CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Newsreels of the Great Depression typically depict scenes of extreme hardship – soup lines, dust storms, even suicides.
Yet despite the financial crisis, most people went on with their daily lives, doing the routine, ordinary things, albeit often in scaled-back ways.
A new oral history project at the University of Illinois is helping to recover the routine and preserve the ordinary in one realm of that extraordinary era – collegiate life.
The project, “Student Life During the Great Depression, 1928-1938,” is recording the memories of some 40 UI alumni who experienced the Depression as undergraduates.
Life during the Depression.
In addition to their memories of college life, including the material compromises they, their families and friends had to make, the former students are contributing photos and other mementos – varsity letter sweaters, track shoes, wooden sorority pins – that document their experiences during that decade.
“The historical significance of the time period, the lack of first-hand accounts in archival holdings and the fact that alumni from this era are well into their 80s and 90s, make documenting their experiences urgently important,” said Ellen Swain, the project leader and the archivist for the UI’s Student Life and Culture Archives.
After they have been critically evaluated, the interviews will provide “a missing student voice or perspective on what it meant to attend at least one large university during an economic depression,” Swain said.
The project also traces changes in student life and culture, since it compares student activities of this era with those of the preceding decade – “a time of flourishing extracurricular activity,” she said.
In 1931, UI administrators relaxed the rules, believing that students should take more initiative and responsibility for their actions.
Despite this increased freedom, Depression-era students became more serious about their studies and less involved in campus organizations.
Still, the participants recall fond memories of raccoon coats; colored caps, scarves and feathers to depict class rank; women’s social teas; Coke dates – and even cheaper, tennis dates; mailing laundry home; and working in food service to be assured of the next meal.
“The cook always saw that I got the best food,” said Sidney Dilks, class of 1928.
Dilks also recalled a 1924 football game. While Red Grange was pulverizing Michigan on the field, another drama played off the field.
Dozens of fans, having become stuck in the mud as they tried to get into the game, had to be plucked out of the muck, often leaving their shoes and boots behind.
Dilks also remembered waking up on winter mornings and finding his blankets dusted with snow; the windows of his fraternity house had screens, but no glass.
More than anything else, the alums remembered good times and camaraderie.
“We were all in the same boat,” said Kathryn G. Hansen, class of 1934, “so we became a very, very close group.”
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