Life Hacks from the Great Depression

The Higgins & Hawke Mysteries series begins in the hot and humid East Coast summer of 1931. Like many women during the ‘dirty thirties,’ Dr. Haley Higgins is serious and savvy and has what it takes to hold up under depressive times.

The 1930s was a great example of people’s ingenuity and resilience. As I’ve been researching for Higgins & Hawke, I’ve been fascinated by the many creative and resourceful ways women made-do with tight budgets and limited food. For example, money was saved on groceries by adding lentils to meat, and by cooking using staples such as pasta, potatoes, and hotdogs.

Image courtesy of Pat Turgeon 

Instead of spending money on costly items such as cooking oil, tomato soup would be added to cake batter to create a rich and delicious treat. Another budget saver was adding salt to coffee grounds to reduce the bitterness of cheap coffee. Families in more desperate situations sometimes turned to canning tumbleweed, or foraging for other wild edibles as a source of food. Tumbleweed was also used to feed cattle.

One popular dish was ‘Hoover’ stew, named after the 31st president Herbert Hoover who came into office right before the economic crash. Hoover stew refers to a soup with a thin broth, typically made using noodles, hotdogs, pasta and canned tomatoes. Other canned vegetables such as peas or corn were also added when available.

Around the household other hacks were used, including hanging wet sheets over doors to keep cool on hot summer days and making clothing out of feed sacks. Rather than spending money buying seeds, many people used old vegetables to grow their gardens. Another clever trick was to make simple cleaning products using vinegar, water and baking soda. This was a cheap and effective way of keeping a clean home.

Although the great depression is in the past, many of these life hacks are still useful today. Does your family have any recipes or hacks that they’ve passed down from the Depression-era? I’d love to hear about them!



Ps. If you enjoy historical fiction I think you’ll love my cozy mystery series set in the 1920s, 30s, and 50s. I hope you'll give them a try! Just click the series names below.

1920s ~ Ginger Gold Mysteries

1930s ~ Higgins & Hawke Mysteries

1950s ~ Rosa Reed Mysteries 


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  1. I have a maple syrup recipe I’ve made for years that my mom gave me. Put 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, with a teaspoon or so of mapleline flavor. I stir and cook on medium until it begins to bubble up and take off immediately and serve warm over pancakes or waffles. The point is for the sugar to be dissolved. It’s amazing! It can be refrigerated a few weeks and will crystallize on the bottom but just pour the rest out to warm up and toss the crystals.

  2. Always smart and savvy hack ideas come from true, deep need… The best part is I still use vinegar for windows,mirrors & stainless steel… Baking soda for brushing our teeth & my newest learned hack with baking soda… ADD 1/8 TEASPOON PER 1 GALLON OF SUN TEA/SWEET TEA & we found it’s life changing for this California family!!
    We adore anything Ginger (♡Lady Gold♡) Reed in our home, so having Dr. Haley Higgins Of Boston ♡ rejoin us is the most delightful gift for our (anyone’s really) summer reading!! My calendar is marked for every new release ahead!!

  3. I wore clothes made from feed sacks for awhile. My grandmother could make patterns from looking at ready mades and make me beautiful dresses.

  4. As a quilter I’ve heard lots about feed sacks used for clothing and quilts too. There are fabrics today that mimic the feedsack prints.

  5. I love them cooking hacks…my grandma and her two children lived through the depression. We grew up with no waste….

  6. My parents grew up during the depression. I remember my parents saving wrapping paper, sometimes my mother would iron out the wrinkles. Great post. Thanks

  7. Love this! I was raised by my depression-era grandparents. They were a little too frugal IMO as we sometimes had stale or moldy food, or would wear clothes other people had thrown out. I think it’s easy to romanticize what was in reality a terrible time for many families. Most families including both of my grandparents’ lost children due to lack of food and proper housing.

  8. I clean using vinegar and banking soda also bcz my mother is allergic to the scents that are in cleaners. These work mostly just as well. I say this bcz I do miss my pinesol fresh smell!

  9. Both of my parents were born during the depression – it is magazine how resilient they were and how they learned to cope.

  10. This was really interesting. I’m going to have to remember the hack about hanging damp sheets on a hot day.

  11. My mom grew up during the depression and did things like save bread ties and rubber bands, so I do too. She also would save aluminum foil to reuse if it wasn’t really soiled and would wash sandwich bags to reuse if they weren’t messy.

  12. We are so fortunate to be in such a blessed time, but I think that we should appriciate it better. These people had nso little but made the best of what they had and were not as wasteful as we are today.

  13. I’m not sure about the exact timeline, but I remember reading about women re-used the flour sacks as clothing for their children. So companies caught on and started adding patterns & designs to their products for this reason. I thought that was cool how that worked.

  14. I worked with a lady who lived on a farm during the Great Depression. She said that they made clothes out of feedbags.

  15. I love reading hacks but have never thought about the hacks they used during such a depressive time. Before my grandmother passed away she shared stories with me about how times were then but I do not recall hearing her mention any hacks they used which is unusual now that I think about it.

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