The nation's deepening recession recalls the lessons of the Great Depression, which shaped the lives and financial philosophies of many local elders.
As a child, Bill Cable remembers his parents sweating over finances at the kitchen table, struggling through the years that would come to be known as the Great Depression.
“They thought they would be in debt the rest of their lives,” the Seattle man said.
Such experiences taught Bill, 80, and wife Donna, 79, to save what they could, keep their bills manageable and live without credit-card temptation. “That’s probably why we’ve survived and why we’re all here,” he said.
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Through nearly 60 years of marriage, “we never bought anything unless we saved the money and paid for it,” Donna said. “We were always afraid something would go wrong.”
The Cables passed on the lessons they learned, and their children mostly have fared well. Faced with the current economic crisis, however, “they are feeling it, and they’re scared,” Donna said.
As the nation heads deeper into recession, the longest and possibly most severe since World War II, it’s worth remembering that once upon a time, things were much worse. Those who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s emerged with experiences that would shape their lives and financial philosophies, providing lessons many passed on to their children and a lens through which they see today’s situation.
“Even though I was young, I did see some things,” Bill Cable said. “I think I’m kinda holding my breath, hoping it doesn’t get any worse and drift into those situations when there were more people out of work and hungry.”
Throughout the Puget Sound area, many elders harbor similar memories and sentiments. These days, some are still living in their own homes; others in retirement communities such as Northgate Plaza or First Hill’s Exeter House, where the Cables now live.
Most were children when the market crashed in 1929, but they carry memories of hand-me-down clothes, shoes with cardboard-plugged holes, dresses and bloomers made from flour sacks as things worsened in the 1930s. “People got very creative,” Bill Cable said.
“The sewing machines were always busy,” Jean Young, 92, of West Seattle, remembers of those days on her family’s Central Washington farmstead. “My mother was an excellent seamstress. Sometimes I wore the same dress all week. But it was a nice dress.”
Lynn Cook, meanwhile, who lived in Seattle’s Cascade neighborhood, recalls his grandmother making him sandwiches for lunch, two slices of bread with a relish — and nothing else.
“I still remember the taste of those things,” said Cook, 88. And she made sure he always brought home the wax paper and paper bag so he could use them again the next day.
“In that boat together”
In 1933, one in every four Americans was unemployed. Banks were collapsing, wiping out people’s savings.
“I remember being in church the Sunday after banks closed on Friday,” said Elizabeth Garlichs, 85, who grew up in the tobacco town of Winston-Salem, N.C., before coming to Seattle and then Oysterville in Pacific County. “The minister said anything put in the offering plate would be appreciated. And when it came down our row, all it had was a pack of Camel cigarettes.”
Camps of itinerant people — called Hoovervilles in the wake of the Hoover administration’s failed policies — formed near cities. Hitchhikers streamed off highways and hobos spilled off the railroads, looking for food. “My dad always said, ‘Never turn them down, because some day you may be in that situation,’ ” said Wedgwood’s Dorothy Cox, 97, reared in Wyoming.
Every Sunday, Young’s family would go to church and come back to find cars in the driveway with hungry people waiting to have dinner at their bountiful farmstead, while Seattle’s Teru Okawa, whose parents ran a dry-cleaning business in the South Lake Union neighborhood, remembers her mom pressing clothes for free for people with job interviews.
“One man came to the door every Saturday night, and my dad would hand him money,” recalled Canadian-born Margaret Questad, a longtime Wedgwood resident. “And when my dad died, that man came up and said, ‘If it hadn’t been for your dad, we would have starved.’ “
“We were all in that boat together,” Bill Cable said.
Looking back, they’re in awe of parents who shepherded them through one of the worst financial periods in U.S. history without the aid of strict bank protections, food stamps, unemployment or other social benefits.
Sonja Harmon, who grew up in Michigan and spent much of her life on Whidbey Island, said her mother was willing to marry “basically anyone willing to support us” after her father died.
With banks failing, the 91-year-old recalls her stepfather, a shopkeeper, putting money from the register in a Mason jar at day’s end, then crawling under the house to keep it safe.
Some traded services for goods. Garlichs’ father, a printer, made market handbills in exchange for groceries. “My sister’s college was partially paid for by printing,” she said.
Others cashed in on other talents. “My father couldn’t find a job,” Cox said. “But he was a real good card player. So my mom gave him money, and he’d go to town and come back, and we’d have enough to eat.”
And as Margaret Questad reared her six children, “I never got them half a dozen gifts,” she said, scoffing at what she sees as today’s extravagance.
“I got them one gift that they wanted. And underwear from Penney’s — because that’s what they needed, and that’s when they got it.”
Lessons that linger
Eventually, crops re-energized, and then there was President Franklin D. Roosevelt and an infusion of acronyms — the WPA (Work Projects Administration), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) — meant to jump-start the economy.
“He was a like a savior who had come,” said West Seattle’s Hazel Elizondo, 86. With the war in Europe, and U.S. involvement, the economy became robust again.
Still, the lessons of the time lingered. After her husband returned from the war, Questad recalls his reaction when she made him potato soup. She hadn’t known that at one point in the 1930s his family ate the dish for two consecutive weeks — breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“He said, ‘Margaret, don’t ever give me potato soup again.’ “
Some emerged from that time with penny-pinching philosophies that they have passed down to their children.
“Save something,” said former Queen Anne resident Clara Welch, 97, who was 18 when the market crashed. “Even if it’s a small amount. I saw so many people with small children who didn’t have food in the house.”
“We’re still here because that’s who we are,” said Victor Elizondo, Hazel’s husband. “What you see is what you get. We don’t try to put on airs or buy a new car every year or a 76-inch TV to put on the wall.”
Others simply reminded their children that things can always go bad. “People haven’t had to learn those lessons,” Garlichs said.
“But they can.”
Even now, the Cables have one credit card, which they applied for when Bill was traveling for work and wanted to keep work expenses separate from their personal finances.
But they have learned to make that pay dividends, too, earning airline miles with their purchases.
“Now we use the credit card for everything,” Donna said. “Then we use the miles to go visit our children.”
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or firstname.lastname@example.org