The Great Depression, Not So Far Away
Senior Citizens Describe The Crash, the Struggles, The Recovery -- and The Parallels to Today

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Louise McKenzie was a 14-year-old Girl Scout when she helped prepare dinner for the president of the United States as a way to show the American public that nutritious meals could cost very little during the early years of the Great Depression.

In her Rosslyn home, a yellowed clipping from that April day in 1931 with President Herbert Hoover and his wife has been carefully preserved. She can still recount the meal: "split-pea soup, meatloaf, baked potatoes, tomato salad, bread pudding and tea, for just under 25 cents a person."

Now 91, McKenzie has heard echoes of her past in the economic turmoil of late, which many analysts have described as the worst since the "Black Tuesday" stock market crash of 1929. At the height of the Depression that spanned the 1930s, unemployment rates reached nearly 25 percent.

The common adage of the time, McKenzie recalled, was: "Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Do without." The ethic of conserving money -- and avoiding credit -- stuck with many in her generation for the rest of their lives. Some have never used a charge card or rarely allowed a balance due.

The life experiences of the Depression generation tell an increasingly relevant story about the toll of severe economic crisis and how people persevere in times of extreme hardship. Many who remember that era, or who have studied it, wonder how the current generation would withstand such dire circumstances.

Among the larger public, the economic crisis of late has touched off deep concerns. In exit polls for the presidential election, more than six in 10 voters cited the economy as the nation's biggest issue. A few weeks earlier, 41 percent of those polled by CNN/Opinion Research said the country was headed toward a depression.

To get by in the 1930s, McKenzie and her contemporaries say, people relied on the strength of family, the support of community and the grit and work ethic of the time. Families grew food, wore hand-me-downs, helped one another, eked by.

"People are turning to this generation now because we may be called upon to make sacrifices unlike anything we've seen since then," said sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University. "They did it well."

Historian Steven Mintz of Columbia University said the children and grandchildren of those who lived during the Depression are essentially "a softer generation." Those who knew the 1930s, he said, also "knew how tough life could be before the Depression. I think they had an inner strength they could draw upon. I'm not so sure we have that."

Nathan "Hank" Greenberg, 95, a retired archivist who lives in Silver Spring, said he has never forgotten how tough it was on his family to be in debt in the 1930s and how long the bread lines stretched in Manhattan. He remembers men crying as they waited in line. He eventually lost his job as an errand boy, laid off like so many others.

"I made a vow," he said. "I don't want to owe money, ever."

To that end, Greenberg has paid for everything in cash, including his car and his condominium.

McKenzie's family held steady at the beginning of the decline, with her father serving as a member of Congress. But he was a Republican and was defeated in the political landslide of 1932 that elected Franklin D. Roosevelt as president. After that, "we were in the soup with everyone else," she said.

To get by, her father took a job out of state. She and her mother rented out their Chevy Chase home and lived in a cheaper rented room. The family struggled but remained upbeat, said McKenzie, who recounted her father's words: "There is some good in all things evil."

Much of that sense of sudden struggle that tested people and rearranged lives was woven into the stories of several residents who gathered recently at a Silver Spring retirement community. It happened to be the 79th anniversary of Black Tuesday, which marked the Depression's onset. Living through that time defined their approach to money and credit, they said, even after the world around them became more stable and prosperous.

"We know what it's like not to have money and to have to be careful, and I think that's a good thing," said June Roper, who was born a month after the crash.

Roper recalls that her stockbroker father lost his job, and the family had to move in with relatives. Her father found a job in typewriter sales, but no one was buying, so he started doing repairs. When her mother became pregnant with her sister, the extended family disapproved.

"Everyone was very upset with my mother, because how dare she have a baby when people were struggling so?" she said.

One advantage of having lived through the Depression, Roper said, is an understanding that it would not last forever. "We saw the recovery, which I think people need to remember now. You do recover," said Roper, who is a retired stockbroker.

Still, the modern generation needs to reconsider its spending and use of credit, she said. "That we have this problem now is really a wake-up call, and if we're smart about it -- if the government's smart and the people are -- it will say to people: You can't borrow to live," she said.

Her friends shared other stories of the past.

Jim Feldman, 83, who worked in the Foreign Service, recalls men with no food knocking on the door of his family's apartment in Chicago. He recalls signs posted on city buses reading, "The driver of this vehicle is a college graduate," and men working as crossing guards near schools.

Thinking about the economy's recent plunge, Feldman said, "We had a generation that never knew anything about it and never thought it could happen -- and it happened. You know, with this older group, we don't have any illusions about that kind of thing. There is always a price to pay."

Roper said she has started to talk to her grandchildren about credit. In her day, she said, the only thing you bought on credit was your home. They had hand-me-down furniture and clothes. "Now young people want the house before the baby. People just want instant gratification," Roper said.

Across the region, others who lived through tough times could not help but think back on the experiences that formed their early lives.

Katharine Pagan, 96, a retired District schoolteacher who lives in Adams Morgan, said she vividly recalls the bleak circumstances of others, most notably her fourth-grade students in Southwest.

"I can remember I almost wept when a boy handed me an orange, which was his Christmas present to me," she said. "I could only imagine it was the only orange he'd seen in weeks or months." Nearly 80 years later, she still remembers his name.

Still, not everyone recalls the Depression the same way. At a Fort Lincoln senior citizens' complex in Northeast, six friends and neighbors who thought back to the 1930s found themselves remembering how their families managed in spite of hardships.

"People knew how to do for themselves, how to make ends meet, back in the day, more so than now," said Bernice Thompson, 77, a retired bank employee.

Clara Thomas, 96, who grew up in Northwest, said her family was so poor that it did not feel like a sharp downturn when it got worse. "We just did not have all the things that everybody else had," she said. "We were used to not having it."

Several reflected on the social structures within the community that sustained them and said they do not exist in the same way anymore.

Sylvester Stevens Jr., 74, said his African American neighborhood had a community ethic to help those down on their luck. When someone could not pay rent, neighbors threw a rent party to raise funds. When someone needed food, people pitched in. "The neighborhood was the village, as the saying goes," he said.

Carlie Buchannon, 83, recalled helping to cook for her family of 13 -- mother, father, grandmother and 10 children -- while her parents worked, laundering clothes in a home business. Her father also was a handyman and carpenter, she said, and "he would pull that wagon all over Washington to find something to do."

She has no memory of being hungry. But she remembers wondering "why I had to walk in the cold all the way across town to go to school, instead of going to the school right near us." She came to learn that was because of racial segregation.

Benton Doherty, 83, of Manassas said his concern is not for himself but for those who come after him. Despite growing up during the Depression, he said, "I'm afraid that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren won't have it as good as I did. I think they're going to have to work a lot harder. There are a lot accumulated problems that need to be solved."

But Sylvia Berlin, 93, of Glover Park noted that the government has more social and economic programs than it did when the market crashed in 1929. "I don't know where this is going to lead," she said. "I would hope there are enough government controls to save this from sinking into that."

Still, for David Beard, the present crisis seems daunting. Eight decades after the Depression began, he is 96, living with his wife in a nursing and rehabilitation home in Adelphi and suddenly facing another wave of financial anxiety. The couple's savings for these late years has been reduced greatly by the stock market decline, he said.

"In the Depression, as a kid growing up, we felt one way or another we'd muddle through," he said. "When you're 96 and you're watching your savings melt away and run down the stream, you have a different outlook, a more defeatist outlook. . . . It's frightening. You are at the mercy of external forces."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company