I suffer from the same senior malady as most of my peers in that I can’t remember what I had for breakfast or where I left my cell phone, but I am blessed with an uncanny recall of things that happened when I was a very small child.
Given the present economic situation, I thought I would share some memories of growing up in Asheville during the Depression years of the early ‘30s.
The first house I remember was on Garden Terrace off Farrwood in north Asheville. It had wall sockets that could accept either a light bulb or a female connector (for the uninitiated, that is one of those little thingies that you plug the lamp into). One of my shocking early lessons in life was not to stick my finger in that socket.
Even at age 2, I was a renegade. One day I got out of the yard and somehow toddled down to Merrimon Avenue. They found me on the other side of Merrimon at the drugstore that was in those buildings next to what is now King’s Barber Shop.
They cured me of running away with a bit of premodern parenting: They tied me to a tree.
I’ve read several great articles by renowned local historian Rob Neufeld about children who grew up on Chicken Hill and around the bleachery. In the interviews, these folks said that even though times were hard, they didn’t know they were poor. Somehow, their determined parents provided for them even under the most challenging conditions.
I don’t think we were poor, as we did have an old car which my daddy used in his business, one of those Eliot Ness telephones, a brown wooden radio that looked like a little Swiss chalet for listening to WWNC (our only station), and a lady who worked around the house and looked after my sister and me while my mom helped my dad in the office.
My dad worked hard in his small hide-and-scrap-metal company, and I would guess that we were at least more comfortable than many in the community.
Apparently our fortunes must have declined, because early in 1934 we moved from that house to a small apartment on Hillside Street, where we lived for a couple of years.
The subject of money (or the lack thereof) was never lost on even the youngest of us. As I recall, a loaf of bread or a quart of milk was about a nickel, and I think eggs were about 10 cents a dozen.
In my infant world, I soon learned that a penny would buy a licorice stick or a large sucker. It would also buy a pack of transfers that Yankees called cockamamies. These were pictures of cartoon characters that, when moistened, would imprint on a piece of paper, your hand or even your clothes.
I always liked it when visitors came to the house, as it was common practice in the South for visiting adults to give small children one or two pennies as a gift.
Aunt Bell, a maiden aunt, lived with my grandparents in Atlanta. When we rode the bus to visit them, I remember her telling us that she had a magic penny tree in her room.
Of course, we children wanted to see the tree, but she said only she could see it. She would go into her room and shake the tree to see if any pennies would fall. We would stand by the closed door, excitedly hearing the rattle of pennies hitting the floor. She would come out and bring my sister and me several pennies she’d harvested from the tree.
If I wanted any major consumer item, I was taught that I would have to save for it. Credit wasn’t in anyone’s vocabulary.
I really wanted a big Mickey Mouse pocket watch that I’d seen in a store downtown. It was $2, and I saved my little gift money and money I got for running errands and for not picking on my baby sister. (Dr. Spock, eat your heart out.)
I had more than $1 saved in a big fruit jar when I found a dollar bill one day while playing down on Hillside. I went screaming back to the house with my treasure. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I loved that watch and took very good care of it for several years.
Home entertainment was mostly free, and despite the fact that we didn’t have the Internet, TV or Wii, we managed to amuse ourselves with checkers, dominoes and card games. Many children knew the value of cards before they even learned to read.
The adults played rummy and bridge (and men sinfully played penny poker—but only after the children were safely off to bed).
For the average family during the Depression, the biggest economic fear was apparently not having enough food. Even in the city, many people grew vegetables, not because of some elitist organic fad but because they wanted to supplement their food supply with the products of their garden, and they canned what was left in preparation for the long, cold winter.
Children were continually admonished not to let their eyes get bigger than their stomach. “Be a clean-plater” was probably the No. 1 cause of obesity in my generation. “Waste not want not,” I was told constantly, though for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how those poor people in China would benefit from eating those awful cooked carrots and Brussels sprouts.
Uh-oh: I just remembered where I left my cell phone. So I’ll have to continue these tiny tales of the Depression in my next installment.
Oh, and another thing I just remembered: It was scrambled eggs and toast.
[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]