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5 Lessons from Great Depression Life that Still Make Sense Today

My mom's parents would be referred to as preppers if they were living in today's world, but back in the day, they lived like many country people did. Great Depression life wasn't easy, but their daily choices afforded them more abundance than many, especially once rationing set in during the second World War.

Mom used to tell me stories about growing up on their small diversified farm, and I always admired their ingenuity and determination.

lessons from the Great Depression

Grandma and grandpa passed on when I was still very little, so I didn't get a chance to know them well, but I will always remember these lessons, and pass them along to my children – and you.

5 Lessons from Great Depression Life

#1 – Raise Your Own Food and Store for Lean Times

Grandma raised large flocks of laying hens, which she replaced annually as production dropped off. Some birds were canned, some were sold to neighbors as stewing birds.

She had a big kerosene incubator, and used that in combination with broody hens to hatch the different types of poultry. Grandpa raised geese, cows and pigs, and had horses for farm work and other heavy jobs.

They had a large garden, with a sizable area just for bread seed poppies. Grandma was Czech, and you had to have poppy seed for kolache and other baked goods. Although grandma and grandpa passed when I was just a toddler, I still remember grandma's yellow raspberries, and grandpa with the geese. 

Grandma had bees, which they used for beeswax and honey, which was a real blessing during WWII when sugar was rationed. Momma once showed me the ration coupons she'd saved from when she was a little girl.

They butchered and canned their own meat, and rendered their own lard for cooking. Each summer and fall the cellar was stocked well with home canned goods.

When money was tight and food was rationed, the family was always well provided for off of their own land.

Related Post: Root Cellars 101- Root Cellar Design, Use and Mistakes to Avoid

#2 – Live Within Your Means

It may not be polite to talk about such things, but mom's parents acquired their main homestead because others defaulted on their loan and taxes and lost the property. Grandpa had the money to pay off the debt and take over the farm.

When they first moved to the site, they lived in an old granary that was overrun by mice and rats. It was pretty nasty to live in at first, but grandma made do. She got the place clean enough to live in while grandpa built the house.

Mom said went she went to school, she could always tell the poor girls from the more well off girls, because the poor girls (like her) wore flour sack dresses. Her mom would take her to the general store and let her pick out the print she wanted for her dresses. Nothing was wasted.

#3 – Learn Skills That Allow You to Tackle Jobs Yourself Instead of Hiring Everything Out

Grandpa used a large scoop pulled by horses to excavate the foundation for the home. He built the home by hand with the help of their hired hand, who mom referred to as “Injun Joe”. He and Joe built their dairy barn and other outbuildings, too.

Mom told me a funny story about the barn. When they moved to the site, there was an old barn in rough shape that needed to be replaced. Grandpa took out a lot of the fasteners, hoping that a good wind storm would finish the job, but the barn kept standing.

Finally, he gave in and tore the barn down by hand and built a new one. Not long after the new barn was up, a tornado came through – and landed right on the barn. Grandpa had to rebuild again. Not “funny” funny, but what are the odds?

They had an ice house for keeping things cool, so each winter they gathered ice off of a local lake. There was no electricity in the house until grandpa rigged up a windmill with a battery bank.

Mom said she and her brothers would get in trouble for flipping the light switch off and on to marvel at how it worked.

#4 – Work Together with Neighbors

The neighbors got together to work on projects. They stripped feathers for fluffy down feather ticks (mom used to call them “pierzynas”) and had quilting bees and ice hauling. Many hands still make for lighter work, especially with very time consuming and tedious projects.

Card parties and dance socials were still regular gatherings where you could talk and catch up on local events. People knew and cared about their neighbors.

#5 – Use Creative Problem Solving

You may recall that the Great Depression (October 1929 – late 1930s) coincided with the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s, when severe drought swept much of the country.

Pastures and hay fields dried up, and fodder was hard to find to keep the cows fed. Grandpa drove the cows every day to graze on a brush covered area of the property to keep the herd alive.

On a smaller scale, grandma enjoyed fresh tomatoes, which of course don't grow very well here in Wisconsin for many months of the year.

To support her tomato habit, grandma kept a plant growing inside in a south window all through the winter. She hand pollinated the blossoms so she could have fresh tomatoes.

Preparing for Tough Economic Times

Things have changed  lot since those days, but I think grandma and grandpa would appreciate our homestead. We have a big garden, a root cellar, a canning pantry, and the flocks of ducks and chickens.

It's important to preserve the old skills while making room for the new. Figure out what works for you – where you are, with what you have. Don't be afraid to try new things and tackle big projects. Create a support system that helps you complete them.

Do you have any family stories from the Depression Era that you'd like to share? I'd love to read them.

5 Lessons from the Great Depression

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Originally published in 2012, last updated in 2022.

