The Great Depression continues to be the worst and longest economic downturn in the history of the modern world. It started at the very end of 1929 and lasted through the 1930s. While politicians and economists tried hard to get the United States (and the world) out of the brutal economic slump, few things seemed to jumpstart the economy—until World War II began in Europe. With that, the military-industrial complex kicked into high gear.
But before all that war-front stuff, the lives of everyday Americans in the 1930s were given a sudden jolt. The middle class had experienced decent economic and lifestyle gains through the “Roaring Twenties” that had come before it. Even the working class was doing well. Right up until the stock market crashed, the Dust Bowl swept through, and the Great Depression set in, that is.
So let’s journey back in time to look at ten unique and unexpected ways everyday Americans got by during the Great Depression. In all ten of these cases, Average Joes were forced to make major adjustments to their lifestyle to survive day-to-day. These are the stories of how regular working-class and middle-class people made it through one of the toughest periods in American history.
10 Got Potluck?
The average American family had to pool its resources during the Great Depression. That meant stretching their food budget and making do with every last morsel in the pantry. To that end, many meals made during that downturn were things easy to cook, cheap to prepare, and plentiful to consume over and over again. Things like chili, macaroni and cheese, broth, soup, and even chipped beef on toast were regular dinnertime choices.
But that wasn’t the only way families stuck it out during the Great Depression. Many pooled resources and food via potlucks. Not only were they a cheap form of entertainment for kids in need of socialization, but potlucks also allowed mothers to bring a single dish with limited resources and combine it with other families who made separate dishes. Suddenly, a kid sick of eating macaroni had his choice of other dinner options—and every family contributed a little bit to the joint effort.
Thrift gardens proved to be another massively popular idea that came out of the Great Depression. These community gardens hosted small plots of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. Families up and down the block were able to pick the treats and use them as needed, and they all contributed to the maintenance of the gardens, too. Some cities like Detroit even built massive community gardens that fed thousands of people through the 1930s.
9 Stay at Home!
No, we’re not talking about some order related to the pandemic we all just went through over the past few years. During the Great Depression, Americans didn’t have much choice but to stay home. Their budgets warranted little else when it came to free time and amusement. Fortunately, between 1929 and the start of World War II, there were a lot of options for families in need who were seeking some kind of in-home amusement. Chief among those was the radio. Radio programs hit their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. They were sent into nearly every home in the country then, and buying a radio meant having a relatively cheap source of entertainment that could help pass hours upon hours.
Radio alone wasn’t the only cheap in-home diversion ideal for families, either. Also, during the Great Depression, board games took hold in a big way. It’s no accident that both Scrabble and Monopoly were introduced during the 1930s. Families didn’t have entertainment budgets to go out and spend big bucks (or small bucks) on various luxuries.
So, instead, they bought a board game and hunkered down indoors to hang out with each other. Plus, it helped that in Monopoly’s case, the game lampooned the rich and made the average player feel like they were a millionaire. It was all wish-casting, of course, but for a couple hours a night, that kind of fun got the average American through some pretty dark days!
8 Some Families Took Government Money
When Franklin D. Roosevelt began pushing New Deal programs hard after 1933, it became far more commonplace for the government to assist everyday families in major ways. Before that, most American families took a dim view of those who were on government support. Those with strong work ethics had previously felt it best to earn a living by themselves, save money, and be responsible for themselves and their family. That all changed during the Great Depression when families did all those things and still couldn’t make ends meet.
Back before the stock market crash of 1929 and the brutal realities of the 1930s, welfare was deeply stigmatized. It was seen as shameful to be on the government dole. Some towns even went so far as to print all the names of their community’s welfare recipients in the local paper to give the rest of the area a full picture of who was getting money for nothing. But the Great Depression changed all that. It wasn’t overnight, but it was relatively sudden after the New Deal went big in 1933. And it brought about long-lasting change in the feelings toward welfare recipients.
By the end of the 1930s, tens of millions of Americans relied on one form of welfare or another—or several. FDR’s then-pioneering programs beefed up the social safety net and ensured people got help when needed. The Average Joe finally had the backing from the American government to get through the country’s most painful financial decade. That doesn’t mean it didn’t come without shame, though. Even for those who desperately needed help, going on welfare was still seen as a disgraceful and humbling experience.
