4-H and Home Demonstration during the Great Depression

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During the first few years of the Great Depression North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service agents focused on emergency relief for adult farmers rather than the 4-H program. By 1933 club enrollment fell to its lowest levels since 1925, and the summer Short Course for that year was canceled. In the mid-1930s new 4-H projects were developed, often mirroring statewide Depression relief efforts and national New Deal programs. North Carolina Governor J. C. B. Ehringhaus proposed a statewide focus on woodland conservation in 1933; three years later 4-H developed its Wildlife and Conservation project. The New Deal rural electrification program became a component of the extension service, including 4-H in 1936. With the increase in programming in the second half of the decade, 4-H rebounded, and by 1939 it had over 49,000 members.

Home Demonstration clubs quickly subscribed to the North Carolina "Live-at-Home" program. In 1930 North Carolinians imported a large amount of their food and feed. One of every three pounds of beef, two of five pigs, two of three quarts of milk, and one of two chickens and eggs eaten in the state had to be imported. By 1933 the emphasis on growing food at home led to the development of 140,000 relief gardens, 11,500,000 jars of canned food, and 30 curb markets that brought in $300,000 annually. Home Demonstration agents also recognized the benefits of rural electrification and supported the program. The Office of Relief, headed by a former president of the State Federation of Women's Clubs, sent out "visiting homemakers" who suggested to rural women how to best use the few resources and little money that rural families had. They even helped with house and yard work. Additionally Home Demonstration women supported the hot school lunch program. Of the fifty-three counties organized with Home Demonstration in the state, fifty-one arranged to serve hot lunches to rural school children to combat undernourishment caused by the Depression. Often Home Demonstration women donated the food, cooked it, and then served it on a volunteer basis. The New Deal's Work Progress Administration (WPA) built 140 community clubhouses for Home Demonstration clubs in rural areas. The structures were log cabin construction, with stone fireplaces, kitchens, and indoor plumbing if available.

Late during the Great Depression, Home Demonstration oversaw the cotton mattress program, which lasted from 1940 to 1942. As a means for the federal government to dispose of surplus cotton and aid rural low-income families, people applied at Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) county offices to make mattresses under the supervision of Home Demonstration agents. For most participants these were the first mattresses they had owned. Home Demonstration agents used the program to teach women about sewing, bedding, and home furnishings. In two years, 220,000 cotton mattresses and 100,000 cotton comforters were made by rural women.

Readers may also be interested in our essays on the histories of 4-H and Home Demonstration in North Carolina.


Carpenter, William L. and Dean W. Colvard. Knowledge is Power. Raleigh, NC: School of Agriculture and Life Science, North Carolina State University, 1987.

Clark, James W. Clover All Over: North Carolina 4-H in Action. Raleigh, NC: Office of 4-H and Youth, North Carolina State University, 1984.

McKimmon, Jane Simpson. When We're Green We Grow. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1945.

Wessel, Thomas, and Marilyn Wessel. 4-H: An American Idea 1900–1980. Maryland: National 4-H Council, 1982.

[author: Amy Manor]

Woman pouring water in a wash tub, preparing to do laundry Hazel Carris of Pitt County at her 4-H exhibit, "Drink Your Way to Health" L. R. Harrill and others launching the U.S.S. Tyrrell on July 10th, 1944 in Wilmington, N.C. L. R. Harrill revealing the plaque placed on an ambulance donated to the United States Army Medical Department in honor of former 4-H club members now serving in the armed forces
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