Sunday, November 28, 2010

Something To Be Thankful For

Today, many Americans are concerned about unemployment, and about the effect of US national debt and the national debt of other countries on the economy. The current state of the economy has been compared to the Great Depression.

That may be going too far, though. My friend, John Desmond, has entrusted me with his late father's account of what American food was like in the Philadelphia area during the Great Depression. A few excerpts from Mr. Lawrence Desmond's recollections (which were recorded back in 1996), may serve to put our current troubles into perspective.

In 1932-33 I worked as a clerk at the American Stores (Acme Markets) at 8th and Edgemont in Chester [PA]. It was the largest grocery store in town - not quite as big as a basketball court. The A&P, which started up a couple of years later, was the town's first self-service supermarket. A&P and American Stores were the large 'chains' in the area, but there were lots of neighborhood food stores, often serving a particular ethnic group.
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My hours were from 8 AM to 6 PM Monday thru Thursday, 8 AM to 9 PM on Friday, 8 AM to 10 or 11 PM on Saturday. I made 10 dollars a week.
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Ham was about 12 cents a lb.  You could get a 100 lb bag of potatoes for a dollar, a can of baked beans for 5 cents.  Milk was from 14 cents to 16 cents a quart.  Tastykake made a "pound cake" loaf for 17 cents a pound, and Acme a "fruit loaf" - bread with raisins and candied fruit, like fruitcake - it cost 15 cents for an unsliced 2-pound loaf.  The A&P made very good whole-wheat bread.
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Chicken, and all poultry, was expensive - today it's almost free.  Pork chops were comparatively cheap.  Italians ate a lot of veal, Irish a lot of lamb - lamb was comparatively cheaper then. People ate more seafood then than they do now.
Armour's and Swift's - the national meat packing chains - had slaughtering plants in Chester.  Livestock would be shipped in by rail, and sides of beef would go to the neighborhood butcher shops. Fruits and vegetables would come from the farms to the commission markets on Edgemont Avenue between 3rd Street and the Delaware River, as well as fish, and shellfish from the oyster boats of Delaware and Chesapeake Bays.  Most fruit and vegetable growers and marketers were quite small enterprises - the neighborhood merchants would go to "Commission Row" each morning and get the stock for their stores.  Banana boats came from the Caribbean - if the prices were too low, they often just dumped their cargo in the ocean and headed back South.
String beans, lima beans, potatoes, beets, carrots and cabbage  - corn, tomatoes, and asparagus in season - were the common vegetables.  Cauliflower was scarce - dubbed "cabbage with a college education", it was regarded as a delicacy.  Broccoli was unheard of until a Chester resident - Mr. Kelly, whose son was a noted WWII aviator - was the first to import it to the USA on a large scale.

What this says to me is that food in the Great Depression was less varied, and more expensive to obtain, than it is now.  The supermarket where Mr. Desmond worked in 1933 was smaller than a basketball court.  The supermarket I visited tonight (Wegmans) is larger than a city block, and contains an astounding array of foods from all over the United States, and the world, for surprisingly low prices.

It seems to me that despite 10% unemployment, and concerns about inflation and general economic collapse, we still have quite a bit to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

EDIT: After I originally published this post, I found this page which applies the Consumer Price Index to convert the US dollars of earlier years into current dollars. Using the calculator to turn the 1933 prices of most the items Mr. Desmond discusses above indicates that many of them were as cheap or even somewhat cheaper than they commonly are now, but milk appears to have been surprisingly dear. He reports that milk was 14-16 cents a quart (or 64 cents a gallon), but 64 cents had the approximate buying power of $10.77 USD today. Milk in my area is about $3.30 per gallon.

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