The Great Depression

Depression Days and Labor Sympathies

... They say you can always tell Depression people by their saving habits...

By Jackie Wattenberg

Probably because we lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood of workers, my family and I did not feel the Depression as much as some people. Riverside section in Buffalo was just a few minutes from the many factories along the River Road and the great power of the Niagara River.

My father was one of just three men on the street who were professionals or businessmen; all the others worked at Dunlop, DuPont, Chevy, Wickwire (electric plant) or chemical plants nearer to Niagara Falls that came to be known as creators of the Love Canal, or may have traveled farther south to the hot steel plants that have now disappeared.

I remember that my father, who owned a collection agency for doctors and dentists, handed my mother a $15 check each week for food and whatever else was needed for our family of parents and three children. We were never hungry, but I recall that we had a lot of stews and the regular "Chicken Every Sunday". We didn't go on vacations, but during that time we actually rented a cottage just across the river, in Cozy Dell. Probably because of the Depression, the price was low.

Occasionally, my father would mention that he had a bill against one of our neighbors, upsetting for both him and my mother. Since the two of them were pro- labor and worried about labor's struggles for rights, this was a tough business for him to be in, and may have been a provocation for his heavy drinking during those years. On many days, he wasn't up to going to the office, and my mother would go instead.

They were both supporters of the Socialist Norman Thomas, and pretty much felt that President Herbert Hoover was responsible for the Depression. Surprising to think of it now, but in our straw vote in school on presidential elections, my class had four votes for Norman Thomas. Such was the concern of working people for their future under less labor-sympathetic leaders. My parents were glad for Roosevelt's election, and his "Alphabet Soup" programs to help the poor and unemployed -- CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) for workers in outdoor work, construction, etc.; WPA, Works Progress Administration, that provided many jobs, including production of plays, concerts and murals for artists; the NRA, National Recovery Act, and for farmers, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA).

Two of my playmates during Depression days were sisters Pat and Betty, both of whom had long, naturally wavy hair pulled back in a barrette behind their heads, the rivulets curling beautifully about their faces. Pat was my age and had gorgeous red hair, a perky, independent manner, and older Betty looked like an illustration for "Little Women", chestnut hair and lovely fair face.

While playing with them on the porch -- we all had verandas in that neighborhood, friendly and cozy -- I would occasionally see their father during the daytime. More than once, another playmate's mother would ask me if Pat's family was on welfare, because her father was "always around the house". I always said I didn't know, and as I recall, I never asked or found out.

But once I admired the dresses the sisters wore, one deep salmon, one blue, identical in style, with striking square straps that came down across the chest. I asked them where they bought them, and they seemed flustered; I assumed that they had gotten them from welfare.

My mother's sister, Aunt Amanda, on the farm near Schenectady, and her husband Uncle Joe, had a really hard time during the Depression, because so many people were too poor to buy milk or butter. Once I was there during the summer the farmers took a rare concerted action -- went on strike. Cows insist on being milked twice every day, even on Sundays, so the milk had to be used. Aunt Amanda had a wooden churn, and we kids all took turns helping to make cream and butter -- it was hard work! She sold eggs and chickens to local hotels, and Mama always sent my brother Buster's outgrown clothes for younger cousin Lester, and my clothes to my cousin Thelma, a cute little blond, just two years younger.

My mother always fed us well, and saw that we had a happy Christmas even if she had to wrap one oatmeal-colored stocking in one box and its mate in another, so we had lots of gifts to open. She never spent money on herself, and was frugal in managing the house. They say you can always tell persons who were raised during the Depression by their saving habits. My sister Lois, the eldest, who has the most vivid memories of the Depression, is married to a self-made millionaire, and is generous to family and strangers alike -- such as handing a big bill to a homeless man. But she doesn't waste a bit of food, uses coupons and double-coupons that saves five or ten dollars on her shopping, and writes me letters on the backs of used company paper. Of course, she is also a recycler who picks up carelessly discarded cans and bottles, donated to local charities.

In our Buffalo neighborhood, a "man O' Block" was designated, an unemployed man who was given odd jobs around our homes, cutting grass, painting, shoveling snow, taking out the furnace ashes, etc. And lots of people sold a variety of merchandise door-to-door -- the spice man, the horse-drawn wagon of fruits and vegetables, even clothing saleswomen. Once Mama bought me a darling orange-and-yellow dress with waffle-iron texture right there on our front porch

Mama always found something for a man who stopped for a bite to eat, and for World War I veterans disabled by gas in that war, still struggling to make a living by selling things like butterflies made of tiny clothes pins painted gold with crepe paper wings.

Things really picked up when we armed for World War II, and most of the River Road plants converted to machinery of war. Unemployment ended, the Depression was over.

I used to ask then, how did the government find all the money for paying the enormous bills to plants and companies to pay for the war, but couldn't find the money to help people during the terrible Depression?

I've never had a good answer.


August 10, 1998


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