How Did People Survive the Great Depression? – And How You Will Survive Now
A worldwide depression struck countries with market economies at the end of the 1920s. Although the Great Depression was relatively mild in some countries, it was severe in others, particularly in the United States, where, at its nadir in 1933, 25 percent of all workers and 37 percent of all nonfarm workers were completely out of work. Some people starved; many others lost their farms and homes. Homeless vagabonds sneaked aboard the freight trains that crossed the nation. Dispossessed cotton farmers, the “Okies,” stuffed their possessions into dilapidated Model Ts and migrated to California in the false hope that the posters about plentiful jobs were true. Although the U.S. economy began to recover in the second quarter of 1933, the recovery largely stalled for most of 1934 and 1935. A more vigorous recovery commenced in late 1935 and continued into 1937, when a new depression occurred. The American economy had yet to fully recover from the Great Depression when the United States was drawn into World War II in December 1941. Because of this agonizingly slow recovery, the entire decade of the 1930s in the United States is often referred to as the Great Depression.
Have you ever met someone who was alive during the Great Depression? They are changed people. The Great Depression left a great impression on their thoughts, their styles, and their habits. Many of them hoard money, become pack rats, and in general have trouble parting with anything that may possibly be of use down the road. And who can blame them? Many people ask how did people survive the Great Depression; I wonder how many times saving the ends of a loaf of bread or scraping the mold off of a brick of cheese meant the difference between eating and going hungry.
The Great Depression changed the lives of people who lived and farmed on the Great Plains and in turn, changed America. The government programs that helped them to live through the 1930s changed the future of agriculture forever. Weather touched every part of life in the “Dirty 30s”: dust, insects, summer heat and winter cold. York County farm families didn’t have heat, light or indoor bathrooms like people who lived in town. Many farm families raised most of their own food – eggs and chickens, milk and beef from their own cows, and vegetables from their gardens.
People who grew up during the Depression said, “No one had any money. We were all in the same boat.” Neighbors helped each other through hard times, sickness, and accidents. Farm families got together with neighbors at school programs, church dinners, or dances. Children and adults found ways to have fun for free – playing board games, listening to the radio, or going to outdoor movies in town.
When the dryness, heat, and grasshoppers destroyed the crops, farmers were left with no money to buy groceries or make farm payments. Some people lost hope and moved away. Many young men took government jobs building roads and bridges. By 1940, normal rainfall returned, and federal programs helped to boost farm prices and improve the soil. Ted Kooser poemAbout the same time, a new government program started to hook up farmhouses to electricity, making farm life easier and safer.
As you can see in the Water Section, large numbers of people were driven out of Nebraska and the Great Plains because of the Depression. Yet, a majority “toughed it out” and stayed. And millions continue to stay, despite decades economic pressure to leave.
Feeding the Family
Farms in the 1930s were diversified, growing a variety of crops in the fields, vegetables in the garden and fruit in the orchard. Small farms usually raised chickens, eggs, hogs, and cattle, as well as keeping horses and mules for work, and sometimes sheep for wool and meat. Some farmers kept bees and harvested the honey. Women baked their own bread.
During the Depression, this self-sufficiency carried over into their social life. One-dish suppers and church potlucks were important ways to have fun and share food. On radio and in women’s magazines, home economists taught women how to stretch their food budget with casseroles and meals like creamed chipped beef on toast or waffles. Chili, macaroni and cheese, soups, and creamed chicken on biscuits were popular meals.
In the 70 or more years since the Great Depression, a lot has changed on the farms of rural America. All of these changes have resulted in farms that usually specialize in only one main crop. Today, entire regions have become “monocultures.”
Going to School
Country schools went through hard times in the 1930s. The value of farm land plummeted, and that meant that property taxes that supported schools fell as well. During the Great Depression, some school districts couldn’t pay their teachers.
One-room grade schools were still common in York County, Nebraska, and other Great Plains states. Children from several grades sat in one room, often led by a teacher not much older than the students.
