The Great Depression



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Man resting in tent home while his wife looks in the want ads

Scroll down to access oral history interviews with San Diegans who lived through the Great Depression, or click the name of the individual.

Image credit: Man resting in tent home while his wife looks in the want ads. Pacific Beach, San Diego, California, 1940. Photographer: Russell Lee. (Library of Congress)


Joseph D. Barrett:


Joseph Barrett was born in Boston, MA, on October 31, 1912, and lived in Massachusetts throughout the early 1930s. His experience could be considered that of a typical Easterner during the Depression, which informs the theory that the unemployment rate in the East was not as drastic as in the West during that time.

The first segment of this interview contains Mr. Barrett's description of the years just before the Crash of 1929 and the first few years of the Depression. Mr. Barrett's father was an electrician and first began to notice a drop in building activities as early as 1927. Hence, the Barrett family's financial situation was affected before the actual failing of the economy in 1929. The days of the early 1930s are then relived by Mr. Barrett as he tells of "pounding the streets" for jobs to help support the family, and the methods employed in stretching the family's limited income.

Later in the interview, Mr. Barrett speaks of the positive work of the trade unions in the 1930s and how they offset the unfair treatment of factory workers in the East. Mr. Barrett then elaborates on the fact that there were few people in his community who were unable to find some kind of work during the Depression and that he noticed little actual suffering. He claims that any "hardworking" person who wanted employment could always find it. When asked why there was an absence of severe hardship in his community, Mr. Barrett tells of the sense of unity which existed in his neighborhood, and how this spirit was successful in weathering the leanest years of the 1930s.

The closing moments of this interview contain Mr. Barrett's relating of the political climate of the 1930s. Mr. Barrett stressed the fact that despite the hard times, he never felt dissatisfied with this country. He speaks of the disenchantment with FDR's New Deal at great lengths, but claims no one ever thought of openly criticizing the President of the United States. The interview concludes with Mr. Barrett telling how he feels a recurrence of the Depression might benefit today's "younger" generation and teach them some valuable lessons.

At the time of this interview, Barrett was working as the manager of the Maryland Retirement Hotel in San Diego.

Interviewed by Jim Dakis on reel-to-reel audiotape on 11/30/1973. Total running time: 68:16.

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James Franco:


James Franco was born on April 10, 1914 in Chios, Greece. His family arrived in San Diego when he was only 7 years old. His father began working in the local fish markets and eventually came to own his own fish market, which allowed the family a comfortable middle-class life. The failure of the family's business during the early days of the Depression came as a shock to the hitherto prosperous Franco family. It caused both Mr. Franco and his father to become common working men, searching for whatever work they could find to support the household.

Download the PDF transcript: Part 1; Part 2.

Mr. Franco was a 15 year-old schoolboy when the Depression hit. His interview is perhaps most notable for his descriptions of the psychological effects of the Depression, especially in the early days. For instance, Franco remembers the look of agony he saw in his father's eyes when he asked him for money. He also vividly recalls the trauma of leaving his home country (Greece) where deprivation was common, arriving to the land of plenty (America) and enjoying prosperity, then suddenly realizing that the cycle of deprivation had started all over again. Franco also recalls feeling shame in the shabby condition of his clothes, which made him want to hide from his friends at school, as well as the agony his mother went through when they were evicted from their house.

Later in the interview, Franco describes his experiences as a working man in the 1930s. He tells of the great difficulty in finding a job, and mentions the bitter competition for jobs between civilians like himself and retired Navy personnel, who could work for half the salary due to their pension. He provides a good example of a typical working man's perspective toward the Hoover administration versus that of Franklin Roosevelt. Franco also relays effusive tales of his gainful employment under the New Deal.

In the last segment of the interview, Franco discusses at great length the abuse that working men of the 1930s were subjected to by their employers, as well as some of the union organizing activities that occurred as a result. The interview closes with Franco telling how his faith in America never diminished, despite the suffering he endured throughout the Great Depression.

Interviewed by Jim Dakis (his nephew) on reel-to-reel audiotape on 11/3/1973. Total running time: 63:28.

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David S. Lewis:


David S. Lewis was born on February 17, 1905, in San Diego, one year after his parents immigrated to San Diego. His father was born in Indiana and his mother was born in England. His father was a carpenter, working in the construction trades throughout San Diego, Los Angeles, and Arizona.

