Grandma survived the great depression because her supply chain was local and she knew how to make things

A time capsule from the 1930s: what’s different now

for Charles Hugh Smith
Of Two Minds


If we compare health and resilience, well-being, safety, general attitudes, family and community bonds and values, we will conclude that we are the ones who are impoverished.

We are taking care of my 92 year old mother in law here at home. He has the usual aches and pains of old age, but his mind and memory are still sharp. His memories of his childhood are like a time capsule of the 1930s.

My mother in law has always lived in the same general community here in Hawaii. She has never lived more than 10 miles from the house where she was born (long since demolished) in 1931. To listen to her memories (and ask for more details) is to be transported to the 1930s, a time of widespread, unrelated poverty. to the Great Depression. Many people were poor before the Depression. They were working hard but their income was low.

Before the state-initiated tourism boom and affordable airline tickets, Hawaii’s economy was classically colonial: large plantations owned by a handful of wealthy families and/or corporations (known as The Big Five) they employed thousands of workers to raise and harvest sugar cane and pineapple. . Pearl Harbor, Hickam Air Force Base and Schofield Barracks were major military bases on Oahu. Travel between islands was expensive (ferries) and each island was largely self-sufficient.

Even taking a bus to make the 12-mile trip to the only town on the island was a rare luxury, an excursion made a few times a year.

Plantation workers were not yet unionized in the 1930s, and wages were about $20 a month for grueling field work, work performed by both men and women. Typical of first- and second-generation immigrant communities of the time, families were generally large. Six or seven children were common and nine or ten children per family were not uncommon. Many families lived in modest camps stocked with plantations of two-bedroom houses.

Gardens were not a hobby, they were an essential source of food to feed a table of hungry children and adults. Sweets, snacks, soft drinks, etc. they were treats reserved for special occasions and parties. Children were usually barefoot because shoes were out of the household’s limited budget.

Commodities were bought from the company store (or one of the few privately owned grocers) on credit and paid for when the plantation paid wages.

The credit issued by the banks was unknown. Wards (kumiai) can collect a few dollars from each family each year and offer the sum to the highest bidder by secret or lottery. Those households that took enough time to open a small business often worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week (or equivalently: 14 hours 6 days a week).

Neighbors helped with births and deaths.

Since no one could even dream of owning a car, transportation was limited. Children and adults walked or cycled miles to school or work. Many individual owners made a living by delivering vegetables, meat and fish to the neighbourhoods. (This distribution system is still present in rural France where my brother and sister-in-law lived for many years). Each vendor would arrive at a set day/time and the housewives could gather to buy it from the owner’s truck or jitney. Children could look longingly at the few candies, and if they were lucky, they would be given a few pennies to buy a candy.

The boys distributed locally baked bread. Milk was delivered by small local dairies.

Nostalgia is a powerful force, but I don’t think we can dismiss the general happiness of my mother-in-law’s childhood as airbrushed impoverishment. Poverty seems obvious to us now, but at the time it was a normal life. Everyone was part of the same general socioeconomic class. The plantation manager lived in a mansion with servants, but those with wealth were few and far between. In other words, wealth and income inequality was extreme, but the class structure was flat: the 99% had very similar incomes and opportunities, both of which were limited.

Employment was stable, community ties and values ​​were strong without anyone realizing it, and everyone had enough to eat (though not as much as they would have liked, of course).

This secure plantation structure of work and community was still firmly in place in 1969-1970, when I lived on the Lanai Pineapple Plantation (and picked pineapples with my high school classmates in the summer), and so I had the lucky to experience it first. hand My Lanai classmates speak fondly and with a sense of loss when they recall their youth. Life was safe and secure, and with the unionization of the workforce, wages were sufficient for frugal households to save enough to send their children to college off the island.

I can personally attest that fond memories of plantation life in the 1970s are not distorted by nostalgia. These memories are accurate memories of a much safer, secure, and nurturing place and time.

Compared to today, the typical diet in the 1930s was locally grown/raised and therefore rich in micronutrients. Cereals such as rice and flour came from far away, but apart from canned fish and similar products, food was local and fresh. Little or none was wasted.

People usually worked physically demanding jobs that burned a lot of calories.

There are many people over 90 in our neighborhood. My mother-in-law’s brother, like many men in that age bracket, was a World War II veteran of the famous 442nd unit, he died last year at 96, despite smoking half a pack of cigarettes daily until the end. A neighbor/friend just passed away at 99 (he was also veteran number 442). Our neighbor (looked after by her daughter and son-in-law, just like us) just turned 100 years old. These people are generally healthy and active until the end of their lives.

If we look for causal factors in their old age and generally good health, we cannot ignore the high quality, almost zero processed food diets of their youth and their strong foundations in bonds and values community

If we compare the financial and material wealth they enjoy most today with the limited income and assets of the pre-war era, we conclude that they lived in extreme poverty and their lives must have been miserable as a result.

But if we compare health and resilience, well-being, safety, general attitudes, family and community bonds and values, we will conclude that it is we who are impoverished and it was their lives that were rich in these elements. essentials of human life.

The world has changed since the 1930s, of course. Materially, our wealth and choices of what to do with our lives are off the charts compared to the 1930s. But if we look at health, safety, well-being, community ties, social cohesion and civic virtue , our age seems insecure, messy and deranged.

The irony is that those who have grown tired of our divisive and rage-inducing socio-economic system yearn for all that has been lost in the rise of material wealth and the opportunities to spend that wealth. Those who learn the emptiness of spectacle and material wealth and who have the means to do so look for the few enclaves that still have some scraps of community and social cohesion left.

These enclaves are included in the “best small towns in America” ​​or the “best places in the world to retire” and the resulting influx of wealthy outsiders destroys the last remaining fragments of what everyone came for.

Read the full article at Of Two Minds

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Posted on September 26, 2023

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