Hard Times: An oral history of the great depression

We've heard a lot of rhetoric lately about how this is the worst economy since the Great Depression. Maybe that's true and maybe it isn't, but even if it were, what would it mean? I have no frame of reference for these sorts of claims. They smack of hyperbole, but I can't be sure. In my lifetime, the closest I've come to experiencing anything like the Depression was during the recession of the early 1980s, which was hard on my family.

I don't know anyone who lived through the Great Depression, so to find out what it might have been like, I turned to a book recommended by a couple of GRS readers.

In 1970, writer Studs Terkel published Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, which features excerpts from over 100 interviews he conducted with those who lived through the 1930s. Terkel spoke with all sorts of people: old and young, rich and poor, famous and not-so-famous, liberal and conservative.

Hard Times is fascinating. It's one thing to read about the Great Depression in textbooks, or to hear it used as leverage in political speeches, but it's another thing entirely to read the experiences of the people who lived through it. And by including the perspectives of so many different people, Terkel is able to paint a richer picture of what things were like. (Hint: Things were much more complex than we're usually told.)

When I think of the Depression, I think of it as being bleak for everyone. I think of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. I think of bread lines. I think of people struggling to get by. And to be sure, there was plenty of that. Here's an excerpt from Terkel's conversation with an Iowa farmer named Oscar Heline:

He recounts the first farm depression of the Twenties: “We give the land back to the mortgage holder and then we're sued for the remainder — the deficiency judgment — which we have to pay.” After the land boom of the early Twenties, the values declined constantly, until the last years of the decade. “In '28, '29, when it looked like we could see a little blue sky again, we're just getting caught up with the back interest, the Thirties Depression hit.”

“The farmers became desperate. It got so a neighbor wouldn't buy from a neighbor, because the farmer didn't get any of it. It went to the creditors. And it wasn't enough to satisfy them. What's the use of having a farm sale? Why do we permit them to go on? It doesn't cover the debts, it doesn't liquidate the obligation. He's out of business, and it's still hung over him. First, they'd take your farm, then they took your livestock, then your farm machinery. Even your household goods. And they'd move you off. The farmers were almost united. We had penny auction sales. Some neighbor would bid a penny and give it back to the owner.”

Does the description of home values sound familiar? I think there are echoes of our current situation in Heline's account. But Hard Times makes it clear that not everybody suffered, and of those that did, there were varying degrees of suffering.

Here's part of an interview with a man named Edward Burgess who used to work as a printer in Chicago. He didn't suffer like the Iowa farmers, but you can still hear echoes of today's crisis in his story:

I spotted this Studebaker in the window at Twenty-sixth and Michigan. So I says to May, let's buy that car. So we just stopped in, give 'em $600, all we had with us, and bought the car. The sales manager — his name was Compton — I told him that's the one we want. So we just had a couple of fellas push it out and put air in the tires and a couple of gallons of gas and away we went, down South Parkway. So we went all around, down Field Museum…It was a six-wheel job.

The foreman down at Donnely, he said, “You sure did your bit for the Depression.” He bought one, he bought a new Ford. I said, “If everybody would spend ten cents more a day than they ordinarily spent, we'd sneak out of this in a hurry.” (Luaghs.) I said that. My theory, I felt that way. Because we were makin' money. We never got laid off or nothin'. There was no cause to feel otherwise.

Hard Times is divided into over 30 broad sections, each of which explores a specific topic like children, farming, entertainment, labor strive, the New Deal, hobo life, and more.

I find the interviews with average folks more interesting than the interviews with politicians and business leaders, but even those conversations had their moments. For example, here's part of Terkel's discussion with Raymond Moley, who started as an advisor for Franklin Roosevelt before breaking with him and becoming a vocal critic of the New Deal:

People don't realize that Roosevelt chose a conservative banker as Secretary of Treasury and a conservative from Tennessee as Secretary of State. Most of the reforms that were put through might have been agreeable to Hoover, if he had the political power to put them over…

The bank rescue of 1933 was probably the turning point of the Depression. When people were able to survive the shock of having all the banks closed, and then see the banks open up, with their money protected, there began to be confidence. Good times were coming. Most of the legislation that came after didn't really help the public. The public helped itself, after it got confidence…A Depression is much like a run on a bank. It's a crisis of confidence.

