In the 1930s the economic crisis known as the Great Depression rippled through the United States, affecting almost all American families. The crash of the New York Stock Exchange in October 1929 marked the beginning of the most severe economic downturn in U.S. history. Thousands of banks closed; manufacturing slowed greatly because no one could buy goods; stores closed; 25 to 30 percent of workers lost their jobs. It would be the middle of 1933 before the government took action to halt the downward spiral and offer some relief. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) began his term of office in March of that year. In the next one hundred days he and his advisers proposed a series of measures that Congress passed into laws. The new legislation created programs for immediate relief as well as programs that would aid in the gradual recovery of America's prosperity. These programs, known as the New Deal, would reach into the lives of almost all Americans.
The harsh economic times affected all but the very wealthy. The working class, middle class, and upper middle class who managed to keep their jobs saw their salaries decrease. Families figured out ways to "cut corners," "make do," and "keep up appearances." Frequently people who had employment supported family members who had lost their jobs; almost all families had a close relative who suddenly was without an income. Farm families fortunate enough to keep their farms focused on helping their relatives through the very bleak years.
Families shared all they could with the less fortunate. Extending help and kindness toward others was commonplace in the 1930s. An out-of-work family would be invited for Sunday dinner. If a homeless person knocked at the back door, the family would give what food they could.
Average Yearly Earnings for Full-Time Employees, 1935
|Bituminous coal miner||$957|
|gas & electric||$1,589|
|Telephone & telegraph||$1,378|
|Farmers, foresters, fishermen||$288|
|Medical health service occupation||$829|
|Domestic maids and chauffeurs||$485|
|Police and firemen||$1,290|
|Public school teachers||$1,290|
|Civilian government employee||$1,759|
adapted from historical statistics of the united states: colonial times to 1970, part 1, washington, dc: u.s. bureau of census, 1975, pages 166–176.
Although the Great Depression brought forth the many strengths of the American family, it also took its toll. Family structures changed: Marriages were postponed, fewer babies were born, young people lived at home longer or returned to their parents' home when they lost jobs, and households combined to aid struggling relatives. For some, the strain was too much, and their families broke apart. The hardships of the Depression were most difficult for those who were already poor, those who had barely been making ends meet before the Depression. Included in this group were those in coal-mining areas, the rural poor, black Americans, the elderly, and people living in regions where factories had shut down. These Americans struggled to survive in the midst of poverty, hunger, and illness.
Starting with the middle class, working up the income ladder, and returning to the poorest, this chapter explores the everyday life of American families in the 1930s and how the Depression affected their lifestyles. Approximately 46 percent of American families during the Depression were in the middle class, 12 percent in the upper middle class, 3 to 4 percent in the wealthy category, and a tiny 0.1 percent in the very wealthy group. Thirty-eight percent of American families were considered poor during the Depression, up from 21 percent in 1929. Middle-class and upper-middle-class families and even the wealthy tried to carefully plan their expenditures; this was a necessary response to wage reductions and employment changes. For the very wealthy life did not change at all. Their antics and lavish parties continued during the Depression and were reported in the newspaper along with the movie stars' adventures. In stark contrast the poor and very poor simply tried to survive from day to day.
The middle class
In 1935 and 1936 the median family income was $1,160. Families whose yearly income ranged between $1,000 and $2,500 were considered middle class. Depending on where the family fell within that range, they spent 75 to 100 percent of their income on basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. A typical wage-earning, middle-class family in 1935 consisted of a husband and wife and two children living in a six-room house, either owned or rented, or in a four- to five-room apartment. The maintenance of a comfortable lifestyle often depended on how well the household budget was organized and how well the family adhered to it. Responsibility for the budget frequently fell to the mother of the family. Special budgeting sections appeared in women's magazines, and women would send in personal accounts of how they managed their budgets. Magazines even ran contests for the perfect budget.
