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Life in the 1930s in San Diego


The Great Depression was a worldwide economic downturn that lasted for a decade for some countries, including the U.S. We'll look at what life was like - especially for women - during the 1930s in San Diego.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. As the bad news about our economy began to mount up earlier this year, we often heard sentences that started with the phrase 'not since the Great Depression…' have we seen stock prices fall, or real estate decline at such a significant rate. It seems that even in this current deep recession, the reference point in hard times is still the Depression of the 1930s. Many of us are now relearning some of the lessons of that time. The old depression mantra of 'use it up, wear it out, make it do, or go without' corresponds well with both tight budgets and our new green environmental ideas. But the more you learn about the Great Depression, especially from today's vantage point, the more you realize what a calamity it was, and what courage it took to pull a family through that time. The San Diego Women's History Museum and Educational Center is presenting a "Journey to the '30s" as the theme of its Suffrage Day events. And it is my pleasure to welcome Sue Gonda, chair and professor of History at Grossmont College, part time Women's Studies professor at SDSU, and historian for the Women's History Museum. Sue, welcome to These Days.

SUE GONDA (Professor of Women's Studies, San Diego State University): Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Midge Neff Le Claire. She's a retired historian and historical costumer at the Women's History Museum. And she was a child during the Great Depression. Midge, welcome.

MIDGE NEFF LE CLAIRE (Historian, Women's History Museum): Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know that we've inviting listeners to join the conversation. If you remember the Great Depression and the 1930s, we encourage you to call. Or do you recall stories that your parents or your grandparents told of life in the 1930s? Call us with your comments at 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Sue, we know that money is tight for a lot of people right now but how did the Great Depression affect people's lives during the 1930s?

GONDA: Well, it was what we're seeing today and much more. 13 million people were unemployed. The home building, you know, we're always talking about home building here, it dropped by 80% during the Great Depression. 11,000 of the 25,000 banks had failed. People – far, far more people were out of jobs and, in fact, the word hobo back then was not necessarily somebody who was a tramp or something that was derogatory, they were wandering men by the millions, and sometimes women and children, looking for jobs and for handouts in the back of restaurants and – and homes. And people did give handouts and they did little odd jobs around the house. And for women it was particularly hard because married women were denied jobs; they were fired if people discovered that women were out of – were married. Single women were not given the relief programs and so it was very difficult for people to make do because they were mostly doing without in that sentence.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Now how – What percentage of women in the 1930s actually worked outside the home?

GONDA: Oh, that's a good question. I couldn't tell you off the top of my head, although I should know that, but I can tell you that it had to drop dramatically because not only were the jobs not there but the – but because women were doing things like taking off their wedding rings and stuff and hiding that they were married…


GONDA: …but a lot of women were discovered. And it – Just to give you an idea of how vitriolic it was about women, see but they saw women as taking away men's jobs. So there was one congressman that called women 'undeserving parasites' if they're married and they're, you know, trying to get a job and take a job away from a family wage earner, a man.

CAVANAUGH: This is during the 1930s. I remember stories in my own family of women's – of my grandmothers and aunts and so forth taking in work, I mean, taking in laundry and doing household work. Was that a common thing? When your husband lost his job, when he couldn't find another one, and you had to put food on the table, what did these women do, Sue?

GONDA: That’s exactly what they did. They took in sewing and mending and baking extra bread to sell. They exchanged food on the street, you know, with other families. Sometimes if it was twenty-five cents for a pound of meat, the – a neighbor would split that pound and it would be thirteen cents for one and twelve cents for the other and they'd switch back and forth. And you did whatever you could. I mean, they used everything in cooking. If somebody got a chicken, they often helped other people in the neighborhood. Kids were developing rickets and neighbors could see that the kids were malnourished and so there were things like marrow balls. You know, even the bones of everything got used. The bones would be ground up and made into dumplings. There was something called marrow balls where you made these little dumplings using just the marrow. So everything, everything was used. Potatoes, oh my goodness, in the Little Rascals series, there were always these jokes about how the kids were so sick of hash. There was everything hash. And – But there was potato dumplings and potato noodles and potato was a huge staple because it was so inexpensive.

