The Great Depression and “Stuff”

A few months back I was blessed to be able to compile an article about survivors of the Great Depression. The article was an assignment for Vertical Thought magazine, which reaches out to a young adult and teen audience. My goal was to connect young people to the now elderly folks who lived through the Great Depression.

What was great about doing the article was that the subject fascinated me. Likewise, my interview material was everywhere! My relatives, older folks from the church congregation I attend, and from the community.

I think what has always amazed me about that era was that although so many people were barely scraping along; you will often hear them say that they didn’t know they were poor.

There was still an unspoken rule that if you had food to eat, a roof over your head, and a family with love – you were all right. Notice I didn’t say indoor plumbing, electricity, air conditioning, a new car, digital communication devices, digital music devices, etc. There are some basic things that all humans truly need. Then there are “necessities” that we are conditioned to “need.”

Binary Burden

To be fair, I, like the next person, use my fair share of these devices and benefit as a result, but I also find myself over-processed from them. In the same way that junk food is over-processed to the point that it doesn’t resemble its original components; I think over-digitalization is similar.

We lose ourselves in the crush of information, our ability to concentrate is tampered with, and we begin to feel like we can’t live without all the social networking, constant texting, and electronic gadgets. We’re addicted to a pile of things or worse, to the miles of information encoded in the vapor that is the web!

Tough as it is to imagine, we could all probably get along without the proliferation of leisure and time saving devices that drive store and Internet sales these days.

Maybe I’m a young curmudgeon in the making, but there is something to be said for daily physical activity that leaves you fatigued, but invigorated by the activity and accomplishment.

Walk the talk

My challenge to you – go find one of these elders and ask them about (if possible) their life before electricity. Ask them to tell you what it was like when each new device came into popular use. Ask them how they got along without all those things.

You will be intrigued by the answers, and more than that, you will have made a connection to their past, which is now part of yours. You will be an historian!


I’ve written about using documentaries, historical journals, museums, and re-enactments to explore history, but I can’t go on without praising one of my favorite publications. It is a magazine that brings primary source history to my fingertips and reminds me of the struggles and challenges my parents and grandparents faced.

Don’t jump to conclusions! I’m not talking about WWII history magazines, archeological reviews, etc. I like those too, but they’re for another day.

I’m talking about entry-level history where even the most disinterested beginner can take a bit out of time and enjoy it.  A visual layout with great, short, first person reports on the historical past of the 20th century is the fundamental strength of Reminisce magazine published by Reiman Media Group which is a subsidiary of The Reader’s Digest Association, INC.

Tales of the past

This is the kind of history that you might hear your grandparents or great-grandparents tell if you are lucky enough to have these resources still alive. It isn’t ground breaking, never-before-seen historical research, but it is just as important. Knowing the daily details of the past and the experiences of our elders help us to live a fuller life, to respect them more, emulate the great things they did, and, one hopes, not make the same mistakes.

Magazines like this are a great teaching tool for kids and teens and a way to get them interested in history. Reminisce in particular has a surfeit of photographs, illustrations, and reprints of old cartoons and advertisements. Every issue is colorful, like having your own personal museum to page through whenever you need to fill a few minutes.

Did people really act like that?

After flipping through the past, it might surprise you to realize how degraded our current society has become. Wholesomeness is not something marketers feature much anymore. We are so used to the world in which we live that sometimes it takes a virtual journey back in time to realize how sordid it has become.

Scanning the advertisements of years past is an education in what people valued. The advertising professionals of the era designed their material to appeal to those values: wholesomeness, dignity, respect, faith, hard work, thrift, good clean fun, cleanliness, good cheer, family, marriage, the innocence of romance. From our 21st century cynical viewpoint we often see this material and think it looks hokey or syrupy. Kind of sad that good clean fun isn’t considered fun anymore.

There is one requirement when delving into this kind of historical record (or any part of the past, actually): check your modern sensibilities and put them aside, don’t reason from our contemporary perspective. Trade cynicism for a lighter approach to life in order to appreciate an era, only a few decades old, which had a greater sweetness and innocence than what we suffer through today.

Read Me A Little History…

Read aloud. Or better yet, listen to someone else read aloud. Really, try it!

Sound a little too dramatic? Seems kind of weird, maybe, because we don’t do that kind of think anymore. Or do we?

Have you ever watched a news anchor talk at you? They aren’t gabbing from memory – they’re reading aloud! Yep, from that teleprompter screen right next to the camera!

Guess who else reads aloud? Right – politicians. Teleprompters being the modern default, but some still use good old note cards.

Whatever the case, they are all reading aloud. We do a lot of reading these days, the Internet has made that a necessity, and so we don’t often take the time to read out loud from a book. However, back before moving pictures, radio, television, and Internet folks regularly read to each other.

Tell me a story, read me a book

On a cold winter evening around the fireplace of a rough log cabin, by the light of homemade candles, settlers would read out loud from the Bible, maybe Plutarch’s Lives (thank you Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), or perhaps a collection of Shakespeare. They didn’t have many books, but what they had, they read.

It was entertainment and education. Poetry was read aloud (sometimes from memory) as were plays, works of fiction, works of history, and religious works. It was a shared experience.

If you read aloud often enough, you begin to understand written works in a different way. Try reading the Bible silently – zoom through a few verses in the historical books of Chronicles or Kings – kind of dull, you say?

Okay, change tack, read aloud as if you are narrating a Cecil B. DeMille production of epic biblical proportions! Make sure that your audience, real or imagined, can understand each word and that the transitions from action to description are clear. Suddenly it isn’t so dull! Try the same thing with Jane Austen – you’ll be amazed at how her works come to life!

Reading aloud is an art form and a connection to the historic past. Back in the days of limited literacy those who could read aloud did so that others would have a chance to hear whatever it was they were reading. It was the default mode of literacy for many centuries until fairly recently.

Try it and you’ll find that a simple activity like this is a fun trip to the historical past.

Do you remember when…?

The details of the past are accessible by a single question. Being an historian only takes that one question and someone with a story to tell.

There are so many assumptions about history – primarily that it is inaccessible and boring. It really isn’t. It just takes someone young asking an elder what they know about the past.

History passed down in this way is referred to as an oral record. Often, people who yearn to research their personal genealogy become the default guardians of this historical record in their family. They were the ones who cared enough to find out about the family history before the bearers of that record were no more.

Sometimes we assume that once we’re tagged as the “family historian” we’re expected to write a book, which is a great achievement, but simply being able and willing to one day share those same stories with a younger generation is a great achievement, too.

Be the link – learn the history – pass it on.