Lessons from the Depression

The Smith College alumni magazines that I have been perusing have some interesting features. Apropos of current financial difficulties, one eye-opening article in the Spring ’09 issue features life lessons from Smith alums who lived through the Depression. No one reading it could think for a minute that today’s financial crunch is in any way comparable. One woman from the class of ’27 tells how her salary as a French teacher was suspended. She and the other faculty continued to teach in exchange for bus fare and a daily meal at the school’s cafeteria. She made sure to eat a lot at lunchtime.

Another woman, from the class of ’36, attended Smith on a scholarship, but when her father lost his good job and had to take a much lower level job, she knew it was her responsibility to put her younger sister through college, so she worked during the summers to earn teacher certification. What was the last generation that grew up thinking it might have to help out or even support younger brothers and sisters?

And the habits of frugality that many of these ladies grew up with and continued to learn during the Depression have stayed — such as darning stockings, cutting open the tube to get the last of the toothpaste, and avoiding Starbucks altogether. These would probably baffle most young people today.

They advise saving even a little each week (another ’36 alum attended Smith on $500 her parents had saved by putting aside a quarter a week from her birth), paying cash and avoiding credit, and practicing thrift.