Hannibal history: Depression taught Hannibal, Mo., woman lesson of hard work and thrift
Published in the Hannibal Courier-Post Aug. 9, 1980
Mary Lou Montgomery
Growing vegetables in a garden because there was nothing else to eat; walking one way to work each day because street car tokens cost too much; and moving in with your in-laws because two families can only afford one house – these signs represent the Great Depression, which perplexed the nation during the decade of the 1930s.
Everyone who lived during the era remembers the lifestyle vividly, and stories have been passed down through the generations since.
Thelma Lappin Collins lives comfortably in retirement in Hannibal, with the memories of her days of piece-work at the International Shoe Plant behind her.
“I was raised in the good old days on a farm, and after graduating from high school in 1928, I got a job at the telephone company. I worked 44 hours per week for $11 – they were horrible hours, but great pay.”
The farm she grew up on was sold in 1929 because of the drought of that year. “The drought killed any prospects my dad had of making a living on the farm, so he moved to town and took a job as a caretaker at Tilden School for $18 a week.” The money he received from the sale of the farm was later lost when the banks closed when the stock market fell.
Mrs. Collins was one of four grown children living in Hannibal. Each paid their parents $5 a month to live at home. “We were living the high life,” she said.
It wasn’t until her marriage in October 1931, that hard times began to set in. She took a leave of absence from the telephone company because of the split hours, and accepted a job at the International Shoe Co.
“We were supposed to work Monday through Friday, and half a day on Saturday. On the Saturday I got married, I asked off, and my boss got mad and made me work until 5:30 p.m. I got married at 9:30 p.m. and had to be back at work on Monday.
”With both Mrs. Collins and her new husband, Vincent Lappin, working in the shoe industry in Hannibal, things seemed pretty prosperous. “Our first apartment was two rooms, and we paid $10 a month rent. We bought a kitchen set for $75, a bedroom set for $125 and a stove for $25,” she recalled
After five months, they moved to another apartment, which rented for $15 a month, and purchased a living room set for $150.
“Then I found out I was pregnant, and the shoe factory made me quit right then. The telephone company wouldn’t hire me because they didn’t hire married women. My husband, who was working at the Bluff City Shoe Plant, couldn’t buy the groceries, pay the rent and pay on the living room set.”
Mrs. Collins said this was when the Depression began to make itself known. They were forced to move in with her husband’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Dick Lappin, and between the two families, they earned enough to eat.
“I didn’t know how to cook, and with the help of my 14-year-old sister-in-law, we learned ‘Depression cooking’. We learned to stretch food and money, and also learned how to make food taste good. We lived payday to payday.”
Mrs. Collins has bitter memories of the Hannibal shoe factories. Prior to the passage of the National Recovery Act in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt, Mrs. Collins said she worked strictly piece work, earning only as much as the amount of business warranted. “I often worked nine hours a day for 35 cents, and I couldn’t take a day off or they would fire me. Many days I paid my babysitter more than I made – she earned 50 cents per day.
“But I had to work there, because I couldn’t get a job anywhere else, and there were 20 people waiting for my job.”
After the NRA was passed – a day Mrs. Collins remembers vividly – Roosevelt ordered the shoe factories pay 40 cents per hour. “If we were called into work, we were guaranteed $1.60 a day – enough to pay my babysitter.
“After we got our guarantee, they got even by laying us off when there wasn’t any work – it was common to be laid off for a week or more at a time.”
But it was the same guaranteed wage that gave them the opportunity to purchase their first house – for $30 down and $15 per month. They moved in during May 1935.
“The first day we moved in, my husband took one look at the backyard and told me we couldn’t eat grass. He spaded up the whole yard, and planted a garden.
That year they preserved 30 pints of cherries, 30 pints of peas, 50 quarters of green beans, 30 quarts of tomatoes, in addition to dried beans, sweet potatoes and onions. This was the food that feed Mrs. Collins and her husband, her parents and her husband’s parents.
“During these times, families needed one another, we all helped each other.”
As money grew tighter and more people were out of work, Mrs. Collins and her family had to cut more corners to make ends meet. Her husband hunted for meat, and they began riding bicycles to work to save on street car tokes. Merchants allowed their customers to run grocery bills up to $50.
“As soon as my husband’s socks got a hole in them, I would darn them. It got so they were more darn than sock, but he wore them anyway.”
Towards the end of the 1930s, the money situation eased somewhat until both Mrs. Collins and her daughter needed operations. Hospital bills had to be paid in advance, and it took them quite a while to scrape up enough money.
“Then one Friday my husband was ill and missed work. The next morning he was riding to work with a friend, and they had a flat tire. When they got to work, their supervisor fired them both.”