50 Survival Lessons from the Great Depression

The Great Depression conjures images a severe lack and economic devastation. Trains of ramshackle vehicles hauling entire families of migrant workers desperately trying to eke out a living.

Entire blocks worth of businesses shuttered. Skyrocketing prices and plummeting wages. Bank’s closing. Falling demand creating a domino effect of failing commercial sectors. Construction stopped. Growth halted and backsliding.

unemployed men outside food kitchen during the Great Depression
unemployed men outside food kitchen during the Great Depression

The Great Depression was nothing less than a worldwide catastrophe. Its effects were felt literally everywhere, from the shores of the New World to the ancient cobblestone streets of European cities and everywhere in between.

In many ways, this is one of the only true worldwide disasters that resulted in genuine life or death survival situations for a long period of time that we can study from the 20th century. We should learn what lessons we can from it so we are better prepared to survive the harshest of times in the future.

In this article, I’ll be providing you with 50 survival tips gleaned from the hard-won lessons of those who lived through the Great Depression.

The Collapse was a Whisper, Not a Bang

For preppers, it is easy to focus on the loud, the violent and the chaotic. Things that are big and scary, classical monsters if you will, natural disasters and cataclysms of all kinds seem to hold our attention the most.

That’s easy to understand, and it’s forgivable: if a squeaky wheel gets enough attention to earn a little dab of grease, the howling roar of a tornado or the titanic impact of an asteroid will garner considerably more attention.

But as awful as those loud, scary disasters can be, there are quite a few that are silent, and worse than any storm. Far worse. Pestilence and plague is one such silent killer that most preppers are already acquainted with and preparing for.

One you have probably not prepared for, in all honesty, is a dizzying economic crash the likes of which the civilized modern world has not seen since the Great Depression.

Beginning in the year 1929 and lasting all the way until the latter part of the 1930s, the Great Depression was an intense economic decline felt worldwide.

Marked by a precipitous decline in stock prices in the United States and followed by the stock market crash in October of 1929, the economic shockwaves circled the globe. Rich and poor alike were severely impacted.

International trade had its back broken, declining by more than 50%. U.S. unemployment skyrocketed to 25%. Some countries saw unemployment as high as an astonishing 35%.

unemployed men looking for work

Many heavy industry sectors were hobbled overnight as personal income fell and so too did demand for products. Primary sector trades like logging and mining simply evaporated in some areas.

Rural and farming sectors were no less hard hit: many staple crop prices fell by more than 60%.

The results were predictable, but dreadful. Mass impoverishment. Banks closing, with many people losing literally everything, homes included.

The job market shrank faster than unemployment rose. There was simply no hope of finding employment for some people. Homelessness became the new normal for many.

This was a Prolonged Survival Situation.

To say that times were tough is probably the understatement of the century. Times were more than tough; they were agonizing. Lack, famine and going without became a part of second-to-second existence.

Anything you owned was likely all you were going to have. It was up to you to keep it running and make it work or to go completely without.

There was no cavalry coming. There was no safety net. It was up to you to take care of you, and yours.

This meant an awful lot of doing absolutely whatever it took. Parents would go hungry to feed their kids even meager meals. Clothing was made from whatever scraps could be collected and stitched together.

Journeys of dozens or even hundreds of miles would be undertaken with no promise of work at the destination, all in the mad hope of finding something, anything to keep bellies full for just another month.

The grit, the tenacity, the appreciation and the dignity that resulted from these hardest of hard times in part helped mold the greatest generation of Americans.

Make no mistake: the Great Depression was a dire survival situation for almost everyone involved.

Many died as a direct result of the Great Depression’s effects. It could happen again; our modern world of glass and wire is not immune to the merciless laws of economics.

This was a real, day-to-day survival situation. We would all do well to remember that, and we would do even better to remember and to learn what we can from our forbearers trials.

In the next section, I will share with you 50 survival lessons gleaned from those who survived the Great Depression.

50 Survival Tips from the Great Depression

Lesson 1. Foraging and hunting were essential to supplement barely stocked pantries.

The cost of groceries rose even as wages fell during the Great Depression. Finding edible plants, nuts, berries and wild game may have been the difference between malnutrition or starvation and continued survival.

