Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Fall/Section010/Willie Jones

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Part of old plantation showing tenant houses in foreground. Between Greensboro and Athens, Georgia
Typical southeastern Georgia farm with newly harvested field of oats (May 1939)

Willie Jones[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Willie Jones was the owner of “Jones’ Flower Shop” in Athens, GA when she was interviewed in late February of 1939. The interview took place while Jones worked on sending out mail-in flower orders on what she described as a “slow day.” Jones does not mention her place or time of birth, let alone many details regarding her family history. Instead, she focuses on the development of and her feeling regarding her business. Thusly, much of the content of the interview describes the meticulous attention to detail and ability to multi-task possessed by Willie Jones as she gives a small glimpse into the story of her life.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Miss Willie Jones was the owner of “Jones’ Flower Shop,” a popular florist shop in Athens, Georgia. At the time of being interviewed, Jones had been in the floral business for sixteen years. Her shop saw frequent business, and was located in the heart of Athens on the corner of College avenue alongside many other shops.

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Jones was born at an unspecified time either in the late 19th or early 20th century, being a middle aged and experienced business owner by the year 1939. On her family's economic status during her childhood, she said, "There were six of us children and while we were still in school, father lost most everything he had except our home, by going on notes for his friends. That has been a lesson to me In my business." Once this occurred, the children of the family were forced to quit their schooling and begin work in order to support one another. It was during this time that Jones was able to gain an appreciation for the care of flowers, as it became her main means for making money. She and her sister would plant flowers on every bit of available land on their property, and eventually saved up enough for a small greenhouse. Eventually she and her sister simultaneously ran a small resort and flower business on the family property, but would stop working together when Jones decided that she did most of the hard work and therefore could make it on her own.

Moving to Athens and Personal Life[edit | edit source]

Following her departure from the business she owned with her sister, Willie Jones moved into a small house on the outskirts of Athens, Georgia. She was initially hesitant to take a loan on the house due to the financial irresponsibility of her father. Eventually she accepted financial help and was able to pay everything off in due time, eventually greatly expanding the size of the house and adding a greenhouse. This house would come to be occupied by Jones and the family of her nephew, who she greatly enjoyed the company of. She would end up sharing a car with her nephew, who would give her rides to and from her place of business due to her never having learned to drive. On the day of the interview, her nephew was unable to pick her up, causing her to remark, "Guess I'll have to use a taxi again for that nephew of mine has not come back yet." Looking forward to the future, she said, "I really have had to work, but in spite of all my handicaps, I have made a good living, and now I am trying to lay aside enough to take care of me when I get to where I can't work. I do have a time with my social security payments and records. In fact, I still don't entirely understand them; I really don't know what it all means, but I don't object to it and I am willing to do my part."

Opening "Jones' Flower Shop"[edit | edit source]

Female business owners in the early 20th century were a rare breed, but Jones managed to create a popular and respected establishment following her departure from her old venture. At her business, she took particular pride in being trusted enough by the community to make her own selections of flowers for customers, whether they were for hospital rooms, funerals or weddings. She would often think about the effect her flowers would have on those who purchased them, and often worried about if her selections were good or not. The shop she was interview at was not her first. Of this she said, "I started out in a very small place, and I have had to move twice because I needed more room for my business, for it has grown from year to year, and now I'm getting just about all the trade I can take care of." Not only did Jones handle the preparation and taking-in of orders, but she also handled all the bills and finances for the shop, which she admitted was initially beyond her capabilities. She demonstrated an awareness of the hardship caused by the economic conditions at the time, as demonstrated by her relationship with a man who she would frequently give free flowers to, saying "he comes in nearly every day just to look at my flowers. He really is a lover of flowers. I often give him a few for I imagine he can't afford to buy them." Through over a decade of hard work and a lifetime of experience with flowers, Jones was able to become a central facet in Athens and an example of an American success story during a time where these were few and far between.

