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Depression & WW2: The End of An Era for America

My son pointed out to me as we settled our bill in a restaurant recently: “Dad, how come you still use cash? Nobody does that any more!” I casually commented that “It reflects the time that I was raised.” There are fewer and fewer of us left anymore. I was born in a transition year – 1941, the year between the Great Depression years and the years of World War II. I was scarred by the tragic years between the early 30s and the early 40s. As a child, I always remember my parents and grandparents commenting on the continuing high unemployment. It did not change until 1942 when the War economy took hold. Even today, friends of mine comment on how well I remember autos of the 1930s. I do because cars were no longer made in the Spring of 1942 due to war production and did not start up again until almost 1946. The cars I saw on the streets of Detroit in my youth were made in the 1930s and remained on the road until almost 1950.

Back to my original point. In 1941, cash was the only real means of exchange. There were no Visa or Master cards, no personal checking accounts to speak of, no electronic transfers, and really the only way to buy food or gas or clothes was by cash. People cashed their checks at the bank on Friday and used the cash to measure their financial progress during the month by the amount of cash they had in the kitchen drawer, a shoe box or their savings account, or in their purse or pants pocket.

Money or cash was valuable. A dollar bought a lot. There were stores that actually sold “penny candy” and my father worked at a bank in downtown Detroit and took the “streetcar” for a cost of $0.05 cents one way. He collected bottles and used the deposits to help cover the fare. I remember my parents collecting their money at the end of the month to pay the $25.00 rent. It did not include the heat so that was a separate expense. Our house was heated by coal and the old saying “the whole 9 yards” was true as the coal trucks delivered coal in trucks that were divided into sections of three, 3-yard sections and they would sell the coal by sections of 3 yards each or you could take the “whole 9 yards.”

Money went a long way. Gasoline was $0.12 cents a gallon and eggs were $0.20 cents a dozen. The average income was about $1,750.00 dollars a year and a new house cost $4,000.00 a year. I find it hard today, even after all the years of being exposed to the new “modern electronic” society,” to adjust to the thinking in today’s society. People will not even pick up change from the sidewalk. Their check is electronically deposited into their checking or savings and most have their mortgages, auto leases, monthly recurring bills, paid directly from their checking account or bank account. I often think back on my relatives who sweated rent and expenses at the end of the month as there was no such thing as credit cards, cash reserves that can be activated when or until you will have the funds to pay for your “overdraft” protection.

I am not sure when we passed the reasonable period in our financial history when money was no longer a concern. People now buy houses with no intention of ever paying them off and just as easily lease cars with a remaining balance at the end of 36-month lease that would choke a horse. I remember people paying cash for cars years ago, something that is so rare today for a number of reasons but mainly because the average cost of a car is well over $36,000+ and this amount is well beyond the total cash outlay used even to buy houses in the United States up until as late as 1965.

I live right now in a small wealthy enclave in North Central New Jersey. Houses run in the millions and taxes are beyond reasonable and well beyond the means of most normal people. I often wonder how people survive but they must find a way but living in New Jersey puts a new meaning to the term “cost of living.”

People lived hard during the period from around 1930 to 1945 suffering years of deprivation only to be followed by the pain of scarcity and rationing of World War II. People needed ration cards to buy bacon. Tires were almost as tough to get as gasoline. It scarred almost everyone and any cash that was “saved” was not to make one more wealthy but for “survival” in case the economy changed and the job that kept you off the bread line disappeared. As my generation slowly disappears, the true meaning of cash will never be the same. Today it means “either the option of either cash or credit” while in 1941 it was a lifeline and a measure of your ability to survive.

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    Judith Bauman
    April 24, 2019

    I see the time you posted this article. I've been up too. Born in '41 myself, I concur with you and still use cash most often. I wish this generation was more fiscally responsible as so many are in debt and struggling. Our government as well is so far in debt that one wonders how & if it will ever be able to maintain a balanced budget. Get some?'S now and continued insights that you can share. Blessings, Judy

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