Lessons from the Depression: Starting Over


Just before the start of the Great Depression, Mary Feigenbaum’s father, a builder in Brooklyn, N.Y., lost everything. During that time Feigenbaum, now 95, remembers how she sacrificed. She had to work for the family business and couldn’t finish college, and she and her seven brothers and sisters subsisted on pounds of potatoes.

Feigenbaum ran her family’s lumber business, had three children and, after her husband died, moved to Westchester County, N.Y., where she eventually became the administrator of a mental health clinic. She retired at 75 and now lives in Cambridge, Mass.

MainStreet: How did the Depression affect you and your family?
Feigenbaum: My father never invested in the stock market. He was in the lumber business and he built one-family homes.

There was a great rush to build because they were beginning to build up Long Island. My father owned quite a bit of real estate all over, [in] Brooklyn and places out toward the Island.

When the market crashed, people at that time were able to buy stock for only 10% down and they owed the rest. They borrowed the money from the brokers. When the prices started to go down on the stocks the brokers called for money because there was only 10% on it. People ran to their banks to raise money and the banks raised their interest rates to about 10%. So they used up the money to lend people money at 10%, but they didn’t follow their obligations to give the builders their money.

And my father, the worst thing he said that could happen when you’re building a tract of houses is to stop the job. And so he would borrow money and give up a piece of his property as collateral. And the last project that he had was a six-story apartment building. He finished it up to 90% without one penny from the bank. If the bank had told him that they’re not going to pay him, he wouldn’t have done what he did. They kept telling him, “Come back Monday.” When he came on Monday, they said, “Come Thursday.” The building was about 90% completed, but he had no further property to borrow money on. So, he lost the building and he lost all of his property. All of it. He went absolutely from a millionaire to a pauper.

How did your family make ends meet?
One of his wholesale lumber dealers had taken over a piece of land because he loaned him money on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. He told my father, “Go ahead, use it. Open up a lumber yard, and I’ll send you a couple of truckloads of lumber.” And he started it, and that business remained in the family until my oldest brother took it over after the war, and then he died young and I took it over and I ran it for seven years. It stayed in the family until I dismembered it.

I remember that my father, we had no money, he borrowed $10 from my uncle and he bought 100 pounds of potatoes and we ate potatoes, and I don't think anybody knew more recipes for potatoes than my mother. And no one dared to complain.

Were there any other ways that your family got by after your father lost his money?
As soon as he was sort of given this piece of property in Brooklyn to start a lumber business, it was almost like instantaneously he had no problems. We did lose our home that my father had built. He lost not only all of his other property, but the home that we lived in. We moved into two apartments above a store because there were no apartments big enough for 10 people that we could afford.

How do you think living during that time impacted your life?
I went to college at night, and then actually didn’t finish. So, it had a big effect. I worked in the lumberyard for my father [and] I couldn’t go to school. I had to work. I might add that my brothers and sisters had kind of high IQs, but they weren't allowed to go to college.

How do you think the Depression is different from the recession today?
I don't know anybody who was not touched. Today they constantly talk about the Depression, and they try to say that there are comparisons. It’s not true. There was 25% unemployment at the time.

My best friend’s father killed himself, and my neighbor’s father did the same. The newspapers, they managed to catch pictures of people jumping out of their apartments. It was a terrible time. You couldn't meet anybody that wasn’t affected. People were begging and some were selling pencils or apples.

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