My mother was all of seven years old when the stock market crash ushered in what would become known as the Great Depression.
On October 24, 1929, as nervous investors began selling off over-priced shares in a trading frenzy, the crash that some had feared happened at last. A record 12.9 million shares were traded that day, known as “Black Thursday.”
Five days later, on “Black Tuesday,” some 16 million shares were traded after another wave of panic divestment swept Wall Street. Millions of shares ended up to be worthless, and those investors who had bought stocks with borrowed money were wiped out completely.
Financial ruin swept across the nation from Lower Manhattan, where reckless speculation had led countless Americans to pour their savings into stocks. As a result, the market underwent rapid expansion, reaching its peak in August of 1929.
But by then, industrial production had declined, and unemployment was on the rise, leaving stock prices much higher than their actual value. Wages at the time were sagging, consumer debt was rising, and the agricultural sector of the economy was struggling due to falling food prices and shortages brought about by a drought that would see the nation’s bread basket turn into the Dust Bowl. Banks had an excess of large loans that could not be liquidated.
Less than a year after the crash, my mother began her day by making soup from the leftovers from the night before. Left to simmer while she attended school in the small town of Callaway, Nebraska, she would come home and serve the soup and scraps of stale bread from the town’s bakery to the “traveling men” from the front porch of her family’s white-washed clapboard house.
These men, unlike the settlers who had homesteaded much of the West, represented a diaspora that would forever change the face of both the nation and that of the American family.
Homesteaders, their eyes filled with hope for a bright new future, came looking for opportunity. The men to whom my mother ladled soup—sad-eyed, their suits worn, their fedoras sweat-stained and weathered—came looking for a chance at survival. Opportunity must have seemed fanciful. Having left their families, they traveled in search of elusive jobs that might provide enough income to send home.
By 1930, the country’s industrial production had dropped by half. For those who were lucky enough to remain employed, wages fell and buying power decreased dramatically. Bread lines, soup kitchens and rising numbers of homeless people became more and more common in America’s towns and cities. Farmers couldn’t afford to harvest their crops, and were forced to leave them rotting in the fields while people elsewhere starved. That same year was when the severe droughts in the Southern Plains brought high winds and dust from Texas to Nebraska, killing people, livestock, and crops.
The Dust Bowl inspired a mass migration of people from farmlands to cities in search of factory work, and from the plains to California to become field laborers. John Steinbeck found poetry in the sufferings of those he portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath.
In 1933, the financial stress on the American people could be measured in a 24.9% unemployment rate. From 1931, the same year my father quit school to join the work force as a 12-year-old, until 1940, the unemployment rate never reached above 14%. Half of the American people were living below subsistence levels. More than half of the nation’s banks had failed.
While there don’t seem to be many statistics about the effects of the Depression on the structure and stability of the American family, it can be safely assumed that many of the men never returned home or were successful enough in the pursuit of jobs to send money home.
From 1930 to 1940, the number of employed women in the United States rose 24 percent from 10.5 million to 13 million. Though women had been entering the workforce for decades, the financial pressures of the Great Depression drove women to seek employment in ever greater numbers as male breadwinners lost their jobs. Marriages dropped 22 percent during that time.
As war loomed on two fronts, my father lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. Other enlistees, as well as those conscripted into service, became part of a workforce that would make a large dent in the unemployment numbers. In anticipation of war came a massive increase in industrial, i.e., armaments, production. The low-paying jobs of nursing, sewing, and teaching that FDR’s Works Progress Administration had created for women, were replaced by what came to be symbolized by Rosie the Riveter.
The end of World War II ushered in an era of prosperity and helped restore, if not, create, a middle class. It also saw the African-American diaspora from the rural south to the industrial north—all in search of jobs and opportunity, without the oppressive racism that permeated the south. Or so it was believed.
I had an uncle who had been too young for service in WWI and too old for WWII. He worked at the General Electric factory on Chicago’s West Side throughout the war. He drew no salary, opting rather for stock options. As he toiled on the assembly line, he honed his vision of the future. He figured that at war’s end, the GIs would come home, buy a car, marry the girls they’d left behind, and move into cracker-box suburban houses.
He was right, as demonstrated by his becoming a wealthy man through the Lincoln-Ford dealership he started, followed by his partnering with a lumber company to develop Naperville, Illinois.
But the rise of suburbia signaled yet another diaspora as returning GIs left their family homes to settle elsewhere.
America had become a country on the move, perhaps no better symbolized than by Bing Crosby’s hit recording of the Gordon Jenkins song, whose refrain promised: I’m gonna settle down and never more roam / And make the San Fernando Valley my home.
When thousands of GIs passed through that Los Angeles valley on the way to the Asian front, they saw from the train windows what must have seemed a paradise of lush orange orchards. The Valley was quickly settled after the war, the orange groves plowed under to make room for housing.
The dispersal of our citizenry led to a distancing of our families. As my family continued to relocate further and further west from Chicago, we became more distanced from my paternal grandmother, which, in retrospect, I regret (although it was not my doing). Grandmothers have a special way with their grandchildren that provides special senses of learning and security—as well as cookies.
There was a time when newlyweds moved in with parents, and when the newlyweds got around to having their own place, the parents moved in with them. All told, it was not a bad system.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
The actress was married to Douglas Fairbanks and presumably did not suffer terribly during the Great Depression. My babička named this ground beef and noodle casserole for “America’s Sweetheart,” perhaps hoping to lend a sense of elegance to what is clearly a Depression era dish. But I’m not sure. I just loved it as a kid.
1# ground beef
1 small onion, diced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk celery, chopped
½ bell pepper, chopped
1 can of tomato soup
Salt & pepper
1 Tbs. chopped parsley
12 oz. elbow macaroni
Sauté the onion in a Tbs. of neutral oil for 4-5 minutes over medium heat. Add the celery and bell pepper, cooking for 2-4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Turn the heat to high and cook the ground beef.
Meanwhile, cook the macaroni according to the package instructions.
Add the tomato soup to the cooked meat mixture. Stir in the cooked macaroni. Garnish with parsley and serve.