Cumberland Times-News

March 6, 2008

Veterans of Great Depression dwindling group

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

Recent speculation about whether America is - or is not - on the brink of another depression had made me aware that I am one of a dwindling group who can remember the Big D Depression of the 1930s.

Those of us who lived through it tend to be a special breed: We belong to the Clean Plate Club ("It's sinful to waste food,'' we pay off our credit card debts as soon as the bill arrives (neither a borrower nor a lender be.'') and we can still parallel park on Main Street.

My family did not really suffer during that Depression. We lived in the parsonage supplied by the congregation my father served and he continued to receive a salary, although it was reduced during that period and it did not always arrive on the scheduled date.

But we had shelter and food, and we did not know anyone who jumped from a 30th story window after the stock market crash, or farmers whose topsoil was blown away in dustorms of that decade.

The signs of stress, though, were all around us. People sold apples on street corners, trying to collect enough dimes to provide a meal for a family.

I knew one man, a member of my father's congregation, who fitted up an old baby carriage with bins and boxes and a grinder and trundled it through the residential streets of Germantown to sell fresh-ground horse radish to housewives.

All over the city, on house after house after house, for sale signs appeared and the bank where I began working shortly after college graduation had a huge Real Estate Department involved in handling the thousands of properties on which the mortgages were in default.

By that time the Depression was already more than seven years old. It had begun in the summer before the Wall Street crash, with a series of bank failures. They were mostly small banks, but their customers panicked, businesses down-sized and people began counting their change.

In 1932 mine was the first senior class at Germantown High to cancel the traditional weekend trip to Washington. Our class president had just two dresses, which she wore alternately, to see her through our final semester.

All of us took our silk stockings (nylon had not yet been developed) to the little shop where a fleet-fingered girl used a tiny latch-hook to repair runs; I think the charge may have been 10 cents an inch.

Magazines like Good Housekeeping and Woman's Day assured us that out-grown or damaged garments would be salvaged to provide cloth for children's clothing.

They featured articles about the furniture that could be made of cast-offs: armchairs out of barrels, dressing tables that had begun as orange crates. There were all sorts of suggestions for turning Mother's back bedroom into an efficiency apartment for newlyweds.

Weddings were few, and usually quite simple and low-cost. Married women, teachers perhaps, had difficulty finding jobs. It was not only male chauvenism that kept them out of the workforce, but the feeling that it was unfair for one family to have two incomes while their neighbors had none.

Some of my classmates who opted for two-year Normal School instead of four-year college, had to be satisfied with occasional substitute teaching for as much as six years after their graduation.

The Depression dragged on for the whole decade of the '30s. A glimmer of hope in 1936, when I was hired by the Pennsylvania Company, faded the following year, when the country experienced what was called a recession. There was no Christmas bonus and some bank salaries were never restored to their pre-Depressions levels.

There had been no bonus for me; I joined the bank only a few weeks before the holidays and still had probationary status. But I rode in an elevator with groups of five-year veterans, chortling about their $25 bonanzas.

At that point I made a solemn, though silent, vow: If after five years I was still working at that clerical job I would skip the bonus; I would either marry the first man in sight or, like the author of a book I had been reading, set out on a trip around the world.

Fortunately, I was not held to that vow. By the time I approached my five-year job anniversary, I had been promoted to a very interesting assignment in the Personnel Department; I had met and married Bill, and I submitted my resignation so that I could follow him and settle down to being a housewife in upper New York state.

The wartime economy of the decade of the '40s presented new problems - but that is another chapter. There is no question in my mind that the experience of living through the Depression shaped my thinking and contributed to the way I look at life today. But I sincerely hope that my children and grandchildren will never have to face the same uncertainties.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.