CAVANAUGH: Midge, you entered kindergarten in 1930 in the Ozark Mountains, and you lived with your grandparents there. Your grandfather worked in construction. How hard was it for him to try to find work?

LE CLAIRE: It was extremely difficult because large construction projects were limited to hospitals, libraries, government buildings, so repair work such as re-roofing another home, building cabinets, very low pay. My grandmother was a tailor and according to World Book Encyclopedia, tailors at that time received only $278.00 a year.


LE CLAIRE: Very seldom was she paid in cash. More often, we bartered. My grandfather fished and hunted year round. And by having wild game to trade for sugar and coffee and other essentials such as lard – We raised chickens. We raised most of our vegetables. We picked fruit in season every year and canned hundreds of quarts of fresh fruits and vegetables.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, were you – You were five in 1930 and so you spent your childhood during the Depression. How aware were you that times were tough back in the '30s?

LE CLAIRE: It was very evident. There were no luxuries. Our entertainment, once every two months, would be to go to the movies, and we were able to see the Little Rascals, Shirley Temple, sometimes Flash Gordon or even a couple of the other serials, Tom Mix. I mean, I saw him be wounded about 47 times I think, and always recovered, always recovered.

GONDA: Did you know you were poor, Midge, or did you think you were just like everybody else and everybody lived this way?

LE CLAIRE: I thought everybody lived the way…


LE CLAIRE: …that we did where you utilized everything. As a matter of fact, one of the funniest things, in retrospect from my childhood, is a couple of times in school I was voted the best dressed girl and the funny part about this was that all of my clothing, until I was 14, was made from the side pieces of someone else's material.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. Let me ask you about the doll that you've brought in today because it's such a piece from another time. This is a little Shirley Temple doll and you've had it since when?

LE CLAIRE: I've had it since 1936. She's been halfway around the world with me. She spent about 20 years in a trunk. But she sits on one of my bookcases in my room and I've not changed her even though she lost her shoes on Guam when I had a two year old who took them off and put them on and took them off and finally lost them. But she's in her original clothing and Shirley Temple was the biggest attraction as far as entertainment went in the entire decade of the '30s.

CAVANAUGH: She's a little blonde, curly-headed doll and she's sitting right here listening to us talk this morning. I want to take a phone call. We are – We're talking about women's – the Women's History Salute to the 1930s that's going to take place. It's the theme of the Women's History Museum's Suffrage Day event. And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And I want to speak now with Rick in Escondido. And good morning, Rick. Welcome to These Days.

RICK (Caller, Escondido): Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to point out that back in the Great Depression there was a much greater percentage of – your income was spent on food so as compared to today. So, I mean, you could save quite a bit if you were a very – used up all the food and every scrap and so forth. But today, it's a much lower percentage of your income is spent on food so – and a lot of it's spent on housing and transportation, so it's much more difficult for people to, in tough times, to really find ways to conserve. I mean, you can. It just – it's just more difficult.

CAVANAUGH: So in other words, you can't stretch your dollars, you're saying, in the same way that you could in the 1930s because we pay different amounts for different types of things.

RICK: That's right. It's more difficult to do that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you so much for that. Ed is calling us from Lakeside. Good morning, Ed. Welcome to These Days.

