Hard Times Remembered


Mr. Terkel, who has a daily radio show on WFMT in Chicago, is the author of Division Street: America . Published in 1967, this study of the lives and feelings of a cross section of Chicagoans quickly became a best seller. In his new book, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression , Mr. Terkel has explored a wider field. He has recorded the memories of hundreds of Americans who lived through the grim decade of the 1930’s. Some of their children also express vicarious feelings about those years—years that, in one sense or another, scarred their parents’ lives, and created attitudes that the children have come to admire or, just as often, to resent. In Hard Times , which will be published later this month by Pantheon Books, Mr. Terkel adds little commentary to the emotions and experiences that his sensitive interviewing elicited. He simply lets his subjects—sometimes famous men, more often ordinary citizens—speak. There are no statistics here. “The precise date is of small consequence,” the author writes in his introduction. “In their rememberings are their truths.” AMERICAN HERITAGE presents a selection of these American voices—remembering.


Peggy Terry , a child in Oklahoma when the Depression started, now lives in a poor district of Chicago.

I first noticed the difference when we’d come home from school in the evening. My mother’d send us to the soup line. And we were never allowed to cuss. If you happened to be one of the first ones in line, you didn’t get anything but water that was on top. So we’d ask the guy that was ladling out the soup into the buckets—everybody had to bring their own bucket to get the soup—he’d dip the greasy, watery stuff off the top. So we’d ask him to please dip down to get some meat and potatoes from the bottom of the kettle. But he wouldn’t do it. So we learned to cuss. We’d say: “Dip down, goddammit.” …

Even after the soup line, there wasn’t anything. The W.P.A. came and I married. My husband worked on the W.P.A. We were just kids. I was fifteen and he was sixteen…. My husband and me just started travelling around, for about three years. It was a very nice time, because when you’re poor and you stay in one spot, trouble just seems to catch up with you. But when you’re moving from town to town, you don’t stay there long enough for trouble to catch up with you. It’s really a good life, if you’re poor and you can manage to move around.

I was pregnant when we first started hitchhiking, and people were really very nice to us. Sometimes they would feed us. I remember one time we slept in a haystack and the lady of the house came out and found us and she said, “This is really very bad for you because you’re going to have a baby. You need a lot of milk.” So she took us up to the house.

She had a lot of rugs hanging on the clothesline because she was doing her housecleaning. We told her we’d beat the rugs for giving us the food. She said, no, she didn’t expect that. She just wanted to feed us. We said, no, we couldn’t take it unless we worked for it. And she let us beat her rugs. I think she had a million rugs, and we cleaned them. Then we went in, and she had a beautiful table, full of all kinds of food and milk. When we left, she filled a gallon bucket full of milk, and we took it with us.

Ward James , seventy-three, is now a teacher in a private boys’ school.

… I finally went on relief. It’s an experience I don’t want anybody to go through. It comes as close to crucifixion as … You sit in an auditorium and are given a number. The interview was utterly ridiculous and mortifying. In the middle of mine, a more dramatic guy than I dived from the second-floor stairway, head first, to demonstrate he was gonna get on relief even if he had to go to the hospital to do it. There were questions like: Who are your friends? Where have you been living? Where’s your family?—I had sent my wife and child to her folks in Ohio, where they could live more simply. Why should anybody give you money? Why should anybody give you a place to sleep? What sort of friends?This went on for half an hour. I got angry and said, “Do you happen to know what a friend is?” He changed his attitude very shortly. I did get certified some time later. I think they paid nine dollars a month.

I came away feeling I didn’t have any business living any more. I was imposing on somebody, a great society or something like that….

Eileen Barth was a county social worker during the Depression.