Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Sadness in a Depression-era Grocery Receipt

The pathos of the Depression still shows up in 2009. You can see it.

It could be a grandmother who keeps all of her kitchen cupboards, two hall cupboards, and a fridge and freezer so stuffed with cans and packages of food that there isn't room for anything more, with the stuff in the back, untouched, perhaps ten years old.

It could be a grandfather who for Christmas gives a 30-year-old granddaughter a worn and outdated thermos picnic set bought at a garage sale because it's "still good."

Or it could be a 1930 grocery receipt from the Ypsilanti Archives.


John G. Lamb's grocery, formerly Charles King's grocery, was possibly the longest-running one in Ypsilanti, lasting from 1840 to WWII. It was also one of the first to institute a cash system. But by the Depression, the store had gone back to running monthly tabs for its customers. This one is from P. R. Cleary.

The Irish-born former penmanship teacher P. R. Cleary was the founder and president of Cleary College at this time; he would retire 8 years later at 80 years of age. His wife was the president of the Ypsilanti chapter of the D. A. R. and a member of the Ladies Literary Club. The Clearys had four successful children, Charles, Marjorie, Ruth and Owen. The couple was active and prominent in Ypsilanti social doings.

But in 1930, they apparently could not pay their grocery bill.

For the month of January, Cleary bought $25.92 in groceries. He already had a running tab of $156.64 [$2,000 in today's dollars] and the January foods brought his bill up to $182.56 [$2,300]. A terse note from the grocer is written sideways on the bill: "A payment will be appreciated/J. G. Lamb & Son."

It was a grim time, even for college presidents.

Postscript: For those who, like me, are curious to know what a college president ate during the Depression, here is a transcription for each January day:

2 1 coffee, 1 lb. oats, 25 sugar, 1 bread, 2 lb. loaf sugar, 12 oranges, 6 soap
3 1 butter, 3 P. O. soap, 1 gold dust [scrubbing cleanser], 1 lettuce, 1 cabbage
4 2 bread, 1 box salt, 1 qt. mazola, 1 cheese, 1 lettuce, 1 coffee
7 1 bread, 1/2 bacon, 6 oranges, 6 [more expensive] oranges, 1 lb. crackers
10 12 eggs, 3 D [Dutch?] Cleanser, chipso [laundry soap flakes]
11 1 sani flush, 1 bread, 2 celery, 3 Crisco, 12 oranges, 3 grapefruit
14 1 coffee 12 eggs, 1 peck [quarter bushel] potatoes
15 1/2 lb. tea, 1 bread, 12 oranges, 2 grapefruits, 3 lemons, 1 ripe olives
16 1/2 lb. B. ham [?]
18 1 celery, 5 [lbs?] scratch feed [for chickens] 1 lb. peanuts
21 2 bread, 1 catsup, 1 cabbage, 12 oranges, 1 coffee, bread [cheaper], 12 eggs
23 1 butter 1 lb. ham, olives, 2 cheese, 2 bread
24 coffee 6 soap, 1 chipso, 12 eggs, 5 [lbs?] scratch feed
25 12 oranges, 2 bread, 2 corn [?] 1 lettuce
27 3 grapefruit, 1 rumford [?], 2 soup, 1 celery
28 1 peck potatoes, 12 oranges, 1 gelatin, starch, ham

13 comments :

Lisele said...

Maybe he was just a skinflint, DD -- he was eating oranges, lemons & grapefruits in January in the Depression!

Dusty D said...

Lisele: That's true. It's a puzzle, to be sure. I checked a bit to see if there was any mention of Cleary being straitened during the Depression, with attendance way down, but all I can find so far is boosterish PR type stuff...but I'll keep looking.

Heidi Renée said...

I wonder if Rumford means the Rumford brand of baking soda--a 1930s predecessor of what many of us buy today?

Heidi Renée said...

Powder... I meant baking powder.

Dusty D said...

YAY!!! I was HOPING someone would know what 'Rumford' means--I didn't! Thank you Heidi! That sounds totally credible.

jml said...

Rumford is still available, "for health conscious consumers".

Dusty D said...

So I got up to check my baking powder. Yes, I got up to check my baking powder.

Here's what I found.

I'll be double-dog dipped.

And now the circle is complete.

Wystan said...

I'm guessing that your baking powder can bears the silhouette of the portly Count Rumford himself:
http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Benjamin_Thompson,_Count_Rumford

Dusty D said...

(reads Wystan's link) What an interesting and multitalented man! Everything from the humane rehabilitation of prisoners to...curing smoky chimneys? But no mention of baking powder!

I see a mention of the "Rumford Medal" at the end. I wonder if it is this medal that is displayed on the can. And if so......why?

jml said...


The Rumford Chemical Works
... chose the corporate name which recognized the scientific achievements of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, as well as the Rumford Chair which [the founder] occupied at Harvard and which had been founded by a grant from Count Rumford.

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