Dick Maynard Column November 19, 2008

The 1930s were not exactly the good old days

Frightening. According to the national press, America today is experiencing “Our nation’s gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

Seriously? The financial roads of the 1980s were more than a little bumpy at our house. But Exxon didn’t pull out of New York City, and if something doesn’t happen in the Big Apple, it never occurs.

Today, Wall Street’s on its butt, not Junction, so East Coast hand wringers claim the entire country is heading off a financial cliff.

If, indeed, the U.S. is hell bent for depression, it makes sense to check out life in the 1930s. Should history repeat, what lies ahead in an economy that’s Dumpster bound? To find out, I stopped by a cottage at The Fountains for a chat with the one person I know who lived through that black financial hole: my mom.

“The Depression?” she recalled, thinking back to being a teenager nearly 80 years ago. “Well, growing up on a farm in eastern Iowa, I remember sewing dresses for school wear using printed feed sacks for fabric. And I also have memories of making soap out of Lewis lye and tallow (beef fat). But we were so lucky living on a farm.

“Beef may have been eight cents a pound and corn a quarter a bushel, but we grew our own food.

Never did my sister or I go to bed hungry like so many. Plus my dad, your grandfather, found a railway mail clerk job so we had some income. He was gone a lot, so a high school boy was hired to milk, feed and do chores. He earned eight dollars a month plus room and board. His family was really poor (like mom was living high on the hog), and the money a godsend.”

I asked if she remembered the banks closing? “Oh sure,” she said. “But it didn’t affect me like others. I was in college at Iowa State studying to be a dietician. While going to school, I worked nights as a switchboard operator for 15 cents an hour. Your dad washed dishes in a restaurant. He also earned 15 cents an hour, but got his meals, so he had a really good job. And, like I said, my folks were able to keep the farm. It’s still in my sister’s family.

“After graduation in ’35, I interned at Mass General in Boston and then was hired to work on their staff at $60 a month. I earned $65 a month when I returned to Iowa. Your dad and I decided to get married and he was working at Roberts Dairy in Sioux City, so I moved there. He also earned, you guessed it, $60 a month. By riding the trolley and not owning a car we put money in a savings account. Gas was 25 cents a gallon. Sounds cheap, but ‘Fill ’er up’ could really damage the family budget when the combined yearly income of two college graduates was less than $1,500.

“Our first apartment cost $30 bucks a month. It had a bedroom and a kitchen with a shared bath down the hall. The apartment had a second bedroom. It was rented to another guy. Leaving the house or heading to the lavatory, he had to walk through our kitchen.”

“Sounds cozy,” I offered.

“It was what we could afford,” Mom replied. “Plus we didn’t know anything different. That’s just how it was.”

So to anyone wishing to expound how the country is heading into another 1930s-like depression, first visit with a 95-year-old at The Fountains. She’ll explain, in detail, that we’re not even close.


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