The Great Depression

The Paradox: A new car for $500, a salary of $10.

... a wealthy grandfather takes his own life ...

by Len Dalton

At the time of the crash heralding the onset of the Great Depression, my father's father was the president of a bank. It was not one of the larger banks but, one investing in the mortgage business. I have actually met people whose home purchase was made possible by my grandfather. He was quite a man. Born on the Isle of Wight in Britain around 1874, he came here as a young man and prospered.

As the years went by, he married my grandmother, Mabel Marston, whose family were quite well off via a most successful wool trade of my great grandfather in the mid to late 1800's. He had offices in Boston, Chicago and New York. Between North beacon Street in Allston and the Charles River, they owned most of the land!

Things were going rather swimmingly through World War 1. Grandfather bought a nice home in Wellesley and became a well know member of the Masonic fraternity, eventually becoming Grand Commander of the Masonic organization known as Commandary. He smoked good cigars and had a great time.

Like many others, when the crash came in 1929, he was extended on margin. Apparently it meant a degree of ruin for him so one day he drove his nice auto into the garage at his Wellesley home, closed the doors and allowed the carbon monoxide from the engine exhaust kill him. That meant that I never knew him and I truly regret that fact. My grandmother was so grief stricken that she could not bring herself to attend the funeral!

In spite of losing much of his estate, my grandfather still left behind a number of properties in which he had invested. There were homes in Nantasket, Mansfield, Halifax, White River Junction, Vermont and, of course, his house in Wellesley. I well remember traveling to these places with my father to collect rent. These were taken over by my father and helped see him through the Great Depression.

My family always had new automobiles and lived in good homes, all in Melrose, through the thirties. We summered in the south of Nova Scotia until the onset of World War 2. Prior to the entry of this country into that War, we often took 50 pound bags of sugar and other commodities to Canada for family friends.

As a Melrose boy, I clearly remember seeing laborers digging ditches and other hard work who were well advanced in age. There was no retiring at age 65! In those days there was little or no welfare. Tradition had it that when a man could no longer work and pay his bills, he and his wife moved in with their children. Social Security was unknown until the middle thirties. A hard weeks work in those days would pay between $10 and $15! At the same time, butter was 10 cents a pound; bread was 10 to 15 cents a loaf. So, even with a small paycheck by today's standards, people were able to get along.

I remember a barber in Lynn telling me that in those days he made $20 a week; put $5 in the bank; took his wife to dinner and a movie. A new automobile in 1933 could be purchased for the princely sum of $500! I remember admiring high school boys who purchased an operating auto for $5! There were actually men who burned kerosene in their cars! The carbon buildup made it necessary to remove the head periodically to clean it. But, kerosene was far cheaper than gas which cost all of 10 cents a gallon! It was also very common to see autos being driven with tires so worn that the canvass showed through! Retreads were more the rule than the exception!

Occasionally one could see a Cadillac limousine gliding down the Lynn Fells Parkway. These were truly the upper crust people and we all stopped to gaze at the spectacle. There were also a few smart fellows around who knew the profit of buying and operating small British autos such as the Austin. They were dramatically smaller than American cars but they got wonderful mileage.

Leonard B. Dalton
January 24, 1999

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