Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Summer/105/Section 15/Ed Smalley

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Ed Smalley[edit | edit source]

Ed Smalley was a knitter during the Great Depression.

Ed Smalley
BornAugust 18 1912
Fort Worth, Texas, United States

Personal Life[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Ed Smalley was an only child born on a small cotton farm in Texas on August 18th, 1912. His mother got sick and died when he was twelve – a huge blow to both him and father. But her death also drove them closer together.

While his father would farm a small amount of crop every year, Smalley spent most of his time studying, eventually passing grammar school and graduating high school. While in high school, his father got sick, and as a result, could not work on the fields as much. Medical expenses were high, and Smalley ended up hiring a helping hand, sending his father into debt. After his father’s death in 1929, Smalley worked at a restaurant, using his $6 paycheck to gradually pay off the mortgage on his house and the loan his father had taken out. However, his house ended up burning down only a couple months later, so he let it go for debt.

This Texas tenant farmer brought his family to Marysville, California in 1935. He shared his story with photographer Lange, saying, "1927 made $7000 in cotton. 1928 broke even. 1929 went in the hole. 1930 went in still deeper. 1931 lost everything. 1932 hit the road." Dorothea Lange/Farm Security Administration

Working Life[edit | edit source]

Not long after, Smalley lost his job, and like many other men during the Great Depression, ended up travelling across the country to find work. He hopped into a car with his waiter friend, Sam Haines, and three other waiters, and travelled across Texas to find work. Ultimately, after not finding any work, the group travelled up to Monroe, Louisiana, where the car gave out and they had to hop on a freight train to New Orleans, Louisiana. There, the group splintered off, with one finding work on a banana boat, and two leaving for Florida, leaving Smalley and Haines together.

Eventually, Haines found work as a waiter in Birmingham, Alabama whereas Smalley still found nothing. Not willing to rely on Haines for food, shelter, and money, Smalley decided to set out on his own, hopping off freight trains and sleeping on benches while in search of a job. Smalley recalls that his suit was soiled as he could not afford to get it pressed and cleaned, but that compared some other families, he was still much better off. He was young, in good health, and only had to take care of himself whereas some other people had babies to raise while being broke and on the road.

In a stroke of luck, he found work as a grease monkey at a car service station in Greensboro, North Carolina. And in another stroke of luck, he also managed to talk his into getting three free plates of food a day at a local diner on the condition that he’d advertise the diner while washing people’s cars. In combination with his shabby $2 boarding house fee, he was able to accumulate $89.98 in savings, a large sum of money in 1930. With this money, he was able to move up to Burlington, North Carolina and train as a knitter at a textile mill without pay for three months.

Later Life[edit | edit source]

Not long after, Smalley was able to afford his first car. He married his wife, a looper, in 1935, and together, they bought some property and built a house. However, they ended up just renting out the house and instead, found a rented unit in the countryside, not too far from town or the textile mill. Together, the Smalley’s raise some chickens, a beautiful daughter, and her doll.

The Great Depression[edit | edit source]

Unemployment[edit | edit source]

Following the Stock Market Crash of 1929 (“Black Thursday”), consumer confidence vanished, leading to a series of bank runs that ultimately drained banks dry and forced them to close. Many Americans failed to receive their deposits fully back in cash, thus leading to a general distrust of banks. Instead of depositing their cash into banks, some Americans opted to keep their money on them, sometimes hiding their savings in sock drawers and under mattresses as they deemed these methods more trustworthy than keeping it in a bank.4

As the economy worsened from the stock market crash and the failure of banks, unemployment rose with over 4 million unemployed in 1930 and 6 million in 1931.4 Widely accepted estimates show that the percentage of the US civilian labor force without work rose from 2.9 in 1929 to 22.9 in 1932. Many classified as employed were on short time and some had also experienced wage cuts.2

However, unemployment did not affect equally. Rather, it “seemed to choose its victims blindly, crushing this person and sparing his neighbor without apparent reason” (Garraty 1976, 134). Indeed, women gained jobs during the Great Depression. Though women had been steadily entering the workforce for decades, the financial pressures of the Great Depression drove women to seek out jobs at a much higher rate than before.4 It is estimated that from 1930 to 1940, the number of employed women in the United States rose 24 percent from 10.5 million to 13 million.2 It must be noted, though, while women gained jobs, they still made less money than men, and in some instances, were seen as taking away jobs from men even if the job was historically done by women anyways. Nevertheless, the Great Depression ushered a social change in American society where women were seen as more capable than before in the workforce.4

Self-Reliance[edit | edit source]

Men were historically seen as the breadwinners of the family in American society. Thus, when the Great Depression hit in 1929, the dependency resulting from unemployment caused a great shock in the American population because of the prevailing worship of self-reliance.3 It was disgraceful for man to be incapable of providing for himself and his family. In some cases, men had to leave their families behind to find work in big cities, like Chicago, sending back paychecks to keep their families well fed and clothed.5

This idea of rugged individualism was well reflected during Herbert Hoover’s administration (March 4, 1929 – March 4, 1933). Hoover initially denied federal aid for the unemployed, citing that the responsibility should fall under local governments, state governments, and private organizations instead. He believed that it was the responsibility of individuals to take care of themselves and not rely on assistance from the government.4 As such, there was no national unemployment benefits or social security, so should the destitute have enough courage to seek out aid, they would’ve had to go to private charities or poorly arranged local relief sites to receive it.2 Indeed, it wasn’t until Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ascension to the office (March 4, 1933 – April 12, 1945) did the federal government start providing programs, projects, jobs, reforms, and regulations that targeted the country’s need for relief, recovery, and reform from the Great Depression.1

Luckily, despite the little governmental aid during the beginning of the Great Depression, many Americans were already prepared to survive with limited supplies because of the conservation efforts during World War I (Jul 28, 1914 – Nov 11, 1918). Indeed, many cooking habits cooking habits originally associated with the Great Depression originated in World War I. With incredible ingenuity and a greater reliance on breadlines and soup kitchens, many families could make nourishing meals from simple, limited ingredients. Slowly, newspapers and advertisements started focusing more on cost effective recipes rather than delicacies. This food culture shift reflected a larger public focus on reusing, reducing, and recycling to survive.1

While rugged individualism ultimately did not pull Americans out of the Great Depression, it is important to note that the desire to be self-reliant did help many Americans stay afloat and make do with what they had.

References[edit | edit source]

1.    Molina, Michelle, "Women’s Impact on Cooking Culture during the Great Depression: Limited to Being a Homemaker, Unlimited in Their Authority on Nutrition in Their Communities" (2020). History Undergraduate Theses. 45.

2.    Crafts, N., and P. Fearon. “Lessons from the 1930s Great Depression.” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 26, no. 3 (2010): 285–317. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxrep/grq030.

3.    Garraty, John A. “Unemployment during the Great Depression.” Labor History 17, no. 2 (1976): 133–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/00236567608584378.

4.    History.com Editors. “Great Depression History.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 29, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history.

5.    Hammons, Carlyn. “The Great Depression and World War II.” Texas Our Texas. PBS, November 22, 2013. https://texasourtexas.texaspbs.org/the-eras-of-texas/great-depression-ww2/.