the Great Depression
Those old enough to remember the '30s see familiar signs
October 20, 2008
As Joe Labovsky,
96, watched the recent turmoil on Wall Street, he began
flashing back to when he graduated from high school and
his adult life was just beginning. The year was 1930 and
the Great Depression, the country's most severe economic
downturn, was under way.
to myself: I may be living through the same thing,"
said Labovsky, who lives in Forwood Manor, in Brandywine
Hundred north of Wilmington. "But I'm blessed with
Labovsky is not
alone in making comparisons with that long economic slump,
roughly from 1929 to 1939. In recent weeks, there have been
many events on a scale not experienced since the Great Depression,
including the stock market plummet, the home foreclosure
crisis, the tumbling in house values and the recent government
intervention in the nation's banking system.
often you realize an unconstrained market will run off the
railroad track because people become so greedy," said
John Stapleford, senior economist at Moody's Economy.com.
"But people who were born after 1982 never experienced
a prolonged, difficult stretch in the economy."
In the next few
years, people could see the ranks of the unemployed increase
and income decline to levels not experienced since the Great
Depression, economists said.
don't predict an economic slump as deep as the 1930s, it
will be an eye-opener for many, said Jim Butkiewicz, an
economics professor at the University of Delaware who has
studied the Depression.
Those, like Labovsky,
who lived through the Great Depression, know what a profound
effect economic hard times can have on a society.
It haunted an
entire generation, Butkiewicz said.
the single most damaging thing that happened in the United
States in the 20th century. There was nothing like the Depression.
It's a memory they'll never, ever forget," Butkiewicz
said. "It changes your outlook on life in the way you
think about things."
'The value of money'
so-called "Depression mentality," which is characterized
as being extremely cautious economically and highly security
mentality was a willingness to take any job -- if you could
get a job -- and a willingness to live extremely marginally,"
said Delaware historian Carol Hoffecker. "There was
a real sense of hopelessness. People who lived through that
-- it continued through the rest of their lives."
Guilt and self-doubt
came into play, as well, Butkiewicz said.
Don Roney, 91,
who lives at Shipley Manor in Talleyville, agrees. He still
feels guilty when he thinks about throwing something away,
because of a lecture at the University of North Dakota.
An economics professor held up the stub of pencil and said:
"You might be inclined to throw it away. But it's still
useful. It has utility."
And utility means
it has value, the professor said, and value translates to
I go to throw something away -- anything that still has
value -- I still get a little twinge of conscience,"
Roney said. "The Depression taught us the value of
To this day,
if Roney has an undershirt that has seen better days, he
said, he can't shake the notion it still has some utility,
if only as a dustcloth.
Some argue that
the rise of the credit card industry and consumers' willingness
to carry debt didn't take hold until the Depression generation
was "no longer part of the economic picture,"
know what a credit card was because we had been taught by
my parents not to buy anything we couldn't pay for right
then," said Theodora Winters, 92, of Forwood Manor.
"So many of the younger people now don't believe me
when I tell them what happened during the Depression."
Children of the
Depression didn't believe in using credit cards because
they feared running up a big bill, said Winters, who grew
up in Kansas. She had a credit card for a short time and
got rid of it, she said.
something that was very attractive for my home and I didn't
really, truly need it and I was tempted to charge it. But
I didn't do it. I talked myself out of it. I knew I had
to pay for it," Winters said.
paid off their homes as quickly as possible, Hoffecker said.
There was a ritual of burning the mortgage document. They
knew what it was it like to have the bank knocking on the
door, just like in the movie melodramas.
96, of Shipley Manor, watched her parents lose their farm
had bought the farm and had worked so hard. They had it
for at least 25 years. We were born on it. My parents were
very proud people. That's what hurt," Freeman said.
The hard times
didn't come all at once, she said.
on slowly and we just couldn't make the payments,"
Freeman said. "It was a sad thing to see the banker
coming up the road. It was absolutely a heartbreaking thing
forever. They didn't go back to farming after that."
There was such
a lack of money, Freeman's mother would search for a nickel
or a penny for the kids to take to school to get school
supplies, she said.
91, of Shipley Manor, said the banker appeared at his family's
farm near Hershey, Pa.
came to our place one time. I was the only one at home.
He scribbled something on a piece of paper and said: 'Tell
your dad to have this up there' by a certain day. I was
kinda worried for my father," Saufley said.
