Sunday, February 15, 2009

Forgotten Lessons of The Great Depression

My late mother's Aunt Lyla lived to the ripe old age of 98, having been born in 1901. I am thankful for her longevity because she is the closest touch point I have to a painful period in Canada's history, The Great Depression. While history books teach us that the starting point was the stock market crash of October 1929, the actual bottom of the downward trend wasn't reached until 1933.

That would have put dear old Auntie Lyla in her twenties and thirties when Canada's economy spiralled downward with the rest of the world. She knew first hand what it was like to see a father lose his business, how hard jobs were to find when unemployment soared to nearly 40%. She hardly ever spoke of these things, but looking back I'm able to fill in some blanks and get a better understanding about many of the behaviours exhibited by Lyla and her generation.

I'm sure there are many who had (and some who may still have) older relatives who would engage in the same gift opening ritual I observed many times. When presented with a birthday or Christmas present Lyla would always comment: 'What lovely wrapping paper'. Then after prefunctionary comments about how the wrapping was too fine to be discarded, she would open it carefully so as not to tear the precious paper...and after removing the gift the paper would be neatly folded and stored for later use.

In my younger days I used to marvel at this little show, after all wrapping paper is pretty cheap. Personally I've always believed presents should be torn at anxiously, with excited fervor so as to get at the hidden treasure all the more quickly. But then I never lived during a period when people saw their wages steadily decline, if they were lucky enough to be among those who remained employed.
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Gardening is something many of us view as a hobby, not a task meant to save money. Picking up carrots and other vegetables at the grocery store is certainly more convenient than weeding and caring for a plot of land in back of the house. Backyard vegetable gardens in and around my part of Toronto are pretty rare sights least as far as I've noticed. Far more common are expensively arranged and tediously cared for flower beds, among other pricey landscaping projects.

There are many skills that seem to have vanished from our modern world, things people used to do for themselves just a few generations ago. Oh, I know there are still people out there who can mend and make clothes...who still can fruit and preserve other garden staples like tomatoes. But in most cases I suspect these are hobbies, with any cost saving being an afterthought at best. But 70 to 80 years ago I'm sure there are many who would have preferred simply buying things had the money been available.

I suspect that even when the money was at hand though many were still mindful that 'money doesn't grown on trees'. And with deflation being the norm it was wise to hold onto your cash, because it would buy even more down the road when prices dropped. Credit was shunned, instead buying on 'layaway' became very popular. Stopping by a shop and paying a few dollars a week until the wanted item was paid in full...and THEN brought home. What a shift from our current 'why wait' hedonistic thinking...gimme it now and I'll pay later.

The Depression so affected an entire generation that the maxim 'waste not want not' was more than just a platitude, it was a way of life. My Dad (now 70) remembers the joys of simple desserts, like bread pudding...don't discard that stale bread. My grandmother (Dad's mom) wouldn't even throw away the styrofoam packing from a package of ground beef.

Maybe this recession we're in will prove to be just that...a cyclical downturn that only lasts one or two years. But if it isn't, if it turns out to be another some are now suggesting, I can't help but wondering how society will cope. Will we take the time to learn the skills earlier generations had handed down as a matter of course? Will backyard gardens and homemade garments become the accepted norm?

I don't think that would be such a bad thing, perhaps we've become too used to living on cheap credit just as happened in the time leading up to the dirty thirties. To quote another old saw, if we're handed lemons...we can make lemonade. But rather than going out and buying a package of crystals or frozen concentrate, we can learn how to make it ourselves, from scratch.

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