Tag Archives: Great Depression

“Better than a punch in the nose!”

Text: “Better than a punch in the nose!”

Minor Genre: Folk Speech – Simile


M said, “My grandmother would always say that [proverb] whenever we would complain about something that we didn’t like. She lived through the Depression, and I think she grew up fairly poor. There are a lot of those proverbs and euphemisms about ‘hard work’ from her generation.”


This piece of folk speech reminds me of the saying, “I’ll give you something to cry about.” They both are used to shut down a complaint with the implication that the situation at hand could be made worse, and therefore it is not something to complain about. I think my father [M] is probably correct about its popularity within the generation that lived through the Depression; in trying to raise the subsequent generations who did not need to endure the same levels of hardship, it is likely that those who lived through the Depression shared a mindset that the newer generations didn’t have anything to complain about, as they had not experienced true struggle.

I heard this phrase a few times growing up from my grandmother (M’s dad). However, she would always use it in a comedic tone, getting people to laugh while accepting the situation at hand rather than interpreting the phrase as a true threat of physical abuse.

Dad Joke

Text: “Write if you find work” 


My dad told me that this is something his father would say to him every time he would leave the house for school in the morning, or really any time he went anywhere. He describes it as a depression era phrase, referencing how people had to leave their homes to find work in other cities, corresponding with their loved ones if they were successful. Obviously in this context, the phrase isn’t being used literally, but in a light humorous way. My dad was elementary and middle school age when he encountered this phrase, and certainly was not expected to go out and find a job to support his family. The phrase essentially served as a repeated dad joke during his childhood. 


The use of this phrase as it appeared throughout my dad’s childhood can be interpreted in a few ways. If we are looking at it through the lens of humor that relies on incongruence, the joke is relatively self explanatory. The incongruence here lies in the fact that it is not typical in modern Western society to task a young child with finding a job. There is also incongruence in using a phrase from the 20’s and 30’s over 40 years later, because the language doesn’t match the time period. The appeal behind incongruent humor is it is surprising and allows us to subvert societal norms in a risk free way. My grandfather’s use of the phrase in this context could just be a simple manifestation of this concept. Additionally though, it is important to note that the origin of the phrase in the Great Depression may hold some significance. My grandfather’s parents would have experienced the Great Depression firsthand, and I have been told they were relatively poor. My grandfather grew up in the rural midwest on a farm, and his upbringing was frugal and money conscious. These Depression anxieties likely would have been transmitted to my grandfather as a result. Jokes have historically served as an outlet for releasing anxiety, often by subverting the source of anxiety, or making light of it. It’s possible that my grandfather’s use of this phrase was to cope with and release anxieties about money and survival in a capitalist society. Turning this phrase into a joke told to a child, pokes fun at, and rejects the American capitalist belief that one should constantly be concerned with making money. It makes the idea of finding work light hearted, rather than urgent and necessary to survival. 

Folk Object: Estate Furniture

MH is a third-generation Irish-American from Battle Creek, MI. He now splits his time between San Francisco, CA and Pasadena, CA, where he lives with his wife and 18-year-old son.

MH talked about the origin of some of his furniture, which has been passed down a couple generations:

“My mom grew up in a poor Irish family during the Great Depression, and they were a big family and she would go on to have a big family herself, which was pretty typical of Irish Catholics at the time…so during the Depression, they were always breaking up these huge estates that had gotten too expensive for families to maintain, and they’d have these estate sales where they’d sell really nice and valuable pieces of furniture, like beautiful wooden tables and dressers, really nice armchairs and Oriental rugs…and so my mom’s family bought a lot of this furniture for dirt cheap at these estate sales. Eventually she grew up and married my dad and the moved to Chicago when they first started having kids, but now they needed to buy larger houses, and they could afford to after the war. But instead of needing to buy new things, they were given some of the old furniture by my mom’s family, so the really nice pieces that originally came from estates went back into really nice houses that my parents had to buy to hold all my brothers and sisters. And now I have some of this pieces in my own living room, and the tables and things are so much better quality than what’s being sold today, because they were build to last for generations like this. So I’ll probably end up passing them on to my own kids, when they buy their own big estates!”

IMG_1924 IMG_1925

My analysis:

Many families pass down meaningful objects with stories or important family history behind them. While furniture isn’t necessarily what you’d imagine when you picture those sentimental moments, they can still be considered folk objects when you think about the cultural implications – the biggest story for MH is about his Irish-American heritage, and what it meant for his family in America during the Great Depression.  “Being Irish from a big family went from being a negative to a positive,” he told me, and today he and his siblings are proud of their roots.

