Every family was different in the 1930s, but
there were some things that many of them had in common. What was day to day life like in
the 1930s? What did families do? A typical family during the Great Depression
would have consisted of a father, mother, and several children. The average day would
commence with the father of the family leaving for work. That is, of course, if he was lucky
enough to still be employed. Shortly after he had left, the children would leave for
school. Most children walked to school or rode
the school bus. The mother of the family usually did laundry
on Monday mornings. Some families had new, labor-saving washing machines, but washing
clothes by hand was still common. The clothes were hung out to dry on a clothes line. Tuesday
was ironing day. Some families had electric irons, but many women still used a heavy,
black flat-iron that was heated on the stove. The most common form of entertainment was
the radio. Radio programs would entertain families throughout the day with various kinds
of programming. During the day, soap operas would interest mothers while they worked in
the home. After school, action and adventure programs for kids were common. In the evening,
programs that the entire family might enjoy would take over the airwaves.
If the family didn’t want to listen to the radio, they might choose to play a board game,
which were becoming popular in the ’30s. Sorry! was released by Parker Brothers in 1934 and
still remains popular today. By far, the most successful board game was Monopoly. This game
gave people the chance to buy and sell property with money they could only dream of having.
On Saturday evening, it was common for a family to go shopping, if they had the money to do
so. There were a variety of stores downtown, from shoe stores, to clothing, sporting goods,
and music shops. Most families didn’t have a lot of money to
spend at these stores. The average take home pay was about $17 a week. Some made as little
as $7 a week. Doctors made about $60 a week. The prices of products reflected the economic
conditions. A men’s shirt cost about $1. A washing machine could be purchased for about
$33. A winter coat might cost anywhere from $18 to $28. A milkshake might cost a dime,
and a bag of roasted peanuts could be purchased for a penny.
Since many families had so little money, certain things that were once commonplace became luxuries.
For example, going to the barber was no longer an option for many families. Haircuts at home
became standard practice. Families also stopped going to the dentist for regular check-ups,
and doctor visits were saved for very serious conditions. Some women even started giving
birth at home in an effort to save money. Unfortunately, not every family could afford
to go shopping or purchase new clothes. Some families were forced to patch shoes with rubber
from worn out tires. Even families that had once been affluent began dressing their children
in hand-me-downs. The Great Depression made life extremely difficult
for many people. Unemployment rates reached unbelievable numbers, with as much as 25%
of the population unable to find work. This meant that an estimated 13-15 million Americans
did not have a job. Those looking for work were desperate. A business
would advertise for six positions that needed to be filled and more than 15,000 applicants
would apply. Some of those who couldn’t find work began riding the rails. Known as hobos,
they illegally boarded boxcars on trains, hoping to find work in the next town.
Those who were fortunate enough to keep their job saw their wages slashed by as much as
60%. A worker who had once made $1 an hour would be reduced to 40 cents and be happy
to have it. All across the nation, fathers who had once held important positions in companies
were now searching dumpsters for their family’s next meal.
Food was scarce for many. Cabbage soup became a common meal. Meat and vegetables could no
longer be afforded. Some families even resorted to taking turns eating. Some members of the
family would eat on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, while others ate on Tuesdays, Thursdays,
and Saturdays (with perhaps the entire family eating together on Sunday).
In order to cut heating costs, families resigned to heating only one room of their house. They
used many different heating sources, from wood, to coal that they had found, or even
corncobs. In an effort to save money, many families
shared homes. Some younger children were sent away to live with relatives in a different
part of the country. In other cases, kids as young as 13 were told to leave home and
go find work. Obviously, every family was different, and
each had its own set of circumstances. However, each family did everything it could to make
it through one of the most difficult times in American history.