Depression Era Pastimes: Whittling

Louisiana woman recalls whittling as a pastime and useful skill from the depression era.

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Old men sat on the benches in front of the country store and whittled. Some just whittled on a stick, others were whittling something in particular. It gave them something to do with their hands while they sat and talked. In the hot dry summers of the depression era there was a lot of time when there wasn't work for men to do in rural north Louisiana.

Groceries came in boxes and crates and barrels and cloth sacks. Much of it was shipped on the train. The apple boxes had ends that were perfect for whittling and almost every person had a knife.

Boys might start out with a rusty old cast-off, but as they got older they would find a shiny new knife in the Christmas stocking. A girl might get a tiny knife an inch long with a pearl handle. She was expected to take care of this and use it to sharpen her pencil and keep her fingernails clean.

On a farm a pocketknife was useful. It also provided the pleasant pastime of whittling. Toys and whistles could be made for the children, duck decoys and pencil boxes if you were more talented. The root of the tupelo gum was good for carving.

Someone cut dice out of wood - smooth cubes as large as a woman's thumbnail. A letter was printed on each side of the dice and several sets of dice were made. At Christmastime the letters spelled "St. Nick." At Valentine's Day "Hearts." Young people worked out a system of scoring. As long as you were spelling part of the words you continued to throw the dice. This made a good party game in cold weather. You could set up several card tables. This mixed up the young people and gave everyone a chance to talk to the others.

Gypsy Damaris Boston
Shreveport, Louisiana

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.