12 Lessons From Surviving The Great Depression

By Will Brendza | Last Updated: March 4, 2023

Survival Lessons From The Great Depression12 Lessons For Surviving The Great Depression

Starting in the year 1929, the United States fell and fell hard.

This event in history was infamously coined “The Great Depression.”

It became known as the worst US economic disaster of modern times. 

With the full burden of it landing squarely on the shoulders of the American working class.

Everyone suffered.

In fact, some didn’t survive. Many died.

And every American life touched by this tragedy was never quite the same.

The Great Depression brought the prosperous American empire to its knees.

Money and industry dried up almost overnight, along with the nation’s food resources. It was the worst of times to be an American.

Ways People Survived the Great Depression

In reality, the probability of a similar economic disaster shaking this nation again is not as low as you might imagine.

Sure, there are new checks and balances – “safety valves” to ensure that the US stock market can’t crash as fast. But even as recently as 2008, America’s economy was badly shaken and sank once again via The Great Rescission.

But the truth of the matter is Wall Street and big banks never actually learn the lessons of the past. And with Fed holding interest rates at or near zero (when this article was published), the government’s bag of tricks is running on empty.

The next economic fall could match or exceed that of The Great Depression.

History often repeats itself, and the best way to avoid past suffering is to learn from our forbearers’ mistakes and prepare ourselves for harder times yet to come.

As Edmond Burke once famously quoted,

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

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12 Lessons From Surviving The Great Depression

jobless men keep going sign

Lesson 1. “Job Security” Is A Dangerous Myth

The stock market is just a numerical representation of reality. When it crashes, the underlying businesses that make up the stock exchange struggle to perform.

And once a crash starts, it isn’t easy to stop. When fear turns into all-out panic, people stop spending, leading to lower business profits, pushing stock prices even lower, and even less spending.

Economic depression is a vicious cycle where businesses are not selling their inventories because people are not buying.

All businesses will immediately start downsizing their staff to help offset their future drop in revenues.

The weaker businesses will find that massive layoffs are not enough. They can’t keep the doors open, and everyone who worked for them is out of a job.

This downward cycle ushered in the era of The Great Depression.

Unemployment rates skyrocketed. The unemployed masses spent their remaining savings on only the bare essentials (i.e., food, rent) until even those dollars ran out.

After that, many were left with shanty towns and food lines as their only remaining options.

So even if you think your job is secure, are you 100% certain?

Let’s imagine that your company does survive but, to do so, must lay off a few employees from each department. How can you be certain you won’t be among those few?

  • You might be let go if you’re a relatively young employee because “you’ll land on your feet.”
  • If you’re a more seasoned employee, cutting your salary will make a bigger difference to a struggling business’s bottom line.

You can’t assume how these things will shake out…

The Great Depression – 5-Minute History Lesson

In stable times, people like to talk about their “job security.” They fool themselves into believing their job or industry can weather any storm. It’s a suckers bet.

Instead, you should assume that you could lose your job in an instant and live, plan, and prepare accordingly.

Mossburg 500 Tactical Survival Shotgun

Lesson  2. Self-Defense Matters In Tough Times

As times got tougher, people got more desperate. People who could not afford to feed themselves or their families were forced to more extreme means of providing or risk starvation.

Organized crime took off like a rocket ship. The mobs in New York and California became some of the wealthiest organizations in the country because of their control of the liquor smuggling operations.

Desperate times call for desperate measures for surviving The Great Depression. A father or mother with starving children will abandon their morals and steal from others.

You should assume your resources will come under attack. Especially if you’ve stockpiled food, vital supplies, and resources others want. Get prepared to protect what’s yours.

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Broken US Dollar

Lesson 3. Diversify Your Skill Set

Many of the previous well-off families were forced into lives of extreme poverty. As the cushy jobs vanished and monetary assets tanked, people with no useful skills suffered the most.

Previously wealthy parents watched in horror as their children died of starvation or illnesses they could not afford to fight off.

