How did we ever get through The Depression?

Frank Croft April 9 1960

How did we ever get through The Depression?

Frank Croft April 9 1960

How did we ever get through The Depression?

Babies froze in their beds, women fainted from hunger, jobless men hopped the freights to march on Ottawa. It took a world war to end it all, and even today many of our nation s policies are shaped by the fear that it could happen again


Frank Croft

Thirty years ago Canada — and the world — was shivering through its first winter of the Depression. The one with a capital D. We were entering a decade which was to become known as the Dirty Thirties, as opprobrious an epithet as human beings have ever given to a period of history. It was the Depression of relief camps, food handouts, starvation and humiliation which softened the nation’s muscles and numbed its mind. It was a decade in which job seekers floated from one end of the country to the other on the roofs of boxcars like shipwrecked sailors clinging to rafts. They didn’t know exactly where they were going, but wherever it was, it could be no worse than the place they had left. It was a time when men crowded public libraries for warmth and, when the libraries closed, took shelter in public lavatories.

The Depression of the Thirties wrought greater changes in the country’s economic structure and in its social values than the war which preceded it or the one which came after. It was the start of the welfare state. Unemployment insurance, family allowances, increased old-age pensions and floor prices for primary products may not have been created during the Thirties, but legislators were peering apprehensively over their shoulders back to the bone-chilling Depression years when they enacted those measures in the early Forties. All the pump-priming Keynesian theories of government finance stem from the great Depression and all are effected with the muttered vow. “it must not happen again.”

The official facts of the Depression can be reported simply: in 1933 our gross national product, at three and a half billion, was less than the federal government now collects in taxes; nearly twenty percent of the labor force was unemployed; ten percent of all municipal bonded indebtedness was repudiated because of empty treasuries.

But, in human terms, it was harrassed fathers telling older sons to clear out — hit the roads — so there would be more to eat for the smaller ones; men already on short wages knowingly buying spurious raffle tickets from unscrupulous foremen so they could keep their jobs; a seventy-two-year-old Toronto man stretching out on his rooming-house bed and quietly waiting for death by starvation. Those were the sort of things that still cause a tightening of the lips of anyone born before 1920 at mention of the Depression.

A New Brunswick father with no money for fuel was awakened by the cold one winter night. He looked to see how his three-month-old baby was taking it. The infant was frozen to death.

An Ottawa landlord, the owner of an eight-suite apartment building, collapsed in the street from hunger. None of his tenants had paid their rent for months because they couldn’t. He had eaten through his savings and could buy no more food.

In Vancouver, “Happy” Dunning, an aged character known

throughout the lumber and mining camps of the coast, persuaded a friendly policeman to arrest him for vagrancy, then pleaded with the magistrate for a thirty-day sentence. He explained that he needed the extra month to establish one year’s residence in the city, when he would qualify for relief. Dunning had exhausted the panhandling racket and had nowhere to turn. “1 left the cast when 1 was a young man. Your Worship,” he declared,

“and I've seen tough times before, but you could always make out by moving on. Now every place you go is worse than the last one, and there’s nothing left but jail and then pogey.”

Dunning got his thirty days.

“Pogey” was the word used in some parts of Canada for the food, clothing, and shelter provided by relief agencies. Today unemployment-insurance payments


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“Batt,es between police and jobless were so common that only the biggest ones were newsworthy”

aie often referred to as pogey. But pogey in the depths of the Thirties meant something as different from present-day unemployment insurance as panhandling is from drawing money from your bank account. The word expresses, by its very

sound, the sometimes harsh and always meagre allowances doled out to the unemployed.

Relief administration was not completely organized in many municipalities until 1933 or even 1934 when the De-

pression was almost half over. Even then the allowance for a family was slim enough. A Manitoba judge, L. St. George Stubbs, observed, "It’s not quite enough to live on and a little too much to die on. I oronto had as high a standard as

The stigma of relief

any city in the country; by 1934 a family of seven in Toronto was given $6.93 a week for food. Even though the 1934 food dollar did the work of two dollars and twenty cents today, relief recipients were in no danger of putting on weight. In many places the allowance was below the Í oronto standard. In Newfoundland, not then a Canadian province, it was six cents a day for each member of a family.

