Lessons from the Depression: Traveling for Work


Simon Lamhut was only eight years old when the stock market crashed in 1929. Though his mother’s bank account was wiped out, Lamhut recalls that the hard work of his Polish immigrant parents helped the family make it through the Great Depression in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father was often working at jobs far from home.

Lamhut, now 87, worked for years as an electronic engineer, sometimes six days a week, fixing black and white sets in the early days of television. Forced into retirement around 1990 when MCI (Stock Quote: VZ) bought Western Union International, Lamhut reinvested the profits from the stock he received instead of severance pay, and his two pensions covered household expenses.

Lamhut, who lives with his wife in Bellmore, N.Y., recalled his life during the Depression to MainStreet.

MainStreet.com: What do you remember about the Depression?
My father couldn't earn a living here. We were living in Brooklyn and he couldn’t earn a living in New York. At one time he worked in New England and another time he worked in Pennsylvania. He was a foreman and a sewing machine mechanic. When he lost a job and went into the unemployment office, they were offering him money, welfare. He said, “I don't want welfare, I want a job.” So he went to work in New England. And then there came a time when he wasn't earning enough money, my mother pitched in, she got a job. And between them, they managed. From eight years old she was a dressmaker. She was born in Poland, and so was my father. She had that trade in her head, and she became a sample maker. She was very talented. Come World War II, the two of them went into the undergarment business.

How did you and your family make your lives more comfortable back then?
I was comfortable. The biggest distress I had experienced was (my father) being away. I didn't have a father most of the time.

Did you learn any lessons about budgeting or saving money?
This I learned from my mother: Even though she had to go to work to earn a living, no matter what she and my father earned, she managed to put away at least $5 a week in savings. That was for emergencies, or whatever. Unfortunately, I was sick every couple of years. I had a mastoid operation and wiped out the money she had saved up.

Do you think living during the Depression changed how you live now?
I'm more or less a saver than an extravagant purchaser.

How do you think the recession today is the same as the Depression, and how is it different?
I think the crash of ‘29 was very similar to more or less this corruption and collapsing of financial (markets) all over the world. I personally attribute the cause to greed. My grandmother, who lived with us and helped raise me while my mother went to work, she said, 'Simon, greed is the worst problem in the world. Money is the worst corruption in the world.' And she was right. I believe this business here would never have happened if we didn't have so many greedy people putting money in their pockets and robbing everybody else.

Because it was Depression days everybody was helping everybody else. We treated people like family. If they had a problem, and we were in a position to help, we would help. Not like today, everybody’s for themselves.


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