You should make it a point to know what plants are edible in your area, and where to find them. Furthermore you should be able to hunt or trap game large and small that is prevalent in the area.

Lesson 2. Gardening was a necessity if it was possible.

Almost every, single family that survived the Great Depression depended on the food they could grow. For many of them, this is the only food they would have to eat.

Remember that the lack of food was not necessarily due in total to rising prices and falling wages. The Dust Bowl struck during the Great Depression. Famine was upon the people.

Growing a sustainable food source optimize nutrition is an essential part of surviving any long-term disaster.

Lesson 3. The Great Depression affected everyone, no one was immune.

In the way of a proper disaster, economic status and social prestige was no defense against the Great Depression.

The very wealthy may have found themselves destitute overnight due to a flattened stock market and a bank that folded with all of its members’ money in tow.

Remind yourself that hubris may be fatal: No matter how well-prepared you are, Fate has a way of humbling even the mightiest and the most well equipped.

Lesson 4. Modern Economic Institutions are fragile.

Like the old saying says, “Money talks and bull**** walks.” Banks are a great way to earn a tiny return on your money in exchange for virtually no risk, but never let yourself forget that they are making fortunes off of your money and doing with it basically what they will.

If it is in a bank, your money is likely history when things topple. Do not trust to FDIC insurance; will the government have the ability, or even the willingness, to pay millions of claims if something like the Great Depression should occur again?

Whatever you decide to do with your money, make sure you have a nest egg of cold, hard cash at your disposal.

Lesson 5. You must be prepared to live without modern utilities.

Electric and water companies folded wholesale during the Great Depression. They may do the same if something similar happens again.

Even if they do not, grievous economic shrinkage could see you forced to literally go without electricity and water in order to keep your home or simply to afford food or medicine.

If that happens do you know how to make water safe to drink? Do you know how to preserve food without refrigeration? Do you have a plan for providing work and security lighting when it does not come on at the flick of a switch?

Lesson 6. Lack and necessity will determine your new menu.

You won’t be able to grab whatever you want from the grocery store. You won’t even be able to grow everything you want.

What you can grow, and what you can hunt, will largely be determined by the seasons. Things you normally would not eat, things like rodents, bugs, and unpalatable plants may become staples if you want to survive.

You will either have to adapt culinarily or be prepared to eat things solely for subsistence.

Lesson 7. You must be prepared for hyperinflation.

Or it’s cousin, extreme demand. Either will see prices on staples skyrocket. Your nest egg of cash will likely not go as far as you think it will.

During the Great Depression, an unskilled worker would only make about $2 a day. Also during the Great Depression, breakfast table staples like bread, eggs, milk and so on would cost anywhere from 7 to 10 cents.

Money did not go far in those times, even for goods as simple and taken for granted as those. Make sure you plan accordingly.

Lesson 8. In times of lack, a surplus of anything may mean extra income.

Even with a rumbling tummy being the usual, surplus food was often sold to earn just a little bit of extra coin during the Great Depression.

Those with bumper crops may feel very rich indeed if they are able to easily sell the surplus to those in need.

Some families would take the saving fractions of prepared food to assemble into meals ready to serve and sell them to travelers or those passing by.

If you have a giant hoard of any kind of provision or consumable, perhaps start thinking about how you can barter or sell it during a long-term survival situation.

Lesson 9. Improvised housing might be necessary.

Those who lost their home still needed a place to live. Chances all you remember seeing pictures of the Hoovervilles in history books: shantytowns made up of hastily constructed huts put together out of any materials that could be carried or dragged into position.

You might have to make a primitive shelter out of scrap board and sheet metal, mud bricks, or even tar paper. Learning these primitive construction methods may make the difference and staying dry or staying warm for the long haul.

10. Cleanliness was still a virtue during these dark days.

People still took pride in their living arrangements, and stayed as clean as they could. Dirt and filth meant sickness. Prolonged sickness meant pestilence, and pestilence meant death.

People would sweep out their homes with brooms made out of a branch and straw. Whole families would “speed bathe” in livestock troughs with water warmed by the sun.

You must make personal hygiene- skin, hair, teeth and mouth- a priority, even during a prolonged disaster.

