Depression-era mindset and clutter

My grandmother passed away in 2002. She was old enough to remember being a child in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression. She used to tell stories about her childhood to let us know how lucky we were to have all of the things that we were undoubtedly taking for granted. She remembered sharing what little clothing she had with her two sisters and squeezing her feet into shoes that no longer fit. One year, her Christmas gift consisted of crayons which she received as a joint gift with her sisters. I’m sure those crayons were used in the most judicious manner.

Flash forward to the years when my grandmother used to shove sugar and ketchup packets in her purse when we went to a restaurant and you could understand why she did such things. The abundance with which we are so accustomed is easily taken for granted because we really don’t have a frame of reference for the really tough times. My grandmother was also a “pack rat” (i.e. highly cluttered) which we didn’t fully realize until we had to empty her house.

She lived in her last home for over forty years, twenty six of those years she lived by herself. The clearing out of all of the stuff from her home was quite a chore. She kept everything that might one day be useful — for example, she had more than five non-working vacuums.

I understand why she behaved the way she did, and why others like her do the same. But the reality is that in today’s more prosperous economy it can actually cost a person more to hang on to broken things and store sugar packets. Real estate is expensive, and energy use to properly heat and cool a home in such a way as to keep mold and mildew off of belongings is pricey. If you’re keeping items in an off-site rented storage unit, you’re probably spending more in rent over time than you would if you had to repurchase what you’re storing. Our post on sunk costs also addresses an aspect of this issue.

Keep in mind the real expense of holding onto clutter and fight the urge to keep something just because you think one day it might be useful. In many cases, the expense of storage is greater than any cost you may at some point incur.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

37 Comments for “Depression-era mindset and clutter”

  1. posted by Carrie B on

    My mother has always been quite the pack rat and collector. My father’s inclanation was to toss it without asking, which I realize was the opposite extreme in direct opposition to her hoarding. Once her depression-era parents had both passed away, she realized the sheer mass of stuff wasn’t worth unloading on her kids. This past year she has finally culled her massive bell collection, which she kept for over ten years in storage “just in case,” admitting she will never want to or be able to display them again. She has gotten rid of many things that “still have good use to them,” which I commend. Change is not impossible with depression-era (and children of depression-era) folks. However, change, or the kind of change where you un-learn 60 years worth of hoarding compulsions, takes time. She isn’t totally reformed. For example, she still has aloe vera gel from the 80’s, which still still insists is “good,” despite the fact it’s twenty years old and has a half-inch solid coat of dust on it. But I smile with pride whenever I think about all of those bells going into the rummage sale. Admitting the coffin is only “so big”–realizing you can’t take it all with you–is one of the most liberating things one can realize. May the revelations keep coming!

  2. posted by EMM on

    As a counterpoint though, many of the items that you will eventually have to replace because you got rid of the ones you had will be of much poorer quality now. The cost to replace the item more frequently because new ones are poorly made and don’t last can easily offset the cost you would have had storing the really good one for the years before you finally needed it.

    While reducing clutter is a good goal, don’t get so gung ho that you toss or sell stuff you will have to replace with junky new versions, even if it’s a number of years before you need them again.

    Yes sometimes you can find the old style or item on ebay but not always and when you do it’s usually much much more than you paid for it and more than offsets the storage costs if you had kept your original one instead.

    I’ve been burned that way far too many times. In a few cases I cannot ever replace the items I got rid of, they are no longer available anywhere in the same quality of the old ones.

  3. posted by Lise on

    I blog most frequently in the frugality niche, and I’m surprised and a little troubled by the number of posts in that niche that glamorize Depression-era thinking in a “knew the value of the dollar walked uphill to school both ways” kind of way. This troubles me, as I spent a good deal of my childhood with a grandmother with such Depression-era thinking, and I have a very hard time thinking positively about this kind of hoarding.

    This post was refreshing in that regard as it acknowledges the real problem with holding onto stuff is that it can hold you in the past.

