NEB&W Guide to Period Modeling - the Depressing Depression?

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Modelers love to model heavily weathered items. For some, this means modeling narrow gauge, in its final years. For others who like urban areas, it means modeling the mid-1930's. Buildings are decrepit, pavement cracked, trash strewn everywhere. Of course, there were places like that, but I'd like to add a counterpoint to what is becoming a mythology.

First of all, you have to free yourself from today's mind-set. Back then, poverty carried an enormous stigma, left over from the Puritan work ethic which said that God rewarded good people in this life with wealth. Hence, poor people must be terrible sinners. Therefore, people tried to keep up appearances at all costs. (There are still elderly people today who would rather starve than accept welfare or charity of any sort.)

This pride included industries. There were other reasons, too for industries to try to maintain a brave front. Nobody wants to do business with a company on its last legs. Some owners realized that back then when there was almost no "safety net", laying off workers was tantamount to a death sentence. They tried to keep on workers. The D&H for instance, started a program to upgrade, refurbish and rebuild all their engines and rolling stock just to have an excuse to keep on workers. I'm sure the D&H as well as many other industries used "make-work" projects to spruce up the place. With labor so cheap, it didn't cost much to hire a man or two to mow the lawn, sweep up, even paint the buildings. Everyone expected the "prosperity was just around the corner", so they were getting ready during this lull. In fact, in the frantic days of WWII, industries might have appeared more rundown, railroad equipment more dirty, as they couldn't afford to spare labor to take care of these. In the Depression, industries weren't being used, so there was less wear and tear.

Desperate people collected garbage and sold it ("rag-pickers"), but other people were not as likely to throw things out. (And society in general was not the disposable society of today. Things were built to last, not replaced when the newest model came out.) You might buy a newspaper to look for a job, but you might also need it to sleep under. People gathered lumps of coal (and presumably anything else burnable like scraps of paper and maybe even pieces of old ties) from engine terminals just for heat.

Pavement cracked? I think not. Remember, concrete pavement was NEW. It wouldn't crack overnight just because the stock market crashed. Highway vehicles were much lighter, so they weren't as likely to crack the pavement. Roosevelt instituted the WPA, the CCC, and other government agencies to put people to work. Many of the concrete sidewalks in Troy have "WPA" initials cast in. Hence, the sidewalks and other infrastructure would be brand new.

I have been through all the photos of the D&H collection at the State Library, which were taken mainly between 1914 and 1938. Some photos, such as the industries featured in our reprint of the D&H 1931 Industry Sampler, might have been posed, with the company cleaning up just for the photo. However, most photos were candid, of construction or even grade crossing protection photos. I would have loved to have found such views of life at its worst and modeling at its best.

I even tried raising this point on the internet at one point. I got a lot of harsh e-mails of people claiming that this world-view of the Depression was accurate. They claimed they had seen photos to support this, they have so bought into this mind-set. However, when I pressed to see these, NO ONE sent me any. (So I repeat this challenge here - I am not out to nitpick - as I said, I would love to see these and be able to model them, and would be the first to admit I was wrong.)

This mind-set is not limited to modelers by any means. It is the image today of the neglected "inner city", so out of sorts with the viable bustling downtown of steam-era. I have two terms for this, including [downtown-century.php the Downtown Century] and the Railroad Era. (Check this discussion at each of these links.)