Lesson 11. Multiple income streams were a must, and normal.

People that could get multiple jobs, even part-time jobs, we’re glad to have them and work them. Most people got up and started working well before sunrise, and we’re still working long after dark.

Your life may turn into one long bout of labor in order to survive, interrupted only by short periods of sleep.

Be prepared to grind for as long as is necessary to see it through. You can ease this burden somewhat now, by developing multiple passive streams of income to pad your disaster fund.

Lesson 12. Almost nothing was truly useless.

People made everything serve a purpose, perform a task or do more than was intended. Infamously, grain and feed sacks were sewn into clothing of all kinds- dresses, trousers and shirts.

Families would save aluminum foil to reuse it or repurpose it. Even nearly inedible cuts of meat were put to use for seasoning in soup or pasta stock.

There was very little trash going out back in those days. You should become similarly hyper focused on making everything into a resource when the time comes.

Lesson 13. Generalists and jacks-of-all-trades thrived.

Or at least they had an easier time of it. Modern society over-values The Specialist. Austere times favor The Generalist, someone able to engage in many things with passing competency.

When you might be flitting from one job or task to the next and everything is dependent upon your success or failure, I would rather be able to do many things pretty well, or even just decent, then one thing extremely well that may no longer be called for.

How many skills are you competent in? Are you a mason, carpenter, welder, blacksmith?

Lesson 14. Community plots were common back then, and may become common again.

People surviving the Great Depression who lived in cities or heavily suburbanized areas may not have had room to put in a garden of any size. Instead, empty lots would be appropriated, or simply taken over, and used to grow massive Gardens that could feed several families.

People either worked together and shared the harvest, or everyone had their own smaller plot on the larger tract to tend as their own.

Consider discussing the idea ahead of time with your neighbors and people on your street before things get bad.

Lesson 15. Some fixtures of government and commerce disappeared immediately, and often with no warning.

Start making a list of now of all the agencies, organizations, companies and initiatives that you depend on in day-to-day life, or interact with.

Most of them will not survive or operate through a major depression or true economic crash. Start eliminating this dependency now by weaning yourself off their services.

Radical self-sufficiency must be your watchword if you want to survive. They will function right up until the moment they don’t, and will close with no warning right when you need them the most.

Lesson 16. You can write off financial investments as lost if they are not in hand.

When I say people lost everything in the Great Depression, I do mean everything. Investments of all kinds, stocks, bonds, savings accounts, and all others were annulled or invalidated or simply saw their value reduced to nothing due to market forces rapidly spiraling out of control.

It will be too late to get the jump on them after people start panicking and make a run for the banks or their stock broker. Don’t wait too long to cash out if things are starting to look grim!

people protesting bank failure

Lesson 17. Everyone that could work, did. Everyone.

Anyone that was able-bodied, and a lot of people that weren’t, found work, found something to do even if it was just around the home.

Children as young as three and four were put to work around the house, helping with menial tasks, repetitive jobs or just watching and taking care of even smaller children.

There was nothing for it: if everyone did not truly pull together, then no one would survive.

mother and her two children during the Great Depression
mother and her two children during the Great Depression

Lesson 18. Even these trying times, neighbors still helped each other.

Maybe it was just a helping hand. Maybe it was some much-needed parcel of food or some item. It could have been expertise.

Anyone that was worth their salt would help look out for their neighbor, because they knew intern that their neighbor would look out for them in their time of need. Hard times are often the glue that binds communities together.

Start cultivating that now. Someone needs help, just show up with your tools, don’t wait to be asked. You’ll both be better off when the time comes you really need to rely on each other.

Lesson 19. The extension of credit was common.

Institutional as well as social credit. those who had a little bit more to go around what often contribute weekly or monthly to those who are really struggling, with the expectation that when their “harvest” came in, or they made a windfall financially or provisionally, they would be paid back with interest.

Businesses would sell on credit, sometimes motivated by pity, sometimes by potential gain, to those who could not afford. Many times both parties would lose, and lose big.

Temporarily borrowing something to someone is one thing; loaning them cash on credit, with the expectation of interest, is another in times like these. Make sure you do not fall into this trap.

Lesson 20. That being said, debts were rarely forgiven.

