Skip to main content

10 Things I Learned From My Depression-Era Grandparents

PatriciaJoy has been interested in prepping and frugality for years. She's continued to learn and evolve her prepping style as needed.

From Wikimedia Commons: "Young migratory mother, originally from Texas. On the day before the photograph was made she and her husband traveled 35 miles each way to pick peas. They worked 5 hours each and together earned $2.25."

From Wikimedia Commons: "Young migratory mother, originally from Texas. On the day before the photograph was made she and her husband traveled 35 miles each way to pick peas. They worked 5 hours each and together earned $2.25."

Great Depression-Era Habits and Attitudes

I've pondered the influence of my Depression-era grandparents on my current thinking. Both sets of grandparents were children when the Great Depression hit the USA in the 1930s, and it greatly impacted how they lived.

My dad's parents moved to the Detroit area from Kentucky in the 1940s after my grandfather returned from serving as a marine in World War II when the city and its suburbs was booming with labor work in the automotive and construction industries. My mom's family came to Michigan by way of England and Kentucky also looking for work. Each set of grandparents were from coal mining and farming backgrounds. Many of their frugal ways were passed on to their kids and grand kids. Here are some of their attitudes that affect me to this day.

1. "Credit Cards Are Weird"

While the idea of buying now and paying later is ancient, credit cards are relatively new with the first one being the Diners Card, which debuted in 1950. Both of my grandmas thought going into debt for trinkets was a bad idea.

As a teen, I was annoyed that my grandmother thought going out to a restaurant was a terrible waste. She would give my mom grief about it which caused family friction at times. But then she turned out to be right about credit cards.

I wish I would have listened to them. I think credit can help build a credit score only if you're disciplined in your approach. In my 20s, I didn't have this discipline and paid for it dearly over decades.

Source: MacDonald, Jay and Taylor Tomkins. The history of credit cards, July 2017.

2. Knowing the Difference Between Wants and Needs

The grandparents had a definite line between what is necessary and what is frivolous as far as material goods. I don't know if they actually sat down with pen and paper to create a budgeting plan, but their attitude about credit clearly carried over into staying within their means, an attitude that can be summed up as don't spend what you don't have.

3. Recycling as a Way of Life

The Depression-era kids were naturally into reusing, recycling, and upcycling. Newer fads—gardens in your yard, finding uses for old items—have all been done before out of necessity. Hand-me-down clothing and thrift store shopping was just a given on both sides of my family.

4. Fixing It Yourself or Bartering for Goods and Services

In our throw-away culture, repairing broken items and bartering almost seem like novelties. Fixing minor vehicle problems, as well as household items was an innate desire for those without the means to just "take it down to the shop." But taking it down to the shop has even become old hat.

Do you remember the corner shoe repair shop? I do and it's long gone. We can of course repair our own goods, and there are repair and bartering movements that exist that advocate this basic notion of self-sufficiency. Hopefully, we never lose this instinct.

In Scott's Run, West Virginia, where many miners were unemployed including the father in this family.

In Scott's Run, West Virginia, where many miners were unemployed including the father in this family.

5. Saving for a Rainy Day

Many preppers, often portrayed as being paranoid nut jobs, are simply following the old common sense creed of saving for a rainy day. Whether you identify with the term prepper or not, if you save cash and goods now for use later, then you're practicing preparedness skills. My grandparents had a huge garden when I was small and my grandma and aunts would can many bushels of produce to put back through the winter.

6. Finding More Creative Means of Entertainment

Hollywood came into its own during this era. Movies were an escape from a grim reality for many, but this kind of entertainment was a special treat. Radio was even more prominent during this time, but many were left to their own devices when it came to having fun.

My grandparents were part of the last generation before television became a household staple. Being outdoors, walking, board games, and reading were the top entertainments I recall them encouraging us to engage in. I believe people of any generation can be creative if they try, but when there are 300 channels and nothing on and we watch anyway, we stunt our own creative potential.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Toughnickel

7. Giving Food as Gifts

My father was the oldest of eight children. As you might imagine, Christmas gift giving could become financially burdensome for all those kids and grand kids. But everyone eats and grandma's apple butter was a Christmas gift I looked forward to for years. She and my aunts would have a canning day where they'd make pots of the stuff and can it to give away jars on Christmas day. Another aunt would host cookie baking day at her house, and we all knew we were getting plates of delectables to take home as part of our gift haul.