The dust and heat or snow and cold sometimes made it hard for children to learn and for teachers to teach. Teenagers sometimes had to quit school to work full time on the family farm. Sometimes young people left home in search of jobs off the farm.
Like many farm children, Herman Goertzen rode his horse to grade school. When he got to school, he slapped the horse on the rump, and the horse trotted back to the farm. After school, Herman walked home, about a mile and a half.
How Did People Survive the Great Depression?
Sell Apples on the Street Corner: Pacific Northwest apple growers had a surplus of apples, and decided to sell a crate to unemployed people at $1.75 per crate. Selling the 60-72 apples on the street corner would yield $3.00, and after paying Pacific, a person could reap around $1.25.
Roll Your Own Cigarettes
Eat Food from the Wild: Such delicacies as blackberries, dandelions, and game were for the taking in the country but not in the city. Other people gathered corn kernels from fields and roasted them over fires, or picked fruit from people’s trees (I am not suggesting you do this).
Substitute Other Things for Meat: Families ate more of beans, macaroni and cheese, pancakes, and other gut-filling foods that were less expensive than meats. One type of meat that became popular was sardines: introducing the mashed sardine and mayonnaise sandwich.
Family Members Work to Supplement Income: This included mowing lawns, shoveling snow, delivering newspapers, baby-sitting, shoe-shining, passing out ads, selling door-to-door, mining, etc.
Repair Your Clothes with Objects around the House: Shoes were often repaired with cardboard, scotch tape became popular, and coats were lined with blankets.
Give up Your Telephone: Telephone service declined from 20 million in 1930 to less than 17 million in 1933. Long Distance phone calls dramatically decreased.
Postpone Life Decisions: Divorce rates dropped because people could not afford the cost, and they needed one another to survive. People postponed weddings and having children.
Practice Out of Your Home: Doctors, dentists, and other professionals who previously rented offices instead moved their practices to their homes.
Leave the City: A chunk of people fled the cities and went into farming instead; at least they knew they would eat.
Give up Your Car: The bicycle becomes a popular choice for transportation.
Make Use of your Neighbor and Vice Versa: After many people’s water was shut off, they looked to neighbors to give them buckets or pails of water for cooking, washing up, etc. People also traded clothes with neighbors.
Live/Sleep Elsewhere: People who found themselves without a home, apartment, or bed travelled the streets, slept on other people’s couches, in other people’s garages, in barns, lived in caves, and generally slept wherever they could.
We can learn from the philosophy of ‘using and reusing’ that Depression era folks were forced to live with. We can learn by examining what the skills were during the Great Depression era. Who were those that were able to find some work, those who were better able to survive those very difficult times?
What were the survival skills of that time and would they apply to surviving in a future post-collapse world?
Organic Gardening and Seed Saving: Skills involving food production will be the most valuable in a post-collapse society. Learning to grow your own food is a must. Obviously, it is necessary to feed your family, but you will also be able to trade your abundance for other items. Additionally, learning to save seeds will also provide another excellent means of trade. Understanding permaculture design for your garden can help reduce water consumption and use the lands natural resources. Aquaponics can provide plants, fish, and store water.
Food Processing and Preservation: Learning to process and preserve foods will be another huge skill in a post-collapse world. Taking seasonal abundance and preserving it for future consumption or trade will be vital. Remember, learning to do this with limited electricity is a must. One necessity for every homestead is having someone who knows how to butcher animals and preserve them for future consumption by smoking, salt curing, or dehydrating. This can also include learning to brew beer, mead, vinegar, or other alcoholic beverages from meager ingredients.
Hunting, Fishing, and Gathering:
Learning to fish and hunt is essential to survival. Having the proper gear and training will be priceless after the collapse of modern civilization. Having reference guides for edible plants in your region, repairing weapons, trapping wild game, and fishing are great tools to have if you haven’t the time to learn them now. You should also take the time to learn or refine your skills on hunting using quiet weapons like bows, slingshots, knives, and spears.
