Daily life during the Great Depression



Since the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, there have been a lot of news stories about how awful everything is. Never mind that most Americans enjoy the best standard of living of any culture in history, people still find things to complain about. Perhaps this is because people lack perspective. They don’t realize what life was like in the past or what real hardship is.

The always-excellent Reading Through History channel on YouTube has a seven-minute video that takes us on a tour of what like was like for the typical American family during the Great Depression.

During the Great Depression, nearly one quarter of all Americans were unemployed. Even those who could find jobs struggled to get by. Wages were reduced by as much as 60% — but people were happy to have any sort of income.

The average take-home pay was about $17 per week (or around $900 per year), but many people made less. Prices were lower too, of course: a man’s shirt cost about $1, a washing machine cost about $33 (or two weeks of take-home pay). During these lean times, families had to come up with creative ways to economize.

  • To cut costs, it was common for extended families to live together. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents would crowed together. In some cases, different families would come together to share one household in order to save money.
  • Because many families struggled to get by, certain common luxuries feel by the wayside. Many people stopped going to the barber, for instance, and started cutting hair at home. (When my family was struggling during the 1970s, we did this too.) Families also stopped going to the dentist and doctor.
  • The reuse and recycling of clothing became common practice. Instead of throwing away a worn-out pair of shoes, people learned to patch them. Clothes were handed down from child to child (and person to person).
  • For families that could afford it, Saturday evening was often spent shopping. People would browse the various shops downtown. Even if folks didn’t have much money, they could still “window shop” and look at products they could dream of owning.

Radio was the most prevalent form of entertainment during the Great Depression. Radio had risen to prominence in the 1920s and became ubiquitous by the end of the 1930s. (Old-time radio is one of my favorite subjects. The first licensed commercial radio station in the U.S. started broadcasting in Pittsburgh on 02 November 1920. In the early years, radio broadcasts were free-wheeling and largely unsponsored. But by the 1930s, the format we’re now familiar with from television was starting to settle into place.)

Board games were another popular pastime. Sorry and Monopoly were both released during the 1930s and became huge hits. (True story: When I was growing up during the 1970s, my parents elected not to have a TV. Most of my extended family didn’t have television either. As a result, much of my childhood was spent listening to radio and playing boardgames with brothers, cousins, and friends — just as children in the 1930s might have done.)

I’m not saying that there aren’t people who have it rough in modern America — there are always people who struggle! — but I think it’s important to have some perspective before grousing about how awful the world is today.



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