Posts Tagged ‘1930S’

Alice Heun: The Corn Crib, 1934
Alice Heun: The Corn Crib, 1934 photo by Smithsonian American Art Museum/flickr

note: I don’t have any money, but listening to this guy makes me want to find some. Check this out, great way to raise money BTW:

This is a story from the Great Depression as told by Letty Owings, age 87. It is a true account of three organized community activities in a small rural farming community in Missouri during the 1930s.

The Blue Taffeta Dress

While we worked hard on the farm during the drought years in the mid-1930s, we also set aside three days each year for entertainment. These days were community organized and structured fun that everyone looked forward to and talked about all year.

Each autumn we had a pie supper at the rural school that served as our community center. The idea was that a woman, or usually a girl baked a pie, and the pies were auctioned off. The auctioneer, who was sometimes my father, would hold up the pie and chant, “Now what am I to give for this pie, ten cents who’ll give me ten cents, ten, and raise it to fifteen, ah fifteen and twenty, twenty cents over here and thirty thirty do I hear forty…” A girl would want a good price for her pie, and she may say, “My, they paid a dollar for my pie!” Many of the pies were milk-based custards because mince was too expensive. Pumpkin, squash and apple pies were popular, and on occasion when someone could afford raisins, there was raisin pie.

The rule was that the man who bought the pie shared the pie with the girl who baked it. The quality of the pie didn’t have much to do with the price of eggs, it was the gathering and the fun that mattered. The people would gossip about the drought and gossip about their kids, and interject with who bought what pie for how much by saying things like, “Yeah, you know, he bought her pie.” Nobody ever kept any of the money for the pies. The funds went into the school.

On the last day of school, every woman in the community brought something to eat to the annual basket dinner at school. Women took a great deal of pride in what they brought, whether it was pickles, beans, apple butter or other dishes, so the basket dinner was both contest and entertainment. The women put the food out on the ground for all to enjoy, and we ate on the ground. Some of the coal miner kids were too poor to bring food, but the country people were very generous, so the kids all got to eat.

There was no separation of church and state back in those days, so the next big event, the Christmas program, was held either at the school or at the church, and everyone started planning for it in October. We had an old piano with missing keys and back then no one looked askance that we sang religious songs and Christmas carols. The kids gave speeches and participated in plays that were read from a Depression-era book with scripts. The dialogue was humorous or it delivered some sort of a lesson, but it was all copied, sometimes from Charles Dickens and often from other sources. The names of some of the plays were: Mr. Dash Goes Shopping, Tramp at the Picnic, Change of Heart, and Too Much Spending, but there were others.

I often had a part in the Christmas play, but I never had any decent clothes until 1932 when my Grandpa went blind. My dad took him to California on a train because it was better for my grandfather to be with kinfolks in California who had a little more money. My dad returned with two avocados. We had never seen an avocado and did not quite know what to do with them, so my mother cut them into pieces and put them in the flour bin. We would get a piece, shake the flour off and cut it into bites. My cousin in California with money gave my dad a blue taffeta dress for me, and this put me in a world of my own. It had a lace collar and lace cuffs and nobody that I knew ever had a blue taffeta dress with a lace collar and lace cuffs. My cousin did stage dancing, so she had plenty of access to nice clothes.

I decided to wear the dress for my part in the Christmas play.

The play said that I had to have chewing gum, so I got a stick of chewing gum, but I did not know what to do with chewing gum, so I rolled it on my fingers. The gum got stuck on the blue taffeta dress. I was frantic and nearly forgot my lines, the dress was not washable and I did not want my mother to know, but I had to tell her. My mother figured out that if we put ice on the dress it would freeze the gum so that I could pull it off. So, I am in the back yard with the blue dress in the snow because we did not have any ice to put on the dress.

I wore that blue taffeta dress until I could no longer squeeze myself into it, and years later, I visited my cousin in a nursing home, and told her how much that blue dress meant to me.

note: The scripts in the playbook from that time are fascinating, and will be the subject of a future essay, as they reflect the culture of the time.

Alice Heun: Barn and Cows, 1934
Photo: Alice Heun: Barn and Cows, 1934. by americanartmuseum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, creative commons, flickr

note: This is a true account of life on a small Missouri farm during the Great Depression, as told by Letty Owings, age 87. It is a description of two precise arts. Other examples of precise arts include quilting, weaving, and canning.