Knowledge of animal husbandry can provide endless amounts of sustainable meat, eggs, and milk to you and your tribe. Your farm animals are the most valuable food source you have since they can reproduce. Knowing which animals to breed and when is an important part of farming and should not be learned through mistakes.
Knowing how to cook without using your time-saving, electricity driven appliances may not be as easy as you think. Practice cooking with your stored food supplies using no or very little electricity. You will soon realize how much more time and preparation it takes to do what once was a simple task. Learn to cook using a dutch oven, a sun oven, an outdoor fire pit, and whatever means you have for cooking.
Foraging: Someone who knows how to forage for wild edibles and can increase your food supplies and becomes an asset to any group.
Water Purification: Since it’s difficult to pump well water without electricity, unless you have a hand pump, and with surface water likely to be contaminated, clean water will be in very limited supply. Learning to purify water will allow you thrive during this time. You can also purchase water filters for your go-bag and you can have back-up tablets should you need them. However, the skill and knowledge to purify water should be the goal as that can never run out.
Collecting and Storing Water: Do you have enough stored water for you to survive through the first 30 days post disaster? Most do. How about for 3 months….or 9 months? Now, do you have enough for your family members? If you have a family of five and want to store a one year’s supply of water you would need to have over 1800 gallons, and that’s just for drinking. Now, how about the extended family members who show up on your doorstep? Your animals? Your garden? Your sanitation, hygiene and cleaning? Whew! Now you understand how it can be very difficult to store all of the water you would need, so knowing how to collect water to replenish your stored supplies is invaluable.
Ham Radio: Do you have your ham radio license or at the very least own and know how to operate a ham radio? Having a skilled ham radio expert in your group is a necessary key component to keeping up on communications and knowing what is going on in the world around you. Remember, tv, cellphone, the internet, will all most likely be down. Understanding how to make and set up an antennae to improve your radio signal and knowing morse code are other valuable skills to include in your arsenal.
Communications: Not all people know how to truly communicate well with others. During stressful and hazardous times, people with great communication skills will be valued for their abilities. Knowing how to handle and calm down people and even groups on the verge of fighting can save lives.
Languages: Knowing a second language is a great skill to have. If you were to know a second or even third language what would you choose? Hopefully you would choose the language of your most dangerous threat. Knowing what others are saying over radio communications can be a very valuable piece of intel.
Alternative Energy and Fuels: Having the knowledge to implement alternative energy systems will make you a wealthy survivor in a “dark” world. You can learn to build your own alternative energy systems through solar, hydro, and wind power. Knowledge of how to create energy would be invaluable when oil is scarce.
First Aid and Trauma: This is another skill that can take years to develop and learn, but that will be crucial when supply lines of pharmaceuticals are cut off and hospitals are over-run. You will need an emergency medic who can perform appendectomies, c-sections, and set broken bones. If having a nurse or doctor in your group is not an option, then learning basic procedures for stitching wounds, CPR, and more will be an absolute necessity for every adult and teenager in your family group.
Veterinary Skills: Your farm animals are vital to your survival. Horses are a tool for transportation, your goats are your milk supply and your chickens and rabbits are your protein. Heaven forbid that they have any health issues that require immediate veterinary care. Learn at least the basics about the animals you are caring for because they are depending on you as much as you are on them.
Dental: Knowing how to pull a tooth, fix a filling, and manage pain during dental procedures will come in handy.
Natural Medicine: Knowledge of growing herbal gardens for making medicine at home will prove to be very important. Being the tribe’s shaman with a natural medicine chest is a prestigious position.
HYGIENE & SANITATION
I know this may not sound important compared to food and water but if you think about it, it is. When a disaster strikes, whether it be natural or man made, the creature comforts that people have grown accustomed to throughout their lives will no longer be there. No more daily showers and washing your hair with apple scented shampoo. No more flushing the toilet 10 times a day. Sanitation services that require power will no longer be functioning. This will quickly lead to diseases being spread rapidly. Learning how to build a composting toilet, a solar hot water heater, or a sewer drainage system is important. It is good to know how to make your own toothpaste, deodorant, soap and shampoo and stock up on the supplies necessary.
