my grandmother's mother would not allow her children to go barefoot until “the frogs hollered and the dandelions bloomed.”

The one room school contained several grades of pupils. Teachers used harsh discipline. If a student misbehaved in class, he or she was hit with a rope.

After school the children would try to catch a ride on one of the empty loggers’ sleighs. Most loggers would let them ride. Some refused because they did not want the responsibility of anyone getting hurt.

In Mosinee at the same time, there were four businesses: the bank, an A & P grocery, the paper mill, and lumber company. The bank had closed. One of the neighbors who made moonshine and used the bank, lost six hundred dollars. People still could borrow money from lenders who earned their wealth by making and selling illegal alcohol. A neighbor, who borrowed money from such a person, bought two horses for four hundred dollars. They were used to pull logs from the woods. The neighbor could not make the payments on the horses. He lost both the horses and all his cows.

Some people were so desperate for money that they tried to steal cut logs from a neighbor's woods. The two boys were caught, prosecuted, and fined.

At the age of fourteen grandmother's brothers quit school and took over the farm. When they turned eighteen they started work at the lumber company in order to pay off the lumber they had used to build a barn.

The two events that really affected my grandmother during this time, were when two of her sisters unfortunately died. Her sister Veronica died suddenly when she was a nine month old infant. A few years later her other sister, Mary, died of polio. She was in and out of the hospital during her illness which lasted about two years. Mary asked her mother to let her come home. The day after she came home, she passed away.

There was no money for the two funerals. Veronica's coffin was made by her father. Mary's was purchased from the lumber company for thirty-five dollars. Both wakes were held at home, then the bodies were carried to the cemetery.

Not all my grandmother's memories are bad. During this time barn raisings were really popular. The musicians worked for free and everyone had a good time. Dances held at the hall raised money. Girls were charged ten cents, boys were charged a quarter. My grandmother's mother always paid their way, because she did not want the girls to have anything to do with the boys. Once my great grandmother would not allow them to go to the dance so the sisters went on strike and refused to dig out her dahlia bulbs and they froze. Needless to say, great grandmother never did that again.

In 1938, Theresa married Frank Cincera. Eighty families were invited to a reception at the dance hall. Her mother and dad could not afford to pay for the hail, but did give them a calf and twenty chickens for the meal and bought all the whiskey. They also had baked pies, raised beets, and potatoes for the meal. In stead of getting wedding gifts, my grandmother had to dance the bridal dance and guests threw one or two dollars onto the dance floor. The musicians cost fifteen dollars and the wedding pictures another twenty-five dollars. After all expenses were paid, they still had one hundred dollars with which to start their new life together.

After the wedding they moved into great grandfather Cincera’s home in Knowlton. While they lived there they survived on pork and potatoes.

In 1939 Theresa and Frank left for Chicago. They lived with my grandmother's sister. While there they both found jobs. My grandmother worked putting together radios. My grandmother was laid off at Christmas time because the company needed to cut back on their production of radios.

In 1940 the couple returned to live with great grandfather. In May the first of five children was born. To help support them my grandfather worked grading roads for the county. Life was not easy in the thirties in Knowlton or Peplin Wisconsin, but with luck and hard work the families survived and prospered.

Through this research I have been made to understand why my grandmother and others of her generation feel the way they do today about economics and the role of government plays in people's lives. They have overcome many hardships that have made them critical and suspicious of the banking system and government programs. There is no other way that they could feel. They themselves experienced the hardships of the time. I greatly admire their generation because of their perseverance and will to survive.

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