It was not just being kept on the border of starvation that demoralized people. It was also the way they were treated in a world in which the pauper was traditionally scorned. Until 1933 all relief in Toronto was issued from the House of Industry, just a couple of blocks from downtown Yonge Street. The House of Industry had been built and staffed to take care of the poor who are with us always; suddenly their numbers were multiplied from the scores to the thousands. All day and every day the street in front of the building was choked with bewildered suppliants waiting their turn for a handout of oatmeal and beans.

I he bitterness of drawing their subsistence in this fashion didn't rob some of the families of a certain ironic humor. One Toronto householder, finding the beans still rock hard no matter how they were soaked or cooked, paved his front walk with them over a period of months.

Even when voucher systems were adopted by nearly all municipalities, the stigma of being a relief recipient was still clearly advertised. Except for groceries, merchandise acquired by voucher was seldom wrapped. Merchants couldn't see why they should wrap shoe boxes or clothing when the customer was in no position to complain. When you saw a man with a coat over his arm during the Thirties it was a good bet that he was either on his way to the pawnshop or had just turned in a relief voucher for it. Many relief officials adopted a hostile attitude. Bessie Touzel, executive-director of the Ontario Welfare Council, says, “It was the old Puritan attitude toward individual worth. Many relief officials, police, and even magistrates and municipal councilors, held to the belief that anyone seeking help was worthless, and was fair game for humiliation and contempt.”

1 spent three days in a southern Ontario town for a Toronto newspaper reporting a strike of relief workers on a municipal project. There were frequent clashes with local police. Stones and tear gas bombs flew, and the Riot Act was read. The Ontario Provincial Police found that the incident had resulted from the insulting manner with which the town clerk had paid the relief workers each Friday.

Battles between police and relief recipients were a daily event. In one month, August 1934, forty-two such battles in Ontario were reported by the Toronto Globe. Probably as many more didn't make the papers. The Depression was not very old when news of unemployed delegations being pushed out of city halls or being cuffed around on street corners by the police became boring, and only the really stirring set-tos were considered newsworthy.

One of these was the great hunger march of 1935. A west-to-east cross-coun-

try trek of unemployed started from Vancouver early in June, determined to mass on Parliament Hill at Ottawa and protest against inadequate relief. They were eighteen hundred strong when they reached Regina. City police and the RCMP descended on the “marchers” (most of whom were traveling by boxcar or hitchhiking) when they assembled in Market Square on July 1. In the bloody fight that ensued, a policeman was killed and scores of police and unemployed were injured. That march was stopped at Regina, but Ottawa saw other invasions of unemployed during the Depression, as well as such pathetic groups as the man and wife from Windsor, Ont., who pushed their baby in a pram all the way to Ottawa to plead for deportation to their native Poland, where things were sure to be better.

In 1935 Vancouver got a taste of real violence when three hundred unemployed stormed up Granville Street smashing shop windows. They entered the Hudson’s Bay Co. store and had smashed or overturned every showcase on the ground floor before the police could stop them. Their reason was that they didn't like being unemployed.

Three years later, three hundred men crowded into the Vancouver Post Office and the same number into the Art Gallery. In both buildings they staged a sitdown strike that lasted a month. Their organizers patrolled the strike and saw that lanes were kept open to the postal wickets. A committee was formed to bring food and provide relief shifts for those who found marble flooring too much to endure more than a day or tw'o at a time. The police tried in vain to evict them by cajolery, threats, and attempts to shove or roll them out. After a week the public found that three hundred jam-packed, bathless bodies were a repugnant gamut to run. Business at the Post Office was curtailed to a minimum. Patronage of the Art Gallery fell to nil. The strike was ended early one Sunday morning by a tear-gas barrage fired by the city police. Out in the streets the strikers, augmented by five thousand sympathizers, overturned cars and smashed windows the length of Hastings Street.

Rural areas, too, had their special problems. In New Brunswick, potatoes sold for ten cents a barrel. Thousands of tons of them were left to rot in the fields. In the west, the price of wheat fell to fifty-four cents a bushel in 1933, but even at that price, wheat growers had little to sell; drought and sandstorms had seen to that. In 1929, Carl Langlet had harvested three hundred thousand bushels on his fifteen hundred acres near Rosebud, Alta. In 1930, he had a three-hundred-bushel crop, and a year later ninety bushels.

