Depression Ethic

Posted February 10th, 2012 at 7:28 pm (UTC-4)

I’m a Tweener.  Not an 11- or 12-year-old between childhood and teenage years, certainly, but a child of what’s been called “The Smallest Generation,” born during World War II between the Depression-era “Greatest Generation” and the postwar “Baby Boomer” generation.

We war-baby Tweeners would have had to be pretty precocious to know about the war that was raging while we were in diapers, of course, and by the time Boomers were rebelling their fool heads off during the protest years of the 1960s and getting stoned in the ’70s, many of us were a little old for that.  Not that we didn’t like the music.

An orchard choked to death by dust.  (Library of Congress)

An orchard choked to death by dust. (Library of Congress)

But our parents drummed in the hard lessons they took out of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when joblessness, bread lines, unrelenting dust storms, and labor strife were a grim reality . . . a reality that I am showing you in the photographs on this posting.

Now, in the 2010s, after many Americans spent decades fixated on gadgets and comforts and excesses, some of their admonitions about frugality are circling back around again.


The story of the daunting Depression was told in books and films such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  And the haggard faces of those times were unforgettably captured by Depression-era photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.  Children’s grimy visages were among them, and young and old alike never forgot what poverty and hunger and loss of homes and dignity felt like.

Boys in a migrant camp.  (Library of Congress)

Boys in a migrant camp. (Library of Congress)

“My children need three square meals a day,” Woody Guthrie sang as tens of thousands of families in Plains “Dust Bowl” states were forced to leave their homes to become refugees.  “Now my children need three square meals a day/ My children need three square meals a day, Lord/ And I ain’t-a gonna be treated this-a way.”

The economic depression that swept the world after the collapse of the U.S. stock market in 1929 threw millions out of work, spreading hunger, homelessness, and some hopelessness until the economy rebounded in the early 1940s as the United States joined World War II.

In Children of the Depression, a book about youngsters who lived through these times, the faces of city kids, country kids; white, black, brown and red kids; babies and teenagers, and shy boys and girls, peer at readers in stark black-and-white images.

Hillary Mac Austin and Kathleen Thompson's moving book.  (Indiana University Press)

Hillary Mac Austin and Kathleen Thompson's moving book. (Indiana University Press)

According to Hilary Mac Austin, who, along with Kathleen Thompson, edited Children of the Depression, these images by Farm Security Administration photographers Lange, Evans, and others were a blatant propaganda effort by President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration:

They needed to convince a public that they should care about people that they don’t know, people in different regions from where they lived.

And so they sent these photographers out to basically record the lives and the changes that the government was making in those lives, in order to convince the American people to continue to support the [social programs of the] “New Deal.”

The photographers’ lenses captured the fear, hardship, and desperation in the faces of some of the children and their parents.

Kathleen Thompson pointed to one photograph that shows a filthy, barefoot little girl, five or six years old, huddling in the corner of a day laborer’s tent home in rural Oklahoma. Two bony chickens peck at her feet.

A Depression breadline in Brooklyn, New York.  (Library of Congress)

A Depression breadline in Brooklyn, New York. (Library of Congress)

“People were really poor in Oklahoma,” she told me.  “And that child was a child of a family that wasn’t making it.  We don’t know whether they ended up leaving Oklahoma and going to California or not.  Certainly thousands and thousands of children like her did go.

“And a lot of them died as their parents went to try to find work.”

“They used to tell me I was building a dream,” Rudy Vallee sang during those hard times.  “With peace and glory ahead/ Why should I be standing in line/ Just waiting for bread?”

A family dinner after a day of chopping cotton. (Library of Congress)

A family dinner after a day of chopping cotton. (Library of Congress)

And Vallee sang this, too:

“Say, don’t you remember?  I’m your pal/ “Buddy, can you spare a dime?”

A couple of years ago, I wrote in this space about my visit to a Depression-era refugee camp called “Weedpatch” in Northern California.  There isn’t much of it left, but every year some of its survivors, including Earl Shelton, go back to reminisce.

