It was inevitable that comparisons would be drawn between the current financial Ragnarok and the dark years between 1929 and 1934, when the Great Depression left millions jobless, starving and itinerant across the developed world — hell, historians need to get paid sometime! Now that a new Democrat President has been elected, commentators are clapping their hands and the comparisons come faster and thicker than ever. Is Barack Obama the zero-sugar, remixed and revised FDR?
Do the emergence of shanty camps on the outskirts of New York and Los Angeles signal a return to the days of Woody Guthrie singalongs, riding the rails and huddling around oil drum campfires for warmth? Well, to give you a straight answer — probably not, at least not here in Australia, due to a raft of changed factors and social programs that were specifically devised to protect against such a disaster. However, there’s much that a contemporary audience can learn from Depression survivors in terms of lessoning the blow, both mentally and financially.
One indelible image of the Great Depression is the Hobo. The Hobo is now considered a romantic figure and a beloved icon of hipsters, thanks to poets and authors like Utah Phillips, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac. They are considered real “characters” who wanted to be free, to not give a damn and to live a life strictly to their own timetable. While this may be true for a handful, for the majority the reality was starkly different. In 1933, 25% of all workers were unemployed and the stock market had lost 90% of its value.
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In the Midwest, inefficient farming methods and climatic conditions had whipped the topsoil up, creating horribly destructive dust storms that blackened the sky. For most, there was no decision to hit the road — circumstances demanded that is was either move on or face hunger, harsh temperatures or a lungful of Iowa’s finest dirt.
Hobos had existed prior to the Depression — heck, they’d gone so far as to hold a convention in 1896 that laid down the ‘Hobo Code’ that dictated their behaviour. However, it was the collapse of the stock market In the 1930s forced those walking the roads and hopping freight trains to develop a system of communicating with one another. Too many Hobos were being run out of towns by angry crowds, beaten by railway policemen (or “bulls”) or starving for lack of decent sources of grub and shelter.
To that end, they devised a common language, “Hobo Symbols“, symbols that could be chalked or carved into a tree, sign or patch of dirt that indicated both sources of food and acted as warnings. One sign may indicate the presence of a fierce, angry dog and another may indicate that “religious talk will get you a free meal”. These symbols have survived to this day and in some areas of the United States – particularly down South — you can still find them, if you know where to look.
In the midst of the GFC, we’re a lot better placed to communicate with one another — broadband internet is mostly plentiful and easy to access. It should be much easier for us to share information about goods or services that we might wish to use to help lighten our loads and Depression survivors would consider us foolish not to take up the possibility.
Another common feature of the Depression-era was the community or “relief” garden. Most major cities across the United States, and several here in Australia tackled the crisis around them by pooling their resources and using empty plots to grow vegetables and crops. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President In 1933, his New Deal funnelled three billion dollars into the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which supported and developed gardens across the USA. In New York City alone, 5000 vacant lots were turned into gardens which fed their local communities at a return of five dollars worth of vegetables for every dollar spent.
The community garden is an idea that didn’t die following the Great Depression. When World War Two rolled around and resources were in short supply, many of the gardens that had been wound down as the Depression had eased were reinstated, providing local communities with local product and allowing resources to be diverted to the troops fighting across the planet. Today the community garden is undergoing a renaissance as young, inner-city types band together to grow organic vegies. There’s plenty in Australia and you can find out more about them right here.
If there’s one thing that we can draw from the phenomenon of Hobo symbols and community gardens, it’s that one of the most effective ways to ease the burden during a financial crisis is to share — both in terms of resources and knowledge.
When you consider that the Great Depression was only truly broken by the mother of all revenue-raisers, a global conflict, it pays to consider the ways in which long-term arrangements can be made to provide everyone with knowledge and a steady supply of food. I know I’ll be chalking up those mates of mine who are good for a free pint.
Mike Stuchbery works with cultural institutions to make their collections accessible to students, teachers and the general public. He is also the Editor of Macabre Melbourne.
View our Lesson from History column.