I wrote this research paper in my freshman year for a US history class at the College of Coastal Georgia with a special emphasis on capturing the memories of my grandfather who was a young lad during the Great Depression. As a lover of history, I cannot stress enough the principle of understanding and knowing history as doing so will help us combat or confront the trials of the present and the future. While the culture around us constantly screams at us to forget our heritage and backgrounds and become postmodern, I will constantly return to the past where the secrets of the future may be unlocked and where wiser sages discovered things that we continually deny. Without further ado, here is the paper.
What was life like as a child in the Northeast United States during the Great Depression?
The Great Depression was, no doubt, one the most pivotal times in our nation’s history and was not only felt deeply within the borders of the United States but was an economic crisis epidemic throughout the world. I have often wondered what life must have been like back then when money and food were scarce and there was little technology compared to today. Scattered throughout the United States there are still those who have lived through those hard times and who can still tell about them. One of these persons is my grandfather, Noel Carroll, who lived in Pennsylvania during this time. Although he was quite young at the time, he was able to tell me much of what life was like during the Great Depression as a child. Before I relate what life was like I shall endeavor to give a brief biography of the life of Noel Carroll during the Great Depression.
Noel Carroll was born on December 24, 1927 in the small town of Luzerne, Pennsylvania to a somewhat wealthy family. His father was a dentist in the small town and he died when Noel was two years old, just before the Great Depression hit. When it did hit the town, Noel’s mother and two older sisters and brother had to work to help sustain the family; however, they lost their own house and moved to a family home in the town of Larkesville four miles away called the “Old Homestead”. It was a very large house owned by his relatives, the Kennedy’s, and they were able to rent part of the house out to make money. Life was tough but his family always managed to have enough money to eat and buy coal to heat their house. They lost the house however, in 1938 and had to move again, this time to a larger town a few miles away called Wilkes Barre. There he lived for the most of his young life.
So what was life like in the northeast United States for children during the Great Depression? My grandfather told me a good bit of what life was like and I believe it is pretty general for most of that area. There are several key features of the child life that I will examine in this paper. I shall describe features such as toys and games, entertainment, life on Sunday, school, diet, and work. Of course this is only a limited amount of what children did in the Great Depression.
My grandfather’s town was a melting pot of ethnic groups who all lived pretty much in their own communities. Each nationality had their own church with their own language, and most were Roman Catholic. In the Carroll’s town there were Germans, Polish, Russian, Irish and Italian. My grandfather is of Irish descent, but he played with all the children in the neighborhood despite their ancestry. Ethnicity, though, did have great part play by the fact that families brought old country traditions with them.
Folks in those days could not buy much in a material sense, so they made things instead. Children made rubber band guns to shoot, and made toys called “kershrinkers” which were the thirties version of a water gun. The kershrinker was initially an instrument used by a neighbor of the Carroll’s who had a large garden. There were no hoses in those days so his neighbor took a long broom handle and fixed a rag onto it and stuck it tightly into a long galvanized pipe. He then dipped the pipe into a bucket of water and drew the handle back, vacuuming water into the pipe. Then he raised it and shot water a long distance to water his plants by shoving the broom handle back into the pipe. Noel and his friends saw this and made their own kershrinkers. They would spend hours shooting water at each other, making the first form of water guns. The children played many games together as there was no television to watch or video games to play. Noel and his friends played in a small area behind his house they called the “Diamond”. They also would have explorations into the mountains and hills behind their town. They played a lot of games in the summertime, but when winter came, they would play hockey with sticks and tin cans on any frozen pond that was big enough. Some families did have ballrooms in their houses and whole families would go and dance.