ED (Caller, Lakeside): Yes, I was – I'm an octogenarian. I was born like your guest, I, in 1928, and the market crashed in '29, so I grew up during the Depression. It was a – outside of Providence, Rhode Island. In our town, all of the men worked at what they called the print works, which is a big mill, fabric manufacturing. And when that shut down, all the men were out of work. What saved it was the WPA, as soon as Roosevelt was in and that – one of the first things they set up was the Works Project Administration. Also, as we grew up, we would hang around and sit on the piles of dirt. They were putting sewers throughout the town that we grew up in and that took all the houses off septic tanks. It provided work; they got $14.00 a week. And, of course, this was going on all across the country. And it wasn't just the infrastructure of our sewer system, which was a great improvement, they also built a railroad station and in downtown Providence, and you can go through cities all across the country right out here to California, the administration building that was built by WPA and, in fact, Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated that building sometime in the 1930s.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much for that, Ed. That gives us a really good introduction to the idea of how the government tried to help get the country out of the Great Depression. And, Sue, you know, I think it would be – It would really sort of boggle people's minds these days to know how much the government was involved in trying to restart industry, restart the economy. Tell us a little bit about these government programs.

GONDA: Yeah, the other one was the Civilian Conservation Corps that had such a huge impact. There were lots of these so-called alphabetical – alphabet soup, CCC and the WPA org – programs. And some of them worked and some of them didn't. They didn't bring us out of the Great Depression but they did put a lot of people into at least part time jobs, men into part time jobs. There were very few women that were hired in those programs. But there were some women, I mean, this is the interesting thing about the Suffrage Movement in the nineteen – getting the – women getting the vote in the 1920s, that the '30s were an interesting time of women getting placed into positions, government – some of those government jobs, leading some of those organizations. And so hearing the backlash about the healthcare has been interesting for me because, yeah, during these tough times during the Great Depression, the government stepped in and expanded the role of government hugely and, of course, lots of people have been talking about trying to back away from that over the past 25 years or so but the government was trying to infuse money in every conceivable way into the economy. Midge was telling me about how there were incentives at the movies where people could get soap with towels in them or plates or things like that. If you went to the movies, you could get an entire set of plates, and I didn't realize until she told me that today that there were these giveaways. But it meant that those manufacturers, who were producing the soap, producing the dishes, were, you know, were making money.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us a little bit more about that, Midge. What was that like? So you went to the movies every two months.

LE CLAIRE: Every two months. We saved our pennies and when there was a nickel or a dime for me, then I could get into the movies and have a Mr. Goodbar or a Baby Ruth. And we would sit there and we would watch the main feature and a serial and a cartoon. We were watching Felix the Cat, we were watching good old Mickey Mouse, because these were the distractions. This was the entertainment. But, of course, one of the biggest parts of my life and one of the first most vivid memories is when we received our first Philco radio. I was privileged to listen to the World Championship fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.


LE CLAIRE: And when he achieved the knockout, it was heard around the world. And this made such an indelible imprint in my mind that I thought what a wonderful invention. Yes, I had heard of crystal radios and, before that, our entertainment when my grandparents held their dances was to stand on a box and wind the old Victrola by hand so that the records would play. These were the old wax, one-sided records. But people made their own entertainment.

CAVANAUGH: You must've heard the president's Fireside Chats.

LE CLAIRE: Every one of them.

CAVANAUGH: And what were they like? What did they do for people?

LE CLAIRE: Reassure. This was the most comforting thing that you could hear, that someone in authority who knew the condition of the country's economy, who knew the terrible problems that were faced with people losing their homes, having to give up their jobs, losing their education because they could no longer afford to go to school, these were the problems that he addressed. Every facet of your life, he seemed to be aware and in control of or at least had beneficial suggestions where this is what we can do, and together we can do this. And people became so reassured, so invigorated that even if they didn't have anything, they knew that things were going to be better. My grandfather used to say, times are hard but hard times are going.

GONDA: This is where the Roosevelts were really a team because Eleanor was giving him infor – she was his eyes and ears and she was a hugely powerful political individual. I mean, she was fighting for civil rights behind the scenes and finally got it in front of the scenes in a variety of ways, not the least of which was that inauguration when she refused to – when the Daughters of the American Revolution wouldn't let Marion Anderson sing in their building, she said, fine, we're going to move it outside. And so she did a lot of public things for – that made people understand that the Roosevelts understood the hardships of what was going on in the country, and she had a daily column in the newspaper. She put out books. She – And she was feeding him information so that he understood the language even to use.

