Book review: The depression years

A Secret Gift by Ted Gup

I have just finished reading the most interesting book “The Secret Gift” by Ted Gup.

—what was life like for the ordinary folk in the town of Canton, Ohio in 1933?

It was horrible — with no jobs and no money, many families had nothing — some didn’t even have a roof over their heads, shoes on their feet, food on the table or even a coat to keep themselves warm.  However, in the midst of such terrible conditions people struggled on—they didn’t complain (or whinge as we like to do today) and even though many might have wanted to give up, they kept up the fight for survival. Mums and dads both searched desperately for what every work they could find, every cent was precious—no one had the luxury of sitting around and doing nothing.  Some had no choice but to take their children to the local orphanages as they simply couldn’t look after them (other children died from malnutrition). Suicide, drinking, turning to crime or simply abandoning ones families all increased during the Great depression. 

In December 1933 an anonymous letter appeared in the local newspaper (see bottom of story) asking people to send letters to a Mr B. Virdot with their stories and why they should receive $5 at Christmas (he had $750 to give away). Many, who would never normally share their pain with others, wrote heart-breaking letters to this anonymous man in hope for a few dollars, not that they really wanted charity, they just wanted to work but with no jobs, many didn’t have any choice.  This book is about the anonymous man. Mr B. Virdot (or more correctly Samuel Stone), and the many letters of desperation. It really does put life in perspective.  (The letters written can be found in the link above.)

The author (the grandson of the Samuel Stone) investigates some of the families who received the $5 gift to see what happened to them.  Some did ok, some did really well, however others never fully recovered from the Depression and the scars from their ordeal could not be erased – both physically (poor health) or mentally, often resulting in dying at a younger age. Many families passed on their frugal living skills well into the next generation - wasting nothing and appreciating everything they had. This wasn’t an era of handouts or high expectations of government, it was an era of battling on no matter what happened and trying to make the best of a very bad situation.  During those "hard times" people did turn to each other for help, something I think we have lost today and should do more of. Bartering and sharing (when no one had money) did help in a small way.

Whilst my parents were young during this period, they both remembered the need living fugally  and using up everything they had (waste not, want not mentality) and my mother can remember seeing families on the street surrounded by all their furniture with nowhere to live. 

Whilst life today isn't as tough as in the depress years (governments do help more now than they use to), many families are struggling and the gap between the very rich in America and the poor/working class is now much much bigger.  

Some facts about the Great Depression:
  • During the worst years of the Depression (1933-1934) the overall jobless rate was 25% (1 out of 4 people) with another 25% taking wage cuts or working part time. The gross national product fell by almost 50%. It was not until 1941, when WWII was underway, that unemployment officially fell back below 10%.
  • Some people starved; many others lost their farms and homes.
  • Between 1929 and 1933, 10,763 of the 24,970 commercial banks in the United States failed. Life savings were lost leaving people with no money.
  • Between 1930 and 1935, nearly 750,000 farms were lost through bankruptcy or sheriff sales.
  • During the depression nearly 1.5 million women were abandoned by their husbands—many women tried to find work where-ever they could to provide for their families.
  • Severe drought and dust storms exacerbated the Great Depression because it dried out farmlands and forced families to leave their farms. On May 9, 1934, a dust storm carried an estimated 350 million tons of dirt 2,000 miles east ward and dumped four million tons of prairie dirt in Chicago. The drought and dust killed tens of thousands of animals
  • In 1932, half of all workers in Cleveland, Ohio, were jobless. And in Toledo, Ohio, four out of five were jobless.

Look how long it took for the US economy to improve and employment to return to anything normal - sadly this recovery had more to do with war than anything else. The US government pumped huge amounts of dollars in the war effort and buying equipment.

Mr B. Virdot's advertisement that appeared in the newspaper in December 1933:

In Consideration Of The White Collar Man!
Suppose if I were confronted with an economic situation where the bread of tomorrow is the problem of today—there is a question in my mind if I would accept charity directly offered by welfare organizations. I know there are hundreds of men that are confronted with economic problems and think, feel and act the same way.
To men or families in such position the maker of this offer, who will remain unknown to the very end, will be glad if he is given an opportunity to help from 50 to 75 such families so they will be able to spend a merry and joyful Christmas.
To such men or families that will request such financial aid, the writer pledges that their identity will never be revealed. Please write:
B. Virdot, General Delivery, Canton, Ohio
In writing, please familiarize me with your true circumstances and financial aid will be promptly sent


  1. Both my parents grew up during the depression years. Mum tells of making dresses out of the empty flour bags ~ & even smalls. However they were on QLD farms so there was always food ~ just nothing else. My mother is an extraordinary reuser to this day. Everything gets recycled!

    1. I think that whilst we wouldn't want to got through another depression I do think it would be good if the modern generation wasn't so wasteful and expected everything "now". No one wants to wait therefore no one saves money these days and puts everything on credit. I think the depression taught our parents and grandparents generation a lot about being careful and as you say recycling.

  2. There was certainly a lot to learn from those experiences, but those were horribly tough times - it must have felt like they couldn't get a break - firstly WWI, then the depression and drought, and then WWII! One thing piled on another with little break between.
    I can't imagine being that desperate - we are all relatively rich these days - however we have been working hard lately on learning to make use of everything we possibly can rather than sending so much off to the compost or rubbish bin. We learn a lot by watching documentaries such as BBC's Victorian Farm etc - they knew how to make use of everything possible in past eras and we can learn a lot from them!!

    I sometimes wonder how people these days would handle the things past generations had to endure. Too many people have lost basic skills, and rely on modern technologies etc, and as you said, people don't always know how to rally together and truly help one another selflessly.

    1. I doubt many of us could cope with living through these conditions. The first thing we do now is whinge to the government and expect handouts. In the early 1930s in the USA getting handouts was almost impossible - they had to think on their feet. The interesting thing about this book is the number of “once well off families” who had lost everything when the banks and their businesses collapsed and by 1933 they had nothing like everyone else.

      I am trying to be much more careful about using up things before opening a new product, eating leftovers (which at times required creativity!) and growing my own food as much as I can. I am also try and make food stretch longer - eg eat less meat. We all eat far too much and cutting back isn’t going to make us hungry!! And home cooking is SO much cheaper than buying takeaway!!

    2. Yes, we are trying to eat less too - and that includes less meat. There is a lot more protein in vegetables etc than most people realise. Not that we will be skipping on meat altogether - we believe God gave us meat to eat from all the examples in the new and old testament... But it doesn't mean we have to eat heaps of it all the time.

  3. My parents were also on farms so always had something to eat and a home. 1.5 million men deserted their wives??? Yikes. I wonder whether this created the drifter as in Australia with the sundowners? My father certainly remembered the swaggies passing through and tales of their jumping the rail motor. They also had relatives stay at times. Yes, people bartered and pulled together out of necessity.

    1. I think we did a little better in Australia - at least in rural areas. It would be almost impossible to find out how bad the homeless was here in our cities but I think you are right, the drifter/swaggies were probably a result of the depression and I think from memory we also had drought in the 1920s sometime to that forces farmers off the land. It was a miserable time.


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