Church, states my grandfather, was well respected during that time and there was hardly anyone who did not go to church. Everyone went to their own ethnic churches and if your particular nationality was not present in your town then you had to go to church either in a different town or to a different ethnic church. Since no one had cars, the Carrolls walked to the Lithuanian church which had one Mass on Sunday spoken in English. The Sabbath was revered by all and no work was done. Everyone walked to church and all dressed up for Sunday worship. Children were drawn into the life of the church by going to Sunday school and doing other church duties. My grandfather was in charge of ringing the great bells on Sunday. If you were light enough, like Noel, you would be carried up high into air by the rope when you rang it. What an exciting thing it must have been for a child at that time to do something like that. Sunday was also special because this was the one day (for many) that the family could eat meat, like pot roast or something like that.
Entertainment was also something that was a part of life during the Great Depression that took the stress and pressure off of trying to make enough money to eat. My grandfather’s sister worked as a cashier in a movie house in a town not too far from their own named Kingston. There Noel went about once a month at lower cost. There he saw the old King Kong movie when it first came out. Folks didn’t just go in to watch one movie; they went in and watched a series of films, comedy shorts like Our Gang comedies, and then epic movies with actors like Errol Flynn, Jimmy Cagney, and serials like the Lone Ranger which often lasted about twelve weeks, the Flash Gordon show, and Dick Tracy . There were also a lot of films that portrayed a rich lifestyle and life without worries that gave folks a break from the hard times of the Depression. Radio was also a big issue then and whole families would sit around the radio and listen to radio shows in the evening. My grandfather remembers hearing mysteries, such as The Shadow. During that time the only broadcasting companies were the Columbia Broadcasting System and the National Broadcasting Company. News was mostly found in newspapers and not broadcast on radio.
School was a very important feature of life for children and continues to be. Since there were no cars and no buses, children walked to school, despite the weather. My grandfather remembers walking a mile to school. School was much different than today. If they did go to school, they went to a campus style school where all the students from K- 12th grade would receive education. Of course there were different classrooms for different grades. They were divided as follows: K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. Then if they graduated high school, they could go to college or “normal school”. This was a two-year institution that prepared students to teach. According to my grandfather, there was a lot more control over students then than there is now. Students packed their own lunches and bought a carton of milk for 1 cent and ate their meals in the classroom.
Diet and eating were also a key feature during the Depression for children because food was expensive and money was hard to come by. Although other areas may have had cases of starvation, the area that my grandfather lived in had little starvation and he never saw any breadlines. My grandfather remembers that all the meals were family oriented and there was no eating between meals. Meat was very expensive and they mainly ate it on Sunday as it was very special. Noel remembers eating lots of beans and potatoes during those hard times. In fact, when my grandfather got home from school, his first chore was to peel potatoes and get them ready to boil. The Irish never forgot how the potato saved them from near starvation in the 1840’s. Many families also grew their own produce, such as corn and string beans, and sometimes even their own livestock, such as chickens or goats. There were no supermarkets in those days as everything was bought in general stores. This was a joy for every child as they could go to the store and buy candy for a penny. They bought butter in barrels at 50 cents and a loaf of bread was 5 cents. As Noel’s town was a mining town, the mining companies had their own grocery stores and even company homes. All families needed ice to store food and other things and there was a local ice truck which would deliver a twenty pound chunk of ice for each family.
Work was also a major issue as nearly all the family members would do some kind of job to get money. There were three general forms of child labor in the great depression; agriculture, domestic service, and street trades. One New York Times article from 1930 stated that “75% of child labor today is [was] on the farm and a considerable percentage is [was] on other men’s farms, not their father’s”. The article also argued that “they [the American people] worry about the idleness of 2,000,000 unemployed men while keeping 2,000,000 children employed at the expense of their health, happiness, and freedom”. Many also took up domestic jobs as soon as they were old enough. Noel’s sister made $6 a week as a cashier at a movie house. Boys could apply for becoming caddies on local golf courses. However, there was an age limit as an article in the New York Times reports a ruling in Pennsylvania that ruled caddies under fourteen are barred from working. As far as street jobs went, children were avid at trying to make money on the street. Children collected foil and all kinds of metal junk for the junkman to collect and trade for cash. My grandfather had a shoe shine kit and did that for a while and then when he got older, he had a newspaper route. My grandfather also said that folks worked six days a week and all rested on Sunday. He also said that families with both mother and father made more money than his family. Although this was a form of payment for adult state employees, it will do justice to mention that one form of payment in those days was “script” that was used like money to pay people like schoolteachers and other state and county employees. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president, he created a system of jobs for young men in the depression called the CCC or Civilian Conservative Corps who worked in forestry, national parks, and other acts of conservation. Men worked different jobs and many in my grandfather’s town worked in the WPA, making $11 per week. This helped many young men around the United States.