“Hard times was why we left.  My dad and grandpa had 12 acres [5 hectares] of cotton,” he told me.  “And there was no cotton.  There was leaves and stuff on the stalks.  Dad would hunt during the night.  Well, then, he would bring home maybe three or four skunks.  And he’d get ten cents a hide for preparing those hides for the market. The shed where he hung ’em, it stunk.”

“I wouldn’t want to skin a skunk, myself,” I told him.

“Well,” he replied, “you would if you had nothin’ to eat.”

When I was a boy — a somewhat sickly one who turned into a generally healthy adult — I spent many a week at home in bed.  One of my only diversions while my mother was across Cleveland, teaching in elementary school, was listening to her old — I say old, but they weren’t so old then — 78-rpm phonograph records.  One song, more than any other, has popped into my head from time to time ever since.

A shacktown child from Oklahoma.  She looks a lot like my middle daughter, Juliette, at her age.  Julie, though, was better fed.  (Library of Congress)

A shacktown child from Oklahoma. She looks a lot like my middle daughter, Juliette, at her age. Julie, though, was better fed. (Library of Congress)

It was sung by Harry Richman to the gentle strains of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra:

“Grab your coat and get your hat,” Richman sang, liltingly/ Leave your worries on the doorstep/ Just direct your feet/ On the sunny side of the street.”

Americans in the throes of the Depression were trying to cheer themselves up any way they could.  They had also sung “Happy Days are Here Again” when Franklin Roosevelt was first elected president in 1933, when 11,000 of the nation’s 24,000 banks had failed and were closed tight.

Happy days, it turned out, would be more than a decade off for most people, because just as the Depression’s ravages were healing, along came the sacrifices that went along with fighting a second world war.

“When we look at children in this book, working in fields and sawmills, these kids did not go out to work just because their families were broke,” Kathleen Thompson told me.  “That’s what children did.  The tragedy of the Depression is that often these children were taking their parents’ jobs.”

A five-year-old cotton picker.  This photo was taken in 1913, but trust me, there were thousands of kids working the fields and factories of America during the Depression.  (Library of Congress)

A five-year-old cotton picker. This photo was taken in 1913, but trust me, there were thousands of kids working the fields and factories of America during the Depression. (Library of Congress)

“I walk along the street of sorrow” Connie Boswell sang.  “The boulevard of broken dreams.”

The people who fought in World War II, and those who worked in factories on the home front, had just come out of this incredibly stressful experience.  And what it taught them certainly affected what they taught their children.   Children like me.

They stressed that one should always have food in the larder, that one should always have a job, that one should always own — not rent — one’s home, and that the bank was a safe place to put your money.

And that’s the drumbeat I was talking about that has followed me and millions of other Tweeners all of our lives.  Scrimp.  Save.  Be cautious and frugal.

A "cottage," as it was described, in Sequoyah County, Oklahoma.  (Library of Congress)

Naturally, we internalized those values, even if we chafed at them.  Many of us did not wish to pass such strictures on — to keep up the frugality drumbeat — to our children.  They should live a little, feel free to take some chances, squeeze some joy out of life rather than go through life, as we had, with the vision of our parents’ wagging fingers haunting their every move.

Ironic, isn’t it, that a lot of us frugal Tweeners lost retirement savings because those “safe” banks in which we invested were speculating-away our money.

Still, compared with the Great Depression . . .

“My parents lost their home, and we had no bed to sleep on,” a woman from Michigan, whose name I’ve lost, told me at the Weedpatch reunion. “My sister slept on a couch. I slept on a chair. We had no electricity.  And my dad worked for the WPA [the Works Progress Administration, which gave people jobs], we would wait for the afternoon check to come in because we were hungry.  We needed food.”

A mother and her kids in rural America.  (Library of Congress)

A mother and her kids in rural America. (Library of Congress)

“How has this changed your life?” I remember asking her

“Well,” she said, “I know that everything I get, I have to work for.  Up to this day, I think I’m very conservative with my money.”