Some individuals and institutions would stop at nothing to collect on a debtor, even if they had already sold their shoes and socks.

People could and did lose their homes regularly, along with everything else they put up for collateral.

Some particularly merciless lenders would take a “pound of flesh” in one form or another from people who could not pay back what they were owed.

Learn from this example, and see to it you do not fall into debt with the wrong people in your desperation during trying times.

Lesson 21. Things had the last, even if they weren’t high quality.

People made everything last longer back then. That’s because they had to, there wasn’t any choice. Shoes would be resoled with old tires, or even cardboard.

Clothing would often wind up looking like a quilt after it was patched one too many times. What vehicles and machinery people had access to was often frankensteined together with parts from multiple makes and multiple models.

After your survival stash runs low and all your spares are used up, you might be forced to do something similar, repairing, and repairing and repairing until it absolutely cannot be repaired again. Only then would it be thrown away or broken down.

Lesson 22. Refinancing and other financial initiatives were often a Faustian bargain.

Any of us can understand why they did it, but refinancing a home or business property to buy themselves a little more time above water often turned for the worse for many families.

Many could not escape their debts, and some were even stalked by debt collectors after the Depression had ended. Always be wary when dealing with a bank or lender.

Lesson 23. Livestock renewable resources were incredibly precious.

A cow or even a few chickens could create a steady supply of nutrition and calories for burgeoning families.

A family’s very survival may revolve around keeping their animal, or animals, healthy. Healthy animals and suitable breeding stock could also be sold for major infusions of cash or other resources.

If animal husbandry is part of your survival plan, make sure you plan for the needs of your animals to the “nth” degree.

Lesson 24. Animals and livestock also had to make due.

Families could often not afford appropriate feed for their animals, and would try to feed them anything that was palatable to the critter in question.

The Dust Bowl was especially terrible to animals, which would lose entire swaths of pasture and grazing land. Some families resorted to feeding their animals refuse, weeds and everything else the animals could stomach.

Many animals became gravely sick and died from malnutrition or maladies brought on by the unusual diet. It would pay to know what is the absolute minimum grade of food that any of your livestock can tolerate, and for how long, in case you ever get into a similar bind.

Lesson 25. Waste was abhorred.

Anyone caught wasting usable materials, even marginally usable material, was often pilloried, sometimes publicly. You’re talking about an era where people would fight over a crust of bread and children were constantly going around with sunken eyes and swollen bellies from hunger.

Some people literally did not have clothes to wear, and would clad themselves in whatever scraps they could drape over their emaciated frames.

Need is the ultimate motivator and seeing someone else waste anything that you might use is liable to anger. This changed attitudes, and in a hurry. Do everything you can to stop wasting now.

Lesson 26. Migrant lifestyles were common and expected.

People went where the work was, and not just Mom and Dad. Entire families would pull up tent pegs, sometimes literally, and travel dozens or even hundreds of miles if someone managed to secure gainful, repeatable employment.

While one parent or older siblings may travel alone to go to work and then send money home, often times the family would try to stick together as much as possible to prevent mishap.

Lesson 27. The situation at hand had the final say.

Many people went mad or succumbed to despair raging and railing about something that they simply could not change.

The problem was bigger, stronger and meaner than they were. They had the same fundamental choices that any organism had when confronted with a drastic change in its environment: they could leave, and avoid the problem.

They could change, adapting to the new paradigm. Or, they could die, unwilling or unable to adapt or leave. Many people chose the latter. This is an inescapable law of nature, and humans are not immune to it, no matter how much we would like to think ourselves so.

Lesson 28. People became surprisingly inventive.

Human ingenuity is truly a source of constant wonder. Even in the midst of times that seem so terrible, people find a way to solve problems and sometimes do it in an elegant or even slightly comedic way.

Several popular brands of cake and biscuit mix, for instance, had their genesis in the Great Depression. Some were originally created by a coalition of housewives, who sought to sell ready-made biscuit mix door-to-door.

In doing so, they turned comparatively small amounts of baking ingredients into a ready source of income, while also providing a valuable service to other families.

Plenty of tools and other labor-saving technology were also invented during the Great Depression. You can do the same, using the stress of the situation at hand to drive your creativity. For every problem, there is a solution!

