‘This frugal period’: The Great Depression years were trying times in town as charity and home-grown food helped the jobless survive

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Ward’s Store on Route 20 in Guilderland was one of many stores in operation during the Great Depression. Not only did it offer food, but served as the post office and had gas pumps as well. Note the WGY sign about the entry. In recent years, the building was taken down for Guilderland Fire Department expansion.  ​

Imagine a family of four seated at their dinner table, sharing one or two frankfurters sliced into a bowl of macaroni covered with a tomato soup sauce accompanied by a side dish of a can of green beans or corn. Sound far-fetched?

During the 1930s, such a meal would not have been unusual for a family headed by an unemployed breadwinner or one whose wages and hours had been cut. While not every family in Guilderland was so impoverished, there were others who were suffering.

The following notice appeared in the Village Notes column in the Nov. 4, 1932 Enterprise: “While the thoughts of many of our residents are on unemployment relief, it might be well to remind ourselves that there are many others in need of help at this time of the year. The Enterprise knows of one case, not far from Altamont, where a middle-aged woman, who is caring for her little nephew, is almost destitute.

“She has been unable to obtain work of any kind. If this notice strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of those who read it, the Enterprise will be glad to furnish the name of the person needing help — or the Enterprise will receive and dispense gifts received from our readers. The need for help is urgent.”

By 1932, the unemployment rate in the United States had risen to 23.6 percent and a year later hit an all-time high of 24.9 percent.

Examples of local charity for the truly destitute made its way into the pages of The Enterprise at times, often involving young people. A Dec. 1, 1933 headline read, “Local High School Pupils Bring Thanksgiving Cheer.” The story described the efforts of Altamont High School students who raised $30, allowing them to fill 11 baskets with chickens, vegetables, and fruit to be distributed to needy families.

The committee for the 1932 Sunday School and congregational Christmas party at St John’s Lutheran Church requested that attendees bring a donation to be given to the needy. Earlier, the church’s primary Bible Classes had run a food sale with proceeds dedicated to purchasing Christmas gifts and food for the needy.

The public was urged to “buy and help encourage the young folks in well doing.” A tremendous amount of charity was done quietly over those Depression years, much of the time individuals helping to assist friends or family members who were in dire financial straits.

Even for those steadily employed, average wages were low. Workers such as farm hands, waiters, and dressmakers earned under $1,000 each year at a time when the average annual wage was estimated to be $1,368. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set the minimum hourly wage at 25 cents.

Even though the 1933 dollar had the buying power of $19.61 in 2020 dollars, enabling the fortunate few who had high wages or salaries to live well, the average American found it challenging to meet everyday expenses, especially putting food on the table.


Home grown

Family farms, still very common in 1930s Guilderland, could easily supply their owners much of their own food. Even townspeople in local hamlets and the village of Altamont often had large backyard gardens and fruit trees.

For anyone without a garden, some local farmers, themselves trying to earn some income, opened farm stands. William Hartmann set up opposite the McKownville Methodist Church; his stand was open six days a week — even evenings. In Altamont, Charles H. Britton, a Parkers Corners’ farmer, offered his “full line of fresh vegetables each day” and at “very reasonable prices.”

Other farmers such as Oakley V. Crounse sold fruit, dairy products, chickens, and eggs from their own farms. Kolenska Dairy Farm in Guilderland offered both raw and pasteurized milk and would deliver.

Come winter, fresh fruits and vegetables were a rarity, forcing everyone to turn to canned foods, either grocery-store brands or for the lucky ones, home-canned fruits and vegetables. By mid- to late summer home-canning supplies were a common feature in supermarket ads running in The Enterprise.

The Super Market offered Ball quart jars at 62 cents per dozen and pints at 52 cents per dozen, while at Central Markets prices were 4 cents for one dozen jar rubbers, 21 cents for one dozen Mason jar tops, 9 cents for a large package of parowax, 23 cents for Certo and 62 cents for one dozen quart Mason jars.

If canning pickles were on the agenda, pure cider vinegar was 17 cents (plus jug deposit) and cans of spices were 10 cents each. In 1938, The Enterprise writer from Guilderland Center noted in her column, “Vlasta Drahos is again champion canner of this vicinity. She was awarded first prize in the 4-H department of the Altamont Fair for canned fruit, for tomatoes and tomato juice and second prize for vegetables.”


“These days of thrift”

Deciding what to feed the family was made easier for housewives who could turn on their radios for food programs that offered recipes and suggestions. On WGY, there was Food Talk with Col. Goodbody, WGY Household Chats, the Radio Household Institute or the A & P program. For years, the United States Bureau of Home Economics sponsored a radio show where “Aunt Sammy” discussed housekeeping and feeding the family.

By the early 1930s, the U.S. Printing Office had produced several hundred thousand copies of Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes, available free to help housewives through what the government called, “these perilous times,” “these days of thrift,” “this frugal period.”

