Bellingham Families during the Great Depression:
Changes in Everyday Life
by Annie Morro
Bellingham, pictured here in 1918, was transformed by the Great Depression, as citizens of Whatcom County developed new family relationships and social roles to cope with the economic hardships. Click photo to enlarge. (Courtesy of the University of Washington Library, Special Collections)
A broad overview of Washington State in the Depression sees how the crisis affected banks, industry, and politics. Many other histories focus on the labor battles in the workplace. But a closer look shows how families, and particularly wives, mothers, children, teens, and students sought to develop different strategies of survival during the Depression. Focusing on Bellingham, which had been a thriving coal-mining town in Washington’s Whatcom County, we use a survey of the Bellingham Evening News from 1932 to examine how large historical events permeated and reshaped daily lives.
While many men found their wages and hours cut, or lost their jobs completely, wives and mothers throughout Whatcom County did their best to adjust to the hard times, and one way to do this was to change household routines. Evident from competitive food and clothing ads, women were expected to “save time and money.” They were encouraged to find creative ways to take care of the family without spending. For example, a recipe for “Quick Breads”, which were “energy foods” and “good sources of vitamin B,” used everyday ingredients and left money typically spent on bread for other needs.
Mothers were also told to take special care in raising their children under the shadow of the Depression. With the jobless wandering the streets and charities handing out food and clothing, parenting advice columnist Olive Roberts-Burton warned about the message this sent to the young. She counseled mothers against spoiling their children without requiring the children to earn rewards.
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On the whole, women were counted on to be a positive force in the community and the supportive center of a family and community weathering hardships. Through all the tough times, Bellingham society expected women to be active community members by attending PTA meetings, raising funds for charities, collecting clothing for the needy, saving at the market, raising a family, and providing encouragement for disheartened husbands all while keeping up a happy, normal appearance.
Like their mothers, children in Whatcom County felt the effects of the Depression. Children in Bellingham were better off than the hungry and homeless youths in the infamous “Hoovervilles” around the nation, and in fact, children growing up in Whatcom County were more fortunate than most during the early 1930s. The infant mortality rate in Bellingham was far lower than the rates of Seattle, Tacoma, and other cities throughout Washington, proving that the area was one where people could afford to stay healthy and clean, as well as pay hospital bills.
Despite their comparative health and well-being, though, children in Whatcom County were raised to be competitive on the job market and active members of their community, reflecting the cooperative community values prized during the Depression as well as the competitive nature of a very tight job market. Children were expected to always look their best as well as do well in school. The back-to-school ads in the Bellingham Evening News for new jewelry, shoes, trips to the dentist and more suggest that most families could afford to adequately feed and clothe their children, perhaps even splurge and buy a new pair of school shoes. Baseball, music lessons, and other juvenile clubs met as usual in 1932. Mothers were advised not to baby their children, and to promote competitiveness for later in life, perhaps a reflection of the lack of jobs in the present moment. Some of the more entrepreneurial children were encouraged to help out local businesses in exchange for a new toy. The Bellingham Evening News gave away regulation footballs valued at $7.95 to youngsters who could get twenty of their neighbors to sign up for a subscription. Others put their talents to use for charity. Local boys held boxing competitions against boys from neighboring towns for the milk fund charity, and sports fans in the area came to support the boys and the cause. 
Unlike their younger brothers and sisters, teenagers and college students were more aware of the stress that the Great Depression added to their lives. Since Bellingham was home to college of higher education—the school that would eventually become Western Washington University—education was very important to the young people of Whatcom. However, when the county needed to find savings in its budget, the schools were some of the hardest hit. In 1932 the Whatcom school office saw a reduction of 12.5% in its budget. The school board cut its budget by more than 35% for 1933, and though taxpayers were invited to voice their opinions on these cuts, there was “little protest from the public.”
These cuts affected students by causing a lack of supplies for classroom activities. In an attempt to economize, many teachers required that school supplies be reused, and one class was asked to create their own homework folders from recycled papers, or else their grade would be negatively affected. For graduating students, the opportunities that higher education had promised them three years ago were no longer guaranteed. Preceding the Great Depression, “one of the reasons commonly given in advising a young man to go to college is that a college training will help him to succeed, later on, in a business career.” After 1929 however, young college graduates were thrown into a market with little to offer. Instead of focusing on the negativity of this fact, writers for the Bellingham Evening News took a different outlook. “After you are graduated from college you may land in a well-paid job and you may not; but the success or failure of your college training does not in the least depend on the salary you are getting ten years later.”
