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Lorena Hickok

Lorena Hickok

Excerpt from "The Unsung Heroes of the Depression"

reprinted fromone third of a nation: lorena hickok reports on the great depression
edited by richard lowitt and maurine beasley
published in 1981

"People, with voices, faces, eyes. People with hope. People without hope. People still fighting. People with all courage squeezed out of them. People with stories."

lorena hickok

"G o talk with preachers and teachers, businessmen, workers, farmers. Go talk with the unemployed, those who are on relief and those who aren't. And when you talk with them don't ever forget that but for the grace of God you, I, any of our friends might be in their shoes. Tell me what you see and hear. All of it." These were the instructions Harry Hopkins (1890–1946), chief of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, gave to Lorena Hickok (1893–1968) at the start of the summer of 1933. Hickok was to be his chief field representative—an investigator who would travel across the country to assess how New Deal relief programs were being carried out and accepted. Hopkins's humble recognition that anyone might have fallen on hard times during the Great Depression was typical of the entire Roosevelt administration.

Lorena Hickok began her career as a journalist in 1913. It soon became apparent that the talented, determined young woman had a "nose" for news. She practiced her investigative and writing skills, and in the mid-1920s the Associated Press hired her as a reporter. Very few women held

Women in the 1930s Workplace

Despite the many government positions women gained under the Roosevelt administration, American women as a whole did not enjoy much change in status. Almost 25 percent of American women worked outside their homes during the Great Depression, but they did not find a friendly work environment. The prevailing public attitude was that married women belonged at home, not in the workplace. In addition, considerably fewer single women worked in the 1930s than in the 1990s. One reason was that women married at a much younger age. Because they had to earn a living (that is, having no man to support them), widows and single women who worked outside the home were not as looked down upon. Many people in the 1930s believed that working women were taking much needed jobs away from men, who were unemployed and who held the responsibility of being the sole wage earners for their families.

Women worked long hours and received low wages. The average annual pay for women was $525, compared to $1,027 for men. Most Americans believed there was no economic reason for women to work; women who did work were thought to be seeking "pin money" (small amounts), merely a little extra spending cash. In many professions women—especially married women—faced strong discrimination against their right to work. For example, women in the teaching profession faced very restrictive policies. A National Education Association survey conducted in the 1930–31 school year revealed that 77 percent of the fifteen hundred school systems examined would not hire married women. Sixty-three percent made it a policy to dismiss female teachers if they became married. Other professions also had restrictive policies: In 1939, 84 percent of insurance companies, 65 percent of banks, and 63 percent of public utilities still had restrictions against hiring women.

such positions at that time, but Hickok had become the country's premier female "news hawk." She was a somewhat chubby woman with an imposing, husky voice and a self-assured manner. Most women at that time wore dresses or tailored, sophisticated jackets and skirts, but Hickok invariably wore rather baggy clothing. However, her unconventional appearance did not prevent her from succeeding in her career; her reporting was on the mark. Hickok was assigned to Albany, New York, to cover Franklin Roosevelt's activities as governor of the state (where he served from 1929 to 1933), and she would later cover Roosevelt's 1932 presidential campaign. She and Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) became fast friends, and the friendship was lifelong.

As soon as President Roosevelt took office in March 1933, he and his advisers, including Harry Hopkins, began introducing legislation that would bring relief to Americans devastated by the Depression. This legislation, along with subsequent reform and recovery programs, was known as the New Deal. On May 22, 1933, Hopkins was given the title of Federal Emergency Relief Administrator and $500 million to begin immediate relief services. He set up an aid organization in Washington, D.C., and in each of the states, determined the need in each state, and handed out half of the $500 million. He also set up work relief programs: If a man received $6 in relief money to pay for a week's groceries, for example, he would work on a road-building project or some other public works project long enough to earn the $6. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) was created in the fall of 1933, and Hopkins had four million men hired by Christmas.

Hopkins, a great admirer of both Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, hired Hickok away from the Associated Press in July 1933. Hopkins made her his chief investigator and sent her across the country to write reports on how the New Deal relief was being administered by local and state officials and how it was being received by the people.

Hickok's reports were secret, read only by Hopkins and a few select New Dealers. Hopkins had instructed Hickok not to bring him statistics but to interview people and report to him the conditions she found firsthand. Hickok met with Americans from across the country to find out whether help was getting to them and whether it made a difference. She also met with state and local government officials to determine whether they were carrying out their duties with fairness. She checked in on localities where Hopkins had gotten word that all was not running properly.

