Lessons From The Depression Era

There is one thing we know for sure during these unprecedented times we’re living in and it’s this: No one knows what swift kick in the ass life is going to deliver next.

I think it’s fair to say that in 2019 we couldn’t conceive that the country would, for the most part, come to a screeching halt. So there’s no way to know for sure what’s going to happen a month, or even a week from now.

Whatever polar shift we see on a social or economic front, I have a feeling that at least in some small part, we could see some change for the good, at least among those smart enough to read the tea leaves. Specifically I am talking about a resurgence of Depression-era thinking.

Obviously I wasn’t around back then, but I grew up around those who were. In addition to an involuntary membership into the Clean Plate Society, I also saw the most trivial things saved by the older folks. One great aunt unwrapped Christmas gifts with surgical precision, lest the wrapping paper be torn and unfit to be reused. We still joke about that to this day, prompting me to wonder what pseudo-fiery reaction we’d get, and in what language, were she still alive.

You can’t be around people like that and not have it rub off on you, either. I may or may not have a bag full of empty bread bags in the kitchen cupboard. Perfectly good coffee containers, pickle jars, etc. do not make it to the recycle bin without first pausing to think if there’s an immediate need for one. Or place to store it. And I will wear a torn pair of jeans or other articles of clothing until I risk potential arrest for indecent exposure, much to my wife’s chagrin. 

The point is, nothing was thrown away if there was a use for it, either immediate or three years from now. Our recycling efforts now are nothing compared to those who came up during the Depression. They were the O.G. greenies, albeit unintentionally ( and not counting the gas guzzling boat like cars they drove ). They knew how to grow the most amazing gardens, and how to preserve the harvest. They didn’t pose with their chickens for cute selfies on Instagram, they served them for Sunday dinner. 

As the decades passed, that all changed. More and more things became disposable until even our televisions and computers became cheaper to throw away and replace than fix. It became too easy to go to the store on the way home from work and pick up groceries for that night’s supper. Many even stopped saving leftovers for another meal, choosing to throw it away instead. It all became so easy to do, because obtaining more was always so easy. 

Until suddenly it wasn’t. 

Photo taken March 26, 2020

Stockpiling toilet paper aside, ( panicking people make stupid decisions ) the COVID pandemic has shown us what happens when there is even the slightest disruption in that easy, steady supply. It’s been said that the average grocery store only has enough supply on hand for approximately three days. If you remember trying to buy rice, Bisquick, sugar, or yes, even friggin toilet paper and paper towels a couple years ago, you saw that first hand. Hopefully you were prepared for or able to adapt to it. Far too many weren’t and still aren’t should it happen again.

I recall feeling a hint of something good could come from all this of it, though I’m not sure it took hold. There was a Depression-era mentality beginning to take shape as people learned to cook real meals at home, grew their own gardens, and so on

“Avengers” star Tom Holland made headlines after he bought some laying hens in reaction to the shortage of eggs in grocery stores. 

Your friendly neighborhood Spiderman just got a little more self-sufficient.

I have to believe some people woke up and realized that the pre-pandemic mentality perhaps didn’t serve them so well. So I can only hope that, despite what economic or other setbacks we end up with going forward, we as a society also learn a lesson from the generations before us. Because it’s not a matter of “if” there will be a need, it’s “when”.  Even if “when” is now. 

Chris Sherwood writes from his home in North Chemung. He is the author of the In Times of Trouble and In Times Of Trouble: Aftermath, a post-apocalyptic series set in Upstate New York, and is currently working on the third book in the trilogy. To learn more, go to cmsherwood.com

Portions of this column appeared in June 2021 and has been edited for current use.

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