September 5, 2011
Speaking of history collected in handwritten letters…
Ted Gup’s 80 year old mother gave him an old suitcase filled with some family papers and a trove of old handwritten letters. As he set out to discover the meaning and mystery behind this stack of mail, he unraveled much family history and a very unique story surrounding his grandfather’s generosity during one depression era Christmas.
In 1933, Sam Stone (the author’s grandfather) placed an ad in the local newspaper offering cash Christmas gifts to seventy-five needy families in the Canton, Ohio area. The readers were asked to describe their need in writing and mail their letters to Mr. B. Virdot c ⁄o the paper. Anonymity was guaranteed. Originally, Mr. Stone intended to give $10.00 to seventy five families. However, the number of requests was so great, Sam Stone gave $5.00 to one hundred and fifty families!!!
During The Great Depression, a loaf of bread was only a few cents, so five dollars would go a long way to feed a family a Christmas dinner and/or put a few presents in the hands of some impoverished children.
As I was reading this book, I was bowled over by how hard The Hard Times were for these folks. The suffering described in the letters to Mr. B. Virdot was so heart-wrenching. I became quite uncomfortable reading them, yet I felt I owed these people my attention.
They are called “The Great Generation.” They were basically honest, hardworking people who trusted the system that failed them. (Can you hear an echo?) They were stoic and proud. Many refused public assistance and were dead set against taking charity. In the light of these qualities, it is quite unusual to have these people pour out their hearts in a letter. Ted Gup believes the anonymity gave them the freedom to reveal their hardships. And the reader is given a precious window into their lives through these handwritten letters.
The best part centers around the human generosity that the Canton community shared. Neighbor helped neighbor. Everyone was “in the same boat.” Folks looked after and took care of each other.
There are many amazing stories. Ted Gup follows up on each and every letter. By thoroughly investigating the contents in that old suitcase, the author offers us a crystal clear view into the history of The Great Depression through the medium of the personal letter.
Ted Gup, A Secret Gift- How One Man’s Kindness and A Trove of Letters- Revealed the Hidden History of The Great Depression, New York: The Penguin Press, 2010