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Losing the Business: The Donners Recall the Great Depression

by David Shannon

Created in 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided hope and employment for millions of unemployed workers and studied the human toll of the depression. One such study—a series of WPA-conducted interviews with Dubuque, Iowa families—found that middle-class Americans particularly felt the sting and shame of unemployment caused by the depression. In this interview, the Donners discussed the closing of their family-owned printing business in Chicago during tough times. Returning to live with Mrs. Donner’s family in Dubuque in 1934, Mr. Donner remained unemployed for over a year before landing a job as a timekeeper on a WPA project, earning less than one-third his previous income.

Mr. Donner 53

Mrs. Donner 48

Louise 14

Dick 12

Interviewing completed March 15, 1938

In good years, while Mr. Donner had his own printing business in Chicago, it “was nothing” for him to take the children downtown on Saturday afternoons and spend $2 or $3 on trivialities for each of them, and Dick and Louise “never thought of going into a drug store” without having sundaes or sodas. When, in the early thirties, the business started downhill, both Mr. and Mrs. Donner were even more concerned about the children than about the business. Though they tried not to let Louise and Dick know how worried they themselves were, they did explain that now there was less money to spend because “business was bad.” As it happened, the children surprised their parents by their casual acceptance of deprivations. They used to tell their father not to buy the things they especially wanted unless “business was good.” They did, though, expect Christmas toys in 1933, for they still believed in Santa Claus.

Mr. Donner has had no private employment since the spring of 1934, when he finally gave up the printing business which he had owned and operated for 15 years. Then he and Mrs. Donner and the two children came to Dubuque to Mrs. Donner’s parents. Since the fall of 1934 he has been employed most of the time on emergency work projects. He is now a WPA timekeeper.

He looks the part of the business man that he has been. He is broad and well-built, well-dressed, and well-groomed. Both Mr. and Mrs. Donner are cordial and gracious and talk rather freely about their depression experiences.

When Mr. Donner was 13 years old his family moved from Dubuque to Chicago. After completing a 2-year business college course in 1907, he began work in the office of a Chicago insurance firm. He was soon promoted to salesman; he continued at this job until 1918, when he took over a Chicago printing establishment. His mother had inherited the business from her uncle, and Mr. Donner purchased it from his mother. He continued to make payments to his mother until 1931; the business was paid for only “just before it was lost.” Through the twenties the business had prospered. Mr. Donner employed from 12 to 30 men; “at a conservative estimate”the business was worth $15,000 in 1929, and Mr. Donner’s income averaged about $300 a month.

Awareness of the depression came early to the Donners, who had savings in one of the first banks to fail after the 1929 stock market crash. The Chicago bank that went under early in November, 1929 paid only 30 per cent of the total deposits. Through 1930 and 1931 Mr. Donner’s business was fairly good; he considered himself rather fortunate, for many of his friends had already begun to suffer heavy losses.

Mr. Donner continued to hope to meet “prosperity just around the corner” as long as he dared, but the time came when he could no longer wait for prosperity. He thinks now that he held on too long, but he had no way of knowing that the depression would last so long, and that in the end he would save nothing from his business. He hated to discharge his employees, so kept as many as possible as long as possible. He also hated to see his huge presses standing idle. All of the family’s assets were converted into cash to be put into the business, and besides, Mr. Donner borrowed from relatives money which he has only recently succeeded in repaying. The Donners gave up the large home which they had been renting but had hoped to buy as soon as the business was paid for, put their furniture in storage, and moved into furnished rooms. The furniture has now been reclaimed, but it “just missed” being sold for storage.

Finally, Mr. Donner had fired all of his employees, sold some of his presses, and rented a part of the floor space. But he still couldn’t give up altogether. He was gathering up what orders were to be had even when he did the printing, the delivering, and the bookkeeping all alone. He was worrying so continually and so excessively that he lost 35 pounds in a few months and couldn’t sleep at night.

