Before the Crash

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On Wall Street in April 1929, everybody was making fortunes – shoeshine boys, cabbies, widows with a few bucks. Hundreds of dollars in stock could be bought on ten percent margins. Meanwhile, out in the real world west of the Hudson River, many Americans struggled to survive on their meager wages, raising families as best they could with no hope of making millions of dollars. Return now to the spring of 1929 and visit one such family.

Mr. & Mrs. Caldwell and their five children live in a drab four room cottage just outside the mill town of Greenville, South Carolina. Gladys is a weaver at the mill where she earns $9.95 for a five-and-half-day week. Mr. Caldwell works as a stripper in the carding room at a wage of $12.85 a week, but they won’t let him work on Saturday mornings as Gladys does.

Gladys awakes at four a.m. to start breakfast — bread and butter, syrup and buttermilk. The couple go to the mill at seven a.m., dropping off three of the children at the mill nursery; the other two children go to school. At noon Gladys runs home to make dinner (lunch) for the whole family. The menu includes beans, baked sweets, and the old staple bread and butter. Sometimes they have fat-back bacon or a pie if Gladys has time to bake one. She cooks on an oil stove and makes her own bread. The cost of feeding the family for a week comes to about $16.

A little before one o’clock Gladys does the dishes — she has no sink just a faucet outside — and then runs back to the mill. The end-of-day whistle blows at six o’clock and Gladys runs home to fix supper. After supper Gladys makes the children’s clothes on a borrowed sewing machine. She makes her own clothes, too. Her husband fixes the family’s shoes with half-soles and tacks bought at the dime store. On Saturday night she washes the children and does the ironing. She sends out the laundry at a cost of $2 a week. The rent for the cottage is $1.30 a week. They get water and light free.

Gladys went to school through the third grade and then went to work in the mill at age nine. Mr. Caldwell’s education was about the same. He reads an occasional book and they “take a paper.” Gladys likes the movies but hasn’t been to one in six years.(Which means she has never been to a “talkie.”) She dosn’t have time to go to church.

Her father and mother are still mill workers and so are her husband’s parents; Gladys assumes her children will go to work in the mill when they are old enough. “Maybe my children ought to get away from the mill village, but if they went anywhere they would go back to the farm and there ain’t no use doin’ that. The farmers haven’t got it as good as we have.”

Six months later, up the east coast and across the Hudson River, the bubble burst. The Great Depression was just around the corner.