After reading Hard Times, I feel as if I have a better grasp of our current economic crisis, at least from an historical perspective. If you have a general interest in history, or if like me you've been wanting to obtain first-hand information about the Great Depression, Hard Times shouldn't be missed. Your public library is sure to have a copy.

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Sally
Sally
11 years ago

Have read and enjoyed your site and know that not being ‘overfrugal’ has been something you’ve been posting on recently. So I thought you might like to see this article in the UK Guardian today.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/apr/11/oliver-burkeman-frugality-money

(Thank you also for the monthly garden updates. I am aspiring to the grow lights Kris has over her tomatoes. It’s been very grey in the UK this spring !)

grimsaburger
grimsaburger
11 years ago

I have nothing to add except “Yes, yes, yes.” I spent several months last year reading Working a couple vignettes/interviews at a time before bed, and bought Hard Times for my dad for Christmas. Of course, it seemed a little morose to give such a gift during a recession, and I was taking a gamble because my politics (and Studs’ for that matter) are far more liberal than his, but it turned out to be a really good gift. You’re absolutely right, the appeal of it is in its complexity. I’m a historian by trade (though I work on Europe),… Read more »

Max
Max
11 years ago

This American Life had a story on the same guy. They play 30 minutes of the recorded interviews from the book. It could be handy if you just want some highlights you can listen to. It’s the first story in Ep. 368 – “Who do you think you are?” http://is.gd/806H

gfe-gluten free easily
gfe-gluten free easily
11 years ago

I find individual’s stories more compelling on any subject, whether it is economic struggles or successes, dealing with illness, travel, etc. I’ve read a lot of stories about this time and it is fascinating the hardships that many faced, but yet managed to survive and often did so with such grace. One of the most enjoyable and eye-opening ones I’ve read was Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Kalish. I just recently listened to an audiobook set in Chicago during World War II. I knew that families made sacrifices,… Read more »

Mike Wilson
Mike Wilson
11 years ago

Studs had a great ear and a great empathy for people.

Hard Times for a look at the depression; Working for a look at how all kinds of people feel about their jobs and life; Great Divide for a look at race relations in America.

It’s a sociology degree at a low, low cost!

Leslie
Leslie
11 years ago

Another site you might want to check out is: http://www.footnote.com/
People post memories of their families on families individuals information page. The site is used by historians as well as genealogists (me), but it is full of this type of information.

My father lived through the depression and I’m working on his page.

Janette
Janette
11 years ago

My grandparents were small business owners in small Phoenix during the depression. They told of simple barter and rarely using any money. My greatgrandfather had a chicken ranch and grew veggies for his wife and my grandmother’s family. Land was lower than cheap so they did fine. My father in law was a teen and worked on the rails to help support the family (of 13 sibs). He often recalled fashioning shoes from newspaper and having tin foil ready if he should be so lucky as to find a potato peel on the ground from the passing trains. He and… Read more »

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
11 years ago

In the 1930s, my grandparents lived in a house with no running water or electricity, and my grandfather plowed his fields with a team of horses. They had some hard times, and lost some land, but I don’t think it was really *that* much worse than what they were used to, and at least they were living in a brick house rather than a sod house like my great-grandparents started out in. We’ve got a lot farther to fall now.

Eden
Eden
11 years ago

Very interesting. Clearly, we have it easy compared to the Great Depression.

I really like the movie Cinderella Man, for a glimpse at Great Depression life.

I’m not sure how historically accurate it is, but I figure it should be okay since it’s based on a true story. Plus it’s a great movie anyway. 🙂

Tom
Tom
11 years ago

I’m a bit jaded to this whole “worst economy since the Great Depression” thing since it’s trotted out every election year. This recession is not even as bad as the early 80s, but for me personally, I’m making more money than ever, have no fear of job loss, none whatsoever, and I have everything I could reasonably want with no debt.