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36 Comments

  1. I so rarely comment, but wanted to jump in and say that I’m so glad your husband is okay! Rush hour traffic is no fun at all and people often drive so crazy. What a scary thing for you all and again, I am just glad to hear that it will all work out alright…even if a new vehicle wasn’t meant to be in the works for a while. Things can be replaced, people can’t, right?

    Take care!

    1. Thanks, Heather. Yes, I was so relieved when I found out he was okay. The new (used) car has a blind spot warning light and alarm, so hopefully that will help keep him a little safer in crazy traffic.

  2. You brought back so many memories when you mentioned the pierzyna! My Busia made pierzynas. Nothing is as warm and comfy as a pierzyna on a cold winter night! My Dziazdzia worked in the iron factories in Milwaukee but he always tended the garden in their postage stamp of a city back yard when he was done for the day. There was room enough for only 1 tree so as not to shade the garden. It was a plum tree. In the winter my Busia used to wash his red flannel long johns daily (I think he had 2 pr) and put them through the ringer and hang them to dry in the kitchen combo dining room. I often think how would my Busia have done this or how would my Grandma have done that and if I think about it I can recall their methods of problem solving and work my way through. They were both “resourceful”…a word occasionally used to describe me but not always in a good way…but I love it anyway.

    1. Mom had wild plum trees near the garden and I used to love it when she made plum dumplings. I remember the ringer washer, too. That was all my other grandmother used during her many years on the farm. She had a rain barrel about ten steps from the front door, and always washed her hair in rain water to keep it soft.

  3. I have several stories about the Great Depression; here’s one. In west Texas, most of the neighbors were so poor that they couldn’t afford to buy license plates for their cars. My granddad had the only set of license plates in the county. When a neighbor needed to go to town, they would walk over and borrow my granddad’s license plates, wire them onto their own car, and return them when they got back from town.

  4. I sleep with my pierzyna every night. There’s nothing like it. And, if you have one that’s heavy enough, it works like a “weighted blanket” which is a great tool used to calm people in the world of mental health. Maybe that’s why Slavs tend to be more resilient. 😉

    As for the photo, it would make sense that it’s a wedding photo. Most folks generations ago would only rationalize taking photos for a limited amount of occasions, usually weddings and funerals. Also, it was more traditional in many parts of Europe to be married in black or navy blue than white. I have a photo of my great-great grandparents’ wedding in Europe and she was in a navy blue gown.

  5. My mother grew up on a cotton farm in Arkansas during the depression; the boll weevil was another burden added during that time. There was no market for their crops so they were very poor. They wore flour sack dresses,& only had shoes in the winter, even for school. She told me of the daughter of the richest family in the county who went to the same school. The girl (I picture her as Nellie Olsen) brought a banana for lunch every day & made a big production of eating it slowly in front of the other children. My mother rarely said a bad word about anyone but one day, when recounting this story, she said very quietly, “I hated that girl”. Funny now but sad as well.

    1. My mother grew up on a small truck farm in the mountains in southern New Mexico. They had a little more money than most people because of the truck farm, so my grandmother used to buy store-bought bread because she didn’t have time to bake taking care of the farm. My mom said she was so embarrassed to take a sandwich to school on homemade bread, but the other kids were so happy to trade her their sandwiches with homemade bread! They thought it was a treat to have the store-bought bread, but my mom knew which one was really the treat! I baked bread as often as I could for her until she passed away in 2005, & I can’t eat a single bite of homemade bread without thinking about her! Hot straight out of the oven! Thanks everyone for sharing your stories!

  6. I am old enough to remember well the stories of the Depression. But then I was raised in a home with a dirt floor except for the bathroom. I remember stoking the pot belly furnace and walking the rail lines picking up coal all summer long for Pennsylvania winters. We were poor (very) but we were happy.
    I remember well the children of well off families making fun of us. When the SHTF they will starve and we will survive.

  7. This is just the type of blog I love to read. How did they do something, where did they do it. all the old historic stuff I love. How do we make it work today. And recipes from the old days. You other commenters I would like to see your recipes 🙂

  8. I’ve read an interesting book, “Kanaans Land”, about this period of time. It’s written by Sven del Blanc, a swedish writer who was born in Manitoba and tells the life of his family during the great depression. I cheked and it is translated also in english. I recommend! 🙂

  9. My grandpa is still alive and well and, although he’s almost 90 and never had any serious illnesses. The two main reasons for this (as you might expect)are that…

    – he exercises daily (takes care of animals, doing chores around the house, taking care of the garden_
    – he eats what he grows himself, meaning foods with no preservatives, no cancer-causing chemicals, no trans fats etc.
    – he lives a stress and worry-free life, sure, he has small medical issues that bother him but at his age, they’re more than normal

  10. Hi! I stumbled onto your site looking for info about chicory.
    This photo of your grandparents and their story is captivating. I just love old photos.