The family raised
pigs, but they went out and shot groundhogs for food to
avoid cutting into their stock, Saufley said.
too bad," Saufley said.
a "carriage trade" tailor for the wealthy du Pont
family and the city bankers, was wiped out financially because
he had lent money to his employer, who played the market.
The employer went bankrupt and then disappeared.
his parents crying in the kitchen. There was no money for
Labovsky to go to college.
prosperity, all the luxuries suddenly collapsed," he
There were bread
lines and soup lines along Market Street, he said. Louise
Lee, 95, of Shipley Manor, recalled soup lines in her North
Learning to make do
For many, the
refrain from those years was doing without or making do.
said, 'Ah, you can get along without,' " said Manville
Bro, 85, of Shipley Manor, who lived in Iowa. "The
1930s, that was a horrible period in the Middle West. That
year, 1934, we watched our crop dry up to nothing. Nobody
had anything. We had 30 milk cows and we got down to 12
and we fed them just cornstalks. We sold them for little
or nothing in Omaha."
Bro said even
when times got better in the 1940s the feeling was "if
you didn't have the money, you didn't buy it."
87, who lived in Albany, N.Y., remembered she had white
shoes for summer.
got cool, my mother took the shoes and had them dyed black,"
said Erickson, of Shipley Manor.
95, of Shipley Manor, graduated from Wilmington High School
in 1931 and was lucky to land a job at the YMCA. But she
remembers eating "navy bean soup quite a bit,"
92, of Shipley Manor, said the schools in his Ohio community
ran out of money and had to graduate students in April.
None of the graduates had the money to buy a class ring,
he said, and sports programs were dropped.
immigrated to the United States when he was 11, had lived
through historic hardship and upheaval. As a child, he experienced
horrific pogroms, organized massacres of Jewish people,
in his shtetl in what was then Russia. There was chaos,
turmoil and famine in Russia during the civil war between
the Communists and anti-Communists, he said.
During the Depression,
Labovsky worried the suffering of the American people and
the great ranks of unemployed could lead to the rise of
Communism or Nazism, he said.
saved America from revolution," Labovsky said, referring
to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his social and economic
Bro agreed that
Roosevelt was a hero to his community. People made fun of
the workers with the Works Progress Administration (WPA),
a massive employment relief program under Roosevelt's New
Around -- WPA," Saufley said.
But Bro said
the WPA gave people needed jobs. He recalls a WPA crew coming
to his home to dig gravel out of their gravel pit for use
on the roads.
all these guys. They weren't really very proud of having
to work on the WPA. But, gosh, they had to eat," Bro
Sharing their wealth
the du Ponts took a major role in providing relief to the
poor, in part out of enlightened self-interest, Hoffecker
they were fearful we would elect a president who would lead
us in a left-turning way," Hoffecker said.
father catered to DuPont Co. executives, he managed to get
one of his customers to recommend Labovsky for a job at
the company's Experimental Station. Labovsky went to work
there as a chemist's helper to the brilliant scientist Wallace
H. Carothers, who invented nylon and neoprene, a synthetic
rubber. Although Labovsky said he constantly feared losing
his job, Carothers protected him. What's more, Carothers
helped his assistant get a college scholarship from a du
Pont family member.
Still, it was
very painful to see men with families lose their jobs, Labovsky
said. DuPont laid off workers and cut hours and salaries,
Hoffecker wrote in "Corporate Capital: Wilmington in
the 20th Century."
men would get laid off and I'd feel guilty," Labovsky
The state had
"nothing worthy of the name of public welfare,"
Alfred I. du
Pont, one of the three cousins who founded the modern DuPont
Co., was appalled at the treatment of the elderly in the
almshouse, Hoffecker wrote. He urged the state to provide
assistance to the seniors who did not have pensions or relatives
to care for them.
For two years,
du Pont took it upon himself and mailed monthly checks to
the elderly poor in the state until the state took responsibility,
his whole life demonstrated a concern for the poor, partly
because he grew up working in the mills. He worked with
the workers," Hoffecker said.
effect on Labovsky of the Great Depression was different
than his earlier experiences, he said.
revolution was violent. In a pogrom, there's violence, shouting
and shooting. The Depression was mournful," he said.
He recalls a
married man with children telling him he had lost his job.
crying," Labovsky said. "It made me cry, too."
Milford at 324-2881 or firstname.lastname@example.org.