Wilhelm Scream
Wilhelm Scream
11 years ago

I must admit, I was sick to death of people banging on about the Great Depression, but this book sounds very interesting. The reason I was so fed up is because statistics and goverment garbage mean nothing in the real world, but the stories of individual real people mean something far more tangible and important. I might have to see if they have this book in the library…

Shannon
Shannon
11 years ago

My grandmother, who just died last fall at age 98, and my grandfather, age 100, both lived through the Great Depression, and the current economic situation to date is D vvvv1111NOTHING compared to what happened to the US during the GD. My grandparents thoughtfully gifted their grandchildren with copies of their memoirs 15 years ago. These are fascinating to read and provide great detail about the times. My grandma grew up on a small farm in N Dakota and graduated valedictorian from her small high school. Plans for college were dashed as the GD followed on the heels of her… Read more »

Faculties
Faculties
11 years ago

I’m surprised that you don’t know anyone who lived through the Great Depression. Maybe most kids don’t grow up with older generations around any more? My mother certainly lived through it, and of course all her friends did. She often talked about losing their farm, and how they ate whatever poor food they could get off the fancy plates and silver my grandmother had gotten as a wedding present — they would have sold the plates and silver, but no one had enough money to buy it. I said to my mother, “Apples were only 5 cents, couldn’t people eat… Read more »

DW
DW
11 years ago

Both of my parents grew up during the Depression. My father talked of standing in bread lines. His mom (his dad took off years earlier) found a job as a tavern cook — for meals, he’d go to the back door of the tavern, and Grandma would slide out something — usually fried potatoes that had been sitting awhile, he noted. My mom grew up on a farm, so she and her family ate reasonably well. Theft was a problem — folks would try to steal chickens, produce from the garden. Ironically, had they asked, my grandmom would have fed… Read more »

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
11 years ago

I remember my father telling me he earned$30 a month at the dairy where his brother worked, delivering milk on a horse-drawn cart — and that was plenty of money for him to get by.

My mother said they once spent ten days with nothing to eat but oranges and pancakes.

She used to say the “good old days” weren’t. So far things haven’t gone that far. Let’s hope they never do!

Rhea
Rhea
11 years ago

I am in the middle of reading Hard Times right now. In fact, it is part of my plan to educate myself about the Great Depression so that I can be somewhat prepared for what is to come.

Betsy
Betsy
11 years ago

Having had that book on my bedside table for absolutely years (I read a little bit at a time when I cannot sleep and the short anecdotes are perfect for a short read) I agree with your assessment of the content, J.D. I like the average peoples stories more than the big wigs. (Probably because I’m not a big wig!) A lot of what the big wigs say is opinion and not experience based. I prefer the honest voice of experience over opinion any day. Thank you for bringing this wonderful book to others attention. P.S. My Dad grew up… Read more »

Free Your Mind
Free Your Mind
11 years ago

I will have to check this book out! I have done a lot of research on what “went down” during the great depression.

What is going on now (regardless of “statistics”) is nothing compared to what went on during that time… yet…

The thing about a depression is, that people are so disillusioned by propaganda that they often feel as if destitute times just can’t happen in this “GREAT” country. And when it happens, it causes DEPRESSION (hence the name).

But to those who are prepared, you can take advantage of a bad economy and come out ahead.

retired
retired
11 years ago

My grandparents were farmers. They lived through the depression. They never had a credit card. Fridays they went to town for necessities. The only money they banked was the egg and quilt money. In the 1980’s they sold the farm to my uncle. When they moved my Grandfather dug up tin cans of cash from the depression. They were silver certificates. Of course they paid cash for the house in town using the buried money. Ouch! They did not realize the old bills were worth so much. They never bought more than they needed. Most of their clothing they made… Read more »

tinyhands
tinyhands
11 years ago

This would be a great, frugal activity for GRS readers: Record your own oral history.

