The Great Depression of 2020

Years ago I interviewed elderly people who survived the Great Depression. They were old and frail. Their skin was lined like Rand McNally road maps. And most of them, I believe, were wearing diapers.

I showed up for the interview with a yellow legal pad and automatic pencil, like a Grade A dweeb from the Daily Planet.

My first question was clarifying when the Great Depression officially ended for these people. Yeah, I know history books say it ended in ‘39, but something about this seems too cut-and-dried. I mean, it’s not like there was a ceremony.

I’ll never forget how they looked at each other and laughed at my question.

One lady said, “Ended? Is is over?”

Another man said, “We were poor for a long time afterward.”

The rest of them said the same thing, more or less. Until I started to get a sense that the Hard Times never did truly end. Not for these people.

Furthermore, the Great Depression wasn’t just a financial thing. It was collective mental crisis, too. It made people do some pretty bizarre things just to cope.

Things like chain letters. Do you remember those? Chain letters were the rage during the Depression. The idea was easy. Get a list of names and addresses, then send letters out for good luck.

Everyone was in dire need of luck. Maybe with enough good fortune they could afford to feed their kids something besides ketchup soup.

Then there were then all-night dance marathons. These were inhumane endurance contests that lasted for a few days, sometimes longer. They occurred in every state, each major city, and in backwater towns.

Doctors and nurses were on hand while scores of kids passed out from exertion and sleep deprivation. The guy or gal who danced the longest would win prize money. It was a big deal.

But these were not happy-go-lucky parties like they they sound. These were perverse forms of entertainment. In fact, the contests were outlawed by some states as forms of unusual abuse.

Hundreds of spectators would show up by the busloads to watch rural teenagers dance 20-some hours until they collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration.

One girl in Seattle danced for 19 hours straight only to place fifth. She was so delrious she tried to commit suicide after having a nervous breakdown.

If you’re wondering what would make people dance until near-death during the Great Depression, it’s simple. Dancers were guaranteed a free meal.

Makeshift Hoovervilles cropped up overnight. On the muddy outskirts of big cities, spontaneous neighborhoods were erected from pine crates, scrap metal, and canvas tarps. There were 5,000 living in the Saint Louis Hooverville. In Washington D.C. there were 15,000.

You don’t just snap out of Hard Times. You carry them like a lunch pail. They tint your vision. They reorganize your DNA.

So you can imagine my surprise when one elderly man said, “The Depression was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

All his friends agreed. Without exception. Everyone said the Great Depression was a gift. They said it made them better people.

This kind of thing makes me wonder about the pandemic. What did the Great COVID Endemic of 2020 do for my generation? Well, I can only tell you what it did for me.

It made the outside world more vivid. More precious than it was before. It made sadness harsher, loneliness scarier. But it also made joy richer.

The worse the pandemic got, the more American flags were raised in my neighborhood. Old Glory flew from every surface, flapping from every porch, gas station, and supermarket.

A lady in my neighborhood started doing grocery deliveries for the elderly and infirm.

Another guy in Massachusetts delivered toilet paper during the toilet paper shortage. He called himself Angel of The John.

Workaholism died a temporary death. Suddenly the world quit spinning so dang fast, and it was okay to take weekends off. Yes, people lost jobs. And yes, depression skyrocketed. Yes, mortality rates soared. But so did love. So did prayer. So did creativity.

A man in Michigan stood at a gas pump and paid for random customer’s gasoline until his savings account was drained.

A young nurse in Tennessee began sitting with lonely shut-ins dressed in a hazmat suit.

A contractor in Houston did free fix-it work on people’s houses because he was bored.

In Pensacola, guitar players, trombonists, and keyboard players played different songs from their porches in the evenings so that when you wandered down the tree-lined streets at sunset it sounded like the karaoke night from hell.

Everyone was riding bikes. It was the biggest worldwide bike shortage since the invention of the wheel. Ironically, before the pandemic, bike ownership was at an all-time low. Some kids didn’t even own one. Then, boom, it was 1954 again.

A 14-year-old girl in Iowa taught herself to knit shawls. An 11-year-old boy in Louisiana learned how to carve Catholic saints from basswood. A 9-year-old boy in Nevada quit playing video games and began sewing facemasks with his grandma.

One day, this pandemic will formally end. They will put us in history textbooks. Children will read about our hard times, but they won’t have any scope of what we went through, or how it felt. And it’s just as well because they will have their own problems to face.

But when some kid shows up on my doorstep to ask about it, carrying his legal pad and automatic pencil, I know exactly what I’m going to tell him:

“It was the best thing to ever happen to us.”

And hopefully, on that day, by the grace of God, I won’t be wearing diapers.


  1. Shelton A. - October 13, 2020 7:08 am

    Hope is always worth reminding people of so they don’t lose it. Thanks, Sean.

  2. Dolores S. Fort - October 13, 2020 7:12 am

    I was the only one in my immediate family that did not experience the great depression, I was born in 1940, my parents were born at the turn of the 20th century, my 5 brothers were all born in the 1920’s. What I do remember is the frugality of my parents in everything that came into our house. I also remember the sacrifices made during WW II, ration books, mixing yellow food coloring with fake butter, collecting “stuff” for the war effort, missing 4 of my 5 brothers to fighting the “bad people,”and watching my mother write 4 letters every night to send to her sons who were stationed in 4 different parts of the world. Sometimes the hard times are the best thing that can happen to you because they make you grateful for everything that you have, and enjoy the love and friendship that just seems to grow during times like that. Thanks, Sean, for bringing those memories back to me. I believe that since that time, and because of the prosperity that we have experienced since then, we have become complacent toward the beautiful country that we live in,the abundance of freedoms we have, and the gratitude for all of it.