Lesson 29. When in Doubt, Keep it Simple.

Simple solutions to problems became the norm, with efficiency, ease of implementation and reliability being most important above all. In the summer, when things were too hot to tolerate indoors, people slept outside in the shade if possible.

Those who had ready access to water would DIY a sort of whole room swamp cooler my soaking sheets or curtains and hanging them over doorways and windows.

By encouraging a draft to flow through the house, the hot air would be slightly cooled by evaporative action. These primitive, almost silly, techniques did work even if they were a far cry from real air-conditioning. Don’t let your resentment at what you lack blind you to possible solutions.

Lesson 30. Mass displacement was common.

Great swathes of people, even entire communities, very literally entire towns, could be uprooted during the Great Depression, and scattered to the Four Winds.

These people would sometimes form massive caravans traveling from place to place looking for work, looking for food or for some kind of relief. Oftentimes locals thought them akin to locusts coming to devour what little was left that could be had.

Whatever people may think of them today, and whatever you might think of them, you must be prepared for large influxes of refugees during any major disaster or crisis.

Lesson 31. Charitable religious organizations will try to help.

It never ceases to amaze me where you will find missionaries from many religions trying to ease the burden on the downtrodden and the suffering.

You’ll often find them in the middle of war zones trying to offer aid to the injured, to say nothing of lesser events.

Plenty of these groups operated during the Great Depression from coast to coast in America, handing out food and even money to those they could.

Before the end, many of these groups themselves ran out of money, and were forced to shutter or contribute as meagerly as they could.

You will still be able to expect charitable religious outreach during the next major disaster.

Lesson 32. Conventional legality might be disregarded.

Desperate times create desperate people, and there will be no shortage of people who might turn to crime, petty or grand, in order to survive.

During the Great Depression, moonshiners and smugglers operated almost openly. Some people adopted Robin Hood complexes, taking from the very wealthy, those they saw as “fat cats”, and redistributing it to those in need.

You should not be surprised to see people you know turn the similar activities. Perhaps you yourself may be forced to disregard your ethics if you want to live.

Lesson 33. The Government is always “on.”

Even during the destruction and degradation of the Great Depression, the government was still doing what it does best: applying the wrong solutions to an incorrectly diagnosed problem.

You still had to pay taxes during the Great Depression. Government inspectors still ran to and fro looking to extort money out of businesses, common people and anyone else that ran afoul of this regulation or that.

Some of those inspectors did not have the heart to report what they found if it meant someone paying something they truly could not afford. Others did not care.

Plenty of business owners were slapped with fines or levies that were absolutely the last thing they could afford to deal with at the time. The gears of government are always turning, and we are grist.

Lesson 34. Always look for work.

During the Great Depression, this meant someone’s job if they didn’t have a job was looking for a job. The clock was always ticking on starvation, and destitution.

Even if you are well-equipped and well-stocked for your survival situation, you should always be looking for “work.” There’s always something you can do to improve your situation, some tasks that needs doing, something that needs improving, that needs shoring up.

Don’t rest on your haunches just because you have a full belly and a warm, dry place to sleep. All that can change in an instant.

Lesson 35. There was no such thing as “Golden Years.”

Sometimes get really tough, you can forget about any opportunity to properly retire. People will have to work until they are truly unable to go on anymore.

If they are very lucky, they will have close friends or family members who will take care of them from then on. If they are not lucky, that was literally the end of the road.

They would start dying, right that very second. That’s something you need to come to grips with if you are a solo prepper.

If you run a group or family survival situation, that needs to be on your mind regarding older members in your group who are still capable. They won’t be forever.

Lesson 36. Some places got off easy.

As far-reaching and invasive as the effects of the Great Depression were, not everywhere suffered quite as bad as everywhere else.

Some communities, through luck or just pure grit, were able to weather the storm for the most part, whether being able to provide enough food people themselves or a remaining pocket of economic viability in the midst of major collapse and contraction.

Some people are just too valuable to be let go from jobs they had in industries that were evergreen or depression-proof. Government sector jobs in particular did not see an awful lot of downsizing.

Something to think about: if you are truly indispensable, chances are you won’t want for employment.