Taking Care of Family Needs
The middle-class mom prided herself on "making do" and stretching the food budget. Mothers and grandmothers found ways to make satisfying meals out of basic foodstuffs found in the pantry, such as flour, cornmeal, and sugar or corn syrup. Meals were simple and filling. Nothing edible was ever thrown out: Leftovers from Sunday's roast became Monday's hot beef sandwiches with gravy, Tuesday's stew with lots of vegetables, Wednesday's meat pie made with leftovers from stew, and Thursday's soup made with the bone and all leftover vegetables. Backyards and vacant lots became vegetable gardens. Women did their own canning, pickling, and preserving to save the expense of buying food at the store. Eggs were common—chickens were raised in both country and city backyards. Even in areas afflicted by drought, where gardens dried up, hens found bugs to eat and kept laying eggs. By taking care of their own necessities rather than purchasing goods and services, families maintained a reasonable standard of living. Mothers and grandmothers also became the family medical adviser as many adults put off visits to the doctor and dentist to avoid medical bills.
Very few clothes were store-bought. Most women were skilled in sewing. Exciting hours were spent picking out fabrics and patterns from catalogs. Foot-operated treadle sewing machines whirred until a garment was completed. The dominant look for women's everyday clothing was a simple printed dress of bright colors. Polka-dot fabrics were cheery and popular. Women used hats, gloves, pocketbooks (purses), and inexpensive jewelry to change the look of their simple outfits.
Everything was saved and reused: paper bags, shoe boxes, tinfoil, rubber bands, jars, old clothes, and broken tools. Few labor-saving devices, gadgets, or appliances were in the middle-class house. Although new household devices were the rage in the booming 1920s, few people could afford them by the 1930s. As a result the sale of vacuum cleaners, washing machines, percolators for coffee, and toasters dropped significantly. Refrigerators were the exception. During the 1920s as city homes were electrified, refrigerators appeared in kitchens. Refrigerators greatly added to the flavor and freshness of the American meal. Between 1923 and 1941 the number of homes with refrigerators rose from 20,000 to 3.5 million. Those who could not afford a refrigerator and those who lived in rural areas without electricity had ice boxes to keep food fresh. An iceman brought blocks of ice every other day. During the winter in cold climates, rural families generally took advantage of freezing temperatures outside to devise various ways of preserving food.
Farm families who owned their house and land and who managed not to lose the farm to debt or drought made it through the Depression by working hard and sticking together. The fortunate farm families not caught in the drought areas of the Dust Bowl (see Farm Relief chapter) could raise a variety of fruits and vegetables for selling, eating, and canning. Cattle were raised for beef and milk; hogs were butchered and either eaten or sold. The men learned to repair their aging farm equipment and make their own tools. Women made their family's clothes. Children scrounged together scraps of building material to make playthings.
By 1930 even families at the lower end of the middle class were likely to own an automobile. About twenty-six million cars were on the road by 1930. Even during the worst years of the Depression, anyone who owned a car was reluctant to give up driving. By 1933 carmakers began tempting families with streamlined models sporting beautiful curving lines. But holding to strict budgets, people resisted temptation and drove their old cars longer and longer. Male members of the family changed the oil, patched tires, and did whatever they could to keep the car running. Taking care of the more difficult repairs, the auto repair industry actually grew during the Depression.
Urban middle-class families in the 1930s tended to own their own home, generally in an area at the edge of town (suburb). A typical house style was the bungalow, which had one and a half stories, two bedrooms, one bath, a living room, and a kitchen. Loss of the family home was perhaps the biggest fear of middle-class Depression-era families. With job losses and decreases in income, many families fell behind on their house payments.
In 1933 and 1934 people who were behind on house payments turned to two agencies established as part of the New Deal: the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Through either the HOLC or the FHA, people could refinance their home loans (set up new payment terms that were easier to meet—usually lower payments for a longer period of time). Almost one million home loans had been refinanced by the HOLC alone by 1936, enabling millions of Americans to stay in their homes (see Banking and Housing chapter).
Once-comfortable bungalows often became overcrowded in the 1930s. Young married couples who suddenly found themselves out of work moved back into their parents' home. Elderly parents who did not have sufficient income or savings to support themselves moved in with their grown children. Single people in their late teens and twenties, unable to find jobs, stayed at home. Everyone had to pool resources to pay for housing, taxes, insurance, car expenses, and food. Crowded conditions strained family relationships. Some families grew closer in the face of hardship, but others broke apart.