7 Other Families Broke Down Altogether
While families did their best to stay together through the hardships of the time, many were unsuccessful. Throughout the 1930s, the psychological toll of the Great Depression only seemed to worsen. For one, the nation’s suicide rate rose steadily through the early part of the economic downturn. By 1933, it was at an all-time high—as millions of men and women were feeling the despair of being unable to provide for themselves and their children.
Suicide wasn’t the only concern, though. Many families broke up during the Great Depression because worries over money compounded into deeper issues. Interestingly, the divorce rate actually dropped through the 1930s. That was because it was often too expensive for families to split up legally. Thus, it didn’t make sense for husbands and wives without any cash on hand to break up, go through the legal process, and shell out money to lawyers for fees to make things permanent.
Sadly, while divorces slowed, abandonments greatly increased. Hundreds of thousands of men abruptly deserted their families at points throughout the Great Depression. These abandonments surged so quickly that they became known as the “poor man’s divorce.” No expensive lawyer, no legal conclusion, just a husband vanishing in the night. In turn, millions of men (and many women) took to riding the rails during the decade. Average, working-class Americans seeking better jobs and better pay would hop on train cars and stowaway to points all over the country, hoping for a better life. For many, it took years before that could ever materialize into a reality—if ever.
6 Movie Madness Moved Up
When it came time for an outing during the Great Depression, there weren’t many options that wouldn’t break the budget. By the end of the decade, movies became a major part of American cultural life. They were relatively cheap to attend, and the movie stars on screen allowed kids and adults alike the chance to dream of a better life ahead. Movies like Gone with the Wind, Duck Soup, The Wizard of Oz, and many, many more captured the American imagination during the country’s leanest and most difficult economic years.
Children loved going to movie theaters and seeing the massive characters on screen. New technologies with film production allowed for what was at the time a far more crisp and clear picture than anybody had ever imagined before. Hollywood took advantage of the economic realities of the time and invested big bucks into movies as a diversion. In turn, they made tickets cheap enough for regular people to regularly get a fix. And in turn, the industry blossomed into a Golden Age that lasted decades beyond then. It was escapism, and it worked.
That World War II was just around the corner surely must have been a kick in the teeth for all those escapist film fantasies in the long run. But hey! At least the silver screen allowed you to focus on everything fantasy and feel-good for a couple hours before returning to the difficult times of the 1930s (and, later, 1940s).
5 Working on Their (Mini) Golf Game
Aside from movies, though, there was one other major outing that took the country by storm during the Great Depression: miniature golf. Mini golf wasn’t really a thing before the Great Depression hit. Golf was already popular by that point, of course. But golf was largely seen then as it often still is today: as a pursuit of the upper crust. Rich people were expected to be good golfers, businessmen were thought to be able to close deals with on-course bonding, and the whole thing reeked of elitism from coast to coast.
Not mini golf, though! Mini golf very quickly became a nationwide craze during the Great Depression. The average family needed an outlet for their children and a way to blow off some steam they could afford. With courses ranging from 25 to about 50 cents per round, that didn’t impact family funds too badly. Plus, it gave kids a great opportunity to run around, burn off some excess energy, and bond with their parents. In the end, tens of thousands of mini-golf courses sprang up nationwide in the 1930s. And today, the game still remains a regular source for family fun and enjoyment!
4 Here, Have a Drink
When the Great Depression began, alcohol was illegal across America. Prohibition had swept across the country during the 1920s, and the powers that be felt it was a major social improvement for all those living across the United States. Of course, plenty of speakeasies and underground drinking establishments popped up. Alcohol was far from banned altogether, and millions of people still consumed it. But it was the law of the land that alcohol would not be sold above board. And when the downturn first hit after the stock market crash of 1929, that law continued on with no end in sight.