Home and Property: Regardless of the threat, an ideal home is one that is secure and can keep you safe from a person or people who mean to do you harm. Take the time now to learn how to protect your home, land, and everything on it as best you can. This includes farm animals. Your animals are a valuable asset and must be protected from hungry predators, including man and beast.
Personal Defense: Learn how to protect yourself through hand to hand combat. There may be times when you’re in the garden or tending to the property and are caught off guard by a lone stalker or a group of marauders. I know this sounds Mad Max but when the SHTF it can happen. Learn to use your tools as weapons.Nunchucks were originally used to harvest rice.
Weapons/Combat: If you are going to own a gun then get the training necessary to know how to properly use it. Know how to clean it and store it as well. Someone that has the knowledge and can train others on weapons and strategies will be a valuable asset. Gunsmithing is another important skill to master.
Shelter building can really fall under two categories. One being outdoor wilderness survival and the other would be construction to your current home and property. In this section we will focus on the later.
Construction skills will be very important in a shattered civilization. These skills, especially without power tools, are not something you learn overnight. If you have some basic skills it may be worth learning a few techniques for building small structures with crude hand tools. There are many books teaching anyone how to build basic cabins, sheds, and composting outhouses.
Self-sustainability is one of the most important skills to learn. You can store food, water, and everything else you may need for survival but when those stored supplies run out, and they will, how will you replenish them? Knowing how to live off the land, grow a garden, raise animals, store seeds, hunt for food, or make your own clothing can prolong your survivability.
Fortify your area
There are all types of things you could try. You could line cars, busses, or trucks around you for protection. You could try to build a wall if time permits. You could even attempt to build a fort of sorts. Here’s the problem with all of those ideas.
They let people know where you are.
Thus, the best course of action would likely depend on the situation. If you’re a relatively large group that has weapons and capability, doing some fortification work may not be a bad idea. However, if you’re a small group that wants to remain nameless, the last thing you may want to do is line a bunch of trucks around four houses, particularly if there are groups out there to fear. After all, fortification strategies like that tend to scream, here we are!
In such situations, search for natural barriers to live near (lakes, mountains). These won’t bring any obvious unwanted notoriety. However, keep in mind that if you live near fresh water, expect others to eventually come calling (food and water would, of course, be of paramount important to survivors of social breakdown).
PRIMITIVE SKILLS/WILDERNESS SURVIVAL
Take away all electricity and go back to the old ways of living. What did your grandparents or great grandparents do? How did people survive during the great depression or dust bowl? If we don’t understand our history we are doomed to repeat it. Some skills that will be useful are: fire making, camp cooking, basket weaving, pottery making, animal tracking, tool making, tanning hides, rock climbing, knot tying, etc.
The only way to understand how we can live without our electricity driven modern conveniences is to live without them.
Test #1 Turn off your electricity for a few hours. Take notes on how it affected you. What did you learn? What did you need that you didn’t have and what wasn’t necessary at all?
Test #2 Turn off your electricity for a weekend. Take notes again and see how your answers changed or stayed the same. How did you cook? How did you get water? What would you change?
Test #3 Turn off your electricity for a week. Sounds hard? Try doing it for a few months or a few years, because that is what can happen after a large scale disaster. Be uncomfortable now knowing that you can flick the switch back on whenever you want. Learn from your mistakes now while you can make them. Appreciate the fact that these are just tests we’re putting ourselves through and not the real thing. The more you practice the easier it will become and you may come to realize how little you miss the modern life.
Build and make your own energy source
Could the Great Depression happen again? It could, but such an event is unlikely because the Federal Reserve Board is unlikely to sit idly by while the money supply falls by one-third. The wisdom gained in the years since the 1930s probably gives our policymakers enough insight to make decisions that will keep the economy out of such a major depression.