Lye Soap and Apple Butter

Two labor-intensive jobs that the adults did every Fall was to prepare the lye soap and the apple butter. Each family prepared its own supply of these two staples, and the supply had to last the whole year. Equipment was essential for these jobs. For the apple butter, the large iron kettle had to be copper lined so that the apple butter did not stick or burn. For the soap, a large iron kettle was used.

The apple butter kettle was passed down through the generations. If a family did not have an apple butter kettle, they shared with another family. Newly married couples inherited a kettle and when a farmer died and the farm was to be dissolved, there was always much discussion about who was going to get the apple butter kettle.

The apple butter was cooked over a fire with a long-burning wood, and so that the person stirring could withstand the heat, she used a stirrer that was very long- five feet or so. Kids never did the stirring or the stoking of the fire, for fear of scalding or burns. My mother did the stirring, and there was a very specific rhythm to it: right side-left side- middle. The rhythm prevented any sticking and ensured consistency and taste. One part was never stirred more than the other. Each woman had her own recipe of spices and sugar in specific ratios that had also been handed down through generations like the kettle.

DO - Apple Day Apple Butter
Photo by vastateparksstaff on flickr

Farming women set aside three days for the apple butter. The first day was for peeling, the second day was for cooking and the third was for canning. There was always talk about whose apple butter was better and every woman believed her apple butter was the best. Apple butter was a staple and making apple butter in the fall was a matter of pride for each family. The women always wore sun bonnets to stir the apple butter because a tan was considered ugly. Women covered their arms to prevent any burns from splattering. The men built the fire and set the kettle in place, but the women peeled the apples and did the stirring. On the third day, my mother put the apple butter into jars with snap-on lids, boiled the jars and covered the lids with sealing wax. On apple butter days I would run home real fast to watch.

Like apple butter, the lye soap making was both art and ritual, and it was done individually, not communally. Soap was made in a large iron kettle over an outside fire, and a long stirrer was used. Women took great pride in their soap and there was always the exchange among neighbors, “What is your soap like?” My mother saved animal fat from the butchering and this was the basis for the soap. She added lye and stirred to a precise consistency. This was important because she needed to be able to pour, cool and then slice the soap into bars.

The soap had a neutral, clean smell, and the goal was to make the soap as white as possible. The browner the soap, the less respect others had for the soap and for the soap maker. There was great pride in the soap quality and in how nice the cut was, and how pretty the bars. The lye soap lasted all year, and we used it to hand wash everything. I had my own little washboard, that I got for Christmas.

A great deal of expertise went into soap cooking. My mother was an artist and a designer who was an excelled at sewing and quilt making, and these talents carried over into her soap and apple butter making as well as canning. Today apple butter does not taste the same, probably because the apples have changed and because it is difficult to duplicate the unique and wonderful taste of apple butter that is made over an open fire. We ate our apple butter on cornbread. I assumed that cornbread came over from the old country in Germany where my ancestors came from, but I learned much later that cornbread was an American addition.

Note:

Saponification is a process that produces soap, usually from fats and lye. In technical terms, saponification involves base (usually caustic soda NaOH) hydrolysis of triglycerides, which are esters of fatty acids, to form the sodium salt of a carboxylate. In addition to soap, such traditional saponification processes produces glycerol. “Saponifiable substances” are those that can be converted into soap.[1]

Source.

This is a true account of two farming community events during the Great Depression as told by Letty Owings, age 87

Joe Jones: Men and Wheat (mural study, Seneca, Kansas Post Office), 1939
Joe Jones: Men and Wheat (mural study, Seneca, Kansas Post Office), 1939 By americanartmuseum
Smithsonian American Art Museum, creative commons, flickr

Author’s note: For those of you following the current drought, here are some corn and soybean pictures I snapped yesterday, in Western Tennessee, at the Kentucky border. Thrashing of the wheat, an activity that is one of the subjects of this post, is something I had to ask my mother about. I was not sure when they did this, because we are not seeing much wheat these days.

Drought Stressed Corn Western Tennessee/Kentucky Border
Corn, Drought2012, click to enlarge. Or not. It’s pretty sad.

Drought soybeans
soybeans, Drought2012, click to enlarge.

A Kernel of Wheat
Western Missouri, 1932

Of all farming activities we performed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, two were notable because they involved the whole community: thrashing of the wheat, and butchering the animals. Summer thrashing of the wheat was the most exciting time of the year because it was a social time rolled into sustenance activity.