Hickok's reports were full of insight. Depending on the situation, they were angry or amusing in tone but always direct and to the point. Hickok had no patience with bureaucratic inefficiency; in her view, there was no excuse for it when people were starving. In the following excerpt from "The Unsung Heroes of the Depression," Hickok describes several of the people she encountered in her travels.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "The Unsung Heroes of the Depression":

  • The push to get federal money out to the states for immediate relief resulted in some mishandling of funds.
  • Hickok traveled to some of the most afflicted areas of the country, such as the mining communities in West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and Pennsylvania; the slum neighborhoods of New York City and Washington, D.C.; and the agricultural valleys of central California.
  • Hickok had no idea of the extent of poverty in America before she began her travels. Gradually she came to understand the situation and provided those in Washington, D.C., with informative, precise reports.

Excerpt from "The Unsung Heroes of the Depression"

It is their story, as they themselves told it—sometimes desperately, sometimes with quivering lips, sometimes only by the patient, bewildered expression in their eyes—to one who traveled up and down the country as confidential observer for the man [Harry Hopkins] who was charged by their Government with the job of seeing that they did not starve.

Four years ago, to the writer [Hickok], they were not really people at all. They had no faces. They were just "the unemployed." Muffled figures, backs curved against the wind, selling apples on the street corners of New York. One's friends made jokes about "unemployed apples." Grimy hands thrusting needles and wilting gardenias through your cab window when you were halted in cross-town traffic, while you wondered if you ought to buy them .…

"What I want you to do," said Harry Hopkins in July, 1933, "is to go out around the country and look this thing over. I don't want statistics from you. I don't want the social-worker angle . I just want your own reaction, as an ordinary citizen.


Bewildered: confused.

Confidential observer

Confidential observer: a trusted person who will discuss her observations only with harry hopkins.

Grimy hands…

Grimy hands…: the unemployed trying to sell flowers with pins to attach to clothes.

Social-worker angle

Social-worker angle: the view of a trained specialist using statistics.

"Go talk with preachers and teachers, businessmen, workers, farmers. Go talk with the unemployed, those who are on relief andthose who aren't. And when you talk with them don't ever forget that but for the grace of God you, I, any of our friends might be in their shoes. Tell me what you see and hear. All of it. Don't ever pull your punches ."

First, a sickening trip on a blistering July morning through Washington's notorious slums, "the Alleys." Then, to Philadelphia. Down into West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. A month in up-state New York and New England. Two weeks in New York City. Six weeks—and 7,000 miles in an old Chevrolet—in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. Down through the Tennessee Valley. Two weeks among the beet sugar workers in Colorado. The Imperial Valley in California, where a thermometer in the car registered 126 degrees Fahrenheit. * * * Fayette county, Pennsylvania, during a coal strike. Aroostook County, Maine, during potato harvest. Bottineau County, North Dakota, just before the first blizzard * * * Wheeling, West Virginia, when smoke began pouring out of the stacks at the steel mills. Miami, Florida, when the tourists began to come back. * * * Pineville, Kentucky, when relief was cut off. Sioux City, Iowa, when CWA came in. Toledo, Ohio, as WPA was starting. * * * Back and forth, up and down the country. By motor, by train, by plane. A three-year Odyssey through every man's land—and no man's land.

One by one, sometimes bold, sometimes hesitant , sometimes demanding, sometimes faltering , they emerged—individuals. People, with voices, faces, eyes. People with hope. People without hope. People still fighting. People with all courage squeezed out of them. People with stories.

There was the Negro woman in Philadelphia who used to walk eight miles every day over the scorching pavements just on the chance of getting, perhaps, a little cleaning to do, at 10 cents an hour.

There was the chauffeur in New York who, on the day before he reported for the first time to work as a laborer on a park project, stood about for hours watching how the other men handled their picks and shovels, so he would "get the hang of it and not feel so awkward."

There was the little Mexican girl, aged 6, in Colorado, who said, sure, she'd worked "in the beets" two Summers already and, yes, sometimes she did get pretty tired.

Pull your punches

Pull your punches: withhold information.


CWA: the civil works administration, a new deal agency.


WPA: the works progress administration, another new deal agency.


Odyssey: long trip.


Hesitant: timid.


Faltering: wavering or uncertain.