CAVANAUGH: Eleanor Roosevelt was famous in the 1930s. She would go into coal mines, she…

GONDA: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …would meet with workers, she would – She just went all over the country and people who were going through hard times really seemed to develop a great deal of affection for her.

GONDA: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take a quick phone call. Jim is calling from La Mesa. Good morning, Jim, and welcome to These Days.

JIM (Caller, La Mesa): Good morning. My father used to tell me stories of my grandfather in the Dakotas. He worked for the WPA and he rented out two teams of horses to earn money for the family. And, you know, one thing that hasn't been mentioned is the fact that we were in – the midwest was in a drought during this time and food was difficult to grow because of the lack of rains and regular water. The other thing is, I spend a lot of time – spend my summers up in Yosemite backpacking on trails that the CCC made and, you know, they worked on a lot of National Parks and really did a fantastic job.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Jim. Thanks for sharing that with us. And it makes me think, Midge, did you pick up, as a child, that your grandparents were worried?

LE CLAIRE: Yes. They would sit after dinner. We cooked on a coal stove or wood, and my job was to chop the kindling. Well, by the time I would be finishing up with the dishes and I started when I was five doing the dishes, they would be sitting at the kitchen table and they would be discussing, can we do this? No, we can't do that yet. And we have to put so much away. We had no car. We walked where we went even – I'm sure you've heard the stories, well, I walked a mile to school through…



LE CLAIRE: It really happened.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, it did.

GONDA: Uphill both ways.

LE CLAIRE: Oh, absolutely. So, absolutely. But not only that, by the time the construction job that he was working on had been completed, within two weeks we had to move. I lived in more houses when I was a little girl than I ever dreamed possible simply because at $12.00 a month, the rent for a three-bedroom house was too much to be able to…

GONDA: Well, it…

LE CLAIRE: …provide.

GONDA: It was incredibly stressful, so much so that historians, sociologists, you know, have coined some version of a Depression mentality term. There's a reason why people who grew up during that time still won't throw away a used napkin or a jar or, you know – and I've inherited these traits from my parents. I still can't throw away that little sliver of soap in the tub. I've got to slide it onto that new bar and, you know, make sure that it sticks to that new bar so that every bit of that soap gets used. But, you know, there's – Since everything needed to get used and you had so little, it had an indelible mark that was incredibly stressful. You know, a quarter of women during the nineteen – who were in their twenties did not have children during the 1920s. It was an all-time low for childlessness in America. So it was an incredibly stressful time.

LE CLAIRE: Sue has been to my house many times and this is how a Apparel Americana was born. The largest private collection…

GONDA: She throws nothing away.


CAVANAUGH: But there is a lighter side, if we can actually say this to this terrible time in the 1930s, and that is the idea that you have amassed a collection of costumes from the 1930s and that there was a lot of progress and a lot going on in the arts and culture during the 1930s, too, and that's also something that you're going to be celebrating during your Suffrage Day event in Balboa Park. But let me just ask you, Midge, a little bit about this costume collection.

LE CLAIRE: It all started because of a tantrum when I was four years old. My grandmother made me two little chiffon dresses to wear the first day of school. And, of course, during the Depression, everything that you had was supposed to be passed on to someone else who didn't have what you did, and you needed to share. Well, I didn't mind anything else. I was happy to pass it on to another little girl but when it came to these two dresses, I lay down in the floor, I kicked my feet, and I said, no, no! No, these are mine, these are mine. And I kept them and finally after a rather contentious afternoon, she decided that, well, all right, I could keep these two but none of the others.


LE CLAIRE: I still have those two, and that's what began my interest in collecting special clothing. The oldest piece that I ever acquired was a bonnet that came over on the Mayflower. That also is down at the Women's History Museum and Education Center, on display now. And I have given them close to, I think, it's about 800 pieces, Sue?

