We’ve all heard about the tragedy of the Great Depression and the devastating economic impact it had on the United States and countless other countries. During this time, the worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) fell by an estimated 15%, causing mass fallout that included a staggering U.S. unemployment rate of 25%.

The 1930s also brought a period of severe drought and incredible dust storms known as the Dust Bowl. These conditions affected farms in Colorado, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Oklahoma causing them to have little to no production or shut down completely. Tens of thousands of poverty-stricken families were forced to flee their homes and farms and seek work elsewhere in the haggard country.

Drought refugee families from Oklahoma on the highway near Lordsburg, New Mexico. (Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection)

Drought refugee families from Oklahoma on the highway in New Mexico. (Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress, FSA-OWI...

As these stalwart people settled in new areas under scant resources, they adapted admirably to hardships and simply did their best with what they had. This mindset is a valuable one for any prepper who wishes to be ready for adverse circumstances. Today, we examine six beliefs that got our ancestors through these bleak circumstances.

If It’s Broken, Fix or Salvage It

Two men repairing a tractor component, Colfax, Washington, 1941. (Russell Lee / Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection)

Two men repairing a tractor component. (Russell Lee / Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection)

Our current society is heavily based on single-use items. There's truth behind that old saying that “things aren't built the way they used to be”. Hard times prove that these single-use items will not hold up to rigorous daily use. During the Depression, families did not have the money to replace items that broke — in a survival situation, it’s likely we won’t be able to either. The ability to repair your possessions and tools becomes paramount during these moments.

Simple tasks like sewing a button or repairing a torn trouser knee could very well mean the difference between wearing pants during winter or being uncomfortably frigid. When our belongings break now, we throw them away, but in the ‘30s every part of that item would be salvaged and stored for future use or fixed to working order. Small engine repair, plumbing, welding — these are only a few skills that can be vital during grid-down situations. We can’t be experts in all these fields, but as responsible citizens we should have baseline knowledge.

Learn to Cook Creatively

Easy-to-grow plants such as kale and basil can add nutrition as well as flavor to bland meals.

Easy-to-grow plants such as kale and basil can add nutrition as well as flavor to bland meals.

Besides being a necessary part of living, food has always been a source of morale for humans. When families were living off scraps and meager portions during the Depression, it was typically up to women to learn how to make food last, stretch, and be mostly palatable. The Dust Bowl wreaked havoc on the food system, making staple vegetables scarce and meat extremely rare.

Understanding how to prepare and cook meals is vital to survival and wellbeing, physically and mentally. The YouTube channel Great Depression Cooking is an excellent source of inspiration for recipes on a tight budget or when food is scarce. As with all skills cooking is learned through practice. It is better to burn your meal now than when you are starving.

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Roadside food stand near Birmingham, Alabama, in 1936. (Walker Evans / Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection)

Waste Not, Want Not

It’s undeniable that a great deal has changed from the Depression to present-day. Our country’s infrastructure is larger and more complex than ever before, and goods are readily available in a way the people of the 1930s could never have imagined. This is both a blessing and a curse for the modern prepper.

The WPA Gardening and Canning Project in Mississippi helped preserve food to reduce waste. (Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

Regional canning projects helped preserve food to reduce waste. (Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

Modern-day resource availability has certainly made people lazy and numb to the need to be prepared. We see this anytime there is a hurricane coming — no matter how often it happens, people are always rushing to the store to stock up on what they can. Even having a marginal amount of supplies on hand will help avoid last minute rush.

In the ‘30s, however, many supplies were not available readily from the start. Families were forced to make everything they had stretch and get as much use out of items as possible. Simple things we throw away were used for several purposes. For example, food scraps would be boiled to create broths, then the remnants would be composted to create richer soil. Items such as aluminum foil would be wiped clean and reused numerous times for food storage similar to how we use modern Tupperware. Women were encouraged to reuse flour sacks to make clothing for themselves and their families, so much so that flour manufacturers began to print patterns on their sacks.

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Families often repurposed fabrics and made their own clothing. (Russell Lee / Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection)

Be Resourceful and Imaginative

Modern conveniences have lulled many of us into a lack of creativity and resourcefulness. In the 1930s this was simply a way of life. Getting by during such a difficult time came from a family’s ability to adapt and improvise. Simple tasks such as collecting wild dandelions and clover to help give a meal more nutritional value were everyday acts we might never consider today. Healthcare during this time was expensive and not an option for many. Being able to identify and implement home remedies for common illnesses proved imperative and saved the families resources.

A typical garden patch in Hooverville. Portland, Oregon, 1936. (Arthur Rothstein / Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection)

A typical garden patch in Hooverville. Portland, Oregon, 1936. (Arthur Rothstein / Library of Congress, FSA-OWI...

Imagination is not just for children, especially during austere conditions. Using your imagination to create positive events in your mind will help you stay motivated and on the right track to survive. Positivity will help vanquish fear and panic, and should also increase your value in keeping yourself and your family alive.

Community is Key

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A view of Hooverville shacks in 1931. (June Hayward Fifield, Washington State Historical Society)

In areas hit by the Great Depression the hardest, communities — ranging in size from a few families to 15,000 people — cohabited in shanty towns pieced together from scraps. These refugee camps were named “Hoovervilles” after Herbert Hoover, the President at the time. As stated previously, we as individuals cannot be experts in all fields. We must rely at some point on others. Isolation is not a great survival tactic when communities can bring necessary skillsets together. It is also important to understand that these shanty towns helped in creating and organizing barter systems that would help people get goods and services that were in desperate need.

Never Give Up

Unemployed lumber worker, Oregon, 1939. (Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress)

Unemployed lumber worker, Oregon, 1939. (Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection)

The most important lesson to take away from our ancestors who survived the 1930s is an unyielding refusal to give up. Men would go out every day looking for work, trying to provide for their families. They didn’t stop. And at the time when secretaries, teachers, and nurses were all female-dominated fields, women would often become the only bread winners in a multi-generational family. These harsh times created strong men and women who persevered because they had the right attitude and mindset for survival.

Bring it All Together

The Great Depression is an immensely important event in United States history, as well as world history. The hardships endured by the population have not been replicated since, but that does not mean that we won't face them again in the future. We as a prepared society should heed warning signs and try to maintain our vigilance, even in times of plenty. We cannot prepare for every possible situation, but by keeping the mindset of our stalwart ancestors we can be that much more ready to survive.

About the Author

Alexander Crown OFFGRIDweb author photo

Alexander Crown served as an Infantryman with the Scout/Sniper Platoon of the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Ft. Richardson, Alaska, where he specialized in radio communications and reconnaissance. Since separating, Alexander spends his time as an avid outdoorsman and hunter with an appreciation for self-sufficiency in the form of gardening. He also enjoys woodworking, firearms, and reloading. You can follow him on Instagram @acrown509.

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