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The Depression Came to Town and ...

WHEN I bragged that I am an alumnus of the real Depression, I got a call from a college student who wanted to talk to me about what effect that Depression had on the town where I endured it. I like to be kind to the young folks, but I'm wondering if I can make today's sophisticated scholar aware of our situation in the 1930s. Fact is, I seem to recall, that the only effect on life in my town was that Doc Payne got a job with the WPA.

Doc was a special character we all admired, and that he managed without gainful employment was nothing new to any of us. But to Franklin Delano Roosevelt it became a National Emergency Disaster. Doc's doctorate was spurious, but he was a Democrat. Once a week, now, he would go to the town house to get his WPA check, for which he straightened street signs, washed the fire engine on Mondays, watered the petunias by the town flagpole if it didn't rain, and by such industry made more money than did Herbert L aramie Osborne, who owned the bank, the livery stable, and the bowling alley, but was a Republican.

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We had two other Democrats in town - Herb Keene who had the fish-packing plant, and Buzzer Pettigrew who had owned the local telephone franchise but had just sold it to N. E. Tel. & Tel. for $3 million. I never heard of a Republican who got a boondoggle appointment.

The rest of us made out as best we could. Understand that money was not so important then. Pond ice was cheap, but our ice-man was viewing with dismay the new sign over the hardware store that said, "Frigidaire Dealer." Radios were available, but broadcasting stations, and networks, were yet to become important. The movies (three nights a week) cost 25 cents, but the "talkies" were an innovation.

On Wednesday nights we generally got Evelyn Brent or Richard Barthelmess. Because of the Depression we didn't have to cut down on power lawnmowers, washing machines, electric toasters, and suchlike frivolities because we didn't have them anyway. Some of our lobster catchers (14 cents a pound!) were still fishing with sailing sloops.

In the 1930s, the automobile of fashion was either the Model A Ford or a comparable "Chevvie." If you had $500, the salesman would be all over you. In 1932, I gave $52 for a Model A with rumble and rode around in it for seven years. The $2 was because the horn still worked. For $1, I could buy five gallons of gasoline and a quart of No. 30 oil and get six cents change. The new and upcoming chain groceries were offering "loss leaders," items on which they deliberately lost money to entice customers. Mothe r could buy two weeks' groceries for $10 and bring home change, and we ate a lot of loss leaders.

I may tell this eager student about television. In 1932, the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped. I had just bought a high-priced radio from Jordan Marsh for $16 - the first "parlor" set with a speaker that included a shortwave band. It was the "police" band, and away up here in Maine I could tune in the New York Metropolitan Police. Amazing! So I was tuned, and the Lindbergh baby case came on.

But as I listened there was some interference, so my signal was interrupted, and then a voice said, "This is station so-and-so, and if you hear us we are broadcasting experimental television signals. You cannot receive a picture, but if you hear our series of vibrating audio signals, we would appreciate a postcard from you."

As I listened to the Lindbergh dispatches I also got beeps and twitters, and every few minutes a repetition of the television remarks (tapes hadn't been thought of). I sent in a postcard, but postage then was 1 cent. We didn't have the great expense of a television in the Depression, and managed.

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Maybe I should tell this student about the great expense of containers. Things we buy today are all packaged, and the packages cost us much money to attain and much more to throw away. Our economy back in the 1930s didn't have the big disposal figure. The odd paper bag got used again, and we saved string. Most families still kept a cow and had a pig, and every house had a hen coop out back. Our best schoolmarms got $1,000 a year, and boys and girls didn't stay after school for athletic activities. They h ad to hurry home (on foot) and do their chores.

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