But in 1933, that all changed. Late that year, with the economic decline of the past half-decade at one of its lowest points, the state of Utah ratified the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. Utah’s move to ratify the amendment that ended Prohibition was significant because the Beehive State was the 36th state to do so. And with a two-thirds majority now leading the way in pushing alcohol sales back into the legal realm, Prohibition ended overnight.
While that was a significant event for those who like to drink, it was also a major move for the economy. Alcohol was once again legalized to the point of having Average Joes able to drink away their worries over job losses. Plus, it brought drinking out of the shadows again, allowing far more Americans to freely and openly drink—a major change from the previous decade.
And even more importantly for the average American, re-legalizing alcohol meant many more jobs in and around booze. Bartenders, liquor salesmen, beverage distribution companies, and more all saw a major explosion in growth at a time when virtually every other industry had cratered. Average Americans felt that growth, in turn, with many seeking newly-reliable jobs in alcohol-adjacent industries.
3 Crime Came Up Big, Then Waned
Crime was made the stuff of lore early in the Great Depression. There were all kinds of outlaws running around the country at the time. Many were high-profile gangsters who robbed banks and were seen as Robin Hood-like legends. Take Bonnie and Clyde, for example, who put together a shocking two-year bank robbing spree all across the country. True crime came up big during the era, too. Major cases like the abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son dominated news headlines for months. These early precursors to today’s true crime coverage online sold newspapers and got Americans tuning in and sitting on the edge of their seats with horror and interest.
In reality, the picture around crime during the Great Depression was a good bit more complicated for the Average Joe, though. For one, crime actually did increase during the earliest years of the 1930s. That’s to be expected, of course; when the economy shuts down as it did after 1929, more people are put in more precarious positions. As that precariousness increases, a number of those people will become desperate enough to do whatever it takes to survive.
However, after a few years of rising crime early in the Great Depression, the average American actually dealt with far less crime by the end of it all. The nationwide rates of homicide and other violent crimes fell precipitously beginning in 1934. They stayed low through the rest of the Great Depression, even as the economy struggled. And they stayed low well beyond that, too—into World War II and then through the Baby Boomer era into the early 1960s.
2 Working Women
While more middle- and working-class families teetered on the brink of destruction than ever before, there was one ready-made solution right from the very start: dual incomes. Traditionally, of course, women mostly didn’t do paid work outside the house. But that very much changed during the Great Depression. Even though unemployment skyrocketed during the 1930s, the number of women in the workforce actually increased in that decade. Obviously, that was because women were trying to make up for their husbands’ lost jobs and depleted incomes.
Throughout the decade, women took on work in many roles appropriate to their place in society at the time. Popular jobs included gigs like teachers, nurses, secretaries, domestic servants and maids, and even telephone operators. In many cases, employers liked to hire women because they knew they could pay the fairer sex even less than their male counterparts.
And with already low wages and most families in precarious positions, having women work for lower wages was attractive to job creators. As for the women themselves, they couldn’t do much to complain about it; their families simply needed the money. Regardless, the trend of working women has only continued since the Great Depression. Today, we see women in the workforce in very significant numbers.
1 Even the Rich Got Rocked
Obviously, with what the average American family went through during the Great Depression, it’s tough to feel bad for the richest among us. They may have been hit hard, but they weren’t hit hard to the point of losing their homes, their family farms, and all their assets. Nor were they forced to live in Hoovervilles all over the country, right? True, indeed, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, at the lowest depths of the Great Depression in the very middle of the 1930s, well over a quarter of the U.S. workforce was unemployed, and another quarter or more was underemployed with cut wages and reduced work hours.
That included some people with supposedly well-off professions, like doctors and lawyers. Professional Americans in those fields and other high-skilled positions saw their incomes drop by as much as 40% nationwide during the 1930s. Say what you will about the well-off being relatively more insulated against the effects of the Great Depression than the poor, and it’s true, but halving your income for nearly a full decade is no bed of roses.
To that end, even upper-middle-class and middle-class-aspirational families were forced to cut back big time and make things work with whatever they had. The Great Depression gave the Average Joe a motto that lasted decades afterward in the minds of those who had survived the tough time: “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.” That they did. Even some of the rich fell on relatively hard times compared to what they were used to before!