Depression Memories

Helen E. Bunnell
Historical Quarterly 54 Summer 1986

Our experiences during the Great Depression were toughening, spine-stiffening experiences that left lasting impressions, but not scars, on our lives. We were never hungry or cold or homeless or desperate for anything we could not do without. We struggled and “made do,” as a majority of people did, but we had youth and health and young love on our side. Although we had lots of experiences we have related to our children to impress them with our fortitude, we remember those years as good ones, laying a strong foundation for our marriage and future life.

We were married in the fall of 1932, both of us leaving school at the end of winter quarter. Our goal was to get Omar [the author’s husband] back to the University of Utah as soon as possible. That road had many detours, but he did graduate in June 1935, five days before our second child was born. We didn’t think of school a year at a time, just a quarter. It took about $300 to keep us for that long. The Rotary Club would lend us $150; we had to have the rest. Of course, jobs were scarce. By patching up used cars and performing other odd jobs for his dad’s foundering automobile business, selling Fuller brushes, and raising sugar beets a couple of summers, Omar was able to earn the money. Actually, the most profitable work he had during that time was not raising sugar beets—a New Deal program that really helped us.

I don’t remember what we paid for rent, but we could buy a week’s groceries for five dollars. That did not provide a varied menu and was probably lacking some nutrition, but we made do. If we had bacon for breakfast, I saved the grease to make gravy (Big White, we called it) to put on bread for the next meal. We had some chicken my mother had given me and helped me bottle and also a case of corn we had canned together. The corn had not been sealed properly and all of it spoiled. Although I was pregnant and retched at every sniff, I didn’t throw a can away without giving it a good smell. And the chicken—Omar had a friend who was a little hard up, too, who would show up about dinnertime every Sunday until the chicken was gone.

The story that has made the rounds more than any other about those days was about Omar shoplifting a small can of chili powder. We couldn’t get home for Thanksgiving one year and, of course, had no money for holiday food. We did have beans and tomatoes and fifteen cents for a pound of hamburger. I hope we will be forgiven for that little infraction that made a Thanksgiving chili dinner a little bit more palatable.

We lived in crummy places, at least once sharing our apartment with cockroaches. Our baby slept on two chairs pushed together or in the wicker baby buggy, which also hauled home the groceries. But Omar finally got that degree, along with a letter in wrestling, a trophy for being a champion Rocky Mountain Conference debater, and membership in two honorary fraternities.

His first job as a college graduate was working for the State Welfare Department handing out relief. He remembers that a single person got $10 a month, with a man and a wife getting $16 and a few extra dollars for each child. His salary was $18 a week. A week’s salary paid the rent on the little three-room house we had just moved into. Five dollars would still buy a week’s groceries. Coal was cheap and furnished fuel for both heat and cooking. A neighbor girl would tend our babies all afternoon or evening for a dime that would take her to a movie. And I could make my baby a dress for thirty-five cents and one for myself for a dollar. We had a few essential pieces of second-hand furniture, curtains given to us by a friend’s mother, and finally a crib. Little Sister now got to sleep in the wicker baby buggy.

Three of our four children were born during the depression years. I had no prenatal care, not even seeing the doctor before the birth. With at least the second child my diet was lacking in many essentials, and I had some problems that could have been serious but worked out all right. A doctor would come to your home for $35. The first one who came from Helper to the farm four miles east of Wellington and stayed through the afternoon took out most of his pay in trade at the garage. The second doctor never did get paid. He moved from Helper not too long after and never sent us a bill. We were too broke to look him up. Dr. Demman was paid in installments.

Those were certainly years when knowing how to “make do” was a matter of survival. I cooked and canned and sewed and made over, turned collars and put hems up and down, relined coats, and patched sheets. Instructions to my sister to “double the recipe and use one egg” became a family joke. Using up the annual supply of venison was also a family tradition, but no joke. It was a minor crisis if you got a run in your stocking or a child lost a cap or a mitten. Those habits of skimping and saving do stay with us and, I suppose, become eccentricities when, no longer necessary, we still save scraps of soap and used foil and retrieve discarded notebooks from the trash when we discover there are a few unused pages. Such behavior has provided my family with lots of teasing material. But during the recent energy crisis I felt pretty smug. I already did all the things that were supposed to help us cope.

Many people had it harder than we did and suffered anxieties we didn’t feel. Our parents, for instance, had a lot more to lose. Omar’s father worked from dawn to dark trying to keep an auto sales and repair shop open, going further in the hole each month. His mother, a proud and ambitious woman, was always reminded of those austere days on her first granddaughter’s birthday. My parents finally had to leave the farm in 1934. Four children, a couple of months’ supply of canned food and farm produce, and $1,000 were all they had to show for five years’ hard work on the farm and twenty-three years of married life. They headed for the Northwest and what they hoped would be better times, my mother and sisters crying all they way.

People who depended on work in the mines really had it hard. I didn’t know many of them at the time, but I visit with a friend now who lived through those years in Hiawatha. Her husband worked twelve to fourteen hours for four dollars a day. He was glad for one day’s work a week. She says there were many times when their cupboard was bare and that if she wrote to her mother, her mother had to send her the stamp. She never had any cash, not even two cents.

No one thinks of those depression days as happy times, but in retrospect they were not all bad. We all learned things about work and self-sufficiency and pulling together and appreciation and making the most of what we had—things that have stood us in good stead these past fifty some years.