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A Hard Life During the Great Depression

A Poor Family During the Great Depression

Poor Farm Family During the Great Depression

 

This photograph shows what it meant to be poor in rural America during the Great Depression. This house, little better with a shack, with sagging roof and shoddy construction was home to a family of ten in 1935. In this moment frozen in time, we can see the cramped little house, and imagine the leaky roof, the dirt floor, and cold drafts coming whistling through the log walls.

Zooming in closer, we can pick up some interesting details about the life of this poor American family. Below is a closeup of the area of the photograph around the door, showing the woman and her daughter in better detail.

 

 

Great Depression Family

The woman, presumably the mother, is wearing a light dress with a faint patter, as well as a cap. She is very young to have already given birth to 8 children. We can assume that all she has known is a life of want and hard work.

She is walking along the side of the house, perhaps going to the laundry which is hanging from a line out front. Behind her is her little daughter. She is holding her dollie, probably the only toy that she owns. And behind her stands an open door. We can see the faint outline of some wooden furniture, perhaps a chair. And there is a large jug by the door. What does it hold? Water? Moonshine?

The house is roughly built, and the roof is in bad shape. If we zoom in on the roof we can see that it has been patched with uneven home made shingles. And there is a single chimney stack which will be connected to a wood stove, where this woman will make all the meals for her large family – when there is enough to eat.

Roof of the House

And here is a picture showing a closeup of the clothesline. The wife would likely have been responsible for washing all of the laundry by hand and then setting it out to dry. Imagine keeping up with washing the cloth diapers of a huge brood of kids – no disposable diapers back then – with no running water and just a wash tub or basin.

Laundry Hung Out to Dry

Their meager belongings are drying in the wind, flapping over a bleak lawn strewn with assorted papers and junk, the jetsam of Great Depression poverty.

We can look back and feel glad that our society has moved forward and most people in North America – though certainly not all – enjoy a better standard of living. And yet I cannot help but think that even though our lives have gotten richer in a material sense, we have lost something. This family, though poor, was self reliant. The husband and wife both worked, and the older children all helped with the younger ones. They struggled but at least what they had was earned by them.

A Visit to a New York Tenement Apartment in 1909

Life in a New York Tenement Apartment

Join me on a visit to 1909 and come inside this New York tenement apartment, a dirty rundown hovel which is the home of this poor family. I am sorry that we are not able to bring anything to repay her hospitality. Our time machine only allows us to observe what life is like. We cannot change or make it better.

It is a life that is a world away from the bright lights and optimism of the Belle Epoque. For this woman,  a widow with 4 children ranging in age from an infant to a young teenager, life is non-stop hard work. She is lucky to be able to support her family with the kind of low paying work that many women took on in those days, because it allowed them to stay at home with the children.

Here the mother is rolling a mountain of cigarets. One after another, for pennies a dozen. Her little baby is in her arms and she has mastered the art of holding it while her hands automatically roll cigarette after cigarette. In her mind, she is counting how many she has made so far, and she knows that she must make even more if they are going to be able to pay the rent and afford to eat.

Her oldest son is helping. He is not as fast as her yet, but he is learning and hopefully, soon, the youngest ones will be able to help as well.

Notice the dirty floor, tattered walls, the dirty malnourished children. There is no radio, no television, just bleak walls with chipping paint and piles and piles of papers to roll and a calendar reminding you when the next rent is due.

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