Idaho History

During Great Depression in Idaho, work was welcome, and sales were more welcome

You could have lunch at Whitehead drugstore in Boise’s Eastman Building for 35 cents in 1932.
You could have lunch at Whitehead drugstore in Boise’s Eastman Building for 35 cents in 1932.

It has been calculated that the purchasing power of one of today’s dollars in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, was a whopping $16.89. Millions of Americans were out of work, and living on their life savings if they had any. They didn’t last very long in any case.

Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president that fall and the “alphabet” programs of the New Deal were created to put people back to work on public projects of all kinds, things that had long needed doing anyway. The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) was among those formed, and by October 1934 it had built 71 camps in Idaho, giving employment to 14,000 men. Idaho Secretary of State Franklin Girard, a Democrat, told an audience in Wallace: “Long steps have been taken in fire protection, forest land improvement, grazing land improvement, erosion control, tree-planting, fish and game conservation, plant control and flood control. All of the men enrolled in the program have sent $25 of their $30 a month wages home, thereby removing many families from relief rolls.”

Although most of the men who joined the CCC were in their late teens or early 20s, an item in the Statesman of Sept. 15, 1934, reveals that older men in need could also be hired. “Enrollment of Spanish and World War veterans in the CCC for the next term will begin early in October according to information received Friday by C.H. Hudelson, manager of the Veterans Administration facility at Boise. There is no age limit, but applicants are required to be physically fit for manual labor.”

If you decided to have lunch at Whitehead Drug store at 8th and Main in the Eastman Building in Boise in August 1932, you could have the fried spring chicken lunch special for 35 cents, including potato salad and your choice of any 5-cent beverage. A “quart brick” of ice cream cost 29 cents.

In February 1934, the Mode department store advertised, “Try Our Special Roast Turkey Dinner, 35 cents. Young Idaho turkey with dressing, salad, potatoes and gravy, beverage and dessert.”

If you shopped for meat at the butcher counter in Boise’s Safeway store in September 1938, picnic hams were 16 ½ cents per pound, pork sausage was 25 cents per pound, and frankfurters were two pounds for 29 cents. If you shopped for fruit at Safeway you could buy 4 lbs. of bananas for 23 cents, a dozen Sunkist oranges for19 cents, a dozen lemons for 25 cents, and Tokay grapes for 5 cents per pound.

With prices like these it’s easy to see why California citrus farmers were losing money, even with the influx of “Okie” dust-bowl labor – desperate refugees who would work for any wage to feed their families. John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath,” and John Ford’s 1940 movie made from it, describe their plight in memorable fashion, and the movie made a star of young Henry Fonda.

Boise’s Farmer Oil Company, “Just West of Old Soldiers’ Home,” advertised in the Idaho Statesman in April 1938: “OKLAHOMA GAS 5 gallons $1.00. Tetraethyl Leaded Gas, 5 gallons $1.05. One Price to All.”

Clothing was surprisingly inexpensive in July 1939. Montgomery Ward advertised:“Fall Wash Dresses, 88 cents. Priced especially low during Ward Week! Gay striped print and plaid percales! Short sleeves! Smart necklines. Sizes 14 to 52.”

Dress shirts for men during Ward Week were 69 cents. The ad read: “Men! Save on this Ward Week special! White, blue, and fancy broadcloths. Vat-dyed colors – won’t fade! Smart pleated sleeves. Save now!” A men’s denim work jacket with cotton plaid blanket lining cost $1.54 during Ward Week.

Next week: More about life in the Great Depression from one who lived through it.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email