How the Oldtimers Survived the Great Depression and Why We May Not Measure Up
Anyone who grew up with relatives who survived the Great Depression and World War II probably have the stories that were passed down from those eras engraved into their subconscious. I know that whenever I go to purchase something expensive and not truly necessary, my grandmother's voice saying "do you really need that?" immediately comes to mind. If I open my wallet and find only a few dollars, my grandfather's warning to never leave the house without cold, hard cash also flashes through my memory. Now that we could quite possibly be heading for another depression, the lessons from family old timers about how they survived are quite telling, and, at the same time, it makes me look at society today and pick out many ways that we may not survive such a period as successfully as they did. Here's why:
*Many people lived on farms during the Depression which softened the blow as far as food was concerned. They could pretty much grow the food they needed and not have to go to a grocery store for every single morsel to feed their families. How many people do you know today that can grow most of their own food including fruits, vegetables, eggs, chickens, milk, pigs, cows, etc? The only things that I remember they made a big deal of, and conserved like it was gold, was coffee and chocolate. There was no such thing as picky kids or food that went to waste.
*The skills to acquire food were part of the fabric of life. Berry picking in the summer, foraging for nuts in the fall, growing food, processing food (ie: smoking meats, canning vegetables and fruit, making cheese), fishing, and hunting were skills that every kid learned from his parents and grandparents. How many people these days could take a live chicken and make it into a fried chicken? How many kids have no idea how something as simple as butter is made?
*Skills in general were used to do a lot of work with very little material goods. Clothes were washed by hand, fertilizer was made at home (thanks to the cows) and not purchased, and home shops (wood, welding, etc) were quite common and thoroughly used. Many people today would have no idea how to wash a load of clothes by hand or dry them without the dryer telling them what setting it needed to use.
*They didn't have credit back then. Granted some people received credit for various purchases (house, car, farm machinery, etc) but it was a BIG deal. You didn't sign a paper and wait for a shiny card to arrive in the mail. The banker had to know you, your parents, your grandparents, and practically receive the title to your first born before you would be given credit to purchase what you needed. With credit so easy to receive today, much of the population is up to their eyeballs in debt, setting up themselves and their lenders for bankruptcy at the slightest financial glitch.
*They didn't have the bills that we have today. My bills include: gas, electricity, water, garbage, sewer, cell phone, home phone, cable TV, and DSL internet (not to mention the housekeeper, yard guy, car wash, and all of those other "have to have" services that we take for granted). My grandparents paid for electricity and didn't have a phone or TV until way after their kids were born. They filled up the propane tank when they could afford it but mainly used the wood stove for heat and cooking, water was from a hand-dug well, garbage was processed on their land (burned, recycled, composted), sewer was a septic tank (with an outhouse for backup), and there were no cell phones, DSL, or cable. Grandma was the housekeeper, grandpa was the yard guy, and the kids were the car washers.
*They didn't go shopping or out to eat. I can count on one hand how many times my grandparents went out for dinner. They always ate at home and if they would be away from home at meal time, they packed up their food and took it with them. They also rarely went shopping unless it was for a necessity. It probably helped that they were in farm country and the number of stores and restaurants available could also be counted on one hand. These days if you don't go out to eat or shop regularly you are in the distinct minority. I know people today who would be hard pressed to go an entire week, possibly an entire day, without eating at a restaurant or purchasing a latte.
*They didn't spend their money unless it was absolutely necessary. A yard of fabric would be made into a dress, grandma would add ruffles to keep the dress wearable as the owner grew, the dress would then be passed down to the next sister and the next, when it grew threadbare in places it would then be cut up into quilt squares or used for rags or doll clothes. How many clothing items have you bought that either are still hanging in the closet with the tags on or, worse, were worn once and since you didn't like it, tossed it into the Goodwill bag? Next time you go shopping, consider whether the items in your basket are absolute necessities or just stuff you want.
*Life revolved around social connections. If more work was needed than one man could do, friends and neighbors would show up and help, knowing they could expect the same help in return. Families were closer and friendships were lifelong. How many people do you know would welcome grandma into their house to live with them for her final years? It's no secret that nursing homes and retirement communities are such big business. How many parents would know how to deal with their kids if the electricity was out for an extended period of time? Many parents rely on the TV, internet, texting, and video games to keep their kids quiet, socialized, and entertained.
*They made money at anything possible. If they needed money, they didn't turn to credit, they turned to work; they had the skills and ingenuity that could be used to immediately make money. Among the jobs that my grandparents told stories about: they had farm stands and U Pick farms, grandpa was a welder who worked at Hanford and on various bridges in Portland, grandma worked in knitting mills and sewing factories as money was needed, they ran a dance hall on the weekends (grandma took the tickets and grandpa played in the band), grandpa raised and bred horses, and they both hunted/fished/trapped animals for food and to trade or sell to others.
The moral of the story is that although we are so "advanced" technologically, economically, and socially compared to decades past, it is imperative that we all develop the basic skills necessary to survive should all of the technology, economic infrastructure, and social structure that we have come to rely on suddenly disappear.