Mrs. Donner had lived in Dubuque until her marriage. Her parents still have their Dubuque home, a huge but somewhat ramshackle place in a good residential neighborhood. Mrs. Donner and her parents had been urging Mr. Donner to give up his business and move to Dubuque over a period of some 6 or 7 months before he finally consented to do so. He had been thinking that if he couldn’t support his family in Chicago, what chance would he have in Dubuque? But there were at last only two alternatives; either the Donners would go on relief in Chicago or they would come to Dubuque to Mrs. Donner’s parents. Neither possibility was a very happy one, but above all things Mr. Donner was anxious to remain off relief rolls; so he came to Dubuque in the spring of 1934.

Mrs. Donner’s family had the second floor of their home made into an apartment for the Donners, who have their own entrance. The apartment is roomy and airy and attractively furnished. For about 5 months after coming to Dubuque, Mr. Donner was unemployed, though he managed to keep busy—he was so anxious to have “something to do”—by painting the doors and window frames and sashes of the family’s home. He had kept in touch with the employment office, as well as with “every factory in Dubuque.” His first job came when he was assigned as a common laborer, on a nonrelief basis, to the Dubuque lock and dam project. His work consisted largely of gathering up lumber and carrying it to, or away from the scene of operations.

Although Mrs. Donner was glad enough for her husband to be working at anything, it hurt her to see him put on overalls for the first time in his life. “He had never had a pair of overalls, not even when he was a little boy.” Mrs. Donner managed not to say anything until he was out of the house, but as soon as he had gone she ran into the bedroom and began to cry; she thought she “just couldn’t stand it.” When her brother insisted on knowing what was the matter, and she told him, he laughed at her for worrying about Mr. Donner; his putting on the overalls and going out on a job like that just “showed the stuff he had in him.” Mrs. Donner thinks that only the “strong-minded” have lived through the depression without becoming either too bitter or too resigned.

Mr. Donner continued to work on the locks until he got a brief-lived job with a tanning company, then hiring many extra persons to handle Government orders for leather mittens and jackets to be distributed among the relief clients. Mr. Donner understands that most of the employees were assigned on a relief basis, but the company had the privilege of hiring a certain proportion of nonrelief employees. For his work as packer and, later, as cutter Mr. Donner was paid 40¢ an hour. This work, too, was quite different from anything he had ever done in the past; he had scarcely even seen factory machines in operation. The first day he operated a ripping machine, he pushed one hide a little too near the needle, which ripped off a finger nail. After having worked for several months for the tanning company, Mr. Donner was laid off, along with many other workers, when the special orders were filled.

His next job was as timekeeper on a WPA project; he was assigned on a nonrelief basis through the employment office. Mr. Donner attributes his assignment to one of the better jobs to his “good education” and to his experience as bookkeeper when he had his own business. For the past 2 years he has been working as timekeeper on WPA projects.

Mr. Donner feels that the depression really hit hardest the families like his, who had been used to a relatively “high standard of living.” For 25 years Mr. Donner’s earnings had averaged not less than $300 a month. Since he now earns only about $90 a month, he thinks that his income has been reduced, proportionately, more than that of the average WPA worker. He is nevertheless sympathetic with relief clients and especially with the WPA workers who earn “a few dollars a month” less than he.

These past several years, the Donners have heard a great deal about the unemployed men who don’t want to work and won’t look for jobs and about the “shovel-leaners” on WPA jobs. “Of course,”Mr. Donner says, “there are a few loafers on WPA projects; but there are also a few loafers on jobs in private industry.” But on the whole, as Mr. Donner knows from having seen hundreds of WPA workers come and go, they are most eager to have employment and to do what is expected of them, or even “more than is expected.” "Besides,“ Mr. Donner explains, ”several factors should be taken into account before any of the WPA workers can be criticized for not doing a first-rate job: many of the men working as common laborers haven’t been accustomed to hard physical labor; a good proportion of them have large families to support on their earnings of $12 a week and are always undernourished. And the men really shouldn’t be expected to do $25 worth of work for $12."

