Posted by: Sara | August 25, 2009

My family’s story of the Great Depression

Posted below is a picture of my grand-grandfather R.W. Phillips, Sr. that was taken in 1937.  He was some kind of  low-level executive at the American Tobacco Company here in Richmond.  He was lucky enough to keep his job throughout the depression even though the plant had some tough times. 

Although the family didn’t suffer much financially, there was a huge emotional impact on both my him and my grandfather (his son), especially due to the suicide of a family friend who lost everything and just couldn’t cope.  Also, from what I understand, my great-grandfather often felt guilty about his good fortune when so many others weren’t as lucky.  

Even once the Depression was over, it still affected the older members of my family and the way many of them thought about money and financial security–especially my grandfather.  Until dying day, he was always very frugal and loathe to spend money on anything he deemed frivolous or unnecessary, and banked as much money as he could “just in case.”

R.W. Phillips - 1937



  1. My grandparents were just as frugal. I remember my grandfather going around and shutting off lights behind people as they left the room, in order to save a little money. As a matter of fact, one summer when I was staying there, he cut off the lights and tv in the living room when I went to the kitchen to get a snack during a commercial break!

    • I know at the time you were probably mad, but you’ve got to admit that’s hilarious! Sounds like something my grandpa would have done…

      • Yes, I was like 9. And it was only 8 p.m. What? Time for bed already???

  2. John, seems that my grand father and his family had a similar experience as yours. They were relatively well off and managed to keep the house-maid and family driver employed throughout the depression. Although they fared OK through the ordeal, it did greatly impact my gradfather.

  3. Most of my family was too young to really remember growing up in the aftermath of the GD. However, they did retain those habits instilled in them by their parents.

    My mother has a beautiful quilt she sewed on a treadle sewing machine that includes pieces of fabric from her mother’s childhood dresses. Some of the pieces are from the flour bags or sack cloth.

    And I grew up with the old adage: “You’re cold? Put on a sweater. And socks. Maybe two pairs.” lol

    • Flour bags and sack cloth! Nothing went to waste! Most people get a kick out of this one: My grandmother used to save bread bags and crochet them into these really interesting (and durable) round door mats. I’ll have to take a picture of it to upload. I also have a couple of quilts she made from old dresses. Later in the semester we will discuss the implications of the ‘lack of thrift’ our society enjoys today.

      • I’m sure that our lack of thrift has (at least in part) contributed to the economic mess we’re in now! But, in a way, perhaps that’s a potential positive of the recession; all of us are forced in some way to look at ways to be more thirfty–even if it’s not quite to the extent as out grandparents/great-grandparents had to.

  4. Just think about all the ways that people are rekindling that thrift now though. It makes me happy to see veggie stands and farmer’s markets all over the place–and to see more people reusing items they would have just thrown away before. Are we hoping this will stick? Yes!

  5. I’m doing a project on the Great Depression and I’m looking for a more humanized view of the Great Depression rather than statistics. Would you mind if I quoted you on a poster board with all due credit of course

    • Thank you for your interest in our blog. Please feel free to use the information and to provide appropriate credit.

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