Unable to afford their own households, couples postponed marriage. Very long engagements were common. In 1929 the marriage rate was 10.14 marriages per 1,000 persons but dropped to 7.87 per 1,000 persons by 1932. Fewer women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five married in the 1930s. Birth rates declined during the Depression. Uncertain about their future, couples had fewer children or no children. Approximately one-quarter of women who were in their twenties during the Depression years did not bear children.
Many families maintained a middle-class income by having several wage earners. Early in the 1930s children between the ages of fourteen and eighteen often provided extra income with paper routes and odd jobs. However, by 1940 the extra wage was more likely to be earned by the wife. Still, only 15 percent of all married women worked outside the home.
The upper middle class and the wealthy
The income level of an upper-middle-class family in the 1930s began at approximately $2,500 yearly. In the mid-1930s only 12 percent of families achieved this class level; before the 1929 stock market crash, 29 percent had done so. (Between 1929 and 1933 the incomes of affluent doctors and lawyers dropped as much as 40 percent.) The income level of wealthy families generally started at about $5,000 yearly. Approximately 3 to 4 percent of families were wealthy in the 1930s.
The upper middle class and the wealthy watched as some of their friends lost everything in the stock market crash. Severely shaken, they feared they would be next. Nevertheless, most did their best to maintain a refined standard of living or at least keep up the appearance that nothing had changed. Their adjustments to lost income usually amounted to smoking cheaper cigars, riding the subways instead of employing chauffeurs, and giving up servants. Many upper-middle-class women who had never cooked before learned to prepare meals. Secondhand dress shops thrived because most upper-middle-class women had never acquired sewing skills.
The very rich
As the Depression dragged on through the 1930s, only the most wealthy, the top 0.1 percent, were not affected in some way. While the upper middle class and the wealthy had to make some changes, the very rich made none. Middle-class Americans seem to have had a love/hate view of these privileged families: They looked upon the very rich as celebrities and eagerly followed their every move in newspaper and magazine articles; many of them also blamed the greed of these same people for the Depression. (Generally, the wealth of the very rich was long-standing, tied to industrial and banking giants that emerged in the late 1800s. This wealth remained stable after the 1929 market crash, whereas newly accumulated wealth that was rooted in the wild upward movement of the stock market disappeared.)
Although they were aware that ordinary people were struggling desperately during the Depression, the very rich continued to live their lives as usual. Some adjusted slightly by attempting to make their wealth less visible: Banker John P. Morgan Jr. (1867–1943) sailed his yacht less often, and others cut back on trips to Europe. Meanwhile, the Depression corrected the biggest problem of the wealthy, the "servant problem." During the booming 1920s few individuals were willing to work long irregular hours for low servant wages. But by the time the Depression reached its lowest point, in late 1932, the servant pool had grown dramatically. A gardener in Los Angeles would work for one dollar a week, and housekeepers would work for as little as four dollars a week and meals.
Newspapers and magazines gave extensive coverage to the activities of the very rich, and even the poorest individuals knew many details of the lives of this privileged class. Lavish parties such as debutante balls, costing between ten thousand and one hundred thousand dollars, introduced young women into high society. New York's wealthiest families—the Vanderbilts, Belmonts, and Harrimans—continued to summer in Newport, Rhode Island, enjoying croquet games on expansive lawns, cocktails, swimming, and sailing. Young Americans of all classes looked to the youthful rich as trendsetters. Known as the Cafe Society, the glamorous youths were seen nightly at posh restaurants. The reigning glamour girl of the Cafe Society in the late 1930s was Brenda Frazier, an heiress due to inherit $4 million at age twenty-one. Young women and girls attempted to copy her makeup and style of clothes.
In stark contrast to the very wealthy, the poor struggled each day to merely find enough to eat. The poor made up more than a third of the 1930s U.S. population during the Depression, far more than the 21 percent estimated for 1929 just prior to the Depression. Their income ranged from almost nothing to about one thousand dollars per year. (The federal government estimated that a family of four needed eight hundred dollars a month just to survive in the 1930s.)