Family was a real blessing in those hard days. My grandfather said that most families had about six or seven kids, and as that is a lot of mouths to feed and times were tough, all the family members pitched in to provide some form of income for the family. Plus families were a lot closer together and all the meals were family oriented. However there were some parents who didn’t treat their children right and brutally dealt with them in order to survive. One incident was reported in the New York Times as one father tried to get his children to steal. The twelve year old daughter, Mary Chovanec, stated that their father had made her and three brothers and sisters to steal from stores in their neighborhood for food. When they did not bring back enough, the father made the children kneel on a broom with nails in it and beat them with a belt. Such cases, thankfully, were not rampant and were dealt with justice and fair hand. Certainly the depression hit some areas and families harder than others.
Children wore hand-me-downs as money could not be spent on such luxuries. It was also a big deal to have new shoes in those days. People wore “clodhoppers” which were big leather shoes with wooden broad soles. These were much easier to repair than regular shoes as they quickly wore out and there was no money to buy new shoes. Boys also wore “knickers” in those days which were somewhat like shorts but one would wear long socks up to the knee. Newspapers still advertised for fashions that were possibly less affordable for most families. Families also dressed up for Sunday and that was really the only day when nice clothes were worn. Noel said that during the winter, families would dress around the coal fed potbelly stove in the kitchen.
Chores were a part of everyday life for any child as everyone did his or her share to get the family going as both parents often worked or tried to find work. Girls would help around inside the house until they got older and then they could work like Noel’s sister did. Boys would work outside in the yard and probably even maintain the garden. As I have said before, Noel’s duty as the youngest child was to wash, peel, cut and boil potatoes to get them ready for supper. He often had many other duties in the kitchen like washing the dishes. There were no dishwashers in those days and so all dishes were washed manually The children were also responsible for getting a burlap sack and collecting as much loose pea coal from the coal shaft across from the Carroll’s house. Coal was the cooking medium for everything and was quite expensive, though the Carrolls always seemed to have enough money to get coal. My grandfather remembers people buying coal for $5 per ton. As coal was expensive and the most ready means for heat in that area, candles were used for light.
Sickness and disease were another issue that made life for children in the depression very hard and often life threatening. Sickness also struck the Carroll family though none died. His sister and brother both had diseases and Noel had pneumonia at the age of four. Measles and chicken pox went through households and it was mothers’ goal to get it all over with so they put all the children in a bed with the infected children. Medicine was also expensive and antibiotics were not used for treatment at that time. Malnutrition was also a major issue in mining communities although it didn’t seem to affect my grandfather’s town. In the larger cities there were some doctors and nurses who would go through the tenement districts and diagnose people and give out medicine. They also gave out insurance at 5 cents a week.
Life was very hard for all in those days where work and money were scarce. Many small jobs closed and there were really no professionals beside schoolteachers and doctors. Families didn’t have much and all the family members worked so the family could eat. Coal mining in Wilkes Barre still continued as all families needed coal to cook. My grandfather did recall seeing Mrs. Roosevelt on a tour. Many people tried to make money selling illegal beverages until prohibition was terminated. There were breadlines in many places yet there were none in Wilkes Barre as my grandfather recollects. The great depression did end finally with World War II. This created many jobs and it even created one for my grandfather as he enlisted in the US Navy during the final years of World War II. If one summary point could be made about the Great Depression it would be that life for all, including children, was difficult yet families stood strong and it created the greatest work ethic in the twentieth century in America.