Lesson 37. Violence and crime rose precipitously during hard times.

A rough economic downturn definitely has a causal effect on rising crime. They seem to be inextricably linked.

The Great Depression was the era of bootleggers, of colorful, larger-than-life outlaw bank robbers, rogues and criminal enterprise. Some of the most well-known gangsters of the twentieth century got their start during the Great Depression.

Everything from prostitution and smuggling, to extortion, bank robbery and killers-for-hire was available for the right price. You’ll need to be prepared to deal with a significant outbreak of criminality; make sure you can defend yourself and what’s yours.

Lesson 38. Government initiative may provide opportunities.

In response to the Great Depression, the government created the New Deal. It afforded ample opportunities for citizens to get involved in government programs along with pay and benefits.

Perhaps most well-known and famous, the Civil Conservation Corps went coast-to-coast in America, repairing infrastructure, upgrading roads, building dams and performing other civic functions like firefighting and park rangering.

Assuming the government does not get knocked out during whatever major disaster has brought on this crisis, there will likely be a need for manpower and a call for something similar. Keep your ears perked for an opportunity.

Lesson 39. Families consolidated.

In quest of pulling together for mutual survival, many families consolidated under one roof, or what passed for a roof.

Several generations of family, including cousins, would often gather in one place in a desperate effort to take care of everyone.

This was sometimes a gamble, as additional manpower always meant more mouths to feed. Some families were able to persevere, persist and survive. Others could not meet the demands. You need to consider carefully your family situation before setting any survival plan in stone.

Lesson 40. Barter became widely accepted as payment.

As the value of currency fell, more usual everyday items and provisions would be acceptable for settling debts.

Eggs, livestock, vegetables, even tools and other supplies might be traded freely between parties and even some businesses as payment for goods or services rendered.

Depending on the situation, you might find yourself better able to pay by trading away goods you have stockpiled than cash that is hardly worth starting a fire with.

Lesson 41. You weren’t homeless if you could live out of a vehicle.

For the lucky people that had one, a vehicle made for an excellent mobile shelter.

Many folks resorted to getting rid of their home and living in their vehicle in order to save what money they had and stay mobile enough to chase employment opportunities or flee areas currently under famine or severe lack.

On the flip side, when that vehicle broke down, if they could not get it fixed and working themselves that was usually the end of the line.

Lesson 42. People focused on what mattered most.

For most everyone that means their families, their friends and other loved ones.

People spent a lot more time with the people closest to them back then; it was not unusual in the aftermath of the Great Depression to hear people talk about those days with almost a sort of fondness after things got back to normal.

Entertainment was still a thing, and people had to find innovative, simple ways to have fun. This often meant traditional games that we are familiar with even today.

Through necessity or even through desperation, people were closer back then and bonds were stronger. Don’t wait for such an event to start strengthening the important bonds in your life.

Lesson 43. People didn’t give in or give up.

When the hour is truly at its darkest, it is easy to shake a fist at the sky, throw a pity party for yourself, or just give in to the nihilistic blackness at the site of every human heart.

Surely some people did just that back during the Great Depression, but not everyone, and not even most. People dug in.

They always stayed focused on a solution and many people were proud to show their gratitude for what they did have.

They never lost hope and they never stopped looking for a better way forward. You’ll need this stick-to-it attitude if you want to persevere and prevail during your own tests and trials.

Lesson 44. There is always dignity in providing.

No matter how awful the situation gets, no matter how far society, and yourself, seem to have fallen from the lofty heights that were once occupied, remind yourself that the steps you have taken prior to an event and the work you put in during it make all the difference for the people counting on you.

Where others died or were scattered you and yours will be both alive and together. Some of the problems we face are bigger than any of us, and you should not turn against yourself for any perceived failing.

Lesson 45. Much of what was needed was free for the taking.

Much of what you need can be had for free, if only you will reach out and take it. No, I’m not talking about stealing from anyone.

If you need a fire, fuel can be readily had from fallen trees, driftwood and branches. Vitamin deficiency and scurvy can be held at bay with a single piece of citrus fruit or a handful of berries that grow wild.