  3. Jane - October 13, 2020 10:45 am

    Very true.

  4. Frank - October 13, 2020 10:47 am

    My grandchildren are the age my parents were during the depression. I know what they,, their siblings and parents had to say about it. Both families were farmers that moved to find work in the city up north when things started to get better after it ended.
    Also, just a reminder that those of us working in “essential” jobs will be glad for this pandemic to end so we can go back to a normal 40 hour week instead of the 70 to 80 hour weeks we have been working. I am not complaining and am glad I have a job, I just miss seeing my family.
    There are things I do appreciate more since this all started and they are all simple things like a smile, a kind word (I know I am not the only one tired for being cursed at for being out of something at the store), physical touch such as a hand shake or a hug. Really I just appreciate life and the simple things. Now I am going to go outside with my dog, open the chicken coop and watch for the goats to come out of the barn while drinking a cup of coffee waiting for sunrise.
    Now as my mother-in-love tells me everyday as I leave for work, “Be nice and smile a lot!”

  5. Joann Thompson - October 13, 2020 11:19 am

    Frank, I hope you have a good day. Thank you for what you do.

  6. Beryl - October 13, 2020 12:36 pm

    The great Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius said, “The impediment to action, advances action. What stands in the way, becomes the way.” In his 19 years as Emperor, 15 of those years were engulfed by the Antonine Plague and MILLIONS of people died. He eventually succumbed to this deadly illness. He writes in his mediations that we adapt to our circumstances, we shift our perspectives, we find “the way” that will carry us forward. There are always gifts to be found in hardships, tragedies, and pandemics. Sean mentioned several and each of us has something or someone during this time in our history that we will be able to point to and say, “This was my gift.” I want my diapers wrapped in bright Christmas paper with a bow and a card that says, “The obstacle is the way.”

  7. Pete Black - October 13, 2020 1:54 pm

    Hi Sean, I just read Will the Circle be Unbroken. Wonderful book! Keep em coming!

  8. Linda Moon - October 13, 2020 5:25 pm

    I, too, hope the pandemic ends before your diaper-era begins. I seldom disagree with you, columnist, but this time I do. I would re-phrase your words, “It was the best thing to ever happen to us” to “It brought out the best in many of us”. By God’s grace and your written perspective, you are one of the “bestest” of all good things, Sean Dietrich!

  9. H. J. Patterson - October 13, 2020 5:29 pm

    This pandemic will end on November 4th 2020 regardless of who wins the election because they’ll be no need to use it as a political football to unseat a sitting president. We’re as soft as powder puffs here in the land of wusses and we got a blip of humility inserted where the sun doesn’t shine. The great depression runs circles around this as a hardship in our history but maybe some people did discover that there’s more to life than themselves, and isn’t that why we’re here anyway.

  10. MyPlace - October 13, 2020 6:13 pm

    Oh Sean… From your mouth to God’s Ear

  11. Mary A. M. - October 13, 2020 10:43 pm

    Awesome! I’m working on a book about old-timers and their experiences in southwest New Mexico. They (60 of them) were born between 1908 and 1945, so not all experienced the Great Depression, but most did, but they didn’t talk about it much. Most of them were quite uplifting!

  12. Nancy M - October 14, 2020 4:07 am

    My parents were teens and young adults in the Great Depression. They were thrifty all their lives, and I’m somewhat thrifty now, as a result of their example.
    I’m wondering if I’ll ever feel comfortable being close to people outside the family again, shopping, eating out. I miss it, but I wonder if I’ll be reluctant to go out in the world.

    I am so thankful that your column is a politics-free respite, and I hope others who comment will keep it that way. I hope the one exception won’t lead to more.

  13. Jean - October 14, 2020 4:12 am

    Thank you for this insight. I miss hugs and handshakes too!

  14. Judy Beaver Waldrop - October 14, 2020 4:07 pm

    Lunch pail

  15. Gary Rigby - October 15, 2020 4:21 pm

    For the last 35 years, I have worked as a financial consultant in central Florida. Many of my clients are/were of the greatest generation…sadly I have lost most of my WWII heroes. (but not all!) This group of people have a different mindset…make do with what you have…we’ll figure out how to fix it… we are independent and take care of ourselves and our neighbors. They are frugal, regardless of their financial position. In addition they raised a generation of children with the same ideals of self reliance and community. I have seen such a change in the next group of kids…less independent..less self reliant. Slowly that mindset fades away and we begin to forget those ideals of our grandparents and parents. I hope the lessons of the pandemic stick with us and we don’t have to go through this again to re-learn these lessons.

  16. Karie Mitchell - October 17, 2020 2:43 pm

    This was GREAT, Sean! You are so right! My grandparents owned a farm in south Alabama all their lives. A 40-acre and a Mule farm. They never felt the Depression. Life was the same as always. Everything they had they made on the farm….just like always. Planted a Garden. Had eggs from the chickens and a hen once in a while that my grandmother wrung its neck to kill it. A Feast! Hogs and Cows for meat. Barn Raisings. Quilting Bees. Church. Sunday afternoons on the wide front Porch when half the Community stopped in to swing a spell and talk. Shelling Butterbeans and Peas. Always sharing. I never left without a bag of frozen peas or butterbeans in my hand and a jar of fresh milk. Making your own Buttermilk every single morning. Making your own Butter with the Butter Mold we still have in the Family. Rich times of togetherness. I wouldn’t give anything for having had Grandparents with a Farm. They didn’t have much. But they had everything. Maybe we, too, will discover that. If we are lucky.


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