“Clean your plate” and Central Texas Supper

“The other thing I remember is my grandmother on my dad’s side, when we would go eat dinner with them, well first of all it was called ‘supper.’ ‘Dinner’ is lunch and ‘supper’ is supper and there would always be at least three meat dishes on the table. So you’d always have, like, venison, there was always fried fish, and there was usually like ham or a roast as the third meat. And then for dessert there were always at least three choices for dessert. And the saying was, ‘You have to clean your plate.’ So . . . yeah, I never felt that great after eating there. So full. But ‘you have to clean your plate.’ If you put it on your plate, you have to eat it. So then you just learn to put less on your plate, unless you’re just gonna make yourself eat it. You can’t throw anything away.”


The informant was a 50-year-old woman who works as a middle school teacher teaching English, dance, and history to 7th and 8th graders. Although she has spent the last 19 years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up in Lubbock, Texas and Austin, Texas. She is also my mother, and this interview took place over Skype one afternoon when we were talking about things she did when she was growing up. She learned it from both of her grandmothers who “both grew up in the Great Depression and during the war when there wasn’t a lot of, when they used coupons to get their food.” She thinks this proverb is “about not wasting any food. And they didn’t have iceboxes, or well they had iceboxes which didn’t keep the food as well.”


I included the details about central Texas supper because it struck me as interesting and unusual that there always had to be three different kinds of meat on the table. I have no idea why this might have been, but it seems like it was a pretty hard and fast rule. I also thought it was interesting that different people refer to different meals differently, even if they reside in the same country. I agree with the informant that “Clean your plate” is probably related to the time period in which the two women grew up. In addition to there being the Great Depression and WWII, food was generally less abundant in all times before this one. I have often heard this saying in American households and I think it reflects the negative attitude most people have towards wasting food.

When Eating Breakfast Reflects A Poor Man’s Custom

Informant:  “…I’m sure you’ve seen me do this at breakfast.  Whenever I order eggs, sausage, and hashed browns, I’ll cut it up and mix it all together in a kind of mash.”

Interviewer: “How long have you been doing that?”

Informant: “Oh um, ever since I was really little.  That’s the way I’ve seen my dad do it throughout my life and I guess it just caught on.  It wasn’t until high school when I got called out for it.”

Interviewer: “Called out for it? Why?”

Informant: “Well, when I was at boarding school… it was a pretty ritzy school, I had a scholarship to go there, but it was full of kids who uh, came from old money or whatever…  But anyways, me and my classmates went out to breakfast one day, I ordered the usual – eggs, sausage, hashed browns – sliced it up and mashed it all together.  I started eating, and my friend says to me in this judgmental way… ‘You know…that’s the way a poor man eats….’  I was really embarrassed… I didn’t know what she was talking about.  I thought she was just being a bitch… so I kept mixing it all together.  But… I was kind of offended.  When I came home – it must have been during a holiday vacation – I went out to breakfast with my family, and my dad and I, we ordered our usual and started eating it in the same way we had always done…  But this time, I told him what my classmate said and… you know what… he actually told me that she was right!”

Interviewer: “What? …Really?”

Informant: “[laughs] Yea, I know…  I was surprised too, dude!  So… supposedly, it’s a custom that came from the Great Depression.  Mashing it all together, it was a way to hide rancid meat…

Interviewer: “No way!”

Informant: “Yea, my… great-grandfather lost his business and lived in one of those, those little shantytowns in the Midwest, so that’s supposedly where it all started.  My dad said that that’s how his dad ate and how his grandfather – my great-grandfather – did too… I had no idea it was such a long tradition.”

Interviewer: “That’s pretty crazy… that just a way of eating can survive generations.”

Informant: “Yea, it’s pretty cool.  And I don’t even care that it’s a symbol of ‘lower-class.’  Whatever…  I think of it more now as a type of historical family custom…”


The notion that people were forced to eat rotten meat after losing everything during the Great Depression makes sense since they didn’t have the means to buy better quality meats.  In some cases, they practically had to scavenge from the bottom of the barrel to survive.  Whether or not her family custom of eating dates to the Great Depression, the tradition shows how behavior can also be treated as folklore since it can be passed down vocally and visually.  This is also an example of nonsensical folklore, not because it doesn’t make sense, but because there is no underlying meaning to the action; it is simply done because that’s the way it has been done, “because that’s the way my father did it.”