  4. posted by Taleah on

    It’s not just the Depression – when I graduated from college and became gainfully employed, I had a very compulsive urge to stock up on things ‘in case’ I was ever jobless again. Just recently, I went through and purged my pantry. I had expired boxes of mac’n cheese among other things – all that I’d stocked away because I could now afford it. I’m slowly working my way through the rest of my house, knowing that there’s probably quite a bit there that came in under the same mentality. It’s a hard thought process to overcome.

  5. posted by Shanel Yang on

    My mom was orphaned when she was 2 in Japan then sent to live with her relatives in South Korea where they made her their servant for their troubles. She lived the life of a pauper until she grew up, met my dad, had us kids, came to America, and my dad’s business finally began to take off, in her 30s. That’s when she began to go start buying and hoarding expensive junk with a vengeance!

    My dad, on the other hand, grew up in relative wealth in North Korea till age 15, when he, too, suddenly became “orphaned” (escaped to South Korea without his family). He joined the army, which paid really well for the high risky missions he undertook, and he became a spendthrift!

    Even though when they got together, they shared the same level of poverty, he never became a hoarder. So, maybe the differences in their tendencies to hoard or not to hoard was largely influenced by their childhood, as the Depression-era folks seem to have been so influenced. She grew up poor, and he didn’t. Simple as that. And, no amount of wealth or poverty in their adult lives made any real difference in their hoarding patterns.

  6. posted by Beverly on

    I have been working on decluttering my house (lived here over 20 years). What I really dread is my parents’ house when they’re gone (80 and 88). They’ve lived in the same house for over 60 years and I don’t think they’ve discarded anything! It will be a nightmare! and a whole lot more work than I want to do.

  7. posted by Susan on

    The new package of crayons relly hit home with me. I LOVED getting new crayons, and hated it when I broke one or had to tear down the paper covering to continue to color with one. And I NEVER threw a GOOD (read whole with intact paper) crayon away. I ended up with a lot of dull colors which I would never use in any case. I am trying to draw a comparison here to clutter. I guess you just keep the good things which you will never use because they are good. I can also remember not being allowed to wear my good dress (keep it for good) until I had just about grown out of it.

  8. posted by Harris on

    When my parents passed away I had to clean out their entire house, attic, shed, etc. It brought back wonderful memories but was also jam-packed with every card they ever received, used gift wrap and bows – all quite squished, expired toiletries, linens that hadn’t been used in many years, etc. Every space filled. You get the picture. I am decluttering my house so my sons don’t have to go through such a mess. I’ll keep the treasures and get rid of the junk and excess. I’m also decluttering so my husband and I can life a simple life without excess. It is nice to know where everything is!

  9. posted by midlife mommy on

    I am helping my father go through my mother’s things (she died last September). She was a hoarder. Bills, receipts, newspapers, magazines — plus everything that she ever received, I think. The hard part for me is deciding what to keep, as we don’t have that much space. Can I really give away the crystal, china, and linens? No, I honestly can’t. But it does take up space, even though I think I’m being pretty ruthless in what should be tossed or sold.

  10. posted by ACB on

    My grandmother was also raised in the depression and had the same traits, and she taught me a rhyme that I end up thinking about every time I’m cleaning or shopping:
    Make it last
    Wear it out
    Make it last
    Or do without.

  11. posted by ACB on

    Sorry, wrote that wrong;
    Make it last
    Wear it out
    Make it do
    Or do without.

  12. posted by Meg on

    I’m also into living frugally, but I really live an organized home. I’ve seen a few different levels of hoarding first hand, from the “But it’s still good” to not being able to get into rooms of a very spacious farmhouse. I even married a guy who started out as a clutterer, though he’s seen the light and is more vigilant than me nowadays — which is a great miracle. I’ve seen the toil that too much clutter brings and I don’t ever want to live like that.

    Fortunately, it is possible to be frugal and uncluttered. When you learn to live on less, you need less around, you buy less, you bring in less. And when you’re creative, you know how to get more of something *when* you need it — or find an alternative. I have a few small areas where I keep things like paper and bags which can be reused, but I limit the amount I keep. And since becoming more into declutting, I find myself shopping a lot less and buying less when I do shop. When I do buy, I mostly restock staples.