Appearing periodically in The Enterprise were menu suggestions from Ann Page, “spokeswoman” for the A & P supermarket chain. Tactfully appealing to all levels of income, here is a sample of “her” suggestions: For a low-cost dinner, serve braised lamb shanks, potatoes, mashed yellow turnip, bread and butter, vanilla pudding with preserves, tea or coffee, and milk while for a medium cost dinner the housewife could serve chicken fricassee, boiled rice, carrots and peas, bread and butter, chocolate cream pie, tea or coffee or milk. A very special dinner suggestion was cranberry and orange-juice cocktail, chicken pie, browned sweet potatoes, creamed onions, green salad, French dressing, hot rolls and butter, jelly roll, tea or coffee or milk.

Even the most self-sufficient housewife or farm wife was forced at least some of the time to shop at a local grocery store or supermarket.

Both Empie’s Market in Guilderland Center and Ward’s Store in Guilderland were affiliated with the WGY buying network, actually named after the radio station, but not connected with it. The increased buying power of this large group of independently owned stores allowed the local WGY grocers to offer weekly specials and regularly advertise in The Enterprise.

Altamont had independently-owned stores such as Hudson Food Store, Altamont Cash Market, and Pangburn’s Food Store, although they may not have all operated during the same years. Altamont Cash Market offered a pound of soup bones for 5 cents, stew beef  for10 cents per pound, stew veal for 10 cents per pound, lamb stew for 10 cents per pound, and butt or shank ham ends for 22 cents per pound.

Cash Store butcher Charles Ricci was selling a pound of shoulder veal for 25 cents or a pound of veal chops for 28 cents to those who could afford prime meat. These small stores faced stiff competition from two national chain super markets, the A & P and the Grand Union, both of which had expanded their chains into Altamont

Compared to modern supermarkets, these were relatively small stores but had great buying power and were able to offer lower prices than local independently-owned markets. To their advantage, the locally-owned markets offered credit to customers who didn’t always have ready cash and they would make deliveries. Neither the Grand Union nor the A & P advertised regularly in The Enterprise.

Two Schenectady-based supermarkets did seek to attract Guilderland customers, possibly because a certain number of local people worked at General Electric or other jobs in the Schenectady area and traveled back and forth. Advertising regularly in The Enterprise were The Super Market with two Schenectady stores on Broadway and Central Market, and the two local Golub stores that grew to become the Market 32/Price Chopper chain today.

Closest to Guilderland was their store at 2600 Guilderland Avenue, touted in their ads as “most convenient if you live in or near Altamont.” “Shop the easy basket way” meant serving yourself but, if you didn’t mind traveling a few miles and had cash to pay, a budget-minded customer could snag some real bargains.

Central Market’s clever merchandising included staying open until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights and assuring shoppers there were plenty of parking spaces. Quoted in one of its 1934 ads was, “For the past year my friends have talked about nothing but Central Market and their easy prices. Now I’m talking Central, too.”

A three-store Albany chain called Trading Port also appeared in The Enterprise, appealing to McKownville folks with the slogan, “Every day a bargain day, shop and save the basket way.” Its location was 1237 Western Ave. at the city line.

Unlike the local independent stores, both Schenectady supermarkets offered prices with half cents. Central Market was selling cans of fancy pumpkin for seven-and-a -half cents, a pound of Maxwell House coffee for twenty-four-and-a-half cents and genuine Long Island ducklings for nineteen-and-a-half cents per pound.

Some samples from The Super Market were pork loin roast for eighteen-and-a-half cents per pound, a package of Grape Nuts Flakes for nine-and-a-half cents and California sardines for seven-and-a-half cents.


Dining out

Dining out was another option that families could enjoy, although restaurant dining seemed rare and few restaurant ads ever appeared during those years. Scanning the local columns of The Enterprise shows a tremendous amount of visiting among friends and relatives, often with dinner or luncheon mentioned.

For families with some spare cash, church suppers offered the dual opportunity to socialize, and to dine out at a reasonable cost. In 1932, when the Ladies’ Aid Society of St. John’s Lutheran Church put on its annual chicken and waffle supper, approximately 200 attended.

The Village Notes column pointed out, “…while the patronage fell off fully a third from last year due to current conditions, the supper was reported a success and a considerable sum of money raised.”

The coming-events columns frequently mentioned church dinners. McKownville Methodist Church, Hamilton Presbyterian Church, Parkers Corners Methodist Church, and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church all had dinners or food sales of some sort.

For 75 cents in early October 1935, you could stop by the Hamilton Presbyterian Church for a chicken dinner with chicken, biscuits, dressing, mashed potatoes, buttered carrots, cabbage salad, jello, rolls, apple and pumpkin pies, and coffee on the menu.

A few weeks earlier, the Parkers Corners Methodist Church was charging adults 50 cents and children under 12 could eat for 25 cents. The Harvest Home Supper menu: roast lamb, mashed potatoes, corn, pickles, rolls, coffee, and jello.

At times, other groups such as the 4-H and Altamont Businessmen’s Bowling League also offered suppers as well.

Like the rest of America, some of Guilderland’s families sailed through the Great Depression easily and could take advantage of the depressed prices to live very well.

Most were forced to be very thrifty to manage to eat, pay the rent or property taxes, run their car and heat their house, while there were others in our town who suffered poverty, deprivation, and sometimes malnutrition.

For most Americans, the Great Depression years were a very trying time.