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The Depression Years 1929 to 1940

(September 25th 2010)

Many of the members who talked at the September Historical Association meeting were born just as the depression started to make itself felt and only one or two had actual personal memories of that time. Most had to draw on what was passed down through family stories and the lasting attitudes of their parents to money, savings and caring for their families and neighbours.

The most common thing said by everybody was "we didn't starve, we had plenty to eat, there was always food on the table". Even in the cities people had big vegetable gardens which kept them going or gave them something to barter with or simply to share with neighbours. The rural people could also run a house cow, had a sheep or two as well as hens and pigs. Those near the sea had fish and seafood.

If their parents were worried about the depression it didn't seem to filter through to the children until many years later. Everybody was in the same boat was a common attitude so you just got on with it.

The depression formed a generation that had to stay in a job when they would rather have left it for something else. There was no other job so they were stuck. Many had to leave school to go to work and never got a secondary education. Money was tight and so everyone "made do". There were school clothes and one good dress usually for Sunday school or church. You changed into old clothes so the better ones lasted longer.

Flour and sugar came in material bags and these were washed and made into anything from pillowcases to boys undies, linings for trousers and even hankies. Socks and stockings were darned. Clothes were home made not bought.

Everything that could be was homemade from soap to butter and cheese. Nothing was wasted including the rabbits. The meat was eaten, the skins dried and stretched and sold. Fungi that grew on trees was gathered and sold to local Chinese and bones from animal carcases thrown out in the paddocks were picked up when dried and sold for blood and bone fertilizer.

One person who grew up in Otago remembers the swaggers who called at their farm with sugarbag swag on their backs. They got dinner and breakfast for a doing a small job. They were usually men from the cities looking for work. They weren't always used to labouring and these were the ones most felt sorry for. They were always fed.

The other attitude that stayed with their parents and was passed on to the next generation was that you never bought anything unless you could pay for it. No such thing as credit cards. People who had mortgages suddenly found because they had to take a pay cut or had lost their job the mortgage couldn't be paid and their property had to be sold and they had to find something else. One member's grandparents lost their large orchard this way.

One or two had parents who had to go on the dole and worked on the public works schemes set up by the government building roads or similar. The Kaiteriteri road was built this way.

Sharing and caring for your community was another attitude that shone through. If you had plenty you shared it with those not so well off. Two or three spoke of learning years later that their parents had given money or food to others. Nobody talked about it they just got on and did it.

The outbreak of war created a demand for jobs and ended the depression but the attitudes lingered on into the baby boomer generation. Should we be talking about it to Generations X and Y?

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