As we try to adjust our lives and budgets to accommodate the effects of the market meltdown, there are many lessons we can learn from people who lived through the Great Depression that involve much more than giving up that daily frappuccino or resisting the urge to buy your favourite magazine.
In fact, many families now in a financial pinch may be thinking about a lot more than reducing their “latte factor.”
Donald Cameron knows about the sacrifices required to make it through tough financial times. The 88-year-old veteran of the Second World War moved to Toronto from Scotland with his family when he was 11-years-old during the Depression.
“We just came over at the wrong time. We came over in the Dirty Thirties,” he tells CityNews.ca.
“My father had his own business over in Scotland and things were getting kind of tough so they said, gee, why don’t you go over to Canada, the land of milk and honey? Well, it was just at the wrong time.”
For a brief description of the events that led up to the Great Depression and its effects in Canada, click here.
Cameron, his four brothers and sisters, mother and father and a boarder shared a modest home on Westmoreland Avenue, in the Bloor and Dufferin area, when he was a kid and the family scraped by thanks to a lot of hard work, careful consumption, conservation and help from neighbours, the local church, and others.
“We had to go on, they called it the ‘dole’ over in England and here it was called the ‘pogey’. As you can imagine, we weren’t the only ones on welfare,” he explained, adding that he and his siblings were often picked on because of their worn clothes and shoes.
Cameron remembers only taking a bath about twice a month to save water and sleeping in a frigid attic with frozen windows with his brothers in the winter when the heating budget was tight.
“It was a sad affair.”
Margaret Haliburton grew up on Euclid Avenue during the Depression and still lives by the common-sense principles of home economics employed by her parents when she was a child.
“We used to eat in season … now, we did have health problems and that was where cod liver oil came in. We used to have to take this darn cod liver oil because we were lacking in vitamin D because we weren’t getting fresh things toward the end of the winter,” the 86-year-old said.
“Our parents knew how to keep us healthy because they knew when they couldn’t get the fresh stuff.”
When money was tight, both Cameron and Haliburton said their parents never took any scrap of food for granted.
“I never saw anything thrown out,” Haliburton, who worked as a radio operator in the Canadian Navy during the Second World War, recalled.
“We didn’t slice the end off [of carrots], we dug out the core … and you always cook with the skins on.”
When it comes to both home economics and the environment, what are often political choices for younger generations were necessities for their grandparents and great grandparents.
“Reduce, reuse and recycle, we did that,” Haliburton said.
The popularity of the Do-It-Yourself movement today was also just a way of life for folks living through the Depression.
Creative Ways Of Making Clothing
Haliburton’s mother used to frequent the second-hand shops at Spadina and Queen and fashioned clothes for her kids in creative ways.
“Whenever I tell them about the beautiful clothes we had made out of velvet draperies everyone thinks of ‘Gone with the Wind’,” she said.
To this day, Haliburton said she wears mended underwear, clothing and shoes. She also cans her own food, including soft apples, overripe peaches and tomatoes.
“Children of both sexes are not taught household skills and they come out not knowing how to save any money,” she added.
Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA), said the common-sense and waste-reducing approach to life exercised through the Depression has many benefits for members of today’s consumer-driven generation.
“A lot of times we’re caught in this rat race and we need to make more money so that we have more money to spend to buy things that we don’t need and then we need to make more money to buy more things that we don’t need because we feel unfulfilled because the things we bought aren’t what we wanted,” he said.
“People are realizing I don’t need to be on this treadmill and environmentalism gives another justification for getting off it.”
Riding your bike, taking transit or walking, buying local produce or growing your own and making your own clothes are all practices many Depression-era families employed to save cash. Today these actions are a choice for many people to ease the burden on both pocketbooks and the planet.
“A lot of people right now are very interested in doing the right thing for the environment because they understand with global warming, with increasing pollution … that something has to be done. The icing on the cake is to be able to say, oh, by the way, if you do that you’ll save some money as well,” Hartmann said.
Moving Tales From Troubling Times
And there is another incredible lesson to be learned from the tough times our grandparents and great grandparents lived through. While there are many sad stories of economic hardship, both Cameron and Haliburton said the Depression also inspired a spirit of cooperation and helping your neighbour.
Haliburton said she’ll never forget a little girl she went to school with.
Every morning pupils would get a half pint of milk and one day Haliburton’s teacher gave the class a lecture on the importance of eating breakfast. When he asked his students if anyone had skipped their morning meal a little girl raised her hand.
When the teacher asked her why she hadn’t eaten that morning Haliburton said the girl replied: “It wasn’t my turn.”
And from that day on Haliburton gave that little girl her half pint of milk.
Cameron and his brother walked several kilometres a day selling magazines as kids to bring in some extra money for the family. He remembers being caught in the rain one day and taking refuge in an apartment on Montrose Avenue. When the couple who lived there arrived home to find two soaking wet boys at the door, they offered them some towels and hot chocolate.
When the man and woman, who were members of the Kiwanis, found out Cameron’s family was facing hard times, they helped send the two boys to a summer camp his parents would’ve never been able to afford.
“My brother Rob and I had our first camp up at Lake Simcoe, our first camp through these people,” he said.
“People helped people in those days. When there were people in need you certainly helped them and the poor helped the poor, there’s no doubt about it.”