Depression-Era Ypsilanti Cooperates to Combat Its Children’s Rickets
Some of the Depression’s hardest-hit victims in Ypsilanti were its youngest.
In 1933, the city’s municipal Welfare League and the Red Cross provided needy families with food, stove fuel, small emergency stipends, ready-made clothing, and cloth yardage with which to sew clothes. Occasional shipments of federal flour arrived, and many area farmers donated surplus produce to the “city barn” behind the then-City Hall at 206 North Huron (the Showerman/Quirk residence). But the assistance, though sincere, was ad hoc–and the supplies unpredictable.
It would be two years before Franklin Roosevelt created federal welfare programs, including assistance to children. However, the government did have a Children’s Bureau, headed by social worker Grace Abbott. She estimated that in 1933, 20 percent of the country’s children suffered from inadequate medical care, housing, and food.
When cases of rickets began appearing in Ypsilanti children that year, it was clear an extra effort was needed.
Rickets is a dietary disease caused by a vitamin D deficiency which inhibits calcium absorption by bones. Children with rickets can develop a bow-legged look due to weakened leg bones. Left untreated, rickets can lead to permanent bow-leggedness, an increased risk of bone fractures, and even seizures and breathing difficulties in severe cases.
On February 7, 1933, the Ypsilanti Welfare League took out a large ad in the Ypsilanti Daily Press. It featured an image of two disconsolate children superimposed with the words “Gee, I’m hungry.” The ad said that of 425 children of city welfare families, 150 were preschoolers. The ad also said, “Several cases of Ricketts [sic] have been reported to health authorities in the city because of undernourishment.”
The Welfare League’s plan was to stage a night of fundraising carnivals held at local schools. Admission was to be 25 cents [$4.10 today]. The money would be pooled to purchase milk from local dairies to supply to needy children. Vitamin D-enriched milk had been available on the market beginning in 1931.
Participating schools included Roosevelt High School (now EMU’s Roosevelt Hall), Prospect School (now Adams Elementary), Central High School (now Cross Street Village), Harriet School (now the Perry Child Development Center) and the stately Woodruff School (now demolished).
Each school planned a different program of entertainment. After paying admission, attendees could visit multiple venues, not unlike Ypsilanti’s onetime New Year’s Jubilee festival.
“Prospect School’s program will be in the form of a Depression masquerade,” said a February 13 Ypsilanti Daily Press article. “Old time and modern dancing will be provided” to live orchestra music, with prizes for best mask.
Roosevelt School also planned a program of modern and old-timey dancing to live music, the paper said, as well as an additional performance by acrobats.
Harriet School planned a musical program with performances by the Harriet School band, the Golden Leaf Jubilee Singers, and the Charles Hughes Tap Dancers and Musical Revue. There would also be a minstrel show. Other performances among the schools included comedy skits, vocal soloists, and accordion music.
On the night of Monday, February 13, Ypsilantians flocked to the schools, with quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies in hand. “There was a generous response Monday evening to the call of [the] Ypsilanti welfare committee,” said a February 14 Ypsilanti Daily Press article. The paper noted that many people unable to attend had nevertheless bought tickets, to aid the effort.
The milk fund drive was a success, raising $315.91 [$5,200 today]. The Welfare League met and “arrangements were completed to immediately begin distribution among undernourished children of the city over 5,300 quarts of milk,” said a February 18, Ypsilanti Daily Press article.
The article said that city welfare director Fred Older, city nurse Helen Firestein, and city social worker Inez Graves would be in charge of arranging the milk purchase. “Several milk dealers in Ypsilanti have already declared their willingness to sell the regular standard grade of milk and deliver it in bottles for six cents a quart . . . exceptional care will be exercised in making up the list inasmuch as the fund must be made to reach as far as possible.”
At six cents a quart, 5,265 quarts could be purchased (1,316 gallons), close to the Welfare League’s estimate of “over 5,300 quarts.” If the milk was distributed only to the 425 welfare family children mentioned in the Welfare League’s initial ad, each child would receive about three gallons.
For some children, the milk’s arrival may have been too late to arrest or ameliorate their rickets. For others, it was the first sip of milk they’d had in over four months–and, when the 3 gallons was gone, their last, perhaps until spring. That was when the Welfare League planned another fundraising event, one that would again reveal the milk of human kindness.
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an old-time story to share? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.