If you’re adept at trapping, your dinner may literally come to you. Even if you are ill, medicine can be had in the form of all kinds of wild herbs and other medicinal plants. A guidebook with color pictures could be as good as a pharmacy.

Lesson 46. Do not be too proud to accept charity.

In any terrible situation, you can depend on it: there will always be people helping. Unfortunately, some folks’ pride prevents them from accepting graciously the goodwill of others.

This is a mistake. Not to say that you should take from someone who is truly worse off than you are, but in any case charity helps both the recipient and the giver. Do not deny someone who would sacrifice to help you.

They may be righting a wrong, keeping a vow or honoring their faith. All are good and worthy. Don’t take that from someone.

Lesson 47. Families who had clothes, food, shelter and each other were rich indeed.

If you go back and read the writings of those who live through the worst of the Great Depression, many of them will talk with a curiously wistful, even pleasant tone about it.

Say what you want about the suffering inflicted, but it certainly brought people together and made them focus on what was really important.

Life was simpler. All people worried about was staying healthy, staying fed and being together.

No matter what you’ve lost at the outset of a disaster, if you have all hands in your family accounted for, your supplies and a place to get in out of the rain, you are very rich indeed, even by today’s standards.

Lesson 48. People can survive on a lot less than they think.

If that wasn’t the case, an awful lot more people would have died during the Great Depression.

Chances are if you’re a serious prepper you have racks upon racks and shelves upon shelves of gear, provision and gadgetry.

While it is undoubtedly very nice to have, it may not be entirely necessary. It goes without saying you should not have your personality and your survival outlook tied up in any of your gear.

If it is lost immediately or shortly after the beginning of the end, the blow to your psyche may be unrecoverable. Focus on the basics of survival.

Lesson 49. People made time for fun and relaxation.

Humans need to kick back and relax every now and then. That’s all there is to it. Stress relief is actually a survival mandate.

Even if all you have is just some free time to take a load off and talk or daydream, you should do that.

Tell stories with your group and family. Play a made-up game. Just relax. This will help keep your nerves and your body sharp and foster hope. And a little hope is always warranted in a desperate situation.

Lesson 50. People knew it would end eventually.

The knowledge that everything is cyclical, but nothing lasts forever, works as a sort of Memento Mori and a reminder that you will not be suffering like this forever. Humanity always comes back from the brink.

Nothing is over until it’s over, until it is truly The End with a capital ‘E’. Do not give in to despair. Have the strength to endure and the courage to persevere. Our forbearers did, and they went on to produce the greatest generation ever.

A Note on Perspective

No one can say that the Great Depression was anything short of a monumental event.

Changes to the American landscape culturally, economically, even physically are difficult to fathom even today. As the comparatively young country back then before the Great Depression kicked off, we were prosperous.

Our star was certainly ascendant. I have a hard time imagining myself how it must have felt to see all of that sort of fall apart except for the lucky or blessed few who did not suffer like so much of the country.

But then I have to remind myself that is austere and harsh as life during the Great Depression must have been, even through the midst of the Dust Bowl, even though it was a real-life daily fight to survive as I have said throughout this article, it was still what many places of the world, even today, would with no difficulty recognize as just… life.

The survival of humanity has always meant struggle. It has always meant toil, and sweat, and even a little misery. With all that being said, people in America had it a far sight easier than people in some other countries.

I say this not to minimize any of the suffering that was endured, or to crap on America because we’re so spoiled.

I say this instead as a reminder that you, me and everyone else are not the trappings of this Modern Life we have built up for ourselves.

We are instead our faith and blood and soil; God, family and country. Those are the things that really matter.

And even in the midst of an economic crisis that makes a mockery of all the prosperity we have accumulated so far, so long as we have those three things then life is still pretty good.

Don’t forget that. Just make damn certain you’re ready for the other just in case.


The Great Depression lasted a decade, and carved an indelible scar into the psyche and the landscape of America. But after the storm and rain, comes also new growth. Along with the scars we learned valuable lessons about survival, about perseverance and about endurance.

You should honor the legacy of your forbearers and learn those lessons. Read the instructions they have left for us, and adjust your own plans accordingly.