There was the young musician, who said: "For a few weeks it isn't so bad for a man and his wife and baby to get along on $4.80a week, paying $3 of it out for rent. But when it runs into months, and you can't see anything ahead, you get … discouraged."

There was the WPA worker in Erie, Pa. [Pennsylvania], proud … because he had developed into "a darned good asphalt man" while working on relief and WPA projects.

There were those unemployed miners' wives in Scotts Run [West Virginia], who instinctively liked and trusted the tall, slender lady with the warming smile and soft, lovely voice who drove up to their homes in an old Ford one Summer day—and found out later that she was the President's wife [Eleanor Roosevelt].

There were those little boys who refused to go to school in Houston, Texas, wearing the trousers of terribly conspicuous black-and-white-striped ticking that had been given them, because everybody would know they were on relief.

There were those two small boys, a year or so later, in Salt Lake City [Utah], who were overheard boasting about whose father had been on relief longer.

There was the small town woman in Iowa who spent part of her husband's first CWA check for oranges, because she hadn't tasted any for three years.

There was the architect who said he didn't mind working on a road as a day laborer because "at least my children can tell the teacher their father is working. They don't have to say what he's doing."

There was the farm woman in South Dakota who had a recipe for Russian thistle soup and said, "It don't taste so bad, only it ain't very filling."

There was the boy of 20 who limped wearily into his home in a Baltimore suburb one Autumn night in 1934 after having walked nearly 20 miles down into the center of the city and back, "just stopping at every place and asking if they didn't need somebody to work—at anything" .…


Instinctively: immediately, without a conscious reason.


Conspicuous: noticeable.

There was the unemployed fur-worker in Pittsburgh who said: "Lady, you just can't know what it's like to have to move your family out of the nice house you had in the suburbs, part paid for, down into an apartment, down into another apartment, smaller and in a worse neighborhood, down, down, down, until finally you end up in the slums."…

One by one, they come and go. Not all of them saints, by any means. And not all of them, by any means, dishonest or lazy or hopeless. Thousands of them in the last three years have "come back," have found jobs as industry revived, have moved out of the crowded flats where they were living with relatives, have paid up their debts. Perhaps—and it is to be hoped that this is so—many of them have even forgotten that there ever was a Depression! And thousands of them have not found jobs, perhaps never will. A reviving industry, with the best of intentions, cannot immediately absorb such a load as piled up in this country during the black years. The young, the physically fit, the mentally alert first are called and should be. The man over 40, the untrained, the weak, for many of these there may be no future at all. [Lowitt and Beasley, pp. ix, x–xi, xii]

What happened next…

Lorena Hickok worked as the chief relief investigator for the Roosevelt administration until just after the presidential election in 1936. She left government service in late 1936 to take a public relations job and live quietly on Long Island, New York. But in 1940 the Roosevelts pressed her back into service. She lived at the White House and served as executive secretary of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Convention. From her retirement in 1945 to her death in 1968 she wrote a number of books on the Roosevelts.

Did you know…

  • Lorena Hickok accompanied Eleanor Roosevelt on many of the first lady's travels around the country. She also traveled to Puerto Rico with Mrs. Roosevelt, in March 1934, to investigate labor conditions in large sugar companies, and housing and sanitation problems.
  • In her reports Hickok exposed greedy politicians who were attempting to manipulate relief programs to benefit themselves and their friends.
  • Racial discrimination greatly interfered with the proper administration of relief programs. Hickok reported back to Hopkins and President Roosevelt on this issue.

Consider the following…

  • The phrase "one-third of a nation"—the title of the book that contains Hickok's excerpt—is taken from President Roosevelt's second inaugural address, given in January 1937. Refer to Chapter Two, "A New Deal for Americans," and find the "Second Inaugural Address" excerpt. According to President Roosevelt, what problems existed for one-third of Americans?
  • What reporting skills would Hickok have had to possess to report back to Hopkins so clearly?

For More Information

faber, doris. the life of lorena hickok: e. r.'s friend. new york, ny: w. morrow, 1980.

lowitt, richard, and maurine beasley, eds. one third of a nation: lorena hickok reports on the great depression. urbana, il: university of illinois press, 1981.

ware, susan. beyond suffrage: women in the new deal. cambridge, ma: harvard university press, 1981.

ware, susan. holding their own: american women in the 1930s. boston, ma: twayne publishers, 1982.

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