8. Taking Crafting and DIY Seriously

My love of crafts comes from my grandmas. One of them learned to crochet from a Hungarian immigrant and she in turn taught me as a child. I still cherish what I now consider heirloom items from her. These were usually universal in the fact that they were something most of us could use such as ornaments, bath and kitchen items.

Gifts weren't the only handmade items. I learned basic sewing skills from my mom who learned them from her mom. To this day, I'm no seamstress, but I can follow a pattern and can make a basic set of curtains and do simple clothing alterations when I need to.

9. Adapting to the Times

My job, like many others, is increasingly being outsourced. My grandparents adapted to likely unemployment where they lived by leaving the homes and family they knew to go where the work was in the northern U.S. That doesn't seem like such a big deal today, but being a Southerner of that generation my grandma described it as "a whole other country."

I'm adapting in my own way by creating different streams of income and plan on changing careers once again after learning a new trade.

Photograph of a Soup Kitchen during the Depression

Photograph of a Soup Kitchen during the Depression

10. Knowing What Not to Do

Some of the best lessons we learn from our forebears are those that teach us how not to behave. Nostalgia is sweet but not all its cracked up to be. We can look to our grandparents for inspiration without adopting outdated attitudes. While the pull yourself up by your bootstraps approach was prevalent with those alive during the Great Depression, there was also incredible despair. The merits of President Roosevelt's New Deal and its long-term effects are still debated, but some of the programs did help starving and jobless people at the time.

Sometimes stoicism works, but we also need to know when to ask for help. This was difficult for my grandparents, and my grandmother refused help and stayed in an abusive relationship her entire married life until she died.

That "whole other country" I was raised in wasn't and still isn't perfect. My northern grandmother was outspoken against racism in her church since she converted to Christianity in the 1950s and was ostracized for it. Based on her religious extremism and her personality, however, I don't believe she would speak out about any other 'isms' if she were still alive. Her hypocrisy and the South my paternal grandmother knew where in her words minorities having to walk on the other side of the street was "just the way it was" certainly isn't a nostalgic past I want to return to.

My Kentucky grandma's thinking evolved in her later years and she knew segregation was wrong. Ironically, if she were alive today, she'd be considered more enlightened about race than certain segments of society that want to return to some mythical 1950s ideal.

I'm definitely more socially open than my grandparents. Minority and women's rights were greatly limited in previous decades, and LGBTQ rights weren't something openly talked about at the dinner table or in the greater society. I don't believe going backwards socially will help us economically or morally. In the midst of the social anxiety we're experiencing, I still have faith we can do better.

Frugal Habits Poll

Granny T's Pearl Tea: A Frugal Luxury

I wanted to end on a positive note in honor of frugality and adaptability. As a child, my grandma would serve me what she called pearl tea. This is a simple warm milky drink that she made sound so luxurious. When I was a kid, I thought it was a special treat and a taste for it has stayed with me.

It's not real tea at all. I believe calling it pearl tea was a way for parents during the depression era to make it sound special and not something they were serving to make milk last to save money. I love to have it before bed as it has a calming effect. This isn't to be confused with the tea known by the same name which is of Taiwanese origin also called bubble tea. The three ingredients needed are water, honey, and evaporated milk.

  1. First, boil some water.
  2. Fill a 6-8 ounce mug about three quarters full with the boiled water.
  3. Add 1-2 teaspoons of honey to the hot water before adding the milk. The heat helps the honey dissolve more easily.
  4. Add about 1-2 ounces of evaporated milk and stir.

That's all there is to it. You can also use regular milk, but evaporated milk became more popular during the depression because it was shelf stable. I like the taste it adds to this drink better than regular milk. But some people hate the stuff, so just experiment to your taste. You may also prefer a higher milk to water ratio.

I like pearl tea just the way grandma made it, but you can try some variations to jazz it up. Try a different sweetener or none at all. Add spice by sprinkling some cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger or a light touch of cocoa on top.


Soothing Pearl Tea before bedtime.

Soothing Pearl Tea before bedtime.

© 2017 PatriciaJoy

What about you? Do you have Depression-era relatives? Have they had an impact on how you live your life?

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on September 05, 2017:

My parents were born at the end of the depression. They learned the frugal ways from their parents and have passed these down to their kids. We always had a garden and my mother made our clothes when we were young.

I still think a garden is a necessity, lol. What a waste buying zucchini. I still save spare hardware and buttons. Re-use, recycle and up cycle is a way of life. :)

Related Articles