COVID -19 isn’t the first time children in Canada have had to wear masks. The children in the photo above are setting off to school in the 1930s when a series of severe dust storms and long periods of drought caused great hardship. This era has come to be known as the Dust Bowl. Although the pandemic has been a difficult time for Canadian kids the Dust Bowl was much worse in many ways.
If a dust storm was advancing everyone tried to stay inside and if they had to go out they wore masks because people could choke to death if their lungs filled up with dust. If there were any cracks in the walls or floors of a house the dirt and sand would find their way inside and into food and onto furniture. Children sometimes slept in clothes and beds gritty with sand and dirt.
Kids continually had red irritated eyes from the dust and some contracted dust pneumonia when too much dust got into their lungs. Babies had wet clothes placed over their mouths and noses to keep dust from choking them. Children often went hungry because no crops or produce could be grown and stores were forced to close as were schools, sometimes for weeks at a time.
There was no weather forecasting so people just had to watch the skies and many parents didn’t send their kids to classes because they were scared they would be caught in a dust storm going to and from school. If children were at school when a dust storm started their classroom could suddenly grow dark like it was nighttime and teachers had to light lanterns in the middle of the day so children could see to read and write. Their classroom could quickly fill with a kind of dusty fog. If they thought it was safe enough children and teachers would walk home with towels over their faces, but sometimes students were kept at school overnight to make sure they didn’t lose their way walking home or choke on the dust.
If children couldn’t go to school and had to stay inside there were no televisions, video games, or even many books to entertain them. Most children lived on farms and they also witnessed their parents’ distress about their devastated crops and gardens. They watched the family livestock die due to a lack of food and water.
Countless children became homeless as crops failures led to their families losing their houses and property. Sometimes the roof of a home would literally collapse under the weight of the sand and dirt on top of it. On the Canadian prairies, some 250,000 families simply abandoned their homesteads. Some families wandered nomadically looking for a new place in a different province to make a home and have a chance to start over.
The pandemic has been very hard on children there is no question about that, but we may take at least a little solace in the fact that children from another century experienced much greater hardships and survived, going on to build meaningful lives for themselves and their families.