Christmas During the Great Depression

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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My parents were married in October of 1931 and while I don’t know how they spent that first Christmas, I’m pretty sure that by the time Christmas of 1932 rolled around they were living in the farmhouse, owned by my grandfather, where I grew up. The Townsends (Dad’s sister, her husband and their little girl) also lived there. At that time, Mom and Dad were probably rejoicing in the news that their first child (me) was expected the following summer. Of course by then they had most likely both lost their jobs at the Freedom Oil Works in Freedom, Pennsylvania due to the Great Depression, and any rejoicing may have been tempered somewhat by feelings of apprehension about what the future would bring.

My family wasn’t the only one facing hard times that December of 1932 – many, many others were in the same boat. Although Dad undoubtedly couldn’t afford the 50-cent yearly subscription price of Successful Farming magazine, I have a copy of that month’s issue that gives us a glimpse of what conditions were like for America’s farm families that Christmas.

The editor wrote: “For many thousands of people this is going to be a different Christmas. It is fellowship, love, understanding, sympathy that is most needed this year. All the tinsels and lights, all the extravagant show, cannot take the place of the real spirit of Christmas. This should be predominately a children’s Christmas. And that need not be done extravagantly (as) the greatest happiness comes from the simple things of life.”

Under “Tips You Can Use Today,” was the information from the Iowa Engineering Experiment Station that 39 bushels of ear corn had the same heating value as one ton of Iowa coal. As coal was selling for $12 per ton, and corn for about 13 cents per bushel, it made sense for farmers to burn their corn instead of buying fuel.

There was an article describing how to make inexpensive stuffed toys, such as the “Little Clown”, the “Gingham Dog,” and “Hattie, the red-checked elephant.” Another recommended making spicy fruit cakes or plum puddings and packing them “…in colorful foil or glossy cellophane with perhaps a modernistic box or two, tied with the gayest of ribbons.” Another inexpensive gift could be “A washcloth that is lovely and soft for use on a baby or an invalid (and that) may be made of several thicknesses of gauze stitched together on the machine. Colored thread may be used to add a decorative touch.”

An inexpensive gift suggestion came from the “Our Girls” column aimed at young ladies. “Purchase a bar of white soap of good quality (and) place it in a warming closet until it becomes easy to cut. With a sharp knife cut it into small soap bars, possibly 2 inches long, 1 1/4 inches wide, and about 1/2 inch thick. The beauty of these bars comes with the wrapping. Cut your decorative paper to size, fold it around the soap and glue the flaps in place.”

Then there was a letter from an Ohio woman telling how they had done Christmas in 1931. She wrote: “Do you remember all the gloom most of us hung on our Christmas trees last year – if we had a tree at all? We were so weighted down with the depression and the slump in the markets that our Christmas Spirit went up the chimney along with our stocks and bonds.

“The Christmas tradition is a very vital part of the American family (and) we ought to try to keep it alive. As far as gifts are concerned, Christmas will probably be very small in many homes for the next few years. But there is a lot we can do without money to make it a happy occasion.

“I want to tell you what a lot of fun we had last year without spending a penny for gifts. There are fifteen in our immediate family – uncles, aunts, cousins. All live on neighboring farms or the nearby town. Last year financial losses made it necessary to omit the usual exchange of gifts (so) we decided to have a “white elephant” Christmas party (at) our farm.

“Each member brought some article for which he had no further use, or that he especially wanted to get rid of. I placed a number on each package and a corresponding number on a slip of paper. The slips were well mixed and each guest drew one.

“Grandpa acted as Santa Claus, wearing a costume that he’d scraped together somewhere, and the children loved him. He read the number off each package and the person holding that number received the gift. In this way all personal element was eliminated and no feelings were hurt. No one was to open his package until all had been distributed. Then the fun began.

“Arnold, the big six-foot athlete drew a tiny pair of baby socks. Henry got an old-fashioned corset cover. Myra, an elaborate cut-glass whiskey decanter and glasses. The biggest laugh came when Grandpa opened his enormous box. It contained a blank check book on the bank which had closed its doors, and in which all the family had lost money – a real white elephant.

“I served dinner afterward, but this year we plan to make it (carry-in dish) style (and) we plan for a bigger and better white elephant party. And the password at the front door will be, not ‘Ain’t times awful?’, but ‘A MERRY CHRISTMAS.'”

I guess what strikes me most about those times of great hardship was how farm people coped and made the best of a bad situation, without massive government intervention. The so-called hard times of today pale in comparison with what folks went through back then.

Merry Christmas, and don’t forget to thank the present and past members of the Armed Forces for the privileges we all enjoy.

A window shopping scene from the cover of the December 1932 Successful Farming magazine.

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