Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Fall/Section010/Ella Burns

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Ella Burns was interviewed as part of the Federal Writer’s Project by Gladys Buck in 1938.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Background[edit | edit source]

Ella Burns was originally from Grand Cayman Island, but she moved to Princeton, Florida a year after her husband did. Her husband worked many jobs when he came over that allowed him to support their family in an upper middle-class lifestyle. When he passed away, Burns became the head of the family.

Family Life[edit | edit source]

Home of an upper-middle class family living in Princeton, Florida, 1939.

Burns was the eldest of a large family, composed of her 4 kids and 17 grandchildren. After her husband passed, she started to live with her daughter and 3 of her grandchildren, still in Princeton. Burns never worked an actual job; she was considered a typical housewife in this era. Despite this, Burns’ daughter indicated that she was the hardest worker she knew, always doing something for the family. The family’s income came from Burns’ pension from the government and her daughter’s wages from running a local convenience store. These two sources of income allowed the family to live happily and healthily. Burns hints that they may not have been the richest family, but they were better off than many others. Additionally, Burns and her family were strong Methodists and Democrats, and had been their whole lives. Religion played the biggest role in Burns’ life, as opposed to the rest of her family who didn’t let it influence their morals. Burns was also the least politically active, she never voted because she found it to be a waste of time.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

The Role of Housewives[edit | edit source]

Housewife working in the kitchen with her children, 1942.

The severe economic crisis of the Great Depression created obstacles for housewives whose primary role was to work around the house to support their family. Their role consisted of washing clothes and dishes, cleaning the house, cooking, taking care of children, and sometimes making clothes. With less income being brought home, housewives had to find a way to make more out of less. Lindsey Konkel, history journalist, wrote that, “Women’s magazines and radio shows taught Depression-era homemakers how to stretch their food budget with casseroles and one-pot meals. Favorites included chili, macaroni and cheese, soups, and chipped beef on toast” (2018). Women had to utilize these options because they had less money to purchase food to feed the family. The housewife role was even more difficult for widows, as they did not have a husband providing a source of income for the family. The article, “Role of Women during the Great Depression”, explained that it was harder for women than men to find work during the depression because employers thought men deserved work more (2021). Thus, widows were forced to stay home and complete in-house duties, but they had very little money to work with. To compensate for this, families often had to add an extra income maker, if possible (Konkel 2018). The lack of jobs available for women and lack of income in general made their typical housewife roles much harder.

Changes to Religion[edit | edit source]

While there was a new enlightenment in religion during the Depression, many experts claim that the New Deal Era signified the end of the Protestant Era. During the Great Depression, churches and religious officials attempted to re-boot the economy by sponsoring schools, hospitals, orphanages, and many other community places. Up until the Great Depression, religious institutes played a major role in running society, so they felt it was their place to do this. Of course, this drew more people to churches, but not permanently. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the New Deal, which had many plans to restart the economy, a shift from church to state was seen throughout society. Now, people turned to the government, instead of churches, to get them out of the depression. For example, “Activists who once oversaw the administration of relief and pushed for reform as part of religious organizations now signed up to do the same as part of the federal government. These reformers generally retained their religious commitments” (Greene 2011). This example was commonly seen in younger generations, where they kept their religious beliefs, but began to put more trust in the government. This was less common in older folks because they have spent their whole lives relying on the church, so they maintained huge commitments to the church even after the New Deal.

Politics During the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

Prior to the Great Depression and New Deal, the south had been referred to as the “Solid South”. A term referencing the fact that the south always voted strictly democrat in political elections. However, the New Deal Era started a realignment process that would eventually become our political parties now. This was due to FDR’s policies of increasing the government’s presence in the economy and improving the lives of African Americans. The New Deal era was confusing, though, because most southerners had not yet switched parties. This is likely why President Franklin D. Roosevelt won the election by a landslide, because almost everyone in the country was voting democratic.

Another interesting thing to analyze during this time was voter turnout. The voter turnout was very low in the years leading up to, and during the Great Depression. In fact, “National turnout in the presidential election of 1920 was 49.2 percent” (Prindle 1979). This is a very low voter turnout, indicating that most US citizens were not using their voice in government. People either felt that their vote didn’t matter, that it was a waste of their time, or that they didn’t understand politics enough to vote. However, in the 1940 election, voter turnout was much higher. It is unknown what exactly caused this increase in voter turnout, but we do know that it helped President FDR win another election.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Buck, Gladys. 1938. “Federal Writers Project Papers- The Burns Family.” Federal Writers Project Papers. UNC Library. December 30. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/search/collection/03709/searchterm/folder_98!03709/field/contri!escri/mode/exact!exact/conn/and!and/order/relatid/ad/asc/cosuppress/0.

Greene, Alison Collis. 2011. “The End of ‘The Protestant Era’?” Church History 80 (3). Cambridge University Press: 600–610. doi:10.1017/S0009640711000667.

Konkel, Lindsey. 2018. “Life for the Average Family during the Great Depression.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. April 19. https://www.history.com/news/life-for-the-average-family-during-the-great-depression.

Perrott, George St. J., Edgar Sydenstricker, and Selwyn D. Collins. 2005. “Medical Care during the Depression1: A Preliminary Report upon a Survey of Wage-Earning Families in Seven Large Cities2.” Milbank Quarterly 83 (4). doi:10.1111/j.1468-0009.2005.00418.x.

Prindle, David F. 1979. “Voter Turnout, Critical Elections, and the New Deal Realignment.” Social Science History 3 (2): 144–70. doi:10.2307/1171198.

2021. “Role of Women during the Great Depression.” Of Mice and Men. Accessed September 30. https://ofmiceandmenresearchproject.weebly.com/role-of-women-during-the-great-depression.html.