Mrs. Donner, too, has noted how eager the men are to have work. It was she who now recalled that some of Mr. Donner’s former employees, unable to find work elsewhere, came again and again to his shop asking to be put to work at anything and at any wages. Unfortunately, he had nothing to offer them; he supposes that some of them are still unemployed. When men were first put to work in the Dubuque County stone quarries, it made Mrs. Donner “feel good” just to see so many men with jobs once again.“Of course, it was too bad that they had to work in the stone quarries,”but there it was—and it was good that they had something to do. Even when they began work at 8 A.M. Mrs. Donner could see them coming to work in the quarry just across from the family’s home 20 or 25 minutes before starting time. “And talk about men not wanting to work - why, one day last month when the weather was very cold, and the streets were coated with ice, and one of the trucks which carried the WPA workers to their jobs refused to start, one man walked 2 miles to the project on the frozen-over Mississippi River.” Mr. Donner believes that some men have applied for relief before it was absolutely necessary to do so; on the other hand, many have waited to apply until there was no alternative.

Mr. Donner says that he doesn’t “know what the country would have done without the WPA.” One thing is fairly certain:“there would have been a revolution.” The WPA projects have been advantageous in many ways; not only have men been given work but also cities have had, at only a small proportion of the total cost, improvements which they might otherwise not have had for years. Dubuque, for example, now has a municipal swimming pool, built as a WPA project, a recreation pavilion, and “the largest man-made rock garden in the world, a good advertisement for Dubuque,”in Eagle Point Park. Mr. Donner puts no stock in the criticism, which he has frequently heard, that expenditures for materials used on PWA [Public Works Administration] and WPA projects have been excessive. The rock used for the building of the recreation pavilion cost only 10¢ a ton, a bid of 12 1/2¢ a ton having been turned down as “too high.”Mr. Donner does not see any immediate prospect of his leaving the WPA rolls. Business today is little better than when Mr. Donner returned to Dubuque more than 3 years ago, and “numbers on WPA rolls in the county are increasing.” From his correspondence with friends in Chicago and other cities Mr. Donner gathers that conditions elsewhere are much the same as in Dubuque. In his opinion, the recession [of 1937–1938] has been the result of “spite work” on the part of certain industrialists; he does not anticipate that it will last very long. “The depression of the early thirties” he thinks, “was bound to come sooner or later when there was so much overspeculation, and overcapitalization, and an excess labor supply” resulting from long years of unrestricted or little- restricted immigration and the “displacement of men by machines.” He thinks that perhaps unemployment could be minimized by limitation of the amounts of stock issued by corporations and payment of dividends only on actual investments.

For many years, Mr. Donner has been interested in social legislation; he approves of the Social Security Act in general, though he is dubious about the need for so large a reserve for the old-age benefits fund. As one having some knowledge of insurance, he believes that such a reserve is greater than necessary to meet all demands that would be made on the fund over any given period of time, and would “take too much money out of circulation.”

What Mr. Donner would really like is to return to Chicago and go into the printing business again. If business is again“as good as it was last summer when most of the Dubuque factories were working 24 hours a day,” there may be some possibility of his returning to Chicago; in the meantime, there is none. He has done everything he can to find a job other than on WPA projects: he has taken four civil service examinations, and has kept applications on file with the State employment office and with all of the local factories. There is nothing more to be done. He is not particularly hopeful of finding work; neither is he particularly discouraged. There is no bitterness or resentment evident in his expression of attitudes and opinion.

Source: David Shannon, The Great Depression (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1960), pp. 146–151

See Also:The Bum as Con Artist: An Undercover Account of the Great Depression
"The Depression has Changed People's Outlook": The Beuschers Remember the Great Depression in Dubuque, Iowa
Deaf and Unemployed in Dubuque: The DiMarcos Remember the Great Depression