Shopping During the Great Depression

General store in Wisconsin, 1937. Credit: NARA

Most of these posts are focused on the food preparation part of foodways (how people acquire, prepare, and eat food), but as I was making my weekly grocery trip I realized that I should probably talk a little bit about how getting food was different in the 1930s. This post will focus on shopping, but first, a brief overview of American agriculture. Crop failure in the Dust Bowl (more on that in another post) is a common image of Great Depression hardship, but despite this regional crisis, America was overproducing food during the Depression to the point of economic disaster. There are several books that talk about this phenomenon including Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty. This overproduction stemmed largely from World War I, when farmers responded to a massive increase in demand for agricultural goods by ramping up production. Future president Hoover headed up the Federal task force responsible for helping feed Europe. After the war, farmers kept producing at wartime levels even as demand dropped, resulting in a glut of nearly worthless crops. The government tried to address this by buying up excess crops to stabilize the market, but farmers just kept growing at wartime levels and selling to the government. This paradox — too much food and starvation at the same time — is the central topic of Levenstein’s book. People struggled to feed themselves during the Great Depression not because there wasn’t enough food, but because they were unemployed and couldn’t afford to buy the plentiful food. There are some exceptions, such as where regional issues caused food shortages, but poverty was the biggest factor in food insecurity.

I should note that getting food differed significantly depending on where you were in the country — food production and distribution was far less standardized than it is today. The rural/urban divide is one of the most significant areas of difference. You might have noticed that most of the recipes I’ve written about use primarily shelf-stable dry ingredients. If you didn’t live in a rural location or near a distribution hub (like Omaha for meat) reliably acquiring fresh ingredients could be costly and difficult. If you didn’t live on a farm, chances were pretty good that you were getting meat, produce, and dried goods from three different places. Supermarkets were in existence (Piggly Wiggly opened in Tennessee in 1916), but clusters of smaller independent stores and vendors were more common. In Putting Meat on the American Table, Roger Horowitz discusses how these general stores, butchers, and pushcart vendors would frequently operate in close proximity.

Small regional chains of grocers existed, including some that are still around today like Kroger. Despite anti-chain legislation (especially at the state and local level) aimed at protecting small businesses, it was mostly chain stores and supermarkets that survived the economic uncertainty of the Depression. Counter service –where an employee would fetch items from a list — was still common. We think of curbside pickup and grocery deliveries as something new, but they were much more common than self-service. Speaking of food delivery services, milk delivery was still common during the Great Depression, especially in urban areas. Animal-based fats and proteins were a major part of the American diet (dietitians thought animal-derived nutrients were healthier than plant-based nutrients) during the Great Depression even if people were forced to find ways to stretch how far they went.

If you’re interested in digging deeper into Great Depression history, including the science and economics behind the recipes I make, check out the “other resources” section of the website.

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