That makes millions of us!

I asked her if she thought young people today are a little spoiled.

“YES,” she said, emphatically.  “Definitely.  DEFINITELY.”

She taught her boys to buy things with cash and never use a credit card unless they had the cash behind it to wipe away the charge in full when the bill came due each month.  She paid off her house while her friends bought stock.  “You’re foolish,” they told her.

A few months later, one of those friends came to her and said he had lost it all in the stock-market crash of 1929.

Kathleen Thompson told me she had begun to feel as though she knew the thin children staring out from the Depression-photo book’s pages. “I’m drawn to the strength in them, and the determination, to the laughter in some of them in spite of the difficulties they’re in,” she said.

Children at a Florida resettlement camp.  (Library of Congress)

Children at a Florida resettlement camp. (Library of Congress)

“And I love them.


“When you look at these children, you don’t see victims. You see kids that are tough, and kids that are shy, but certainly not a batch of victims.”


“All aboard for the Sunshine Special,” bandleader Ted Lewis sang.  “This train is headed for better times.  All aboard!”


Children of the Depression is published by Indiana University Press.





Children at a Florida resettlement camp.  (Library of Congress)


Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Admonition. A gentle warning or piece of advice.

Larder. A pantry or other place where food is stored.

Precocious. Having developed certain skills or talents far beyond one’s years. A precocious child, for instance, might learn at a level far ahead of her classmates. That’s not always a good thing, for precocious children can sometimes be spoiled or defiant.

Visage. The appearance, especially the face, of an individual. Sometimes there’s a mystical or magical aspect to this word, as in the visage of a holy person.

5 responses to “Depression Ethic”

  1. erdenebat says:

    thank you Ted.

    your student Erdenebat

  2. Walker Merryman says:


    Thanks so much for this well crafted essay. I nearly wept reading it. I vividly recall my own parents’ tales of life in the “dirty thirties” and how their considerable characters, filled with fortitude, determination and grit were formed. My father went to medical school in the early 1930’s. He traded the only thing of value he owned, a gold fountain pen that was a gift from his father, for all the oatmeal he could eat when he had no money His father was a director of the local bank, When the bank manager absconded with the funds, my grandfather was the only director who stood firm in his belief that the directors should make good on the depositors money. As a result, my grandfather died a poor man. My mother’s father homesteaded on the edge of the Badlands in 1900. My mother, the oldest of five, was born in 1912 on what was literally the frontier. She lived to be 96. Her mother, after becoming pregnant with her fifth child, developed polio. I am told it is just about the only case on record of the mother and child both surviving such a challenge. That’s just plain hard! All five kids went to college in the Deppresion and went on to rewarding careers. Neither of my parents ever complained about anything in their lives and they never looked back or expressed regret. They are the sort of people who put steel in this nation’s backbone and we owe them the fullest measure of gratitude.

  3. tland says:


    I don’t think even we children of those who lived through the Depression can quite grasp the ordeal of those times. We talk about pressure in our lives. How about pressure to feed a family EVERY DAY, pressure to meet the expectations to “provide” for our children, and pressure to hold onto one’s dignity? We loll about and obsess over celebrities and complain when gasoline hits $4 a gallon. Your parents and mine were lucky to get a gallon of gasoline at all, or to have a vehicle to put it in.

    Thanks for a heart-rending comment.


  4. Mr. Biggie Huge says:

    Bank deposits are automatically insured by the government in such countries as the US and Canada, but the article implies that “tweeners” lost their money in banks that were speculating. The only way the “tweeners” could have lost their money was if they too were speculating by owning bank shares, rather then depositing money in the bank. Another point I would like to make is that while World War II helped with employment, it adversely affected the economy in the years after the war through higher taxes and therefore lower growth than would otherwise have occurred. Finally there is a religious aspect. Christians appear to suffer less.

  5. tland says:

    Dear Mr. Biggie Huge:

    Christians suffer less? How so?


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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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