    Love all your tips and tricks. Glad I found ya!

  11. I think the photo is more likely your great-grand parents and not a wedding photo. The photo looks to be from the late 1800s, and both look too old for a wedding photo, at least their own wedding. Both also have hands which have seen plenty of work, with his right hand even looking a bit arthritic. Good, honest, creating hands. Hands to be proud of. Every scar, every lump, every wrinkle tells a story.

    1. It sounds like initially posted a wonderful photo. The one that is now on this article is fantastically evocative, too. Is this their homestead? I have so many questions about what I see in this scene. What make and model of truck? Is that red structure the granary that they struggled in until the new house was built. Forgive me if that was the hen house! Did I miss the story of the previous owner’s home? What happened to that one? It looks like there are several structures behind the truck and the ed building. Is that the third barb behind the truck? Your memories of your grandmother are so vivid for a toddler. Did you visit with her only on holidays or for an extended period?

      1. Hi Sandy.

        I don’t have any photos except one, which I thought was them, but the clothing and age don’t match. The photos currently in the article are the closest stock photo I could find that fit their story.

        The house that grandpa built was a big foursquare white farmhouse. By the time I came along (I was the youngest of six children), visits to their place were rare. My siblings got to know them better. My uncle Eddie (mom’s older brother) took over the farm from grandma and grandpa, so we visited from time to time for gatherings. The details in the post are from mom’s stories, as my personal memories of my grandparents are very dim.

      2. Mom never spoke (that I can recall) about the original farm house, so I don’t know what happened to it. Given the state of the barn, I assume the house, if any, was unusable.

  12. I read a story about a man who was paid in turkeys for his work during the Depression. Years later, he refused to eat another turkey for Thanksgiving.

    1. my boss told me that when the doctor delivered him and his twin he was paid with 2 chickens and a sack of potatoes, and he still had the hand written receipt!

  13. My grandparents lived through two world wars in Germany. My grandma told me her third child was born at home because it was unsafe to go outside, they made do. They had a large garden and orchard with trees and berry bushes and did a lot of canning. My grandpa made cider every year in a big barrel. I remember them cleaning it out with sulfur before putting new juice in it, I was very small. He also raised rabbits for meat. My parents would help their neighbors harvest their fruit and in exchange would take home a bunch of fruit to process. My parents didn’t garden as much, but they bought bushels of potatoes, apples and cabbage from farmers to store in their root cellar for the winter. My grandma taught me to crochet and my mom taught me how to knit, they both taught me how to can. As we speak I’m knitting wool socks for our move to Minnesota, wool sweaters are next. I was taught how to sew, how to keep animals and milk and make butter. I feel very ‘rich’ with all these skills.

  14. My Grandparents came here from Germany in the late 1920’s. Oma said the depression was hard. She came from a farming family in Germany where they always had food to eat. Moving to a big city during the depression was really hard. She said there were weeks when she didn’t have two nickels to rub together, however, she always told me if she had eggs, milk, and flour she could make a meal. My Opa did odd jobs and worked for a shoemaker repairing shoes. I still remember him fixing our shoes when I was little. Their generation wasn’t a throw away generation. They, too, bought their first and only home from a foreclosure sale. That home saw my Mom grow up and all of us grandkids. I loved it there. My Mom was an only child and I was the oldest of 5 kids. Oma and Opa’s home was an escape where I was an only child. I learned how cook and bake the German dishes Oma made. She taught me to knit, crochet, and sew (all things my Mom wasn’t interested in learning). I still remember her cleaning her feather pillows. She’d open the ticking up in the garage, empty the feathers into a big metal wash tub and fluff them until they were all aired out and fluffy. Of course, she had a scarf on her head and face. She brought the feathers from Germany in a trunk. I still have them but I’ve had to replace the ticking. I miss my Grandparents but the lessons they taught me, I’m passing on to my kids and I know they would be proud.

    1. Glad you’re passing this on. Featherbeds are the best. I still cook German food every week, day after tomorrow it will be Maultaschen for Easter!

  15. My mother was born on Sept. 7th of 1929 just before the Great Depression hit. Her parents (my grandparents) were share croppers and were able to purchase 12.5 acres of land that my grandfather farmed with a mule and a plow. I learned not to throw anything away from my Mama and still have a hard time throwing out “recyclables” nowadays. I have recently purchased my grandparents estate and at 66 now, I may not be able to farm it like my grandfather did but I am starting out with 14 baby chicks for 2022 and if I can clear out enough of the overgrown land, I may have some form of a garden this year. Mama’s favorite saying was “waste not, want not” and I’m sure that she learned it from her parents. Like your posting said, we all need to make the most of what we have where we have it. Thanks for being here online and keep up the good work.

