Memories of The Great Depression linger in my memory, not because I lived those years, but because the experiences of that time were so indelibly stamped on my mother's mind; as a result, her words and actions inevitably influenced me.
When I was a child to be frugal was one of the highest virtues. Gifts were carefully opened, hands delicately loosening the tape so the wrap could be neatly removed and folded to be used again. A ball of string graced our kitchen cupboard; it was made up of hundreds of shorter pieces tied together. Thanksgiving week we were never done with the turkey until soup had been made off the bones. Catsup bottles were always turned upside down to coax the final drops out, and even then the residue was rinsed out, the last diluted juice added to a meatloaf or spaghetti. Nylons were never thrown out because of holes: small runs were stopped with clear nail polish, larger holes mended with special nylon thread colored to match the various stocking shades. Cotton and wool socks were stretched over a worn out light bulb and darned to prolong their use. Egg shells were saved to crush and spread in the garden soil. Rags were precious, to be used, spread with mentholatum, to wrap sore throats; or to make rag rugs; better cloth was cut up and used for quilt squares. Printed chicken feed sacks became skirts, flour sacks became underwear. The phrase "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" was a household aphorism.
My mother was raised in the rural Utah community of Mayfield in Sanpete County. The family had a nice home and always enough to eat; however, financial difficulties arose for the family during the depression. My grandfather, a storekeeper, lost his business from extending too much credit to local farmers who couldn't pay after the depression hit Utah. This caused him to default on the home loan. My mother recalls that initially she didn't realize so much what is was to be poor-because everyone around her was-until she ventured outside the county. One of her high school teachers took her to Provo; excited, she wore black stockings and borrowed her mother's black coat. She didn't realize how impoverished she looked until she started comparing her attire with that of the girls in Provo. Her face reddens still today, over sixty years later, with the embarrassment of that realization.
My mother recalls Christmas when an orange in a stocking was a valued gift . One Christmas she received a compact with a mirror in it, something her mother had obtained as a bonus from the Watkins man by buying spices over a period of a year; and that was Christmas. At least there were gifts of some sort in my mother's family. My father recalls a Christmas when the only gift for eight children was a white-frosted Christmas cake, the baby given the red candy horse that adorned the top; and that was Christmas.
When my mother's parents and siblings left Sanpete County to seek employment in Salt Lake City, she remained behind to finish her junior year of high school in Manti. She lived with her aunt; like so many other young people of the time, she was fortunate to have a relative to "take her in." She followed her family to the city in the summer of 1932, attending South High School. Of those years she recalls borrowing her older sister's clothes so she would look fashionable. Her sister had a job and would leave for work before my mother left for school. Mother would then chose a stylish outfit from the closet to wear to South High. It wasn't till years later that she confessed to her sister.
Following graduation, she got a job as a counter girl at Woolworth's, later pleased when she was promoted and could order items for the notions department. In a time of economic uncertainty, she felt fortunate to have a job. It was at this time that she indulged herself in her first luxury, a seal skin coat. She recalls, "It cost a hundred dollars and I had to save for a whole year to afford it."
Entertainment for many young people during the depression era was of necessity inexpensive. My mother has pictures of canyon cookouts as a typical date. She met Ken Shell on a blind date in 1936 and became engaged at Christmas of that year. There was no money for a stylish wedding. She and her mother journeyed to Virginia City where she joined her fiance to be married simply by a Mormon bishop. My father had moved to Nevada because work was available there with the mining companies in Virginia City.
Later my parents moved back to Salt Lake City, still later to California, the search for a decent job always the focus of their lives. My mother recalls one time of desperation in Salt Lake when she sold one of my father's white shirts for fifty cents to a brother-in-law just to get some money for food. Her mother-in-law sustained their family for a time. My mother recalls, "Ken's mother would go to the store and on the way home drop off a half pound of hamburger and a few potatoes. That would be our dinner." She remembers her longing to buy a Coke, which cost a nickel then, and her inability to do so. There was not an extra nickel. One of her daydreams of that time period was making and eating a fruit salad, as much as she wanted; this daydream did not materialize till years later.
She recalls my father having a job building on Granite High School in Salt Lake City. He was a hod carrier, pushing a wheelbarrow laden with cement to the construction site. Numerous other men, unemployed, were lined up watching. As my father explained, "Waiting for one of us to quit or drop dead."
My mother recalls one hot summer day, when from her small rental house near Granite High, she observed my father walking quickly with strong determination away from the work site. As he entered the house, she awaited his words. "I quit my job; we're going to California," was the motivation for them to load their meager possessions in their car and join the many others seeking economic fortune in California. They, like many others before and after, lived with relatives until they could "get a job."
My father fortunately found work with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, patrolling the busy docks at Long Beach. My parents eventually left California to return again to Utah where I was born and then later moved again to California. On December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, they were on the road. Stopping at a service station in Nevada, they were shocked to learn of the attack. The entrance of the United States into World War II was, ironically, in one way a blessing for U. S. citizens. They went back to work. My father apprenticed in automatic fire sprinkling, a war essential job, and was never unemployed again, even after the war ended.
Despite the economic security my father's regular employment gave our family over the years, we could never relax our vigil of frugality; we always needed "to save for a rainy day." For those who lived through the deluge of The Great Depression, another flood of hopelessness could be lurking on the horizon.