    And I might add, we’re really proud of ourselves here. My husband, our roommate, and I have drastically cut down our garbage — so much that we forgot a week and still got it all out in the city garbage can which used to overflow after a single week. By composting, reusing, repurposing, recycling, regiving, buying less, and just not buying stuff in a lot of packaging, we’ve managed to drastically cut down on waste. It’s nice to know that we can unclutter our home without cluttering up the landfills as much.

  13. posted by Rachel on

    While I tend to agree that there are similar characteristics to clutter and the Depression-era, it doesnt stop there. I truly think hoarding has something to do with how you view usable space.
    My husbad would save everything that has even a modicum of sentiment, usefulness, or purpose if there were enough space in our home (and if I let him) He grew up in the same childhood home until leaving for college. I, on the other hand, moved every 18-24 months and my father’s rule was “if you didn’t use it at this house, it didn’t come to the new house”. We were alloted a certain number of boxes that were allowed to go on the moving truck, so you made use of the limited space for things you deemed most important.
    All in all, I think one’s tendency to hoard has much more to do with the way one views the use of space than the way they were raised or the era in which they lived. If you dont ever need to move it, and it gives you some kind of comfort knowing it is around(somewhere), that will lead some to collect more than others.
    Gratefully, my husband and I have struck a balence. I took up my dad’s policy and allotted us each a certain number of boxes for storage in the garage. It seems to be working, for the time being, anway…

  14. posted by infmom on

    My father-in-law was much the same. He saved everything that was “still good” or “might come in handy someday.” After he died, my mother-in-law moved into a retirement complex and emptying the house for sale meant getting rid of probably a hundred margarine tubs stacked neatly in the garage, a pile of small styrofoam coolers that the VA had shipped his insulin in, an entire drawer full of ossified rubber bands he’d saved off the daily newspaper, and so on and so forth. It was a whole lot of unnecessary work and those “useful” things never got used.

    My husband tends to do the same thing, alas. There were many years when we had to be as frugal as any two people in the USA could possibly be, when we were both working full time and still qualified for food stamps. We had to cobble things together, make things do, and scrounge anything useful that we happened to find. But those days are, thank goodness, in the past, and I’m of the opinion that now we should do things right the first time, replace things that are worn out and NOT save the old one “just in case,” and only pick up other people’s discards if they are going to do something positive, whether useful or decorative.

    I still can’t get him to agree to dump the box of old dull drill bits he scrounged out of the neighbors’ back yard 25 years ago….

  15. posted by EMM on

    I’m far more disturbed about people dumping items that are still intact and useful than I am about clutter. I think the frugal depression era mindset is a good thing. We should all be more mindful of what we use and really need. The wastefulness of a lot of decluttering posts really bothers me.

    It’s one thing to be saving broken items and food that you let get old and unusable, that is bad hoarding. But it is quite another thing to keep items that are not used often or may not be used for several years if the cost to replace it with a substandard new one is more than the cost of storing it until needed.

    And I also think that if things are questionable but consumable (clothes that are not quite in style, food you are not fond of but is still ok to eat and the like) that it is much much better to force yourself to wear the item until it’s used up (which sadly takes only a few months with most shoddily made clothing nowadays) or eat the item you are not fond of but don’t ever buy any more.

    And when you do buy something buy the best there is that you can possibly afford and keep it until it’s completely worn out, then replace it.

  16. posted by Sean S on

    Unclutterer used to offer advice for those who wished to unclutter their homes, and the comments were frequently just as helpful, if not more so. But, increasingly, the site is devolving into little more than a place for people to vent their frustrations and righteous indignation about the unconverted. You talk about decluttering as though it were a moral imperative while casually dismissing hoarding as a vice for disorganized, unenlightened ne’er-do-wells. Grandma died and all I got was a house full of lousy, worthless crap. A touching sentiment, but it’s not exactly helpful.

