My dad told me that Nanny Peardon once said to him that I “belonged to a different generation.” I was the only person in my family who took after my grandmother and wanted to do crafts. (Her favorites were quilting and crocheting. Mine are beading, sewing, embroidery, and knitting.) I was a pre-teen when I found my grandmother’s Foxfire 2 book and read it while we went to craft shows. (When I was in college, I asked for–and received–the entire 10 volume set for Christmas from my mother.) And, of course, I do medieval re-enacting.
I won’t say that I don’t belong in modern times, but I do confess to feeling an unusual affinity for the past.
So it should come as no surprise that when I started going through my grandmother’s things, I found some stuff that tickled me to no end (although few other people are likely to find it terribly interesting).
One of the things I found in my grandmother’s dresser was an old pocketbook crammed full of papers. That made me as excited as an archaeologist who’s just hit pay dirt. (A profession, by the way, that I considered.)
The contents of the pocketbook predominately spanned the Great Depression and WWII, although Nanny had stuck a few more recent things into it (more on that in a minute).When I examined the empty pocketbook, I found a curious tag sewn inside. It said NRA and had an eagle logo with “U.S.” stamped under it. It looked like an official government logo, but my husband and I weren’t sure what it was. He speculated it might have been something related to WWII rationing. I noticed that the pocket book was made from fabric-covered cardboard (leather being rationed during WWII).
When I had a minute with a computer that had high speed internet, I looked up “NRA” and found that it’s actually older than WWII. NRA stands for “National Recovery Act.” It was just one of many of FDR’s New Deal programs (referred to as “alphabet soup” because of all the acronyms used). It was aimed at stabilizing the country’s manufacturing industry, which was hemorrhaging jobs and causing the price of necessities to skyrocket. Places like Germany had similar problems, causing inflation to run so high, people took wheelbarrows of money to the grocery store (where they had to stand in line) in order to buy a single loaf of bread. The NRA’s aim was to stop the job loss and stop the price increase by fixing wages (this was the first introduction of minimum wage) and fixing prices.
It’s a very radical concept for a democratic and capitalistic society, and could have proven very dangerous. But everything seems to have worked out for the best. It seems to have stopped the economic freefall, but was ended (by the Supreme Court) before it could strangle the recovery. (It lasted from 1933-1935.) Some of its provisions–allowing unions, setting a minimum wage, and restricting child labor–were revived in later bills.
Some additional digging specifically into NRA pocketbooks turned up this website: Bag Lady U. It seems that in 1935, just as the NRA program was being terminated, the National Authority for the Ladies Handbag Industry was beginning. They continued to use the NRA logo for a time, but I can’t determine how for how long. That means this pocketbook was manufactured sometime after July 1, 1935, but I would expect it’s not newer than WWII (you’d think they’d be done with the NRA logo that many years after it ceased to be used by other manufacturers).
My grandmother was only 11 years old in 1935, so I am almost positive that this was my great-grandmother Eller’s pocketbook. Most of the papers in the bag were hers and her husband’s, which lends credence to the theory.
The oldest paper in the pocketbook was a letter from the Tennessee Electric Power Company (of Chattanooga), dated December 8, 1927. It is offering its workers *gasp* an extra $100 worth of life insurance. (Ah, inflation. It took $9,000 to bury my grandmother, and that was a 1-day viewing with same-day burial, the cheapest coffin option, and a plot and marker that was already bought.)
The interesting thing about the letter is that I didn’t know my great-grandfather worked for the electric company; I had in my genealogical notes that he worked for a railroad (which he probably did, at some point).
The bulk of the papers in the purse were these “Merit Burial Association” dues cards. I haven’t put them all in date order yet, but a cursory look-through is that the dues were assessed quarterly. They run from 1936 until about 1949. (My great-grandfather William died in 1947, and you see his name drop off the dues cards then.)
Burial Associations (read more about them on this site from the State of Mississippi) are basically burial insurance. The contract has a set payout (you can buy multiple contracts if necessary; contract amounts in Mississippi, at least, are fixed at about 1950’s prices and won’t even pay for a marker these days, much less anything else) and you pay a fixed amount regularly until you die and your loved ones redeem it. Unlike life insurance, prices don’t go up as you get older and you don’t get dropped when you get too old. And it never has a cash value; the amount you are owed goes directly to a designated funeral home to pay for your burial. Period. It has the benefit of keeping your grieving family from having to do a lot of decision making (since the funeral home has to tailor the arrangements to fit the amount of money your contract will cover). It also has the benefit, if your family is less than stellar, of keeping someone from cashing out the policy and skipping town with the money, leaving your body unburied. Or, if you don’t have any family, it can see that you get buried without leaving a lot of loose ends (who gets the remainder of the insurance policy, if there is any?) that a friend or attorney has to deal with.
But the thing in the pocketbook that most excited me was the WWII ration coupon book. While I knew about ration coupons, I had never actually seen any.
Some research (read all about ration books at the American Historical Society) dates this War Ration Book No. 3 to October 1943.
Each member of a family–including children–would have their own ration book.
The system seems a bit complicated, but the best I can tell, the lettered stamps were for food items which were limited, but interchangeable, such as meat and fats, and processed foods. Items which had a very strict ration, such as coffee and sugar, as well as things like shoes and clothes, use the numbered stamps. The merchant or catalog company would tell you which stamp you needed to use to buy an item.
Most stamps also had an “expiration date.” These expiration dates would be published in the paper (and, presumably, at stores as well). Each row of food coupons corresponded to a specific week.
It was a use it or lose it proposition. (One can imagine that it was a bragging point with the neighbors to not use all the coupons in the book.)
It’s kind of curious that this ration book has survived, since a fourth book was issued in late 1943 and the original rules state that a person had to turn in their old ration book in order to receive a new one (I think because the ration coupons from book to book look alike, so someone could horde coupons from one book and start using them again when the next book came out). Did this book get misplaced so it couldn’t be returned? (The local War Rationing office handled such problems.) Or did they change the couponing system so that the third book didn’t need to be returned?
I mentioned that there were a few more recent things that had been stuck in the pocketbook with all of this 1930’s-1940’s stuff. One was a Christmas card from when my dad was a kid. Another was a thank you note from a cousin for a wedding gift some 40 years ago. And, most recently, was a birth announcement… for me.