Fresh Old Ideas

Arnold Malone

The Great Depression of the 1930s was more than just a decade on a calendar. 

For those who were influenced by those years their values were changed forever.

The practice of thrift during the depression stuck like a wrenched and rusted nut. 

Our mother said that during the depression there were periods when they did not have money. There was no money in the bank, none in a purse and none in a wallet. 

As farmers they just lived off the farm. They had pork, beef, chicken, eggs, milk and home-ground flour, along with a huge garden from which they raised healthy children. 

In July of 1929 the price of wheat hit a high of $1.40 per bushel. It dropped to $0.96 in March of 1930 and hit a low of $0.26 per bushel in 1931. 

This was at a time when Agriculture Canada indicated that it cost $0.28/bushel to plant a crop.

My dad recalled selling a rail car load of two-year-old market beef animals and getting a bill for the freight. Normally, there would be a cheque with the freight cost removed. In his case, the value of the steers did not cover the cost of shipping.

What was drilled deep into the values of those families was their adherence to thrift. Waste was utterly unacceptable. 

Anyone who was wasteful was fodder for condemnation. This was a generation of people who squeezed value out of everything. Clothes were made, not purchased. Fat was used for making soap, hides were kept for coverings, and cardboard was used for insulation.

That doesn’t mean that people who were influenced by the depression would not, at a later time, buy a fine car or live in a nice home. Rather, it was a collection of many little things that clung to their behaviour.

People from that generation have hands that automatically switch off a light when they leave a room. They may find themselves entering a sun-filled bathroom, therefore no light is flicked on, and upon leaving, without thought, flipping the light switch which puts an unnecessary light on. 

President Lyndon Johnson had a reputation of going through the White House turning the light off in the rooms he left.

Even shaving is done with thrift. People born in more recent years tend to change the blade when the blade is a bit dull. That is not the case of those who were influenced by the depression. They use the same blade until it feels like you are pulling whiskers away with pliers. 

The same practice applies to tooth paste. The toothpaste tube wants to know where to go to report abuse. The tube gets squeezed, twisted and crumpled until the last morsel of paste is extracted. Those depression folks got an extra week out of every tube. 

They guarded their pennies, and their dinner plates were returned as if the dog had licked it. Paper towels get re-sized for multiple uses.

Items were used and then re-used. Machines were taken apart and the bolts and metal kept and stored. 

Cans and bottles were saved as they might be useful some day. At night when families prayed, the coal oil lamp was turned to dim. It was a time when value was extracted from items that scarcely had value.

This is not an advocacy to return to that kind of thrift but it is a reminder that once there was a time when thrift was an essential practice. 

Throwing re-useable stuff away is still unfortunate. Mother Earth needs her best chance to serve us over the long term. Thrift is still important. 

When we are about to discard something, the question to ask is, “could anyone else use this item?”