Beef brought two cents a pound live weight, hogs a cent and a half and eggs five cents a dozen. John Langlet, who was with his father on the farm in those days and is now living in Toronto, says, “All our implements and all our neighbors’ implements went back to the finance companies. I often wonder what they did with all those separators, tractors and other machinery.” Around Biggar, Sask., farmers burned grain in their stoves during the winter of 1932; it was cheaper than ordinary fuels.

Hundreds of families abandoned their farms and like war refugees crowded the roads in their desperation to reach the park lands or forest belt to the north where a fresh start was made at homesteading—with nothing. Bennett buggies were common vehicles in these migrations. Named for R. B. Bennett, who had the misfortune to be prime minister during the first five years of the Depression,

the buggies were automobiles whose owners could no longer afford gas, oil or licenses. The motors were removed, pairs of trees attached to the front bumpers, and teams hitched on to provide a slow but steady two horsepower.

In spite of such times the westerners didn't lose their bounce. In July 1933, the World Grain Exhibition and Conference was held in Regina. Forty nations exhibited. During the two weeks of the show the provincial government allowed show visitors to drive without license plates. Hundreds of cars which had stood

idle for two or three years in sheds and garages (but still had motors) rolled gaily to the exhibition.

Such mass gaiety was probably as much a gesture of defiance of the fates as it was genuine enjoyment. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in his book, The Crisis of the Old Order, describes the mood of the Thirties in a few cogent words: “The well-groomed men, baffled and impotent in their double-breasted suits . . . the confusion and dismay in the business office and the university . . . the fear in the country club . . . the angry men

marching in the silent street . . . the scramble for the rotting garbage in the dump ... the noose dangling over the barn door.”

Surprisingly few people in Canada sought the release of the noose, but thousands must have been tempted. There were those living in the darkness of total unemployment and the few who kept their places in the sun with steady work at full pay. But there were many others, perhaps more numerous than the unemployed. who lived in a dreadful twilight ghost-ridden by pay cuts. In 1935

the Royal Commission on Price Spreads found that the average wage for furniture workers was $464 a year, chain-store clerks received from $7.33 to $13.46 a week (managers $28), and in Montreal the needle-trades workers were averaging $672 a year.

Every cent had to count. A friend of mine heard you could buy a live chicken for a quarter on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue. He scrounged a quarter, bought a chicken and popped it into a suitcase. Along the street, the chicken started squawking, and mÿ friend had to ignore the hostile glances of passersby and talk his way around a suspicious policeman. When the man reached home, the chicken sensed that the end was near. It escaped the moment the suitcase was opened and led the man a chase through the threeroom Hat while curious tenants collected outside the door. Finally the hen was cornered and slaughtered in the bathtub. The family ate chicken that night; luckily, the gas company didn’t cut oil their service until three days later.

What caused the Depression? The popular villain was the stock-market crash of 1929. But it was merely the thunder clap that signals the breaking of the storm. I he financial atmosphere had been ominous for years. North American farmers who had boosted production to feed a still-reeling Europe in the postwar years found their markets dwindling as European agriculture got back onto its feet.

Farmers on this continent had bought more and more mechanized equipment, most of it on credit. Even before 1929 they were seventeen billion dollars in debt for buildings and implements, and their markets were shrinking. The U. S. banking system was feeling the strain of excessive lending. Much has been made of the five thousand bank failures in the United States during the early Depression years. What is often overlooked is that imprudent lending for goods and for stock market speculation had been mounting in the uncollectable columns from 1924. During the four years immediately preceding the stock-market crash there was an average of three bank failures in the United States every day.

Although a few warnings were heard in the late Twenties, prosperity was accepted by most people as one of nature’s permanent blessings. Inventories were mounting slowly by 1927 and, except in most branches of the automotive industry, they continued to increase during 1928 and 1929, while production was allowed to career ahead unchecked. Then, as the Depression began, any chance of an early recovery was killed by some of

the measures that were taken. In 1930 the United States enacted the extremely high Hawley-Smoot tariff, which practically shut off the American market to the rest of the world. With customary hysteria, American investors abandoned their foreign fields practically overnight and many recalled loans already made. In 1931 the Creditanstalt of Vienna failed, starting a chain reaction of bank failures in Europe. By 1932 international trade was down sixty-five percent from the 1929 figure and world production had declined by thirty-eight percent.

