Were the Waltons Supposed to be Poor?

Working from home during the lockdown, I have discovered The Waltons on MeTV. I never watched it in its original run. The best way to describe it is Little House on the Prairie without the constant disasters.

It’s a passable show with some fine acting. But for a show obstensibly about surviving hard times, the Walton family has it remarkably easy. John Walton runs a sawmill, while his father putters around with gardening, mostly wildflower gardening. You never see any of them doing subsistence farming, like Charles Ingalls had to do. Olivia and Grandma cook and sew, while the toughest work the kids do is their schoolwork. John Boy spends countless daylight hours writing. Yet they always have plenty of food for all eleven of them plus any guests that are constantly stopping by.

I just watched an episode where their cow died, and the worst consequence of that was John Boy had to return his store bought graduation suit so the family could have butter again. No problem, Olivia and Grandma whip him up a replacement out of a suit Grandpa was planning to be buried in. They do this overnight, without having to measure John Boy or anything, even though Grandpa is about twice John Boy’s size. And in the morning, it fits just as well as that custom tailored suit John Boy had to return. John Boy is so surprised and happy. I’m surprised too that John Boy could get the clothing store to take back a custom tailored suit. But never mind. At least the family can have butter again, even if we never see anyone churning it for hours.

I can never watch that show without raising an eyebrow.

Appropriate Geico ad:

Did the Waltons take way too long to say, “Goodnight”?

I think they were “Hollywood poor”.

Which, for other shows, would mean they only have two cars and one live in maid.

I was a kid when The Waltons originally ran on television, so we watched much of it. As I remember (and it’s been decades, so this may be vague), the early episodes were, in part, about how the family and the other local residents coped with the Great Depression. Once World War II started, the family began to get more prosperous, as they received government contracts for lumber. (BTW, I think they made the lumber from the trees on Walton’s Mountain, which presumably they owned, so it didn’t cost them anything.)

And BTW, the Great Depression angle inspired an amusing bit on The Simpsons. In 1992, George H. W. Bush criticized The Simpsons, saying in a speech at a convention of religious broadcasters, “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” At the beginning of a Simpsons episode, the family is shown watching GHWB’s speech, and Bart said, “Hey, we’re just like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the Depression too.”

It’s not real poor, it’s TV poor. If you make people too embarrassedly poor, they can’t deliver the sense of vicarious moral superiority that the audience is tuning in for.

Earl Hamner, the author of the autobiographical series, certainly grew up poor. His family were miners and tobacco farmers in the Blue Ridge Mountains during the depression.

They weren’t just “poor,” they were dirt poor! They could only eat peanut butter and jam on holidays. :frowning:

Vicious burn! as the kids might say.

I remember an episode where they couldn’t afford the two or three bucks to replace Grandma’s glasses. When I got yelled at for losing my glasses, I was convinced my family was poor.

Many times the narrator (Earl Hamner playing an older version of John-Boy) describes their situation during the depression being as hard but better than most because they were never in danger of being homeless or starving. They were classic examples of land rich and cash poor. On one episode a resort developer offered them a boatload of money for their land. I want to say $100,000, which would be about $2 million in today’s money.

The real-life Hamners weren’t land-rich, or any other kind of rich. They didn’t own a sawmill or a lot of timber land. Their house in Schuyler, Virginia, which I visited several years ago, is much smaller than the Walton house depicted on the TV series. I don’t recall whether they owned the house or rented it. The father worked in a soapstone mine until the mine ran out of soapstone, then had to take work in a different town so far away that he stayed at a boarding house near the factory during the week.

In the Mad satire, when they visited the grocery store, Mrs. Walton couldn’t afford a whole egg, but refused to take out credit, requiring the grocer Ike to split the egg up. Later, when the Joad family (from ‘The Grapes of Wrath’) comes to the store and asks if they can buy on credit, Ike expresses relief to be dealing with a “miserable old Movie Depression family” instead of “these new TV Depression Virtue Freak families” like the Waltons.

The Mad satire also had the ‘good nights’ lasting so long that it was morning when they finished.

They were lucky to have a house!


In case you’d like to re-read the issue:


If the OP is askling whether the Waltons were supposed to be Dorothea Lange-type poor, ask yourself if anyone would tune in to watch 60 minutes of that kind of poverty every week.

The Waltons were poor like my mother growing up in the Ozarks during the Depression was poor. Her clothes were pretty much all homemade; the children all worked as soon as they were old enough to have someone hire them; and the only way you could see the doctor was if you were bleeding to death. But they had food to eat because they raised it themselves and firewood to stay warm because they chopped it themselves. Going to the movies was a rare treat, Smoking and drinking were looked down upon in her family - not because they were evil, but because they were expensive and wasteful.

Maybe her family felt smoking and drinking were no more than wasteful, but there were plenty of folks, mostly of a religious bent that felt smoking and drinking led straight to the fiery pits of Hell. Baptists in particular still hold to the evil of drink, and Jehovah’s Witnesses will disfellowship members who smoke. Thankfully, Witnesses do not believe in Hellfire though, so members are not threatened with that.


We’re coming, we’re coming, our brave little band
On the right side of temp’rance we do take our stand.
We don’t use tobacco, because we do think
That people who use it are likely to drink

Away, away, with rum, by gum,
Rum by gum, rum by gum
Away, away, with rum, by gum,
The song of the Temperance Union.

I always tell my students that if they need to announce what they are doing (“This is an essay”/“This is the end”/“This is a list”/…) then they are doing what they are doing wrong.

Your point being?

Good one! The last line of the song announces it’s the song.