It is the small simple things of life that bring us peace.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Making Do...Surviving the Great Depression

I've found that one of the best values at the International Quilt Festival are the lectures.  They only last an hour, cost $8 (you can pay at the door), and are led by well-known quilters and experts in their fields.  I usually learn just as much in that hour as I would in a half or whole day class. 

Saturday morning I attended a lecture titled Making Do...Surviving the Great Depression.  By the title you can probably figure out why I choose this lecture! It was taught by Kathy Kansier who is a teacher, quilt judge and a certified quilt appraiser with many accomplishments in each field. Her lecture offered an excellent glimpse into life during the depression as well as the years before and after.

The lecture started with a simple, easy to understand explanation of the economic and political factors that led to the nation slipping into what we now refer to as the Great Depression.  She discussed the three presidents who served in the 1920's, 30's and 40's (Coolidge, Hoover, and FDR)and their different attitudes toward government involvement in the economy.  She also explained that there was a unequal distribution of wealth during the 1920's that had led to lavish lifestyles for the rich (remember how Gatsby lived?); the poor had little opportunity to ever achieve that American Dream. Banks were lending money that they did not really have at an incredible pace. Investors were buying stocks on margin while consumers bought everything on credit.  It was a bubble that had to burst.

She showed many pictures that I had never seen.  A small bank, boarded up and abandoned reminded me of the story my great-aunt would entertain me with about the day the banks all closed and she and my great-uncle had $14 between them.  Fourteen dollars was a lot of money for that time, but to loose everything and that was all you had was a scary idea, still is today! 

There were pictures of soup lines where grimy looking men were standing to get a cup of soup and piece of bread. Hoovervilles where more grimy, grim looking people lived in cardboard shelters with sheets and anything they could find to make do.  The pictures told the story of their desperation to survive.  I remembered many of the family stories I've heard about how hard times were and how poor my grandparents were.  I also remembered with irritation a college instructor who many years ago had told my history class that his parents had told him that the depression wasn't really as bas as it was portrayed to be.  I seethed through that class and still hissed a little at him as I saw the pictures in the lecture!

More pictures showed the heartbreak of farmers when the Dust Bowl drought hit.  One that was particularly poignant was of a field that had been plowed and planted and the crop had sprouted, but had dried up quickly.  The farmer was squatting in the field with a hand on the ground, heartbreak on his face as he accepted the fact there would be no crop that year.

The next set of pictures answered the question, what did people do to entertain themselves during the depression?  They went to church, movies, and dances.  They played cards in their homes and they had quilting bees!  The popular music of the time reflected the daily hardships and struggles; the most popular song of 1932 was "Brother, can you spare a dime?".  And yes, she did discuss in simple format the role of the New Deal programs in getting people employed.

The next part of the lecture discussed the different fabrics and patterns of quilts during the years of the 1920's, 30's and 40's.  She showed pictures of the quilts that came out of the depression.  One of Sunbonnet Sue reminded me of the quilt that my great-grandmother made for my aunt; she made one of appliqued butterflies for my father that I treasure today.  Both were made in the late 1930's right in the midst of the depression.

I smiled when she showed clippings from the newspaper for quilt patterns.  I remember my mother and grandmother clipping those ads for patterns for dresses, crocheted items and quilt patterns.  I, too, clipped a few as a teenager and young woman.  Quilting had become intensely popular during the depression, partly out of necessity for bed covers, but also as an affordable hobby.  Patterns were shared among friends, bags of scraps and old clothes were put to use, and it gave women a reason to create. The Chicago World's Fair offered a quilt contest in 1933; 25,000 quilts were entered.

The lecture concluded with a section on the theme that was so common in the depression, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!". Several slides showed little booklets that encouraged women to go through their closet and mend and re-do their existing clothes.  Simple, frugal advice to me. I remembered that one of the WPA programs here in San Antonio (and probably elsewhere) focused on showing people how to make furniture and other household items from discarded items.  There were also sewing rooms that put women to work making clothes that were distributed to qualified recipients.  Another program that I've seen pictures of locally put men to work repairing school desks and other furniture. 

Would we repair school desks or re-cycle old barrels today?  Could America survive a Great Depression?  Could we make do or do without?  I've thought about that a lot since I went to this lecture.  I wish kids and young adults today could hear this lecture and learn from it.  At the least, I wish they could have heard the stories that I grew up with and have those images in their minds.  My parents were very frugal.  We had a nice house and a nice car, but we did not have a lavish lifestyle either.  My mother made my clothes, she was a perfectionist with her sewing and they were beautiful.  My father mowed our lawn and changed the oil in our cars.  I often thought they were cheap and somewhat stingy and they were to a certain extent.  But they also grew up in the depression and they knew a lifestyle that involved "using it up and making do". Could we do that today?


  1. I loved to listen to my grandparents and great-grandparents talk about the depression. It was such a formative influence on my life. My husband kids me that I'm "cheap" but it's honestly how I was raised. My mother's father was in WWII and all of my grandparents lived though the great depression at varying ages. All grew up on farms and while thrifty were all honestly very creative. I guess you would have to be when you didn't have much money. I know that's where I get my mentality of seeing something in a store and saying, "I could make that."

    1. I think this is where I get the do it yourself and save urge when tackling projects, too! I have the hardest time throwing things away. I'm not a hoarder, but I can't bear to throw away any piece of fabric scrap or ribbon trim or anything else that might come in handy some day. However, I do have to maintain some order so I just tell myself "it's okay to throw away"!

    2. LOL. You sound like me. I throw scraps away and just look at them sitting sadly in the trash can and wonder if I did the right thing. I then tell myself stop being crazy, shut the lid, and move on! The struggle is real, as they say.

    3. I, too, struggle when I look at those poor little snippets resting in the trash and think, there's got to be something I could make with them!

  2. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!" My parents, aunts and uncles were born during the 20s and 30s and told stories of growing up during the Great Depression. Very little went to waste in my childhood home. My mother would remove zippers, buttons from clothes to reuse. Patched pants until the area was too thin to work with and then she would cut them off for shorts. Everything seemed to have a second life; a pot with a hole became a flower pot. They were uncomfortable using credit, a legacy passed to me.