Mothers and fathers died by sacrificing their own needs for their children. Leaving their children alone to fend for themselves.

You’ll need to figure out how to make a living when times get tough. Learn how to provide an essential service to others and trade or barter for it.

Figure out how to secure critical resources and turn those into necessary goods or services. It’s best if you acquire those self-reliant survival skills today. If you wait, it may be too late.

10 Great Depression Skills That Will Pay Well

psychology of sleep deprivation

Lesson 4. You Must Stay Mentally Prepared

Brothers and sisters, lovers, and friends were subject to extreme suffering and (as the name of the era implies) depression.

Many folks were not equipped to handle the cultural shift from prosperity to poverty – or chose not to – and opted to take their own lives.

If you want to be a rock in a sea of misery, you need to sharpen your mind. The best way to do this is through the philosophy of Stoicism.

One aspect of Stoicism promotes the practice of self-deprivation during good times to mentally prepare you for bad times.

One such example is fasting for a week. To experience the sensation of extreme hunger and understand that while uncomfortable in the short term, it’s survivable.

A second example would be to sleep for a week on a cold hard floor and not in a soft, comfortable bed. This practice will help strengthen your resolve and spirit should that become your reality.

Not only will this practice give you more appreciation for the good things you have in your life today, but it will also provide mental preparations when life’s circumstances take a turn for the worst.

For those who want to learn more about this topic. Check out “The Obstacle Is The Way” by Ryan Holiday. A modern-day book rooted in Stoic concepts.

family climbing over boulders on a hike

Lesson 5. You Need Strong Family Bonds

Marriage rates early on in the Great Depression plummeted mostly because single men could not afford to support themselves, let alone a family. So proposals dried up and became something of a rarity from 1929 to 1934.

Surprisingly, divorce rates throughout the era decreased!

However, this has been attributed to spousal abandonment. Men did not have the means to leave their wives legally. So while formal divorce rates were low, abandonment rates during the Great Depression were at an all-time high.

The Great Depression brought about a lot of “poor man’s divorces” and a surplus of single ladies.

If you want to stay with your spouse through such trying times, then focus on strengthening your bonds of love, trust, and communication today.

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Lesson 6. Honest Work Can Be Hard To Find

Single or abandoned women experience especially hard times.

Being a woman in that era made it harder to get work. And if work could be found, they rarely got paid a decent wage. Making women exponentially more vulnerable to moral compromises. Which leads to rising rates of prostitution across the US.

Many women who could not find honest work turned to “the oldest profession in history.” It was a desperate means to surviving The Great Depression.

Again, having some active and useful skills can help avoid the toughest compromises. Sewing, gardening, seed saving, farming, butchering, etc.

These are just a few self-reliance skills that can help offset costs and maybe even make a small profit.

10 Great Depression Skills That Will Pay Well

Wiskey Barrels 1

Lesson 7. Vices Were In High Demand

Rates of alcoholism escalated despite the prohibition laws that were enforced in the US at this time.  Most of the available booze was expensive, diluted, or homebrewed hooch. These have shortcomings, most of which were controlled by the mob or independent bootleggers.

Neither of whom was good folk to owe money to. And amazingly, regardless of all that, the number of alcoholic Americans rose steadily throughout the Depression.

When times are tough, many people peer down the bottom of a bottle looking for answers.

So if you happen to have a stockpile of these highly desirable vices, you can sell or trade them at a nice profit to help keep your loved ones safe.

The Great Depression in COLOR

dollar bill

Lesson 8. Stretching Your Dollars

Many Americans switched from more expensive cigars to smoking cigarettes, which were significantly cheaper. Not that one or the other is better for you, but it proves an interesting trend.

In trying times, people make certain compromises. They can no longer afford luxury for luxury’s sake. Instead, they downgraded to cheaper options while surviving The Great Depression in an attempt to stretch what little was left.