Washington State Normal School in Bellingham, which would become Western Washington University, pictured in 1904. Education lost much of its funding during the Depression, and highly educated young men and women faced an uncertain future. Click photo to enlarge. (Courtesy of the University of Washington Library, Special Collections)
For young women, even those who were well-educated, supporting oneself was more of a challenge than it was for young men. When considering the prospect of marriage, women might have had the unfortunate choice between romance or financial security. The Bellingham Evening News featured a chapter-a-day fiction serial in the paper, entitled For Love or Money, about a fictional young woman who had lost her job on Wall Street and held the affections of two gentlemen, including her beau from back home and a new wealthy suitor. While a form of entertainment for readers, this situation likely would have resonated with the young women of Whatcom County. Nevertheless, the young men and women in Bellingham sought to create a lively social life for themselves despite these worries about their future: the Evening News reports that many young people still found time to attend social dances and cause mischief throughout the town.
Most families in Whatcom County responded well to the Depression-era conditions they faced. They took advantage of sales and hand-me-downs and took part in community work and charity to make life easier for those around them. As the Evening News put it in their “thought for the day” in August 1932, “a rich man without charity is a rogue.” The local Red Cross section collected jars for families to do their own canning, the Whatcom County Relief Depot supplied the needy with clothing and shoes that community members donated, and local salmon canneries gave away free fish to families on occasion.
While the majority of Whatcom families managed to cope with the Depression hardships, some were not so fortunate. Driven by desperation, a number of people turned to stealing. More often than not, these burglars stole small amounts of cash but paid for it with jail time. One drug store bandit was so desperate that he held the owner at gun point for twenty-seven dollars. Another money-yielding crime was arson. An arson gang set fire to several properties in an attempt to benefit from false insurance claims, though they were caught and imprisoned. Even though many did not turn to crime, the stress of constant economic hardship manifested itself in other ways, as some couples found themselves looking for a divorce. Legal fees and supporting two families proved very expensive however, so a number of frustrated and hopeless men simply walked out on their families without officially getting a divorce. National reports showed that by 1940, 1.5 million married women had been abandoned by their husbands.
The most desperate people did not turn to crime or give up on their families; rather, they gave up on life instead. Before the stock market crash, there were only 12.1 suicides per 100,000 people in the United States. Yet in the decade following, an average of 15.4 people per 100,000 in the country killed themselves. Those living in and around Bellingham did not experience anywhere near these rates, though suicides did increase. Mr. August Lundstroth, a sixty-three year old farmer, put a bullet through his head in the winter of 1931 when his situation was too bleak for him to go on. Fortunately, most of the residents of Whatcom County did not give up so easily, and their hope for the future helped them get by.
Reports in the Bellingham Evening News during the time leading up to the election of 1932 reflected this sense of cautious optimism. Democratic senator candidate Lloyd Black believed that the industrial depression was waning and that “progressive and constructive thought and legislation” was necessary. Most of Whatcom County put their hopes behind the Democratic Party. As Senator C.C. Dill bluntly put it, “If Mr. Hoover and the Republican leaders in Congress cannot put an end to the hard times in three years—why give them four more? … Mr. Roosevelt and the Democratic leaders offer constructive, sound policies to change these conditions.” Indeed, Whatcom County experienced the heaviest vote in the county’s history when more than fifty percent of eligible voters filled out ballots despite pouring rain and long lines. This demonstrates that the people of Whatcom had faith that a new political order would do its best to make their optimistic hopes for the future come true.
Though Roosevelt won the election and enacted his progressive New Deal, it would take American entry into World War II to jumpstart the economy. The economy of Whatcom County rebounded during the 1940s, but dropped again in the 1950s when logging, coal, and salmon canneries suffered because of a lack of natural resources. New businesses would ensure the city’s survival, and today, Bellingham thrives. The hope of the families that lived in Whatcom County during the Great Depression helped to guarantee this future. Even though the Bellingham area was better off than other parts of Washington, all members of the family made sacrifices. Women found creative ways to save money, promoted the value of hard work for their children, and were positive leaders in society. Children in Bellingham were not forced to give up their childhoods, but were encouraged to put their talents to use. Teenagers and college students felt the effects of the school budget being cut, and struggled to begin a life in such difficult times. Charity played a large part in the lives of Whatcom County citizens, though some dealt with the depression in more desperate and drastic measures. Overall, the people of Whatcom saw the 1932 election as an opportunity for life to improve, one positive outcome of the years of community-building and personal sacrifice the Depression entailed.
Copyright (c) 2010, Annie Morro
HSTAA 105 Winter 2010
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