Great Depression Survivor: I Worked for Shoes

Florence Cochran recalls a childhood of frugality and resourcefulness.

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Earlier this week, I received an incredible letter from Florence B. Cochran, who was born in 1925 in a small community called Bowlingtown, in Perry County, Kentucky. For research for an upcoming story, I had been looking for people who remember living through the Great Depression, and Cochran, now 83, offered to share her story.

She writes:

I grew up in Appalachia during that period of time, and here are some of the things that I remember about how we survived. Of course, everyone had to work hard. My father lost his job when the crash came, so we moved to a small farm which he bought from my grandfather.

Wages for men were about $1.00 and some times a meal or two per day. For women, the wages were $.50 per day. If children worked, it was on the family farm or for a relative for whatever that relative wanted to pay. I remember one time I hoed corn for a week for my great uncle and my pay was a pair of my cousin’s shoes. They were like new, but they did not fit.

Sometimes, work was traded for items that were needed for the family. It fell to my mother to make ends meet which she did by working for other families and cutting corners at home. She made clothing for the girls in the family. She could look at a picture of a dress in a catalogue and make a pattern, cut the garment out and sew it to look almost exactly like the picture. She also made sheets and pillow cases for the beds.

Our pillows were made of heavy ticking material and stuffed with feathers which were saved from the chickens that were used for food. Only the softest of the feathers were saved. Also, instead of mattresses, our beds consisted of what we called shuck beds and feather beds. The shucks (corn husks) were saved from the corn when it was harvested and stored for feed for the animals. They were torn from the hard part of the husk so that only the softest husks were used. When the covering for the feather beds wore thin, the still good part was used to make more pillows.

Everyone knows about patchwork quilts which we used for bed covers. The tops of our quilts were made of scrap material left from my mother’s sewing projects. The patterns varied with the colors and sizes of the pieces. Patterns were obtained from relatives and neighbors-often copied from quilts or magazines. The tops were quilted by hand to muslin linings through cotton batting.

My mother made our night clothes from flannel for the winter, but we generally slept in old dresses or slips in warmer weather. We usually had about two or three dresses each for everyday and one for Sunday. I remember one time, I had gotten all my everyday dresses dirty and my mother allowed me to wear my Sunday to school on Monday which was wash day... As I was crossing the creek, I fell in and got my dress wet and muddy and I had to go back home. I missed school that day because I had nothing presentable to wear to school.

Since there were very few cars, trucks or other vehicles in the community we walked wherever we went. Consequently, our shoes wore thin. Our parents would repair our shoes by half-soling them with leather they bought in squares and cut to fit the sole from the front to the front of the heel-thus half-soling. This was no easy task as the leather was stiff. The shoe had to be fitted onto a last and the sole attached by hammering small tacks called sprigs through the leather into the sides of the sole of the shoe. Sometimes the sprigs did not bend properly and the ends would stick into our feet. They could be very uncomfortable. We usually could get one pair of shoes a year. Of course we went barefooted during the warm months.

My mother or my father cut the children’s hair which was an ordeal for us because the clippers did more pulling than cutting. Our medical help came from a community nurse associated with the Frontier Nurses Center which had been started in the 1920s by a lady by the name of Breckinridge. These were nurse-midwives who provided prenatal and post natal care to babies and mothers. The fathers were expected to pay a small fee. If they could not pay the fee, they were allowed to work at the center helping care for the horses that the nurses rode, and other animals, gardens and chores around the center. They also provided some medicines such as salves for a very small fee or free.

There is one thing that people tend to forget about that time. There was a severe drought which meant that gardens and fields did not produce enough to provide food from one growing season to the next so rural people suffered along with the rest of the country. To summarize this, you can see we worked for what we had, but what we could not afford we did without. Our philosophy, although not articulated until World War II, was “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”