Survival Lessons from the Great Depression of 1929

You may have heard your grandparents, great-grandparents, or even your great-great-grandparents telling stories of the Great Depression. In 1929, the stock market crashed, kicking off a ten-year economic depression until 1939.

At its worst, in 1933, roughly 15 million, or 25%, of Americans were unemployed. Over half the countries’ banks failed, and they took all of the money with them when they did. This left families with only what was in their pockets or stored in their houses. Wages fell, and prices of goods skyrocketed. Families were traveling across the country, trying to find any job to keep up.

While the Great Depression was an epicenter to the US, the Depression was felt worldwide. The people who lived through the Great Depression tell stories to pass down the survival lessons they learned from the Great Depression, and we need to listen.

From the lessons of the Great Depression, we can learn a lot about survival, preparation, and community.

Be in Power of Your Own Food

Anyone that was alive and can remember the years of 1929 to 1939 will tell you that finding and rationing food was the most difficult part of the Great Depression. Here are some survival lessons that people learned during those hard times to prepare for a food shortage.

Grow Your Own Garden

During the Great Depression, people depended on the food they grew in their own gardens. Places like the grocery store, soup kitchens, and community kitchens were often running out of food and couldn’t be relied upon. Relying on your garden for vegetables and herbs was an invaluable skill to have.

Here’s a helpful article about creating an indoor garden for beginners.

Hunting, Fishing, and Foraging

Just like vegetables and herbs in the grocery stores, meat was in short supply as well. Learning how to hunt, fish and forage became necessary for survival.

Learning these skills before disaster strikes is critical. Learn how to hunt and fish (even without a rod and reel), and be prepared with the correct gear early on. Learn what plants are in your area that are edible and useful for medicinal uses.

If hunting isn’t an option for you, consider raising chickens or rabbits as a meat source instead.

Getting Creative to Keep from Starving

You have probably heard of interesting food combinations from the Depression, such as Tumbleweed Soup (created in the Dust Bowl region of the US), Dandelion Salad, Chipped Beef on Toast, and Navy Bean Soup.

All of these dishes are examples of people getting creative with what little they have. Take Tumbleweed Soup, for example. It is as it sounds; soup made from tumbleweeds, boiled down into something that fills your belly for the night.

Often, we get stuck in the idea of HAVING to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in that order, with the appropriate food. In a dire situation or an emergency, break these habits and become creative with what you have. And make lots of different kinds of soups.

Canning and Saving Food

canned food during the great depression
Image Credit: Ray Shrewsberry

Popular for its long-term storage, potatoes, onion, and other root vegetables were popular to grow during the Depression. Potatoes, if stored correctly, can last well into the winter and even into the spring. Canning also became a large part of the harvest. Canning things in late summer lead to having dinner in late winter.

People relied on smoked and dried meat as part of their diet as well. Bacon, sausage, and other smoked hams and meats can last well into the winter.

Be as Resourceful as Possible

Reuse, Reuse, Reuse was the Motto of the Great Depression.

Nothing went into the garbage without multiple uses. If you think something could have been used later on, such as fabric scraps (quits, patches for clothes), food containers, and bacon grease (great for your cast-iron pans!).

Re-use things like aluminum foil by cleaning it multiple times or the bones of your roasted chicken for chicken stock. You can turn even the scraps of vegetables into stock and then compost. Resourcefulness and frugality became the way to self-reliance.


Learning how to sew, tailor and mend clothing was another invaluable skill during the Great Depression. New clothing was not an option as it was too expensive. People wore clothing until it needed patches and then until the patches were gone.

A homemaker needed to be able to provide clothing for growing children. Homemakers used Flour-sacks and potato sacks to make clothing. Flour manufacturers eventually started printing patterns onto their sacks to enhance the appearance of the finished clothing.

Find Multi-Purpose Items and Keep Them Around

During the Great Depression, cornstarch was one of the few products that were in surplus. Homemakers found many uses for cornstarch that exceeded kitchen use, such as; soothing rashes, cheap deodorant, keeping pests away, polishing silver, and working as a dry shampoo.

A great example to use today is vinegar. In addition to being a canning agent, vinegar is also a weed killer, a household cleaner, and a sink refresher. Mix vinegar with lemon juice, and you have an excellent countertop cleaner.

Become the Jack-of-all-Trades

Being able to fix your own clothes, car, or home was not only a great skill for your possessions but also a great skill to help you find work when others couldn’t. The economy needed Handy-man or women jobs such as plumbers, sewists, toolmaking, and home repairs in the community and a way to make money during periods of hardship.

Nowadays, being a jack-of-all-trades is a great way to save yourself some money and time for home repairs, simple car maintenance, and food preparation.

Home Remedies

Health care was too expensive and not an option for many families. Because of this, homemakers taught themselves to identify and implement home remedies. Homemakers were able to identify medical plant leaves such as Comfrey, which heals surface wounds and insect bites.

They placed mint and eucalyptus plants in steaming water to enhance breathing, then infused them in oil for healing salves. While lessons about medicinal plants are ancient, they became more widely used during the Depression.

Some of these remedies are still around today, such as warm honey tea with lemon for a cough, prunes for constipation, or an oatmeal bath for skin irritation.