The thrashing machine, or, in modern spelling, threshing machine (or simply thresher), was a machine first invented by Scottish mechanical engineer Andrew Meikle for use in agriculture. It was invented (c.1784) for the separation of grain from stalks and husks. For thousands of years, grain was separated by hand with flails, and was very laborious and time consuming. Mechanization of this process took much of the drudgery out of farm labour.

Source.
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Dust
photo by Robb North on creative commons, flickr

This is a true story from the Great Depression, as told by Letty Owings, age 87. It is a true account of days on a small Western Missouri farm during the drought of the 1930s.

Days on the Farm in 1934

Mom had malaria fever and we had to have her outside. Old Doc Martin, the county doctor, had visited and given my mother quinine. He told us that we had to keep her cool, and that we had to have a block of ice. On the rare occasions that Doc Martin visited, he left with a chicken because we had no money to pay him. Sometimes, he politely declined to take a chicken.

After the doctor left with his chicken, we decided to move outside because we did not have ten cents to buy a block of ice for Mom. The farm houses during the Great Depression had small windows because there was no insulation and no such thing as double-paned windows. Some rooms in the farm houses had no windows at all; there was no breeze in the house. We had no electricity and no fan.

We moved a mattress outside to underneath a tree for Mom. Pop and I moved our comfort and pillows outside as well, and we stayed next to her. We did not have mattresses. There was only the three of us now because my siblings were older and they were gone. That left Mom, Pop and I to tend to the farm. Mom was born in 1889 and was now 45 years old. I was nine. My responsibility now was to care for Mom and for the small animals on the farm. Pop told me not to worry about the big animals, so, during the day, Pop tended to the fields and to the cows and horses, and I tended to Mom and to the chickens, ducks and geese.

On her mattress, Mom would rave and cry and thrash. She was out of her mind and she didn’t know me. She had a roaring fever and there was nowhere to get cool. It did not rain that year until the first snow fell in the fall. Since we did not have ice, I would lower rags in a bucket on a rope into the well to cool them, and then I would wash Mom’s face and hands with the cool rags. We shared the well with the snakes that had gravitated there out of thirst. The well was our refrigerator.

During that summer, also know as a historic Dust Bowl year, we had 53 days that exceeded 100 degrees. Today, every acre is planted, but back then there were not as many roots in the soil to stabilize it; the wind roiled up large clouds of dust. Every living thing on the farm was thirsty, and while my dad was in the fields I dipped well water for the chickens, ducks and geese, and also for Mom. We lived like this, just surviving, hour after hour, day after day. My mom was so sick there were days she didn’t remember.

One day, I thought my mom had died. She was unresponsive to me, and I was so scared. I ran, terrified, to my dad, who was plowing with the mule on the back forty (literally). Pop tied the reins- the mule was a good mule- he wouldn’t go anywhere- Pop tied the reins onto the mule and we both ran back to Mom on her mattress. I was too young to see my mother suffer and die like this under my care. I was so scared because I was responsible for her and if she died I had only myself to blame. Seeing my mother like that haunts and saddens me to this day.

Mom was not dead. She was very hot. We shook her and rolled her and washed her face with cool rags from the well. Eventually she recovered and learned to walk again, but the malaria symptoms recurred in the following years.

During those hot and dry days on the farm, it wasn’t just me and Mom. All of the animals were thirsty and hot- the cows, calves, horses,chickens, ducks and geese- I dipped the well water for them all. My dad was a saint. He never got angry and he never asked for help with the big animals. He told me not to worry, he’d take care of the cows and horses. Pretty much all we had to eat was cornbread, and Pop often made the cornbread out of cornmeal, soured milk and flour in the mornings. At some point, he was able to save enough to get some coal oil burners.

Mom lay on her mattress in her ragged dress and she cried. Pop washed her face and held her hands. His real name was Olando John, and there was never a better man the good Lord ever made.

note: The Dust Bowl years were three consecutive years of drought during the Great Depression. On the description “53 days over 100,” go here to view historic records compared to present day.

Malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes and caused by a protist. More here.

Also, the picture above has the following caption and description:

Dust

The human crisis was documented by photographers, musicians, and authors, many hired by various federal agencies. The Farm Security Administration hired numerous photographers, giving Dorothea Lange her start, in which she made a name for herself while capturing the impact of the storms and families of migrants. The work of independent artists such as folk singer Woody Guthrie and novelist John Steinbeck grew out of the events of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.