In this interview, Mr. Lewis recalls his life from early childhood through the Great Depression and beyond. He states that the highlight of his childhood years was the period 1915-1916 when the family lived at Fort Huachuca in Arizona while his father built Army barracks. He recalls an Apache Indian playmate with great affection.

Lewis lost his right foot in a farm accident when he was twelve years old, a handicap that made life extremely difficult for a child in a poor family. Obtaining sufficient money for artificial limbs was a problem that constantly plagued him until he was in his thirties. Having quit high school in his sophomore year to help with family expenses, he held various jobs of a menial nature until 1926, when in his twenty-first year he went to work for the San Diego Gas Company, first as a timekeeper, then as a painter, the trade he subsequently followed. As a journeyman painter Lewis worked mostly construction sites, being involved in such work as the Balboa Naval Hospital construction in 1927, new private housing, the California Exposition in 1935, and various industrial buildings in the San Diego area.

Married to Esme Wakelin in 1929, with a daughter born the following year, Mr. Lewis supported his family during the Depression years by working any and all jobs he could find. With the collapse of the building trades during the worst years of the thirties, these jobs varied from handyman duties in a hotel to scavenging for returnable bottles to cash in, and included acting as a gamblers shill, WPA pick-and-shovel workman, and a banjoist at dances. He describes these years as "times I have tried to forget," and reminiscing about them was painful for him.

Following the Depression years, Mr. Lewis contracted painting jobs, managed a liquor store, and was the maintenance foreman at the Belmont Amusement Park until he went to work in 1947 for the San Diego Unified School District as a painter. He retired in 1970, and at the time of this interview was living comfortably on his pension, union retirement, and Social Security. He concludes the interview by sharing his opinion that the American people would revolt en masse if they had to go through another depression.

Interviewed by Charles Gietzen on audio cassette on 12/6/1973. Total running time: 85:08.

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Celia Perry:


Mrs. Celia Perry was born on November 11, 1918 in Miami, Florida, and spent time in the 1930s living in both San Francisco and San Diego. She was only 11 years old at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Thus, her recollection of the first few years of the Depression was somewhat limited. However, in the interview, she shows signs of being very observant of the situation starting from 1932 onwards.

The first segment of the interview deals with Perry recalling the general effect of the Great Depression and her observations of the early 1930s. Since Perry was a young girl at the start of the Depression, much of her relating of this period is in the third person. But she does provide a general overview of the effects of the Depression. Perry lived in both San Francisco and San Diego in the 1930s. Of particular interest is her contrast between the Depression's effects in San Francisco and San Diego.

The second part of the interview deals with a myriad of subjects concerning the Depression. Perry touches first upon the psychological effects of the Depression, and how she feels the "depression of the morale" was one of the most serious tragedies of the day. She then relates the political climate of the time as she observed it. She tells of the average man's hatred for President Hoover, and how the people blamed their misery on him. She then tells of the beneficial effects of FDR's programs, and the people's love for him. One of the more interesting moments of the interview occurs at this point, when Perry describes how FDR was cheered enthusiastically in San Diego, while Hoover was booed in a San Diego appearance only a short time earlier. She then tells of the work of the labor unions in San Francisco, and how their presence was missed in San Diego by the working men of the 1930s. Finally, she relates the general reaction of immigrants to the Depression, and how they were able to cope with its effects more readily than the locals.

The last segment of the interview deals with the general effect of the Depression on Mrs. Perry's faith in America, and its result on the faith of immigrant and local Americans. She then tells of the value of a dollar in the 1930s and about the immigrant's reaction to the Depression. The interview closes with Perry telling of lessons that can be learned from a depression.

Interviewed by Jim Dakis on reel-to-reel audiotape on 12/15/1973. Total running time: 65:55.

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Sophia Tsintelis:


Mrs. Sophia M. Tsintelis was born in San Francisco on October 18, 1918. She lived there until she was 18 years old, at which point she moved to San Diego. Her father was a cook who managed to keep two part-time jobs to support the family, thus lessening the impact of the Depression on her family. Later on, he worked for the WPA digging ditches and working on buildings.

In this short but interesting interview, Tsintelis discusses the following subjects: the effects of the Depression in San Francisco, and in San Diego through friends; eating vegetables that her family grew before her father got a job with the WPA; filling up on food and clothing at the WPA commissary; the extent of suffering in San Francisco; her brother who committed suicide when the stock market crashed; the effect on the immigrant population and ability to adjust; Hoover's policies and FDR.

Interviewed by Jim Dakis on audio cassette on 10/15/1973. Total running time: 19:42.

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