Social Context[edit | edit source]

The Great Depression in the state of Georgia[edit | edit source]

Previous to and during the Great Depression, the state of Georgia had an economy nearly entirely based on their ability to be agriculturally productive. The main cash crop of the state, like that of many others in the South, was cotton. This incredibly financially lucrative crop was harvested by poorly paid sharecroppers, who were often either saw slavery firsthand or were the descendants of people who did. However, an economy based on a solitary crop being harvested by poorly paid and often subjugated black workers proved to be more unstable than the people of Georgia would have hoped. This fragility was exploited by a new pest known as the Boll Weevil. According to the Georgia Historical Quarterly, “Spreading eastward from Texas, the boll weevil reached Georgia’s borders about 1913. It did not affect all areas at once, however, and because of this and the persistent dreams of prosperity prevailing in the state, farmers refused to take the weevil seriously.” [1] This occurring concurrently with the crash of the stock market spelled doom for the economic stability of the state of Georgia. As the economy failed, opportunities for work quickly dried up, with the situation getting so bad that "...hours worked per adult in the United States were more than 20 percent below normal throughout the 1930s." [2] The financial ruin resulting from these developments would define the playing field for all individuals attempting to open or operate businesses over the course of this decade. As mentioned within the New Georgia Encyclopedia, “The depression’s immediate impact on Georgia was much like that throughout the nation as a whole. Bank failures were common, and in small towns and communities’ opportunities for loans dried up. Small business owners were especially vulnerable. Less money in local circulation meant fewer paying customers; with the absence of credit and financing, these business owners quickly went under.” [3] Compounding issues affecting the economic viability of Georgia caused many individuals to make poor choices with their money out of desperation, leading many to further financial ruin, oftentimes sowing the seeds for generational poverty. By the year 1939, the citizens of Georgia were finally able to place some of these problems hesitantly in the rearview, but the effect of the sudden economic downturn a decade prior was still felt by all and would continue to be felt for years to come.

Women entering the workforce following the "New Deal"[edit | edit source]

In response to the economic hardships faced by Americans during the Great Depression, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed and helped pass the New Deal. This legislative package was designed to overhaul the American system of social safety nets, such as the development of Social Security. Alongside these changes was a notable expansion of working opportunities for women. These developments were detailed in Maria Luz Arroyo Vázquez’s article "The Empowerment of American Women During The Great Depression in Comparative Perspective.” There, she claims, “Women were appointed to relevant government positions and played key roles in the development of the Roosevelt Administration, mainly during the New Deal. Roosevelt himself and his federal government fostered these expanded roles for women who worked as heads of Federal agencies, as political advisers, in the New Deal’s relief programs, etc.” [4]As the concept of the working woman became increasingly normalized within a society that couldn’t afford them to remain at home, so too did these opportunities become more ubiquitous and widespread. During the 1930s there were many lines of work that were extremely hazardous. Women were largely absent from these roles, as "...by 1940, 90 percent of all women’s jobs could be catalogued into 10 categories like nursing, teaching, and civil service for white women, while black and Hispanic women were largely constrained to domestic work." [5] This changing economic landscape was one that many of the nation's first female workers and business owners were able to take advantage of.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Holmes, Michael S. (1974). "From Euphoria to Cataclysm: Georgia Confronts the Great Depression". The Georgia Historical Quarterly 58 (3): 313–330. ISSN 0016-8297. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40579989. 
  2. Ohanian, Lee E. (2009-11-01). "What – or who – started the great depression?". Journal of Economic Theory. Dynamic General Equilibrium 144 (6): 2310–2335. doi:10.1016/j.jet.2009.10.007. ISSN 0022-0531. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022053109001215. 
  3. "Great Depression". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2021-10-19.
  4. Vázquez, Maria Luz Arroyo. "The Empowerment of American Women During The Great Depression in Comparative Perspective.” Review of International American Studies 2:141-156.
  5. Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. "Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women". HISTORY. Retrieved 2021-10-19.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Holmes, Michael S. “From Euphoria to Cataclysm: Georgia Confronts the Great Depression.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 58, no. 3 (1974): 313–30.
  • Vázquez, Maria Luz Arroyo. "The Empowerment of American Women During The Great Depression in Comparative Perspective.” Review of International American Studies 2:141-156.
  • Ohanian, Lee “What – or who – started the great depression?”. Journal of Economic Theory, Volume 144, Issue 6, Pages 2310-2335, 2009
  • Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Underpaid, but Employed: How the Great Depression AFFECTED Working Women.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 11, 2019.
  • Zainaldin, Jamil. “Great Depression.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. Accessed September 30, 2021.