  17. posted by chelsea rae on

    I talk all the time about how this same depression-era mindset still influences the food economy in America; the misled idea of feeding as many as possible as cheaply as possible (grow corn! eat pre-packaged food!) It’s encouraging to see this idea in a different manifestation, & interesting to think of how many areas in which the United States never recovered from the Depression at all.

  18. posted by ClickerTrainer on

    @EMM I agree. Dumping still useful items just fills up someone else’s house at best, the local landfill at worst. think before buying.

    Regarding emptying a relative’s home, keep in mind that you can hire estate services that take care of that sort of thing. Around here, they make you an offer on the entire contents of the home. They get the prizes they might find, as well as job of cleaning out the junk.

  19. posted by Zora on

    The hoarding mindset is profoundly distrustful — not only of the future, but of other people. Some of the folks who’ve talked about saving things “just in case” don’t seem to have considered the possibility that if you give away the things you don’t need to people who can actually use them, you create community, and trust, and the real possibility that when you need something, someone else will give it to you.

    I lived overseas for a few years, in a small island country where it was considered rude and vicious not to share. I found it burdensome at times. I took out my needlebook to get a needle for sewing, and the women in the house noticed that I had more needles than I needed. They begged most of them away from me 🙂 But it’s also reassuring to know that if you need something, and they have it, they must share or be shamed.

    One man said, “The white man thinks he’s rich if he has a lot of money in the bank. The Tongan man thinks he’s rich if he has given much away.”

    Giving much away makes it easier to dust, clean, and move, lightens your heart, and strengthens your community.

  20. posted by Jeanne B. on

    I’m in the midst of overcoming that mindset, which I inherited from my parents along with everything they ever owned (in 2006). Yes, storage IS exorbitant. Today, a friend and I spent the afternoon loading up half of the 10×10 storage unit that I am currently emptying (by the end of the month, it’ll all be here). I realized that two years of rental cost me $2,500—far more than what I could ever get if I sold it all!

    But I’m proud to say that I’m learning to purge. Everything that’s coming home is being sorted and dealt with immediately. My mantra: “If I were packing up to move across country in six months, would I want to pack this?”

    It’s surprising how well that puts it into perspective.

  21. posted by Linda on

    I was fortunate to have a Mom who lived in the same home she was born in for 71years. Needless to say her basement became the storage place for all the relatives, friends etc…the ol’ can I put this in your basement until routine. Luckily, she made the decision to sell her home. She would complain that she wasn’t getting anything done for about a week when it dawned on her that most of the time spent was going through everything before deciding its fate, leaving the space looking as cluttered as when she started…but she got through it and moved in with me. To this day my sister and I get down on our knees that she did that before she passed! Of course she had the depression mentality and had to move some of her empty gift boxes and glass jars in with know, just in case…Miss her and am thankful I received the “would I take it with me tomorrow” gene from my Dad!

  22. posted by Jenny on

    A few thoughts:

    I agree that holding on to things “just in case” is not worth it, esp. if you can afford to buy whatever it is you might need. I just donated a trash bag full of linens – cloth napkins, tablecloths, table runners – and several perfectly good lamps to Goodwill because I don’t use them. The space I’ve created in my home from this “purge” makes me feel lighter and freer.

    That said, I think it’s important not to send items to the landfill that can be reused or repairs. I try to fix rather than replace things that can be fixed, even if it would be easier to replace them. I just took a pair of boots and a purse to a shoemaker for repairs. I could have replaced the boots for $25 more than the cost of the repairs, but I’d rather continue to get more use out of the same pair. I also took a vintage coat to a tailor to have the lining replaced. This will cost approx. $110, which is about what I paid for it. But it’s 100% cashmere, hand stitched, very high quality. The tailor told me it would cost $500 if to buy one of similar quality new. On his advice, however, I’m throwing out another coat, which would cost more that it’s worth to repair.

  23. posted by Meg on

    Well said, Zora! It’s such a shame that hoarders often become antisocial, not wanting to invite people to their home where they can see their hoarding in action and judge them for it — especially when they can’t sit down for all the junk. It wouldn’t surprise me, then, that those same people might distrust others or just not think that others would help them out. Perhaps it is easier to trust things than people.