Some of the poorest Americans lived in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia, where the coal mines had closed. Others were agricultural laborers, both black and white Americans, working as hired hands or tenant farmers or sharecroppers in rural areas. In the cities the unemployed and desperately poor lived in tenement slums, and many stood in breadlines for a meal. Some lived in makeshift shacks on vacant lots. All these people had the same main concern: day-to-day survival.
Widespread suffering came to the coal-mining families of West Virginia and the Cumberland Plateau of eastern Kentucky. By 1932, when many of the mines closed, thousands were thrown out of work. Many families lived in tents and had no food for days. Days were spent scrambling for something to eat. Men and boys, if they were lucky enough to find work, would spend ten hours in the fields of a farmer, take their pay in food crops (perhaps beans, potatoes, and apples), and then walk three or four miles back home. Women and girls would spend all day picking wild greens on hillsides. Fortunate families had a cow for milk. Hog lard was generally the only meat available. Winters were particularly hard; frozen cabbage was all that came from the garden then.
The Rural Poor: Tenant Farmers and Sharecroppers
Tenant farming is a system of farming in which families supply their own tools but rent the land they work and live on. Sharecropping is a system of farming in which a landlord supplies the tools and the land. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers were both required to give part of their crops to their landlords. These types of farming were prevalent in southern states, where 75 percent of all black Americans lived. Eighty percent of those blacks were hired hands, sharecroppers, or tenant farmers. All worked from sunrise to sunset in the spring and summer in order to have something to live on in the fall and winter. Frequently landowners advanced families about ten dollars a month in spring. That ten dollars—used for seed and living expenses—was often for a family of eight or more. A hired hand might receive twenty cents for picking one hundred pounds of cotton. In a fourteen-hour day pay usually amounted to no more than sixty cents. By fall, after paying rent, giving portions of the crops to the landlord, and settling grocery bills and doctor bills, nothing was left for the winter.
Most poor rural families, black and white alike, lived in shacks. They had few pieces of furniture and no running water. Malnutrition was common. Most lived on a diet of corn bread, greens from the garden, salt pork, hominy grits (ground corn), and molasses. Children had little access to education. Blacks were terrorized by racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, a secret organization that believed in the domination of whites over blacks by means of terrorism.
The Urban Poor
Approximately three million black Americans lived in northern cities. In terms of housing they fared little better than southern blacks. Blacks along with poor urban whites crowded into tiny apartments. Two hundred families crowded into buildings that once housed sixty families. Landlords managed this by dividing a six-room apartment into six tiny "kitchenettes," each with a single bed, refrigerator, and hot plate. All six families shared the single bathroom. If a family failed to pay their rent, they were evicted (forced to leave the home or apartment). Landlords simply had the family's belongings moved out onto the street. In her book The Invisible Scar (1966), Caroline Bird states that eviction was so common that children made a game out of it in day care centers. They would pile up doll furniture in one corner, then move it to another corner. Sometimes people in a neighborhood would march together to an eviction site and move the family's belongings back into the apartment. Usually the family would then stay in their apartment a few more months, with the landlord too intimated to take further action for a while.
Hunger was a nagging everyday problem. Although many vacant lots became vegetable gardens, most inner-city residents had no access to vegetables. They would hunt through garbage from restaurants and city garbage dumps for their food. Children would wait at the back door of butcher shops for bones or chicken feet, which their mothers would use to make a watery soup.
The stealing of food sometimes became a systematic affair, with each family member assigned certain necessary foodstuffs. Fathers reported keeping themselves and older children away from living quarters when younger children were fed, to keep from grabbing food from the youngsters. Sometimes family members took turns eating—some members one day and other members the next day. Public schools in New York City reported one-fifth of their students were malnourished.
Soup kitchens became common in large cities in the early 1930s. Their handouts were simple: stew and bread; soup, bread, and coffee; beans, bread, and coffee. People stood in long "breadlines" each day for the food. The Salvation Army, Red Cross, Catholic charities, volunteer organizations, and various individuals ran the kitchens. In 1931 New York City reported eighty-two breadlines serving eighty-five thousand meals each day.
