Looking Back: Memories of the Great Depression and World War II

Hooverville in Seattle — 1937

When the U.S. stock market collapsed on what is known as Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929, it ushered in almost 10 years of the most severe and long-lasting depression ever experienced by the industrialized world, and as one bank after another closed its doors, our government found it necessary to make fundamental changes in economic institutions.

 Originating in the U.S., the Great Depression caused unimaginable unemployment and deflation in almost every industrialized country in the world. As business after business closed, unemployment figures continued to rise in America. B January of 1935, they had reached 26%. It is said that the United States faced the worst of times since the Civil War. In Seattle, even the Boeing Company barely escaped failure.

The photo from my own collection shows Seattle’s Hooverville in 1937. Named for Herbert Hoover, the U.S. president at the time of the our economy’s collapse, other Hoovervilles appeared in many of our country’s major cities. Constructed by out-of-work and desperate men, and even a few families, Seattle’s Hooverville was the largest cluster of temporary shack homes in the city and the state. In the eyes of a young girl, it was a sight that will never be forgotten.

This city of shacks was built on the property of the former Skinner & Eddy Shipyard, in the industrial area along the waterfront south of downtown Seattle’s Pioneer Square. It was home to thousands until it was burned down by the city in 1941.

In Edmonds in 1937, on the east side of the railroad tracks near the foot of Bell Street, we had what the local people called a hobo camp. It was a spot set up as a temporary rest stop for unemployed men riding the rails to find work. No one bothered them there.

Unlike the “Going Green” issues of today, during the Great Depression, saving and recycling was an absolute necessity, not a crusade. We seldom threw anything away.  Clothing was passed down the line from an older child to the younger ones. The material, when no longer usable as clothing, was made into rag rugs. We wore our shoes long after they pinched our feet and had holes in the soles. It wasn’t unusual to cover the holes with cardboard. We even saved our string and often had large balls of it. Soap was used up until there was nothing left — not even a sliver.

My mother made most of my dresses and my brother’s shirts from flour-sack material. The cotton flour-sack fabric was usually patterned—sometimes it was even quite attractive. Of course, extra money was short and almost everyone was in the same situation, so pride was of little importance. For me, I often looked through the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs and hoped. When Christmas came, as a rule we received one gift — usually something homemade — although once in a while, as a treat, a special present came from one of the catalogs.

As we struggled to survive a failed economic system, we didn’t realize that soon our country and the world would experience even worse times.

The 1940s and World War II

As reported by Dr. Steven Anders in his study “With All Due Honor, Bringing the World War II War Dead Home,” published in the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Professional Bulletin for Autumn/Winter 1994, beginning just before WWII, the federal government called into service approximately 15 million men and women.  The number of our country’s war dead totaled around 359,000, of which 281,000 remains were recovered and given burial in more than 250 temporary military cemeteries around the globe.

Even though the official ending of the war was Sept. 2, 1945, it took another six years after the war — actually until the close of 1951 — for final disposition of the remains of America’s war dead. Beginning in 1948, some 171,000 casketed remains were delivered to next of kin in the United States. At the same time, according to the wishes of the next of kin, approximately 97,000 dead were buried abroad in permanent U.S. military cemeteries. Another 10,000 “unknowns” found their final resting place on foreign soil. It was the largest reinterment operation ever. The search for those still missing in action from the WWII era continues to this day.

During the time of WWII, very few private homes had television. Thus, most of our visual news of the war was received at our local movie theaters as they showed newsreels of action right from the battle sites. Radios and newspapers were also important to keep us up-to-date on war news. In addition, Life magazine became a favorite form of pictorial news from the frontlines.

The most well-known and beloved war correspondent was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ernie Pyle. In his “homespun” style, he brought us news of the war right from the frontlines of battle in both the European and Pacific Theaters. We were all saddened when we learned that at the age of 44, Ernie Pyle was killed in action April 18, 1945, as the result of enemy sniper fire during the Battle of Okinawa.  Ernest Taylor Pyle, a country boy, the only son of an Indiana tenant farmer, was laid to rest at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.

On the Homefront—patriotism and changes in women’s fashion 

Women shipyard workers, courtesy Library of Congress.

Looking back, WWII was definitely one of the worst of times. However, from my own personal and softened-by-time look back to those long-ago days, I realize that some of the Homefront events were not only unusual, much of the information was propaganda to raise our patriotism to a higher level. For those of us of the female persuasion, we had a glimpse of a new fashion and women’s vanity.

World War II brought a major change in women’s fashion. Not just a temporary trend, we still see this fashion in our time in the form of everything from jeans to elegant and stylish evening wear.

In the 1930s, a few women were just starting to leave their dresses and skirts hanging in the closet and beginning to wear what were called trousers for women. Two big-name stars of the 1930s and 1940s, Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, were often seen and photographed wearing trousers. During WWII, trousers of one kind or another became more popular and were found to be practical clothing for the many women working in the factories and shipyards, where women were replacing the men who were called to military duty.

Trousers — sometimes referred to as slacks — were here to stay. However, it was long after WWII before the fashion of women wearing trousers was a look adopted by many women — especially teachers and office or retail workers. In fact, there was usually a dress code, and we were advised that wearing trousers of any kind was unacceptable.