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4 thoughts on “50 Survival Lessons from the Great Depression”

  1. Hi Charles,
    Thank you for one of the better articles I have ever read from a prepper perspective on this topic. I especially appreciate the respect and understanding you convey for this period and its people.
    My dad grew up during this period. When I once asked him of the hardships that they went through as a family, his response surprised me. He answered that he as a child growing up during the Depression, did not realised that they were poor. Everyone was poor and everyone was going through the same experiences. He thought it was normal to be poor and struggling. Nothing more nothing less.
    Another anecdote he shared with me was when he once walked to a neighbouring farm to visit one of his school mates. Nope, said his mother when he got there, you cant visit him today. He is in bed. My dad asked if he was sick or something. No said his mother, his only set of clothes are being washed. His friend literally had nothing else to wear and was condemned to staying in bed until his clothes dried out.

  2. After reading Charles Yor’s writing of the Great Depression, it brought to light many memories of occurrences in my life while growing up. I born in 1946 grew up during the fifties and sixties spending a lot of time with my grandparents on my mom’s side of the family. My moms family came from a farming area in North Dakota and had a fair source of food and livestock to subsist on. But other commodities were few and far between. They eventually moved to Jamestown ND to find work. My grandfather went to work for the railroad working 7 days a week and grandmother maintained the house. Every 6 months (spring & fall) they would make the trek to the farm and get 60 chickens and bring them back to butcher and put in the freezer. They maintained a one acre vegetable garden to share with the neighbors. Grandma baked almost daily, breads for 25 cents a loaf, pies when fruit was available and cakes for sale, $1.50 each. When visiting in the summer I would go around collecting milk and pop bottles to return to the grocery store for a penny a piece. When I grew older, my mom continued to bake our bread, cinnamon loafs and rolls in the late 50’s and throughout the 60’s. She worked 5 & 6 days a week to support my two sisters and myself. On Sunday she spent the whole day in the kitchen preparing meals for the rest of the week. Stews, spaghetti, meat loaf when we could afford it, pasta dishes and at least once a week eggs and pancakes for dinner. Wages in the early 60’s were only $2.50 to $3.75 an hour so your money had to stretch a long way to make ends meet. The government called it a “recession” JFK promised he could make things better.
    I got clothes twice a year, at Christmas and mid summer. That usually consisted of a pair of jeans, 2 shirts and a pair of shoes. Socks, underwear and a jacket came from my grandparents each year at Christmas. When a hole wore through the leather soles of my shoes mom cut out a piece of cardboard to put in them until we could get them resoled. One time she cut up an old bicycle tube and glued that to the bottom. A lesson learned from the Depression.
    When visiting my grandmother she would cook up large batches of food and put them in the freezer for later use. That held true with all leftovers. She kept empty containers for food storage, saved bags, foil and waxed paper for wrapping food and baked goods. I asked her why she kept all of that “Junk” she looked at me and said, “this is not junk, you will always have a use for it and you don’t have to spend hard earned money for it. You will always be prepared if you need it.” She always shopped for bargains and purchased extras when they were on sale. When she passed away at 98 she still had a well stocked pantry and two freezers full of food. She lived through the Great Depression as did my mom who passed away at 85. These were all lessons I learned and still remember today at 73 years old. I guess their tutoring took hold because I have been accused of being a “string saver” but whenever anyone needs something special or unique, I generally have what they need. My concerns are for the younger generations that didn’t have the exposure or opportunity to learn from those of experience. I will survive and persevere in the time I have left. As for the current generation dependent on all the trappings of ease and luxury, I am not so sure.

  3. One reasonably accurate, if opinionated, account of what the depression and Dust Bowl did is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Both of my parents were Depression kids; Dad grew up hard scrabble even by those standards. He hunted with a “bean flip” when he couldn’t afford the penny for a bullet, and could recognize and gather anything edible in its season. That was what they lived on.

  4. My Dad was born in 1929, one of the middle children of 11. They had a very hard Depression but managed to make it through barely. Growing up, our basement was one huge pantry, with loads of food on shelving we built and full two upright freezers. It didn’t seem strange to my brothers and I then and we all still have rooms kept as devoted pantries, often filled with food bought on sale or in bulk. This isn’t a church or religious practice, its a personal insurance policy thing in our families. All problems are surmountable if you are eating regularly.

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