Wednesday, September 09, 2009

making ends meet in the great depression

NYTimes | AT a time when life in America is beginning to resemble a roller-coaster ride on the way down and everyone is trying to find ways to save money, it may be instructive — both in terms of offering helpful hints and putting things in perspective — to look at how people ran their households during the Great Depression.

Back then there was little money for food, let alone new curtains, but people found ways to cope. Backyard gardens were cultivated not because of a sudden itch to eat locally grown produce, but out of necessity; homeowners did their own repairs and found ingenious ways to make their homes functional and attractive.

Below, some who lived through the Depression share their memories. Peter Holden worked for the New York City parks department for 35 years and still lives in Manhattan. He grew up in Raleigh, N.C., where his mother took a job as a cleaning woman for North Carolina State University when he was 7, after the death of his father, a brick mason. Mr. Holden’s home had electricity, but no water; water had to be drawn from a neighbor’s well or hauled from a stream several houses away.

We lived high up on a hill above the southwestern campus, and we just worked together and shared. There was a great feeling of cooperation and help, even among the poor whites and the poor blacks. My grandfather had a farm and most any time he would come in, he would bring enough for two or three days — corn or tomatoes, whatever the season was — and we would share.

We ate beans maybe four times a week, boiled in salt pork. On Saturday or Sunday somehow or other we would have a nice meal. My mother would bring back a steak, that might have been 25 cents a pound. She was paid $8 or $9 a week, but at that time you could have more than a whole week’s groceries with that and have a little money left over.

She got laid off from the N.C. State job and there was just no jobs around Raleigh, so she went to Stamford — she had a sister living up there — and took my younger sister with her. I finished high school in 1934.

My mother always told us you can be anything you want, don’t come here telling me you can’t be this and they won’t let me be that.

That first year, I didn’t think I would be able to go to college, but my mother sent $10 from Stamford. She said, ‘Boy, you take this to St. Augustine’s and see if they don’t take this as a down payment, and if they don’t take it, you send my money back to me or I’ll come back to Raleigh and beat you all over.’

So I went out and tried to discourage St. Augustine’s, but they took me. I graduated college in 1938.

Like my mother said, if you really want to do something you can.