WWII Ration Books, WPA Brass Sign

Q: I bought an auction lot consisting of 25 boxes filled with ration books, information on the WPA, a large brass WPA sign, and a lot of other items such as newspaper clippings, recipes, fabric, etc. I am sending pictures of some of the most interesting items. I think I know what the WPA was and the ration books are WWII era but some of the other stuff I’m not so sure about.

A: Your question could not be more timely. I have been packing away books and came across one titled “We Had Everything but Money.” It is about the Great Depression published by the company that puts out Reminisce Magazine. The Great Depression was a worldwide economic disaster that began in America. The tipping point was in early September 1929 with a steady and rapid decline in stock market prices and culminated on October 29, 1929 aka Black Tuesday. Black Tuesday marked the end of the Roaring Twenties and the beginning of the Great Depression. It impacted the rich and poor alike, unemployment rose, all industries were hit, in other words, it was a life-changing event for all until around 1932 but in some countries, the depression lasted until WWII.

When the Great Depression reached its peak in 1933, some 13 to 15 million Americans were unemployed and nearly half of the country’s banks had failed.

As if not having two pennies to rub together was not bad enough, there was also the dust bowl to contend with. That is a story of its own, the dust bowl primarily impacted people from Texas to Nebraska, all of the Southern plains area nut at times the dust would find its way North. The dust bowl was a man-made catastrophe.

Muli-generations of a family would move into one home and pool their resources. Some families took the chance of packing all that they owned to move, California was the usual destination. Many of these families were evicted or their homes foreclosed. The mass migration of families caused shantytowns, often called Hoovervilles after President Herbert Hoover, to spring up across the US. The Hoovervilles were horrible. Food and water were in short supply, drinking and fighting were common as was theft. The living conditions were unsanitary and disease ran rampant. Some family men became “hobos” they would hop a train and travel to where the work was. Some jobs were short-term but some men would get lucky and find long-term work. The bulk of the money was sent home to the family. Hobos were the first migrant workers and helped to build America.

You included a picture of a piece of paper with symbols on it. This is how the hobos communicated with each other. Symbols would be left in towns and in front of homes along the train route. The symbols would let the travelers know if a town was safe, a kind woman lives here and will feed you, gentleman is a jerk, an easy mark, and many more. These symbols were not just a Depression-era novelty they go back to the late 1880s through WWII.

People had to get creative to make ends meet, and one of the ways they did this was by saving, reusing, and re-purposing absolutely everything. What we wouldn’t think twice about tossing today was as good as gold back then.

Everything was reused, recycled, and re-purposed. Here are just a few of the many things people reused during the Great Depression: 1) tires to resole shoes and used to patch holes in shantytown “homes”, it was also used as fuel, 2) flour sacks to make clothes, 3) string for shoelaces, curtain “rods”, 4) soap bars can be shaved to use to wash clothes and slivers can be molded to make a “new” bar of soap, 5) fabric scraps and old clothes used to make quilts or new clothes for younger kids, mend holes in pants.

Flour and feed sacks were used to make clothing and it wasn’t long before the manufacturers took note of this. They began making their sacks colorful with a variety of designs on them. The prettier the sack the higher the sales. Wives began going to the feed store with their husbands to pick out the design or color of sack they wanted.

Another way that companies assisted families during the Great Depression was to tuck away beautifully patterned dinnerware, including teacups, saucers, and bowls into their products’ packages. Depression glass, as it was known, was very cheap to produce and companies of the time, such as Phillips’ Toothpaste, Dux laundry soap, and Wheaties, gave them away in their products. It wasn’t just relegated to home goods. Back then, moviegoers could take home glassware on “dish nights.” Folks received dinnerware pieces while getting their tanks topped off at the gas station. There is a glassware pattern called “oatmeal glass” as it was found in oatmeal canisters. Shirley Temple was very popular and the Wheaties commissioned Hazel Atlas Glass to manufacture a Shirley Temple breakfast set which could be obtained by mailing in several box tops from Wheaties and a small amount of money. The Bisquick Company followed suit with a Shirley Temple mug, just send in the required number of box tops and a few cents and your mug would be on its way. I recall my Granny and Aunt stopping at every Texaco gas station in East Texas and Louisiana to get me a “fireman’s helmet” with a microphone. They ran around with their gas tanks near empty so that they could get the allotted amount of gas required to get my helmet. I still have the box but the helmet fell to pieces in the 1980s.

There are a couple more topics from that time that I want to cover such as recipes and the WPA but I am out of room for this month. Feel free to email me your favorite Depression-era recipes. Maybe I can put them on my antique appraisal website.

As for the photos you sent to me; the Shirley Temple breakfast set, if original, $75, flour sack material value depends on how much there is, a full-sized sack $25-$30. The WPA sign is pretty fabulous, I was unable to find a comparable sign to access a value $500-$800. Black Tuesday newspaper, $25-$30, The articles and recipes as a group $15-$20. Soap shaver $15. Oatmeal box with glassware, $35-$40

The Great Depression is a very interesting piece of our history and really shows how resilient Americans can be when times call for it.


Written by Michelle Staley

Michelle Staley has over 35 years of experience as an antique collector, picker and dealer. She has done hundreds of insurance and IRS appraisals in addition to just satisfying another collector or dealer’s curiosity concerning what an item is, does or its worth. Other experience includes her work as a forensics consultant and in archeological identification and dating.

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