"Feed the Hungry"
President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) signed an act on May 12, 1933, creating the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). This agency was charged with getting food to the hungry. Roosevelt appointed Harry Hopkins (1890–1946) to direct FERA. Hopkins gave one short order to FERA officials: "Feed the hungry, and fast!" By October 1933 the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC) was established as a part of FERA. The FSRC took agricultural surpluses that farmers had been unable to sell (such as pork, butter, flour, and syrup) and transported them to state emergency relief officials. These officials distributed the surplus food directly into the hands of the needy. After two successful years the FSRC closed down in November 1935. Agricultural and relief officers arranged to continue food distribution through the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC). The FSCC established the first Food Stamp Plan on May 16, 1939. The FSRC and FSCC activities led to permanent food stamp and school lunch programs later in the twentieth century.
For Americans who maintained a steady job during the Depression, the workweek was generally five days. The two days off usually included leisure activities. The unemployed also sought ways to fill their "forced leisure" time. Lack of funds forced people to look to life's cheap and easy entertainments. Nine years into the Great Depression the National Recreation Association completed a study of five thousand Americans, asking them to list the leisure activities they participated in most often. The most frequently mentioned at-home activities were card games, board games, and puzzles; listening to the radio; reading newspapers, magazines, and books; visiting, entertaining, conversations on front porches, attending parties and socials; and letter writing. Away-from-home activities included going to the movies, dances, and sporting events; motoring or driving about; picnics; and the newly popular miniature golf. Most activities on the list were available for free or for a low cost. For this reason, the 1930s are often referred to as the "nickel and dime" decade.
Card games were a popular way to enjoy time with family and friends. Bridge was the most popular game among adults and older children. In 1931 five hundred thousand enrolled in bridge classes across the country. Board games such as Monopoly, introduced by Parker Brothers in 1935, gained popularity. In Monopoly people could wheel and deal in real estate even if in real life their house payment was a struggle.
Jigsaw puzzles became accessible to most people in 1932 and 1933. Before that time, puzzles were expensive because they were made of wood. But in the early 1930s a New England entrepreneur began cutting puzzles out of heavy cardboard. (An entrepreneur is an individual willing to take a risk in developing a new business.) Once the cardboard puzzles could be mass-produced, they could be sold very cheaply. Jigsaw puzzles were also given away in special promotions for products such as toothpaste and non-prescription medicines. By 1934 over 3.5 million jigsaw puzzles were in the hands of Americans. Puzzles could be found at newsstands, drugstores, toy stores, and bookstores. The more affordable "jigs" sold for ten cents; a colossal one-thousand-piece puzzle cost a few dollars. Whether the attraction was working out the puzzle or just not having to worry about more-serious matters, people diligently fit their puzzle pieces together. Solving "jigs" remained a national pastime throughout the 1930s.
Listening to the radio became perhaps the most popular form of entertainment in the 1930s. By the middle of the decade two-thirds of American homes had radio sets, and by the end of the decade 80 percent of Americans owned radios. After an initial investment of between fifty and seventy-five dollars, a family could enjoy music, comedy, drama, variety, quiz shows, women's shows, children's shows, and an increasing menu of sports—all in their own living room. Through entertainment programming radios provided a ready escape from economic hard times, but they were also an inexpensive way to keep up with news events of the Great Depression and farming news. The typical family spent hours each evening listening to their favorite programs. Americans stayed glued to their radios when President Roosevelt broadcast a "fireside chat," during which he explained what was being done in Washington, D.C., to ease the nation's economic problems (see News Media and Entertainment chapter).
While many Americans received some of their news from the radio, the standard news medium was the newspaper. Newspapers provided daily news and were inexpensive. (The New York Times cost only two cents in the 1930s.) Papers reported the latest in politics and sports and kept track of Hollywood and high-society celebrities. Newsboys delivered papers directly to homes. Being a news delivery boy was a source of pride because the youngsters knew they were adding needed money to the family income.