Making Smart Financial Decisions

Of course, being smart financially is going to be nearly as important as being smart with your food supply. Because without money, you’re not going to be able to afford the food in the first place.

Here are some financial tips learned from the Great Depression.

Stock Up

When supplies were available, filling up the pantry was a great way to save money and be prepared down the line. If you continued to stock up, any access supplies could become bartering assets.

Having a surplus in any supplies, as long as it is not perishable, can be an advantage in the long run. As such, make wise use of your money. Shop for bargains, not luxuries.

Here’s a 2-week food supply list to help you get started.

Don’t Rely on Credit or Loans

Because banks failed and were unable to give loans during the Depression, people had to buy their homes and cars (if they could) in one lump sum of cash.

Take this lesson for today and avoid loans and going into debt as much as possible. While potentially not wholly unavoidable, try your best. Also, Homemakers placed mint and eucalyptus plants to save a supply of cash at hand, along with other investments, such as land, precious metals, or houses.

Tiny Living

During the Depression, it wasn’t unusual to see individuals or entire families living out of cars, trucks, tents, or lean-tos. While these situations were less than ideal, living in a car is still better and safer than living on the streets, fighting the elements with no shelter.

Financially speaking, nowadays, living in a converted van or one of the endless options of tiny living may be a smart move. Tiny living can help reduce debt, keep monthly spending low, and allow yourself the freedom to travel and live independently.

Migrating Became Normal

Mass migration of those who were looking for jobs became common during the Depression. Many vagrants train hopped or hitchhiked their way across the country, looking for opportunities.

This trend shows one of two things. Either move to survive after all other options have been exhausted. Or find ways to thrive where you are and adapt to your situation. Either way, it’s something to consider when given tough times.

Surplus or Skill May Mean Income

Surplus of anything may have meant more income for you or your family. Fruit trees, for example, always produce more than a family can go through in one season. Apples, say, would become a great bargaining tool or something to sell to the community for extra income. Still, this can still be true.

Bartering with Neighbors

Banks and money were not reliable during the Depression. Bartering, being an age-old practice, between neighbors became popular. Eggs, fresh milk, produce, and canned food all became bartering supplies. Split and seasoned firewood was also a bartering tool in the North, including handmade tools, clothes, and alcohol.

Nowadays, you can use bartering for survival supplies such as camp stoves, ammunition, clean drinking water, fuel, or emergency supplies. These tools are all invaluable and often disappear first in times of disaster.

Here are some of the best bartering items to trade in extremely hard times.

Community is Key

During the Great Depression, people learned to rely on not only themselves — but their community as well. Humans were always meant to be part of a social community as it can be hard to accomplish everything on your own.

Here are some survival lessons learned from the Great Depression to help with building a strong community.

Learn from the Older Generation

It wasn’t uncommon for multi-generations to end up living together. Because of this, the older generation taught the younger how to survive and thrive. Lessons of farming, saving food, being frugal, and depending on your family to survive became passed down lessons.

Team Mentality

During the Depression, everyone worked together for their family, their community, and most often both. Even children found ways to raise money for the common goal of the family’s wellness.

Swapping produce and food with neighbors to keep variety in their meals was ordinary and necessary. The progress and success of the community were more important than that of the individual.

Community Gardens and Programs

In places like cities where spice was tighter, it was common to see community gardens pop up in open spaces. These community gardens relied on the people of the area to volunteer and work together to give all food to eat.

Community programs and church programs helped those who were homeless or starving. Some communities collected food and essentials and then held a “surprise party” where one family would receive the collection.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

Many people didn’t ask for help during the Depression out of sheer stubbornness and pride. Others did ask for and received support. Penny restaurants helped families by letting the patrons pay only a small portion of the actual food cost.

Others chose service from soup kitchens. Soup kitchens ran mainly from the community gardens and donations (as they do today.) Soups were the most common food as they were the easiest and most convenient ways to serve large amounts of people.

Have Fun at Home

Sticking by your family and staying close was key to not only survival but fun as well. Tickets to see the symphony or shows were too expensive during the Depression for most families.

Because of this, families stayed at home and listened, danced, and laughed with the radio or their own entertainment. Playing fiddle, spoons, and other handmade instruments helped the time pass by before needing to wake up and go back to work.

Keeping yourself busy and metally healthy became a tool of survival.

Gratefulness and Positivity

During the Great Depression, it was common to see neighbors and people donating meals and money whenever they had extra. The stories from the Depression ring clear that the people who did well during the worst times relied on friends and family and lifted up those around them.

Adapting to the situations and realities of the Depression meant the people of the time grew an essential mental resilience. People became creative and inventive to find solutions to their problems. They dug in and stayed focused, never to lose hope until they persevered and survived.

Final Thoughts

Consider different scenarios of an economic collapse for yourself and your family. Will you be able to keep your home by taking in a border or renting out space? Or will you need to sell your home and move off-grid? Is that something you want now?

The Great Depression happened slowly and silently. The subtle warning signs were there, just as they continuously are now. But after the hardship, suffering, and depravity came growth.

The Depression is a lesson of endurance, creativity, and survival. No one will be able to predict every future situation, but we can learn from the survival lessons of the Great Depression to better prepare ourselves.

Take much from the stories and honor the teachings from those before us.