IC looks back at anniversary of Great Depression

BY BEN MARKS | NOVEMBER 03, 2014 5:00 AM

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During the Great Depression, Harold Hands used to accept chickens in lieu of money at Hands Jewelers because it was all people had to offer.

Now, on the 85th anniversary of the Great Depression, Bill Nusser, the current owner of Hands Jewelers, said it was his grandfather Harold’s generosity and business smarts that allowed the store to survive through the toughest economic period America has ever faced.

“But I also think people would work for less than they were normally paid or not report hours,” Nusser said. “Everyone was willing to give whatever they had to give to keep everyone alive.”

The Great Depression began on Oct. 29, 1929, a day commonly known as Black Tuesday, when the New York Stock Exchange began a 16-day slide, plunging the United States into a decade-long depression.

Iowa City, of course, was not immune to this.

Colin Gordon, a University of Iowa professor of history, said the Midwest was actually already in a depression before 1929 because of low farm prices, and the stock market crash only worsened the situation.

At its peak, around 25 percent of America was out of work. However, depending on the town, Gordon said this number could vary anywhere from 5 percent to 75 percent.

Caught between the struggling Midwest farm economy and the prosperity and economic shelter of the university, Iowa City was in a unique situation during the Great Depression.

Iowa City’s unemployment rate, Gordon said, would probably have been less than 10 percent, due in part to the local economy relying on the university instead of private industry to sustain itself.

During the 1930s, in an attempt to stem rising unemployment, public projects and institutions such as the UI received millions of dollars from the federal government, giving employees at the university fairly steady paychecks.

“It was a nice little town, and of course the kids with the dads on the faculty always had more money than the kids who didn’t, but it didn’t bother us,” Dorothy Smith, a 96-year-old Iowa City resident said. “Those guys were probably getting 6,000 and 7,000 a year. My own father probably got 2,000.”

Smith, who was 11 when Black Tuesday occurred, has strong memories of her childhood growing up in Depression-era Iowa City.

Her father was a real-estate agent, so Smith said things did get tough at times, but when that happened, they simply did what they had to do.

They bought wool from the Amanas and sewed their own clothing, passing them down when they got too small. They ate in-season food and never used credit, staying true to the family’s philosophy: “If you can’t pay for it, you can’t get it.”

A loaf of bread cost 10 cents, a Hawkeye football game cost a quarter, and if you went to the Englert before 5:30, you could get in for 30 cents.

Throughout the Depression, the Englert Theater remained popular, said Kathrine Keller, a granddaughter of Nate Chapman, who operated the Englert during the 1930s.

In a way, Keller said theater almost became more important during this time, because it allowed struggling people an escape from the reality of their own lives in a way which books or radio couldn’t.

The Depression ended in the mid 1940s, but only when the start of World War II re-employed millions of young men and kick-started the economy.

Despite the struggles and hardships however, Smith said her life turned out fine.

“We always had a good world in Iowa City,” Smith said. “We never felt poor. It was the Great Depression, but we didn’t talk about it, we just lived it.”

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