Pots, Pans, and Rabbit Fur
We all know about the Great Depression, which many believe began with the stock market crash on Wall Street in 1929 and continued on through the 1930s. The Depression affected many businesses, jobs, families, and every individual alive at that time. Many people were left without jobs and others without even food. Children were forced to earn money for their families' very survival. The Great Depression reached into every corner of America, including southern Illinois, where my grandparents were born and raised.
My grandmother's parents were itinerant farmers, and they moved often with their family of eleven children. My grandmother realizes now how poor they were, but at the time everyone seemed to be just as poor. They were glad when they moved into a house that had a wooden rather than dirt floor.
My grandmother remembers when her two-room school hired her to be the janitor. Very early each day she would walk the three miles to school so she could get her chores done before the teacher arrived. She put on her overalls and cleaned the blackboards and erasers, swept the dirt floor, and started a fire. When she was done she took off her overalls before anyone arrived since girls were not supposed to be seen in overalls. My grandmother was paid five dollars a month for her work, a small fortune to her.
My grandmother also remembers how they got a break from school every September so the boys could help pick cotton. My grandmother wanted to earn some extra money, so she helped, too. Cotton-picking was hard, unpleasant work that caused cut hands and aching necks and backs. After the cotton was picked it was hauled down the road for weighing. That determined how much they were paid. Sometimes my grandmother used her money to buy clothes or to go to a movie.
My favorite story recalls a very special Christmas present my grandmother got when she was just six years old. Fortunately, her mother was imaginative and creative, so her children could still believe in Santa Claus—unlike most of their friends, who rarely received gifts. The previous Christmas my grandmother had received a doll from Santa. On this Christmas her mother made a coat for the doll from a small piece of cloth. She then had one of the older boys shoot a rabbit for their Christmas dinner; she used the fur from it to adorn the collar, cuffs, and bottom of the doll's coat. My grandmother says this was the best gift she ever received. She still has it.
Although times were hard during the Depression, people took care of each other. My grandfather, who lived near Ridgway, Illinois, remembers how a traveling pots and pans peddler arrived at their door the day after Thanksgiving. There was no way they could afford such luxuries, and they started to send him away. He broke down and asked if the family could possibly feed him a meal in exchange for a pan because he was so hungry. They opened their door to the stranger and fed him a huge meal.
During the Depression life was hard for everyone, including children. Although the days and years of the Great Depression were hard, it eventually ended, leaving anyone who survived a hero, or so it seemed.—[From Ezra Bowen, ed., This Fabulous Century 1930-1940; student historian's interview with Carol M. Morris (grandmother), Jan. 29, 1993, and student historian's interview with Clifford B. Morris (grandfather), Jan. 29, 1993.]