The Economy of Makeshifts

Ben Shahn, “Dwellers in Circleville’s “Hooverville,” Central Ohio, 1938. Library of Congress.

The phrase, “the economy of makeshifts,” is historian Olwen Hufton’s. She employed it in The Poor of Eighteenth Century France 1750-1789 (1974) to describe the survival strategies of the poor in France before the Revolution.

The phrase, as adopted by historians of England, shifted in its application to that country’s working poor.  As I work through the the philosophy and programs of the New Deal in Ohio in the 1930s, I’ve been finding that other scholars’ work on the poor focus on America’s working poor (as opposed to the abject poor or the infirm–admittedly much more difficult to trace productively). Take, as a recent example, Seth Rockman’s terrific Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (2009).

And then there’s Wendy A. Woloson’s excellent In Hock: Pawning from Independence to the Great Depression ( 2009), a work that examines one of the strategies by which the working poor made ends meet. 

The simple term makeshift shifts my thinking about my research into the Great Depression in Ohio. First, I am finding it useful to think of who were considered poor or needy or wanting into those who were mobile and those who were not.  Transients could be migrant workers and bums, the first group seeking, say, seasonal agricultural work while the second group may have given up the idea of work. Families and single men in Hoovervilles lived in makeshift shacks that implied permanence (to live or stay as a permanent resident in a dwelling) but at the same time merely dwelled (to live or continue in a given condition or state; to linger).

I’ve been gathering visual evidence as well as textual evidence to chart the material culture of “makeshift-ness” of poor Ohioans in the decade.

Ohio’s Poor Law was woefully inadequate to help those for which its passage was intended. At the outset of the Great Depression there were no uniform standards or system of relief. Nor was there a federal poor law. Ohio was the first territory of the Northwest Territory to institute a Poor Law; this law was adopted by other states formed from the Territory and remained in effect, with some changes, until the Great Depression.

The law, based on English statutes dating back to the Elizabethan era, made it mandatory for Ohio’s 88 counties and 1,337 townships to provide relief for the “deserving poor.” Standards of poor relief thus varied greatly throughout the state but shared two basic concepts: that there were “deserving poor,” mostly middle-class widows and dependent children who received “outdoor relief,” and “paupers,” mostly those who had no property or means and who were to be taught a work ethic–that is, working for their subsistence more often than not in county almhouses or workhouses. By 1933, this system of relief crumbled and the state became reliant on federal aid.  The system itself became, in essence, makeshift.

It would take some time for Ohioans to shift their understanding of the dole, of relief, and of welfare, and to forswear usage of the term pauper. During the 1930s Ohioans grappled with a new way of thinking about society’s responsibility to those in need. Being “on the dole” shamed Americans, who had long held a sense of self-sufficiency and a belief in the value of work. This “ideology of the dole” meant that many Americans blamed themselves for their job losses; many refused relief, thinking it was “unearned” charity. To ask for, even demand relief was to surrender not only one’s way of life, but one’s sense of self. To surrender to pauperism—being dependent on the dole—was to forfeit one’s self determination and, in some places, the right to vote.

It took several years for Ohioans—as all Americans—to realize the impacts of the economic catastrophe that had befallen the nation, to contemplate that one’s job loss and few (if any) employment opportunities was not one’s fault. Early attempts at relief were voluntary, temporary, and insecure. In Cincinnati, for example, the city fathers began a “make a job” campaign in which the jobless could sweep streets, remove trash, or shovel snow, then knock on doors to ask for small donations. On the last day of the year in 1932, the Coshocton city council heard “in silence” from white and black men on relief who were paid with groceries rather than money, and who complained that the groceries they did receive were not “healthful food.”  The Council had not the finances to pay any wages [Coshocton Tribune, December 31, 1932].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s