A few weeks back I mentioned the fact that while life in the 1930s was by no means a breeze for most adults, it was not really all that bad for many kids. I thought you might enjoy hearing exactly what “not really all that bad” actually amounted to, so here are a few interesting facts for you to ponder.
Mind you, the effects of the Great Depression on some people, both adults and children, were terrible, and I would be the last to suggest that they weren’t. When the Depression hit large manufacturing cities like Pittsburgh, for example, thousands upon thousands of men and women were thrown out of work as factories closed or laid off employees. Plus, the farmers of our Midwest were devastated as farm produce prices dropped so fast that many farms were lost. Those people suffered terribly, God bless them, and we should never forget it!
However, Staten Island, where I lived, even though it was part of a major city, was mostly rural, and was therefore insulated from some types of problems. The few manufacturers on the island were small, and produced essential products, which often had to go on being manufactured. Take the Evans Oxygen plant, which luckily happened to be right up the street from our house, and which hired my oldest brother when Daddy died. It thrived.
In addition, while some large stores over on Manhattan closed, almost all the stores on Staten Island were small, neighborhood ones which lost very few of their customers. The result was that we were as poor as the proverbial church mice, but prices were so low that even the reduced wages of the 1930s were enough to keep body and soul together. For example, I remember the 1938 prices of three major commodities very well because it was about then that I became old enough for Mom to start sending me to the store. A quart of milk, a pack of cigarettes, or a loaf of Wonder Bread, cost 11¢. Not bad, eh?
Other food products were priced in proportion. Chicken was about 20¢ a pound, sugar about a nickel a pound, and a six-pound chuck roast cost just 75¢. In fact, Mom used to send me to the Ralston store for 10¢ worth of “store cheese,” which made enough macaroni and cheese to feed her and her four hungry boys.
But the greatest factor as far as kids were concerned was the simple truth that ignorance is bliss. What does that mean? It means that you don’t miss what you never had. Sure, none of the kids in my neighborhood had a bike or a fancy red wagon, but we never gave things like that a thought. In fact, we actually used to poke fun at movies showing kids who had things like bikes and fancy red wagons. To us, it was pure fantasy; as unreal as “The Wizard of Oz.”
Truthfully, I don’t think you could have found a group of kids anywhere who were happier than the ones in my neighborhood. We didn’t eat like kings, but we never went without a full belly; and we played many, many happy games on Pike Street, or in the two empty lots on our block. Baseball is baseball even when you use an old broomstick for a bat, and a tennis ball for a ball. Football is always fun. And snowball fights in the winter cost nothing.
Truth is, we were too worn out having fun to find time to be unhappy.