Turning bacon into bombs, or “out of the frying pan into the firing line”

In the early days of WWII, we were surprised and a little bemused when our federal government established what was called the American Fat Salvage Committee — certainly an interesting name. This committee appointment resulted in making movie stars of a couple of cute mice called Mickey and Minnie, a duck named Donald, and a goofy-looking, flop-eared dog by the name of Pluto.

In Edmonds, when we went to see a movie at the Princess Theater, we were also kept up-to-date on Homefront activities. Among the most memorable were on-screen movie clips, starring Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto promoting patriotism in one form or another. Mainly, it was Minnie Mouse and Pluto who demonstrated how to save our cooking fats (especially bacon fat) and donate the fats to the Army in order to produce explosives. It was explained that fats were used to make glycerin, and glycerin was used to produce the explosives to make things blow up. Signage began appearing on the front windows of some grocery stores and meat markets announcing “Official Fat Collecting Station.”  Waste fats turned in at an official collection station, usually a meat market, were exchanged for cash (about 4 cents per pound), ration coupons or meat products.

To further remind us to save our fats in order to make explosives, “Out of the Frying Pan into the Firing Line” — a short Walt Disney Technicolor film — was distributed by the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry. Once again, the stars were Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Pluto.

More about life on the Homefront

We learned to navigate through the confusion of ration stamps when we shopped and — in order to show our patriotism — we saved our scrap metal—everything from toothpaste tubes to old coffee pots and frying pans. We even saved and turned in old rubber tires, waste paper and rags. In the middle of Main Street in Edmonds between 4th and 5th Streets, there was a mountain of salvage. Residents near and far had donated what appeared to be mostly scrap metal and old rubber tires — all for the war effort.

With employment at a high level because of all the wartime industry, there was more money to spend; although people didn’t splurge and buy new cars. However, this was because the automotive industry was occupied with building military equipment, such as tanks and jeeps. Production of new cars for the public was completely halted until the war was in the process of ending, and until the industry had time to revert back to peacetime production. The first cars to come off the line were 1946 models, with the Ford Company leading the way. By that time our family’s Dodge was pretty old and my parents bought a 1946 Plymouth, a former car built by the Chrysler Corporation.

Back to the Homefront — vanity, women’s legs and some much-needed humor

The introduction of nylon in 1939 by chemical company DuPont meant a high demand for women’s nylon hosiery in the United States, with up to 4 million pairs being sold in one day. Nylon stockings were cheap, durable and sheer compared to cotton and silk hosiery.

Since most of the silk hosiery formerly came from Japan, women turned to the new nylon stockings. However, just as women were becoming accustomed to wearing  nylon stockings, they vanished from store shelves as nylon was needed for wartime use. The fabric was melted down to make parachutes and aircraft tires.

As mentioned earlier, there were some workplaces where women were required to wear skirts. And no bare legs were allowed. With an outcry for decent-looking hosiery, a solution appeared in the stores. We learned the artistry of painting our legs — even to the requisite seam down the back of the hosiery.

In Edmonds, the place to buy the leg make-up was Durbin Women’s Store on 5th Street — just north of Main Street. The Durbin’s ad shown here was from a 1946 Edmonds Tribune-Review.  It shows that the shortage of nylon hosiery continued until long after the end of the war.

At first the painted-leg solution seemed OK and it didn’t occur to us what was destined to happen.  The Seattle area is noted for something — of course, rain. The leg paint was advertised as waterproof — that turned out to be a fallacy.  What with downpours and splashing from puddles, we often had splotchy legs. Not the look we wanted. Looking back, it now seems silly and ridiculous and yes, even sort of comical. 

WWII is finally over

Despite a bit of levity from the Homefront news, to most of us, WWII was the worst of times. When the war finally came to a close, crowds of people celebrated in the streets all over the country and Seattle was no exception.  At 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1945, when President Truman announced that the war was finally over, car horns honked, all traffic came to a halt, and shoppers, office workers and service personnel (mainly sailors) streamed into the streets. Downtown Seattle was a madhouse.

On a smaller scale, it was the same in Edmonds. The Thursday, Aug. 16, 1945 issue of the Edmonds Tribune-Review reported “Edmonds Observes End of Most Devastating War in History of the World.”  The writer went on to say that with the announcement by President Truman that the Japanese government had accepted the unconditional surrender terms, Edmonds businesses closed their doors to remain closed for a two-day holiday following a proclamation by the president and Mon C. Wallgren, our state’s governor.

In downtown Edmonds, the first response to President Truman’s announcement was the loud ringing of the bell from Hughes Memorial Methodist Church at the northwest corner of 5th and Dayton Streets. The siren from the Edmonds Fire Department immediately joined the bell ringing; followed by the whistles from the waterfront mills and the ferry. The phone lines were jammed. Through the night, along Main Street, car horns and other noise-makers could be heard as the celebrations continued.

It had been a long and devastating war, and as the Edmonds newspaper reported, the long years of war left a weary world.

— By Betty Lou Gaeng

Betty Gaeng was a long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. Now living in Alaska, she still researches and writes about the history and the people of early-day Lynnwood and Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace.











  1. As always your articles are a must read, thank you Betty for a peek back in time in my hometown.

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