GONDA: Roughly, umm-hmm.

LE CLAIRE: That I have bequeathed them, they have those. Many are on display and then I also provided displays for the San Diego Historical Society. They're having an upcoming display where some of them will be on view. Then the Lakeside Historical Society and Ramona…

CAVANAUGH: Wow. In this journey to the '30s for the Suffrage Day events, what are you going to celebrate besides the idea that women made it through the Great Depression? What other aspects of the '30s will be celebrated by the Women's History Museum?

GONDA: Well, first there's a Suffrage Parade. I mean, I think a lot of people don't know that it's actually Women's Equality Day because August 26th was the day that the 19th Amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote. And so there's going to be a parade to commemorate that. And then the Suffrage Ball on – this is August 29th. Then the Suffrage Ball is going to have vintage cars, vintage clothing, and Sue Palmer has a – does swing and big band and people love to – her followers love to get dressed in period pieces as well. And so it's really mostly about just celebrating – It was – You know, the '30s was a very conflicted time for women. On the one hand women were in positions of leadership for the very first time. There were a lot of firsts. Frances Perkins was the first female Cabinet member. She was Secretary of Labor. And there was – And Nina Otero-Warren in New Mexico was also a federal government appointee and she had been a Suffragist. And so there were Latinas in the southwest that were in positions of power. That had never been possible before. And so the – on one hand, there were these kinds of very visible signs of women's progress, if you want to call it that. And on the other hand, of course, there were women being discriminated against by the programs and were, you know, faring very badly during the Great Depression and doing what they could to get by. Some interesting other things were created and I think that there's going to be a little bit of mention of that at the Suffrage Ball and that's that there were new inventions that were created during the 1930s. Ritz Crackers was the new buttery cracker. There – Ritz Crackers were these – crackers were nasty crackers and this was supposed to be like it would be a luxury to be able to have butter in the Great Depression, so to have a cracker that was a buttery taste was – Baby food was invented for the very reason of rickets because of the 1930s. What were some other things? Oh, Spam, which made a comeback in the 1990s and I don't think that's any accident either. And what were some of the other – Toll House cookies, peanut butter cookies, those were invented for the first time during the 1930s. And, you know, there was just a story on NPR yesterday about the swine flu hits minority children the hardest, they've just discovered these days. And so, you know, I'm thinking about how the poorest populations today are being hit hardest by the, you know, by this epidemic and…


GONDA: …the same thing was true in the Great Depression with malnutrition.

CAVANAUGH: And, you know, Midge, as a woman who made it through the Depression and you look about what's going on today, we don't have much time left but if you could tell – Tell me, what you think about the recession that we're in and maybe if you have any words of wisdom for us.

LE CLAIRE: I sincerely believe that because we survived the Great Depression, this one, while it may last as long or even longer, we have learned a great deal about coping skills and by utilizing everything that those of us who are octogenarians and can remember how we coped, how we managed, how we reused – We didn't recycle. We reused. We didn't throw it away so someone else could make something from it. We used it and utilized everything that we could possibly attain. Okay, since we were able to do that, history is in our favor here because we know that we did it before. I really wish that the United States would have its people focus on the fact that we need to pull together to survive. Even if you don't agree with every one of the principles that are being proposed out of Washington, give it your support simply because this is the way out that we have available to us now.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. I want to thank both of you so much for coming in and talking with us today. My guests have been Sue Gonda, chair and professor of history at Grossmont College, and historian for the Women's History Museum and Educational Center. Sue, thank you.

GONDA: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Midge, it's been a delight. Thank you. Midge Neff Le Claire, is a retired historian and historical costumer for the Women's History Museum. I want to let everyone know the Women's History Museum and Education Center's Suffrage Parade and Ball event is Saturday, August 29th, and you can go to for more information. And you can post your comments there as well, Thanks for listening.

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