Learning how to stretch your dollars today effectively can help prepare you for the tough times ahead. Eliminating unnecessary food and energy waste. Limiting the number of miles you drive your car.

Bottom line: Living an efficient life.

Weird Foods People Ate to Get Through the Great Depression

All these ideas will help you keep more of your hard-earned dollars today and make them last longer tomorrow.

Survival Medical Kit Image

Lesson 9. Diets and Health Suffered

Obviously, preventative health care was not high on anyone’s priority list, so the general health of the American population from 1930 to 1933 suffered greatly. No one bothered going to the doctor unless it was a serious emergency.

Doctors cost money, as do medicine and dental work. Instead, money was allocated to short-term essentials such as food, rent, and clothes – the important stuff.

While I never advocate skipping doctor or dentist visits, you can help keep visit costs low with good personal hygiene.

What Hygiene Was Like During The Great Depression

Keep a well-supplied and updated medical kit in your home at all times. Continue regular dental hygiene and eat a balanced diet. These actions will help keep your immune system in good working order.

Plan on stockpiling essential health-related supplies (like survival antibiotics) and then smartly rationing them during hard times.

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Jump Over River

Lesson 10. Mass Migration Was Common

Mass migration physically rearranged and shuffled the demographics of America like a professional blackjack dealer.

The Great Depression was an era of movement and vagrancy, a time when jobs were sought out by adventurers who train-hopped from one town to the next or walked the roads and hitchhiked when they could.

Caravan loads of migrants moved westward, from the east, towards a new life in California. John Steinbeck described the migrations impeccably well in his 1939 novel Grapes of Wrath:

“And then the dispossessed were drawn west – from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand.

They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do – to lift, to push, to pick, to cut – anything, any burden to bear, for food.

The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.

When local prospects are nil, you must move to survive. If you would prefer to avoid such a fate, then focus on your family’s self-reliance. If you can thrive where you are, then you’ll have no reason to join the masses.

Lesson 11. Creative Art Is A Silver Lining

People went to more movies during the Great Depression. Americans went to at least one movie weekly on average (often more). It was a way to escape from the sad realities of life during the Great Depression for an hour or two.

It was a chance to laugh with other people, get excited, frightened, angry, or sad with a crowd of strangers and friends – cinema during the Depression was a flickering, dancing light in a very dark corner of time.

There were a lot of classic films that came out of the Depression. Movies like Frankenstein, It Happened One Night, Gone With The Wind, King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, and Dracula.

There were also a lot of great works of literary art as a result of the Depression.

John Steinbeck wrote some classic novels about the Depression and the Dust Bowl, like Of Mice and MenEast of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath.

The Dust Bowl and the Depression

Some of the most impactful photographs came from this era as well, like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, Russel Lee, and Gordon Parks are among some of the most recognizable Great Depression photographers.

However, symphonic music, which was in high fashion throughout the ’20s, suffered severely from depression. Paying for symphony tickets was largely out of the question; getting dressed up was a superfluous endeavor. Besides all of that, advancements in Radio Tech meant that most music lovers could get different stations right in their living rooms.

The one positive product of tragic events, intense situations, and weird history like that of surviving The Great Depression is the art that it invariably bears.

War, natural disaster, economic meltdown, famine, genocide, and anything else so gruesomely depraved will always inspire the creative soul.

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Lesson 12. Self-Reliance Is Key

The biggest hurdle of surviving The Great Depression was simple: lives changed drastically – and they changed fast. Americans went from the lavish roaring twenties, where elegance and jazzy splendor perfused the nation, to scrubbing out a meager existence.

Those who survived it were never the same.

They stockpiled more and reused more. Most shopped for bargains, not luxuries. And they fully understood that a trip to the grocery store might be the last for a very long time.

Surviving The Great Depression Final Thoughts

The biggest lesson learned from surviving the Great Depression is Self-Reliance skills are essential to get you through tough times.

I’m talking about the survival skills our modern world has since lost.

It’s time we discover them again. Start by watching the video below.


Will Brendza

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