Magazines were also popular reading material during the Depression. Magazines addressed a wide range of interests and supported entertainment fields such as movies, sports, and photography. Popular magazines often targeted either women or men. Women audiences purchased romance-oriented magazines such as Modern Romance and True Story. They also bought movie-oriented publications like Modern Screen and Movie Life. Men read sports magazines such as Sports Illustrated. They also purchased Esquire, a magazine featuring a variety of articles about men's lifestyles, and crime and detective magazines like True Detective Mysteries. Photography became very popular in the 1930s, and the magazines Photography and Modern Photography stimulated Americans' interest. Both Life and Look premiered in the second half of the 1930s. These picture magazines often featured photographs of people damaged by the Depression. The photos served to raise awareness about the extent of the nation's problems.
Most Americans lived close to a movie theater, even those who lived in small towns. In 1930 about 110 million Americans attended movies every week. As unemployment increased and salaries decreased, attendance dropped to roughly sixty million a week by 1933. The public could not afford to attend the movies as frequently as they used to. The price of admission, only a few cents, was an extravagance for many. However, the millions who faithfully attended represented 60 percent of the population. Americans, it appeared, needed their movies. Because of this need, the movie industry actually prospered in the 1930s. Hollywood produced gangster films, Disney films, comedies, musicals, law and order films, Westerns, drama, and horror thrillers. For a few hours each week Americans could enter their dark, comfortable
How Much Did Things Cost in the 1930s?
|New Pontiac coupe||$585.00|
|New Chevy pickup truck||$650.00|
|Used Ford '29||$57.50|
|Gasoline (per gallon)||$.18|
|Double bed sheets||$.67|
|Wool rug (9 x 12 feet)||$5.85|
|Electric coffee percolator||$1.39|
|Electric washing machine||$47.95|
|3-piece bedroom set||$49.95|
|Six-room modern house||$2,800|
|Sirloin steak (per lb.)||$.29|
|Ham (per lb.)||$.31|
|Chicken (per lb.)||$.22|
|Milk (per quart)||$.10|
|Eggs (per doz.)||$.29|
|Coffee (per lb.)||$.26|
|Sugar (per lb.)||$.05|
|Potatoes (per lb.)||$.02|
|Tomatoes (16 oz. can)||$.09|
|Oranges (per doz.)||$.27|
Adapted from "Depression Shopping List, 1932 to 1934" in Loretta Britten and Sarah Brash, eds., Our American Century, Hard Times: The '30s, Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1998, page 29.
movie houses and be transported to another world (see News Media and Entertainment chapter).
The Dance Craze
Swing, a form of jazz music, created a dance craze in the mid-1930s. After World War I (1914–18) and into the 1920s, black American musicians developed a type of music known as jazz, which had a driving beat and improvised (created on the spot) solos. In the early 1930s most Americans had only heard calm orchestra versions of jazz. But in 1934 at Hollywood's Palomar Ballroom, Benny Goodman (1909–1986), a famous white bandleader, told his band to "swing out." The crowd went wild to the hard-driving jazz beats, and the swing craze was born. Swing could be heard on radio, records, and jukeboxes, and in dance halls around the country. The lindy hop or jitterbug, the Big Apple, the shag, and the Suzy Q were swing dances with basic steps every young person learned. Some steps were physically demanding and involved acrobatic moves. Swing even had its own slang speech, called "jive." If you were hip in the 1930s, you had to speak jive. Here is a sample of jive words:
|• Alligator:||follower of swing|
|• Canary:||a female singer|
|• Cats:||musicians in a swing band|
|• Cuttin' a rug:||dancing to swing|
|• Hepcat:||a person who knows all about swing|
|• Ickie:||a person who doesn't understand swing|
|• In the groove:||feeling swing's beat|
|• Jitterbugging:||dancing to swing|
|• Kicking out:||dancing fast and free|
Endurance marathons were another craze that took Americans' minds off the Depression. Goldfish swallowers, tree sitters, pie eaters, and phone booth crammers emerged across the nation. People were intrigued by how much someone could swallow, or how long they could sit, or how many could fit in a small space. There were also bicycle and roller skate derbies. Another unusual type of marathon was the dance marathon, in which couples would compete to see who could dance the longest. Dance marathons began as a fad but soon became a bizarre way to make money—for participants and for dance hall owners. Couples (male–female pairs only) were required to be on the dance floor and in motion for forty-five minutes of every hour, day and night. Tickets were sold to people who wanted to watch the spectacle. The first contests lasted several days, but later on contests lasted months. Desperately needing the prize money, couples became spectacles of exhaustion, sometimes with tragic endings including death.