  24. posted by Meg on

    Sean S,

    A lot of us have seen hoarding up close and personal and the hurt that it causes both the hoarders and their loved ones. Personally, I think is an important issue, especially since many people trying to unclutter may have hoarding tendencies that they’re trying overcome, or may be more interested in uncluttering because they’ve seen hoarding and don’t want to end up that way.

    Re: “Grandma died and all I got was a house full of lousy, worthless crap.” I don’t think anyone here feels that way. Though I can’t say I know everyone here personally, I’d like to give people the benefit of the doubt and no where have I seen that sort of attitude. It is true that a loved one’s death can involve quite a bit of work for the surviving loved ones, whether or not they’re hoarders. That doesn’t lessen their grief by any means, if anything, I think it would make it harder. And for some people, that may be the first time they see the hoarding or how bad it has become since many hoarding can often come between family members. It may also bring back a lot of memories and regrets. In short, it’s tough. And even if the loved one is alive right now, you may look at the stuff sometimes and realize that that’s what you have to look forward to doing in the future — not helped by how some hoarders do say things like, “You can throw it out when I’m dead and gone.” Sad, but true.

    Anyhow, I try not to be judgmental. We all have our issues, however it’s a serious issue if/when stuff becomes more important than people or just generally gets in the way of someone being happy — whether you’re talking about hoarding or extreme uncluttering.

  25. posted by Brandon W on

    Not to sound like too much of a pessimist, but I fear we’re headed into a severe recession that could border on depression. I won’t go into the details here, but the government has been increasingly fudging the numbers for the past 25 years. Whatever you hear for unemployment or inflation, the real numbers – using the calculation methods they used to use – are about 2.5x what they’re now reporting.

    So what do unclutterers do now?

    My thought is, if you focus on buying/owning a few very durable items instead of cheap throwaway versions, you’ll be better positioned to endure economically difficult times. Sometimes it’s more expensive, and sometimes it’s just more effort to maintain (e.g. cast iron pans). But it’ll be worth it to minimize clutter and maintain a reasonable life in a hard economy.

  26. posted by Jeddy on

    Interesting! My grandmother was a child of the depression and passed away in 2002, but was the exact opposite. She kept nothing except some antique jugs and her books. Everything else (clothes, shoes, kitchen stuff etc) got tossed if she didn’t use it very often. Much to the dismay of the people who lived with her at times.

  27. posted by Sara on

    I’m very curious to see if the younger generation can find a healthy balance. Environmental concerns make it unacceptable to be blase about tossing good stuff out, while we’re very aware of the problems that come with clutter.

  28. posted by Mme.G on

    DH’s grammy was also a Depression-era packrat. She kept everything, including box after box of old issues of McCall’s, Harper’s Bazaar, and Catholic magazines galore. It would have been something if she’d had some archival training, but the way she’d stored everything, from the slip she wore on her wedding night to the hats her daughters wore to Sunday Mass left the items holey and discolored. It was an interesting trek back in time, but one that took DH’s aunts many, many months to complete. I tend toward packratism myself, so I’m trying to pre-empt the boxes of magazines and old clothing, at the very least!

  29. posted by jocelyn on

    found this over on AARP

    “Frost once speculated that adults who exhibited such behavior [hoarding] were responding to childhood poverty, but the studies did not bear this out. He did discover, however, a different background issue—a link to emotional deprivation and the level of warmth expressed in the family during adolescence.”

    Frost is the pioneer researcher on chronic hoarding

  30. posted by Denise on

    My stepfather’s older brother had to be moved to a nursing home and my mom and stepdad had the unenviable job of cleaning out his home and garage. He’d grown up during the Depression and had saved every single oil filter he’d ever used!
    And for people who go “but you’re filling up landfills!”–did you want someone else to have to move your little landfill after you die?