  16. My Dad was born in 1921, the second son of an Okinawa immigrant family working on a pineapple plantation on Maui. Dad was a hard worker, could hob-nob with anybody, and had a gift for telling stories. He told me that when he was 6, his Mom (O-Basan to him, O-Baasan to me) had a busy home business washing laundry for his Dad’s (O-Jichan, O-Jiichan to me) co-workers. She didn’t make much, and neither did O-Jiichan, but by then they were raising 5 young kids. My Dad said that, understanding that his family needed to supplement their diet, he figured out that a Filipino couple had a deal with the cattle slaughterhouse across the ravine from Dad’s home, to take the unwanted organs and any trimmed off pieces. They would trim what they wanted to take home to feed their family. Dad figured there might be bits that the couple missed or didn’t want themselves, and they might be willing to let him take whatever looked edible for his family. He would bring his three younger sisters with him and watch over them while he worked through the pile of discarded discards. The couple gave him a sheet of newspaper to wrap his booty in when they were done for the day. He guessed this was a way for the slaughterhouse to reduce the amount of waste to be disposed of. Two years later he added on a weekly job with the neighborhood grocery store up the street as a delivery boy. Saturday was when they made food deliveries, and my Dad’s job was to hop off the horse-drawn grocery wagon and sprint the grocery order from the road to the houses on the delivery list. Dad was good with math, and he would collect the payment for the delivery and run it back to the wagon. They paid him with a package of store-made noodles at the end of the day. Every once in a rare while, he might get a penny or two as a tip! The market, Komoda Store and Bakery, is still in business 102 years later. It is a historic landmark on Maui and very popular for it’s bakery treats and box lunches. Dad’s favorite job on Maui was as trail guide for mule-back tours of Haleakala Volcano. He talked the tour owners into hiring him, learned the landmarks, history and Hawaiian legends about the area, and got a kick out of the eagerness of the obviously well-to-do, sophisticated tourists from all over the world relying on a little boy to give them their money’s worth. At that point, for a lot of the world, the Depression was just beginning. Hawai’i being very rural and relying heavily on agriculture at the time, was already scrambling for its survival. It took decades to begin to recover and diversify. I don’t know who has it now, but I remember seeing a photo of my tiny little Dad perched on a huge mule. He was pointing towards something and the tourists behind him were gazing with eager awe at one of the magnificent, surreal sights over 10,000 feet above a tropical island. Mule back tours are no longer permitted on Haleakala, but the last time I was there about 15 years ago, the family that used to run the tours still had a riding stable about mid-slope up the volcano. When Dad was around 10 years old, O-Jiichan, following the death of his last child, a six-month old son, decided that the prospects for work would be better on a different island. O-Jiichan was a very quiet man, but a deep thinker. Not long afterwards he packed up the family and they sailed via steam barge to Hawai’i Island to seek a job on a sugar cane plantation. There are may more stories about a lot of hard work, and a good deal of country fun, but the desperately rough times seemed over to Dad. All of O-Jiichan’s children lived into their late 80’s and early 90’s, some with professional careers, some with successful businesses, all with several children and homes filled with love and laughter, and wonderful stories that I vividly remember, cherish, and inspire me to look for the goodness and joy in life.

  17. I remember my great-grandma having piles of newspapers and stacks of butter tubs and jars everywhere growing up. The family used to roll their eyes and called her a hoarder (never to her face of course!) but here I am in my 30s buying certain types of jelly/oils/sauces because the jars and bottles are easy to clean and reuse! I have things squirreled into every corner of our house because I’m unsure if they will be easily acquired in the future, and I don’t like to recycle things like paper or cardboard because they can be burned in our fireplace for heat. Interesting how things circle back around..

    Thank you for your content. It is comforting that others see what is happening and are running on the same logic track as our family. Many in our area seem completely oblivious, and it’s very sad. They have no idea what’s coming. God help us all.

    1. God bless and provide for you and your family. I, too, squirrel away the “good” disposable containers. Most so called recycling programs don’t actually recycle much because of the costs involved, so it goes into the trash, especially with China buying little or none of our wastes right now. Glass peanut butter jars are a personal favorite, as the opening is wide enough that I can get my hand in to clean them. We have some take out containers that I reuse to pack meals for my in-laws. We use paper and cardboard for the fire and for mulch in the garden and orchards.

      We stopped at the grocery store yesterday, and there were sections of empty shelves. They were doing inventory, so I’m sure that’s part of it, but I’ve been noticing more and more that the reserve inventory that’s normally stored above the sales floor is thin or missing. Prices keep creeping up, too. I’m glad to hear that others are taking notice and planning accordingly. Many are woefully unready for the times ahead.

  18. Thank you for remembering the times behind us! I loved reading this and comparing it to what my grandparents told me about their younger years. Beautiful memories!

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