Sporting events and athletes became immensely popular during the Great Depression as Americans looked for ways to divert their attention away from their problems, if only for a little while. People began to personally identify with teams and athletes. Baseball adapted to the nation's depressed economy by allowing games to be broadcast over the radio so people could enjoy the entertainment for free. Players like Babe Ruth (1895–1948) and Lou Gehrig (1903–1941) attracted national attention. Almost every town of any size tied itself to some semiprofessional or professional league. Little League baseball began in 1939. Softball games sprang up everywhere. Business firms, churches, and even neighborhoods formed softball teams. The fun was free and often combined with picnics. Football also gained increased attention. During the Depression, college teams continued battling in bowl games: the Rose, Orange, Sun, Sugar, Cotton, Eastern, and Coal Bowls. The first Heisman Trophy was awarded in 1935 to the top college football player in the nation. Sometimes a sport grew in popularity because of a particular athlete, as was the case with boxing and Joe Louis (1914–1981). The Summer Olympics of 1932 were held in Los Angeles. During the Summer Games American athlete Babe Didrikson (1911–1956) gathered national attention as she excelled in multiple sports. Black American athlete Jesse Owens (1913–1980) dominated numerous track and field events at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany.
On a much smaller scale and closer to home, sports included miniature golf. In 1929 Garnet Carter (1883–1954) of Lookout, Tennessee, built the Tom Thumb Golf Course, where the whole family could play on a series of small courses. That same year he went to Miami and built a course. Miniature golf was an immediate inexpensive hit. By 1930 roadside courses had sprung up in many areas. For people out "motoring" it became quite the rage to stop for a game. For a short while some optimists suggested that the miniature golf industry might lift the United States out of the Depression.
Middle-class and upper-middle-class families could no longer afford European vacations. Instead they hit the road in their automobiles. Gasoline was cheap, and the road offered a momentary escape from hard times. Businesses popped up along highways to serve tourists. Campgrounds and motor courts (motels) appeared for the first time, in California, Texas, and Florida; the motor courts touted private indoor bathrooms. Howard Johnson (c. 1896–1972) opened a string of roadside restaurants. His Big Boytm restaurants offered hamburgers and fries. Born out of a need for inexpensive Depression-era travel, the roadside culture became a permanent feature of American life.
What Did Kids Do for Fun?
Besides sharing leisure-time activities with their families and spending hours at the movies on Saturday afternoon, many children of the Depression lived in a world of heroes and heroines. Children who lived above poverty level enjoyed following the adventures of various fictional characters; always cheery or exciting, these adventures provided a welcome break from the rather drab days of the Depression. Little Orphan Annie, the redhead of comic strips and radio, was a favorite. With her famous saying "Leapin' Lizards!" she and her dog, Sandy, entertained throughout the Depression. Other superheroes were science fiction characters Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, hard-nosed detective Dick Tracy, Western hero Tom Mix, and football hero Jack Armstrong. These characters appeared in comics, books, and/or movie house
Entrepreneurs are people who create and market a new item or start a new business. They assume all the risk (such as cash lost) if their venture fails. Although times were difficult in the 1930s, the cleverness of American entrepreneurs still pushed them to try new approaches and take on the management of new enterprises. Several products introduced by food entrepreneurs in the 1930s are still familiar to families at the beginning of the twenty-first century. These products include Fritos®, Kool-Aid®, Spam®, Pepperidge Farm® baked goods, Toll House® chocolate chip cookies, and Skippy® peanut butter.