For tips, visit http://www.storycorps.net

KS
KS
11 years ago

Very interesting to read – I know a fellow who claims “The Great Depression wasn’t that bad – some people had jobs!” He ignores the fact that there was no safety net, drought, and numerous other factors that exacerbated the problem. @Faculties – I, too, don’t know anyone who grew up during the Depression, because I’m the daughter of relatively recent immigrants (40 years ago). Not so unusual.

Laura @ BeyondBeerMoney
Laura @ BeyondBeerMoney
11 years ago

Well-written.

It’s especially interesting to realize that while many people are struggling others are making huge gains right now and doing well.

Also, I feel that a lot of people joke about the recession and cutting back but many aren’t actually making any changes. It will be interesting to see how history tells the story of what’s going on right now.

444
444
11 years ago

KS quoted someone else as saying, “some people had jobs!” It’s true that there were people who had jobs; in fact, through every age there were people who owned a lot and basically didn’t get severely affected by the economic climate of the day. My family members owned a lot of land and other property (businesses) and had political influence in their area of the country and not only kept on going to college at that time, but started at least one college before the depression and kept it going throughout. I guess it came down to what kind of… Read more »

Faculties
Faculties
11 years ago

@23, it also depended on what business they were in before the Depression, and where they had their money. My grandfather had two farms, lost both of them, and the bank went bust. They stayed afloat because my grandmother had a job as a librarian (in a time when it was more unusual for married women to work). But many people who had jobs and stayed afloat helped out relatives and friends, and indeed had homeless relatives living with them. My grandparents’ family took in his father and a cousin, so there were five people, and then three more, of… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@Faculties (#13)
In my life, I’ve known folks who lived through the Great Depression, but everyone who did so is now gone. My next-door neighbor may actually have some memories of it. He would have been a young boy. I’ll have to ask him.

rail
rail
11 years ago

This is a great thread. I’m 39 and have known many people that lived at that time. My grandparents, etc. Grampa is 95 and is VERY mentaly sharp. graduated h.s in 1933. He spent 2 yrs. working day-labor. Was in the CCC. He and grandma always said it was good to be self reliant, at least be able to grow a good garden. Even in a big town(Waterloo,Iowa) people had big gardens and chickens,rabbits etc. He talks of hunting birds, squirles or anything that could be eaten. The stories I was fortunate enough to hear from them and others that… Read more »

Laggie
Laggie
11 years ago

It’s funny – I always smirk at the news stories nowadays recommending ways to save a buck…”Shop with coupons” or “Cancel your cable tv.” Having grown up around my grandparents talking about the GD, I realize that our generation knows nothing of sacrifice. It’s even apparent today in the ways they save and spend money, the way they reuse and recycle things…It’s a whole different mindset. Saving money by buying my clothes at a discount store can never compare to wearing dresses sewn out of old feed sacks.

mhb
mhb
11 years ago

I recently started reading Studs Terkel’s “Race”, which is a follow-up to “Division Street”. As someone who’s spent some time interviewing people and reporting on it, I am consistently amazed by Terkel’s mastery of the art of recording oral history. He was amazing.

I’ll have to check this out!

J
J
11 years ago

Studs Terkel is the coolest name in the world. That is all.

Mike T.
Mike T.
11 years ago

I agree with your comment about the stories of individuals being more compelling than the “fat cats” and the politicians. I think generally speaking we have a whole lot more to learn from history than we realize.

Thanks for the article!

Victor
Victor
11 years ago

@Laggie – Great comment! Totally agree! I agree with those who are saying we are nowhere near the GD. People may be cutting a bit on luxuries but very few people can even fathom cutting back to the degree that was done in the GD (yet). One major problem I see is that we the average people have lost so many basic skills. How many average people can actually grow food (and I don’t mean a half dozen tomato plants, I mean wheat to make flour)? How many know how to repair a bike or farm equipment? How many can… Read more »

Dollartrak
Dollartrak
3 months ago

This was a really interesting read, especially with the current state of the economy due to this coronavirus!

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