The Depression Pocketbook

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.

100_6543So 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).

100_6542One 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).

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The tag reads “Manufactured Under [Ladies] Hand Bag [Code] Authority.”

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.

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Great-grandmother Mary Lou Ella “Eller” Peardon (nee Grider)

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.

100_6550The 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 s100_6551ome 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.

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Apparently companies gave out ration book holders as a promotional item. (Does anyone besides me still remember the days when people also gave out telephone book covers?)

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.

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Food coupons.

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.

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Aircraft carrier

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.

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Tank

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.)

 

 

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Plane

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?

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Field artillery

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.

A Letter for Memorial Day

You may have noticed that my blog has been silent for a couple of weeks. I’ve had a lot of big things going on–some good, some bad.

First, the bad news. My Nanny Peardon died last Sunday. We were very close, and I lived with her off and on throughout my life. I even had my own room at Nanny’s house. We made crafts and sold them at craft shows for 10 years. (I even went to one last craft show the weekend before I left for college.)

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Carl Peardon in front of his truck (Europe)

I’ve started going through her things and sorting them out for family members. My grandfather Peardon died when my dad was a teenager, so I never knew him, but I found some of his things in an old cedar chest in a closet. One of things I found was a letter from the Army.

My grandfather was a supply truck driver (and mechanic) in Europe during WWII. He was honorably discharged December 4, 1945. Apparently, as part of the discharge ceremony, a speech was given to the troops, and then it was later typed up and given to them to take home.

I think this is a wonderful message–not just for that generation of men , but for all generations of Americans.  So, on this Memorial Day weekend–which is supposed to be about remembering the men and women who died for our country and our freedom, not about going swimming, grilling hamburgers, or shopping until you drop–I thought I would share it with you.

ARMY SERVICE FORCES
Fifth Service Command
Separation Center
Fort Knox, Kentucky

Below you will find a copy of the message delivered to you as a part of the Final Ceremony of Separation from the Service.

“You are being discharged from the Army today—from your Army. It is your Army because your skill and your patriotism, your labor and courage and devotion have been some of the factors which make it great. You have been a member of the finest military team in history. You have accomplished miracles in battle and supply. Your country is proud of you and you have every right to be proud of yourselves.

“You have seen, in the lands where you worked and fought and where many of your comrades died, what happens when the people of a nation lose interest in their government. You have seen what happens when they follow false leaders. You have seen what happens when a nation accepts hate and intolerance.

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Carl Peardon
(Year unknown, but he appears to be wearing his full compliment of medals, so probably 1945.)

“We all are determined that what happened in Europe and Asia must not happen to our country. Back in civilian life you will find that your generation will be called upon to guide our country’s destiny. Opportunity for leadership is yours. The responsibility is yours. The nation which depended on your courage and stamina to protect it from its enemies now expects you as individuals to claim your right of leadership, a right which you earned honorably and which is well deserved.

 “Start being a leader as soon as you put on your civilian clothes. If you see intolerance and hate, speak out against them. Make your individual voices heard, not for selfish things, but for honor and decency among men, for the right of all people.

“Remember, too, that No American can afford to be disinterested in any part of his government, whether it is county, city, state, or nation.

“Choose your leaders wisely—that is the way to keep ours the county for which you fought. Make sure that those leaders are determined to maintain peace throughout the world. You know what war is. You know that we must not have another. As individuals you can prevent it if you give to the task which lies ahead the same spirit which you displayed in uniform.

“Accept that trust and the challenge which it carries. I know that the people of America are counting on you. I know that you will not let them down.

“Goodbye to each and everyone one of you and to each and every one of you, good luck!

GEORGE D WAHL
Brigadier General, U.S. Army
Commanding