The tasty little corn chips known as Fritos got their start when Elmer Doolin's mother sold her wedding ring for one hundred dollars and gave the money to Elmer. While traveling through San Antonio, Texas, in 1932, Elmer bought a bag of fried corn chips for a nickel. The chip maker was a Mexican man eager to return home to Mexico. Elmer purchased the chip recipe and the Fritos name (which means "fried" in Spanish) from the man, using the one hundred dollars his mother had given him. One hundred dollars was a lot of money in Depression times. Elmer began selling the inexpensive chips from his car and made about two dollars a day. It was Elmer's good fortune to connect with potato chip king Herman W. Lay. Soon the Frito-Lay chip was being munched coast to coast.
Irma Louise (von Starkloff) Rom-bauer was another type of food entrepreneur. In 1930 Rombauer, who had always lived a privileged life, found herself in need of an income when her husband died. She wrote a fun and easy-to-use cookbook, Joy of Cooking, and paid a local printer to print three thousand copies. It was an instant hit, especially among upper-middle-class and wealthy wives who had never cooked before the Depression. It gave clear instructions to keep even inexperienced cooks from failing. Joy of Cooking was revised and reprinted throughout the remainder of the twentieth century. It became America's most influential cookbook and made yet another Depression-era entrepreneur fabulously wealthy.
cartoons. Two real-life heroines were the English princesses Elizabeth (1926–) and Margaret Rose (1930–2002). Girls played for hours with paper doll cutouts of these royal figures. Little girls also played with dolls patterned after the real-life child movie star Shirley Temple (1928–). All these characters carried the same message—that clean living brings unlimited rewards.
Another favorite pastime for children in after-school hours and during long summer days was designing and building their own toys. A two-by-four piece of lumber, an orange crate, and wheels from a skate made a fine scooter.
Model airplanes of wood and kites of string, paper, and wood were just as much fun for dads and moms as for the children.
Outdoor games of sandlot baseball and "king of the mountain" occupied hours. Jacks, jump rope, and "kick-the-can" were fun—and they were all free. If a swimming hole or pool was available, kids could cool off and play at the same time.
Even though most families saw their income dwindle during the Depression, children did not mope around the house with nothing to do. Many of their activities cost nothing, and they found unlimited entertainment in their favorite adventure stories and simple games.
For More Information
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Best, Gary Dean. The Nickel and Dime Decade: American Popular Culture during the 1930s. Westport CT: Praeger, 1993.
Britten, Loretta, and Sarah Brash, eds. Hard Times: The '30s. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1998.
Federal Writers Project. These Are Our Lives. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1939.
McElvaine, Robert S. Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the "Forgotten Man." Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.
Mendelson, Anne. Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women WhoGave America "The Joy of Cooking." New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1996.
Phillips, Cabell. From the Crash to the Blitz: 1929–1939. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1969.
Reynolds, Edward B., and Michael Kennedy. Whistleberries, Stirabout, andDepression Cake. Helena, MT: Falcon Publishing, 2000.
Rogers, Agnes. I Remember Distinctly: A Family Album of the American People 1918–1941. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1947.
Stowe, David W. Swing Changes: Big Band Jazz in New Deal America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Thacker, Emily. Recipes and Remembrances of the Great Depression. Canton, OH: Tresco Publishers, 1993.
Time-Life Books. This Fabulous Century: 1930–1940. New York, NY: Time-Life Books, 1969.
Van Amber, Rita. Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Vols. 1 and 2. Neenah, WI: Van Amber Publishers, 1986–93.
Washburne, Carolyn Kott. America in the Twentieth Century, 1930–1939. North Bellmore, NY: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.
Watkins, T. H. The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America. New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1999.
Winslow, Susan. Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? America from the WallStreet Crash to Pearl Harbor: An Illustrated Documentary. New York, NY: Paddington Press, 1976.
The Food Stamp Program.http://www.foodusa.org (accessed on August 15, 2002).
Kraft Foods.http://www.kraftfoods.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).
Radio Sportscasting.http://www.americansportscasters.com/radio-how.html (accessed on August 15, 2002).