  31. posted by Jeff Scherer on

    there never is a lack of anything. Its all in how you look at any problem as it arises. People are always seeking to distract themselves from their fears of lack and thus create lack by overspending and wastful use of time which drives their fears and wars over everything. Perfect love throws fear out of reasoning that allows people to see how to avoid lack and avoid real dangers. Study Gods real word in the Bible by meditating heavily of 1st Corinthians 12:31 through 1st Corinthians 14:3 and the books of proverbs and Eclesiastes and james often. There is still plenty of time.

  32. posted by alice on

    I grew up with a mom who was the “keeper of the stuff” that had come out of her parents’ home ( read nice stuff: they had money). Mom had also gotten her own stuff when she and my dad married, but she had the good sense to use the Johnson’s Blue Willow ware china and the real silverware,every day! Her friends gave her grief abt it after our family was featured in a newspaper article in our town. My adult memory of her response included her saying ” why wouldn’t I use it??? My family is important! ” There were still lots of boxes to unpack when she died but at least the china had chips and the silver was minimally tarnished because it was still being used, every day. Mom had also given things to her children before she died.
    Recently, I had the job of clearing my inlaws’ home and again have struggled with all the “good stuff” with memories and the rest that’s still good but not memorable. Anyone enjoy 1960’s retro aprons? The younger daughter thinks the mink jacket is the bomb!
    Now my adult daughters are after me to declutter. I’m trying to put to use as much as practical, give them what they will USE, and give the rest away. The hardest is the 4th generation baby cradle MADE by my great-grandfather. I did use it 25 yrs ago, but now… I’m sure you see the dilemma. I truly believe in one woman’s trash being another’s treasure.

  33. posted by Nana on

    Alice, check out Etsy…60’s aprons are back in style! And the cradle might be repurposed to hold magazines or other Good Stuff.
    There are some things in my house that serve no useful purpose…but it brings me joy to see them / remember when they were used, etc.
    But I’ve vowed not to buy another bookcase or bookshelf. One in and one out is the rule!

  34. posted by Greg on

    You don’t keep 5 nonworking vacuum cleaners because you lived through the depression. You keep them because your a hoarder.

  35. posted by Rebecca on

    My father lived through the Great Depression, and I still have habits that I learned from him. I have to watch myself very carefully, or things could easily get out of hand. The fact that I’m also a crafting fanatic doesn’t help this one bit, since so often I think, “OH LOOK! I could make (insert anything you like here) out of this!” And I could. So the next question I ask myself is, “What is the probability that I will?” Nine times out of ten, the item goes out with the trash. That said, I will still use a pencil down to the last inch, and I try very hard to never, EVER let food go to waste. Too many stories about Dad’s memories of men begging for a day’s work in exchange for a hot meal for himself and a bit to take home to his children.

  36. posted by infmom on

    My husband’s and my parents were children during the Depression. My parents weren’t too badly affected by it, because my dad’s parents were rich and my mom was in boarding school. But my husband’s parents both lived in households that were barely scrapingi by, and “frugality” was almost a matter of life and death. You don’t emerge from that kind of situation unscathed.

    My father-in-law saved everything that “might come in handy someday” or was “still good.” When he died and my mother-in-law moved to assisted living, the amount of worthless “still good or might come in handy someday” junk he left behind was staggering.

    My husband does much the same thing. And we lived on almost no money for so many years that “frugality” was our necessity too. We scrounged, and made do, and cobbled things together, and shopped at thrift stores and junk stores. But now he’s retired, and the kids have homes of their own, and we can afford to do things right the first time. But old habits die hard and getting him to do things right the first time instead of scrounging or cobbling together or making do is an uphill battle. He digs in his heels a lot when I point out that he dosen’t have to try to fix every worn out thing we own. Retirement is going to be quite an adventure, I can see.

  37. posted by Kenneth in Virginia on

    I grew up in a depression-era house, only it was the 1950s. All my clothes hung on the back of a door. The closets were empty. There was no hoarding.

    I am reminded though, of Thoreau’s claim that when a person passes away, you take stuff out of their attic and put it in someone else’s attic. So when a person dies, they literally kick the dust.

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