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What the Great Depression Has Taught Us

What the Great Depression Has Taught Us

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Lately, I’ve been up till the crack of down reading all kinds of stuff about the pre-war era. Of course, if you’re a history buff yourself, then you must know that they didn’t call the roaring ‘30s depressive for anything.

The 1929 Wall Street stock crash not only left half of America destitute but also encouraged people to find other means to earn a living, some of them not what you might call “legal.” Yup, this is the era of John Dillinger, moonshine, and gangsters.

Though most of the people that outlasted the Great Depression are mostly gone now, some of them left behind some awesome testimonies about their lives and, of course, how they’ve managed to make it through one of the worst financial disasters in modern history.

They say the measure of a man is given not by what he shows to the world, but by to what extent he’s willing (or destined) to go in order to ensure that he and his beloved ones are safe, well-fed, and laughing like there’s no tomorrow; love you grandma, for all your wisdom-laden tidbits.

Anyway, if it’s one thing the Great Depression has taught us is that, sometimes, less is better than having it all. Why moonshinin’ in the Big Shouldered City you ask? Because most of the stuff I’m going to talk about in today’s article came from K., a 60-year-old vet and active member of our community.

As K. was taken aback by our way of handling things, he was kind enough to share with us some insight into the art of making-do-with-what-you-have and not asking for more. So, here’s what I learned from the Great Depression.

How Carelessness and Absent-mindedness could get you into lots of trouble

In today’s world, nobody’s gonna bat an eye if you say that you’re going out into the city to have a cold one with your boys (maybe your wife or girlfriend, but that’s an entirely different story).

Anyway, back in the roaring ‘30s, saying out loud that you had a pint of beer with your co-worker could have very well landed you in jail since there was a country-wide prohibition on booze. Of course, that didn’t stop every Tom, Dick, and Harry from stashing a bottle of liqueur in place from prying eyes (a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do).

Still, as the saying goes, a slip of the lip could sink the ship, and those who got too enthusiastic about their late-night jocularities would have easily ended up making gravel at Leavenworth. The same thing went about anything pertaining to anything washed ashore by the Eastern (and red) Tide if you know what I mean.

Anyway, history lesson aside, times may have changed, but some things stayed the same: knowing when to keep that trapper shut. Even though the era of federal bans has passed, there are touchy-touchy subjects which can get you into a lot of hot water. You heard about them on the news or on the Internet. What’s this have to do with the Great Depression?

Simple – living with less doesn’t entice stupidity or absent-mindedness. When everybody’s nerves are more tensed than a piano string, any little thing can make them break. That translates into anything from verbal violence to pay a visit to your emergency room. So, act smart, think smart, and, as mom used to say, don’t spew out the first thing that comes to mind.

Budgeting used to be a serious commitment

The irony, man! We have all these gadgets and applications and computer programs, and we’re still living paycheck to paycheck. Where did we go wrong? If it’s one thing youngsters should learn from their grandparents is how to do their budgets. Back then, there were no computers, smartphones or whatever.

Everything was done with pen and paper. Sure, if you counted yourself among the lucky ones, you could have gotten yourself one of those lever-actioned tax calculators which made the job easier. Still, for most families, paycheck day meant burning the midnight oil to figure out how that money should be spent.

And they weren’t kidding – even the most basic budget journal was split into various categories such as food, water, utilities, and unforeseen expenditures (hospital bills, birthday parties, funerals, births).

Of course, with times being so rough, our grandparents had no choice but to stick to the budgeting journal. Can’t say if that’s a little too extreme or the sensible thing to do.

Still, when all your friends post pictures from their abroad summer vacation, and you’re stuck visiting the local amusement park because you’ve burned through all your saving, the idea of keeping a budget journal doesn’t sound that bad. The choice is yours: either download a smartphone application (I like Mint.com because it allows you to create as many categories as you like) or stick to pen and paper.

Oh, and another thing: budgeting envelopes. See, each time a family member cashed his paycheck, a small amount went into these envelopes which had a clear destination – my grandma made three: one for the mortgage, and two others for electricity and gas.

That old is better than new

Money was kind of an issue during the Great Depression. Apart from the fact that thousands of people were fired each day, those still employed earned next to nothing. Perhaps to some of you, the idea of a father laughing like a raving maniac because he managed to put aside to buy a new doll for his daughter may sound bizarre, but the truth of the matter is that things were very expensive.

That’s why most families preferred yard sales or bartering over shops and supermarkets. And yes, if you had a great neighbor, you could’ve struck a bargain – mowing his lawn in exchange for one or two bucks or trading veggies from your garden for some of his home-made products (my gran’s neighbor used to make Bavarian-style sausages and soft cheese).

That self-reliance was not a choice

Probably every prepping article and book talk about self-reliance. Of course, it’s easy to spew out a couple of words about why it’s important to be more independent, more of a you-person. Can’t say that I entirely disagree with that statement.

My only beef with this kind of speech is that no one tells how hard it really is. Sure, it’s neat to have your own farm or veggie garden or hunting cabin, but what about getting to the part where you have to put your shoulder to the wheel?

Anyone with a little bit of cash can buy a patch of dirt and raise a small cabin, but how about learning about how to do things around the house like splitting logs, cooking, tending to the garden or making repairs? Self-sufficiency is harder than one realizes, but there’s a bright side to all of this: for us, Walden-ing (that’s what I like to call self-reliance) is a choice. For our grandparents, it was not.

Just try to imagine how hard it must have been for a housewife to hold the fort down until her husband got back from work – sewing, washing, cleaning, helping the kids with the homework, and the list goes on. They had to learn stuff on the go. Otherwise, everything would have crumbled down.

This is the very reason why mail courses became so popular back then. Sure, some of them were made just for the purpose of parting a fool with his money, but most were very instructive. For instance, my grandfather learned how to fix many electrical appliances after taking a three-month course by mail. They weren’t cheap, mind you, but it was money well-spent, unlike the other crap I see in my spam folder.

Becoming a freelancer is not a millennial thing

When you think about freelancer, you picture this guy with big glasses writing stuff on Apple laptop while sipping a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks. The truth is that freelancing is older than most of us realize. Obviously, it was not always called that.

My grandma used to name this ‘doing the stuff that earns you an extra penny without having to toil from 9-to-5’. Since money was scarce during the Great Depression, people used to take on extra jobs or gigs in order to supplement their monthly earnings. For instance, some housewives would offer tailoring service below the market price. Other would bake or cook for big parties.

And, of course, you always could have earned extra dough by lending a hand to your neighbor. Call it what you like, but freelancing’s been around since the dawn of time. Of course, it’s not for everyone, but do keep in mind that having a side-gig is one of the most important prepping lessons.

Bottom Line

As Tom Brokaw used to say “the greatest generation was formed first by the Great Depression. They shared everything: meals, jobs, clothing.” It’s indeed something with a very powerful spiritual and visual impact – a history lesson that teaches us that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. What today brings can be gone by tomorrow’s light.

See, this era wasn’t called like that for anything. Sure, it wasn’t depression in a clinical sense, more like a time of great uneasiness and numbness. Come to think of it, this kind of resembles today’s world, especially the being numb part – yes, we have become absent-minded and boorishly reliant on things that can one day vanish.

An EMP strike could make every piece of technology vamoose, and a plague could wipe the entire human population in a matter of days. For this, and more, we turn to our ancestors for help. If you know someone like this, go and chat with him or her. You’ll never hear greater advice than from someone who was tried by life in every conceivable way. With this, I’m off to doing some tinkering in my backyard, and I’ll see you in the next article.


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