People on a relief diet of oatmeal and tinned pilchard may have thought that the producers of these commodities were the only one's making any money. But there were other industries that nourished. As money for shows, dances, and other diversions melted away people found that their radios offered cheap, constant entertainment. In the first two years of the Depression Canadian radio manufacturers increased their sales by one hundred percent. Radio moved ahead, or at least altered its character, in the studios as well. It was the decade that introduced the Lone Ranger, such sonorously profound pundits as H. V. Kaltenborn, quiz programs and singing commercials.

The vitamin fad

These were good times for bicycle makers, too. In Canada in 1929, new cars had outsold new bikes, five to one. But in 1933, Canadians bought forty thousand new bikes and only 76,000 new cars.

Vitamin-pill makers did a thriving business among millions who couldn’t afford varied diets. In 1938 alone, North Americans gobbled up half a billion dollars’ worth of the pills.

It was also the decade when medical research produced the first sulpha drugs; and Sir Robert Watson - Watt startled British defense experts by showing them the position and course of an aircraft eight miles away — on a radar screen.

And, in spite of all the riots, grief and hunger, the inane segment of the population was as wacky as ever. A fad of eating live goldfish lasted several months. There was a briefer vogue for being buried alive. Jigsaw puzzles were revived, to become a less ephemeral pastime, along with Tom Thumb golf. A Montreal firm, John Lovell and Son, Ltd., was quick to capitalize on the jigsaw-puzzle revival. Every week, Lovell’s put out a new 150piece puzzle at twenty-five cents, and they sold by the thousands. A man could take a Lovell puzzle home, forget his worries

for a couple of hours while he assembled it, then pull it apart and let every other member of the family have a turn.

it was also an era of cranks and crackpots—such as Howard Scott, a New York floor-wax manufacturer who became the apostle of Technocracy. Technocracy, a complicated and confusing theory for replacing “cumbersome money and credit” with “energy units,” was fully understood by almost nobody; but it became a fashionable byword among parlor intellectuals.

Another baffling theory was Social Credit — the creature of a Scot named C. H. Douglas. A Calgary high-school principal and Sunday school teacher, William Aberhart, preached the vision of Social Credit to all Alberta, and most people seemed eager to listen. Like the men on the freight cars, they didn’t know where it would take them, but it would be' better than the situation they were in. In the provincial general election of 1935, they placed fifty-six Social Credit members in the sixty-three seat legislature.

During the next couple of years Aberhart gave Hilter and Mussolini some strong competition for space in Canadian newspapers. His determination to enforce Social Credit brought him frequent comparison with the two dictators. He tried unsuccessfully to compel the banks to back the scrip money with which he proposed to pay every Albertan a twenty-five-dollar-a-month “dividend” that was one of his election promises. And he championed the notorious Accurate News and Information Act, under which Alberta newspapers would have been compelled to print corrective or amplifying statements on government policies at the direction of the chairman of the Social Credit Board. (Though this bill passed the legislature, it was eventually disallowed by the Supreme Court of Canada. )

Social Credit was not the only party born during the Depression. The CCF. ofiering straight democratic socialism, came into being in 1932. Late in July that year leaders of several Canadian labor and farm groups met in Calgary and united their forces into the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The following year its national platform was constructed and proclaimed at a Regina convention and became known as the Regina Manifesto.

All these were the products of the early years. By 1936 things were brightening. In 1933 more than nineteen percent of the labor force had been unemployed; by 1937 this dropped to nine percent. and although there were a few retrogressions after that, the economy was breathing deeply and regularly from the late Thirties on.

According to printed records the Depression ended twenty years ago. But it had too shattering an effect on too many people for it to have been forgotten. Because of it, thousands of young people who left school when it began were denied the satisfaction of doing an honest day’s work until they were in their early or even mid-twenties. For many, the first thirty years of their lives were school, pogey, war and—finally—work. The Impression was just as demoralizing for many older hands. A Hamilton man who had haunted the employment bureau from 1930 to 1938 was finally told to report to a north-end factory. He left the bureau with a jaunty step, but never showed up at the mill. An employment official found him at hjs home later that day in a fit of the shakes. Eight years of idleness had sapped his confidence in his own skill. He was afraid of botching the new job. ★