Everyday Life 1929-1941
Everyday Life 1929-1941
Everyday Life 1929-1941Introduction
Suggested Research Topics
In the face of the suffering caused by the Great Depression, the family remained a source of strength for most Americans. Nevertheless, the economic bad times did affect the lifestyles of all but the very wealthy. Almost everyone saw their income decrease but likewise the prices of goods decreased. Those of the working class, middle class, and upper middle class fortunate enough to keep their jobs carried on with life as close to normal as they could. Families devised various ways to "cut corners," "make do," and "keep up appearances." To "cut corners," clothing could be sewn at home. To "make do," a pot roast could be stretched to last in several creative meals. Painting the outside of a home or shopping at nice secondhand dress shops would help "keep up appearances." Likewise, farm families who did not lose their farms relied on thrift, conservation, gardens, and strong family ties to see them through.
Effects of the Depression on the family structure included postponed marriages, fewer babies, youths staying home longer, and combining households to aid needy relatives. Still the strain of economic pressures broke some families apart.
Americans most susceptible to hard times were black Americans, the elderly, those in areas where factories shut down, farmers caught in Dust Bowl areas, and those in coal-mining regions. All were marginally poor before the Depression—barely making ends meet. The country's overall economic difficulties left them to struggle for survival amid poverty, hunger, and illness.
Employed—The Fortunate Americans
While 25 percent of the American labor force was unemployed during the Great Depression, 75 percent maintained at least some kind of an income. Some managed to do quite well. Although several hundred thousand businesses went under, some two million endured, providing products and services. Those fortunate enough to maintain income, although it almost always was lower than before the 1929 stock market crash, carried on with life as close to normal as possible. Especially in thousands of small towns, the traditions of community life ran deep and endured. Families held to their normal values and stressed the importance of family unity.
In the midst of the Depression what did it mean to be a "middle-income family?" How did they modify their lives to survive the Depression? Could they still own homes and cars? Was there any leisure time, and if so, how did they fill it? What did families do for fun? Did they ever take vacations? How did the young adults in their late teens and early twenties deal with the availability of so few jobs? The answers to these questions piece together the picture of life led by a majority of Americans in the 1930s.
The Middle Class
From 1935 to 1936 the median family income was $1,160. An annual wage of $1,000 or more placed a family in the middle-income range. The middle-income family did not have a surplus of income but did have a fairly comfortable standard of living. Before the onset of the Depression in the fall of 1929, the term "standard of living" had come to mean not just adequate food, housing, and clothing but anything families were unwilling to go without. After the Depression, at least for the first half of the 1930s, standard of living again referred to the basics of food, shelter, and clothing, since the means to achieve more than the basics had declined. These basic necessities absorbed at least three-quarters of a household budget. Luxuries played a very small part in the life of most families. Nevertheless, people of middle incomes clung to the idea that certain material goods and lifestyles that had become important to them would again eventually be attainable.
- The number of miles of paved roads in the United States reaches 695,000.
- Glamorized by movies, cigarette production reaches 124 billion, up from only 9.7 billion in 1910.
- Sales of glass jars for preserving food at home increases dramatically.
- The number of marriages declines 40 percent from the 1920s level.
- May 27, 1933:
- On the south side of Chicago the Century of Progress World's Fair opens.
- December 5, 1933:
- The prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages, in effect since 1920, ends.
- May 28, 1934:
- The Dionne quintuplets are born in Canada.
- Bingo begins in movie houses and quickly becomes popular.
- People buy 20 million Monopoly games in one week.
- Krueger Beer of Newton, New Jersey, introduces the first canned beer.
- People listen to radio an average of 4.5 hours a day.
- October 31, 1938:
- Orson Welles broadcasts "Invasion from Mars" and panics listeners who think Martians have landed in New Jersey.
- Eleanor Roosevelt resigns from the Daughters of the American Revolution in protest of their refusal to allow black opera singer Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall.
- The Golden Gate International Exposition opens in San Francisco, and the New York World's Fair opens in New York City.
An upper-middle-class family's income began at about $2,500. In the mid-1930s, only 12 percent of families were in this bracket. In 1929, before the crash, 29 percent of American families were in the affluent range. To illustrate the decline, between 1929 and 1933, the incomes of affluent doctors and lawyers dropped as much as 40 percent. Although severely tested, the upper middle class did their best to maintain a refined standard of living. Shaken by their friends who had lost all, most lived with the fear of being next. Nevertheless, the great majority labored to "keep up appearances." T.H. Watkins reports in his book, TheHungry Years (1999, pp. 104–105), that although expectations lowered they, "simply refused to abandon the values by which they defined themselves." Their concessions included riding the subways, smoking cheaper cigars, and the women learning to cook once they had given up servants. Secondhand dress shops were reborn, and when some especially smart and stylish clothes came in the word was spread quickly through groups who were in the "know."
Many families, especially in the middle-to upper-middle income groups, made a conscious attempt to plan their expenditures in response to wage reductions or employment changes. Special budgeting sections appeared in women's magazines. Women wrote personal accounts of their budgeting for the articles. The magazines even ran contests for the perfect budgets.
The middle-and upper-income families were able to maintain a relatively comfortable standard of living because many of the necessities of life—especially food—showed striking decreases in costs. Another way to maintain the standard of living was to have a second income in the household.
An Extra Wage Earner
Many families maintained a middle-to upper-middle income by having additional family members employed. The presence of more than one wage earner in the family greatly impacted a family's standard of living. At low income levels, under $800, fewer than one in five families had an extra wage earner. Almost one out of four families in the $800 to $1,600 range had an extra wage earner. Even higher ratios of families with extra wage earners occurred above the $1,600 per year level. In the early 1930s, children between 14 and 18 years of age often provided the extra income. By the end of the 1930s, it was most likely the married housewives making an economic contribution through paid employment rather than children under the age of 18.
Married Working Women
Increased participation of married women in the labor force depended on a variety of developments and needs including dramatically decreased child labor, relative economic need, and the availability of jobs. A prime motivator, particularly at the middle and upper income levels was the desire to provide "extras" such as education of children or payment on a house.
The number of married women in the labor force increased by 52 percent in the 1930s. By 1940 over four million married women worked for pay, but this still represented only 15 percent of all married women. Many housewives simply found it impossible to run a
|Average Family Budget, 1935|
|Average annual income||$1,348|
|Food and alcoholic beverages||472|
|Housing, utilities, furnishings, etc.||456|
|Automobile purchase and maintenance||73|
|Recreation, reading, tobacco||72|
household and work. Over 80 percent reported spending 48 hours or more on household chores alone.
Married working women were often criticized for taking jobs that could have gone to an unemployed man. Women managed to hold on to certain positions when advocates of women's employment stressed that some occupations were especially suited to women. Such jobs included clerical positions, beauty salon managers, dental hygienists, nurses, and occupational therapists. Women did not have to compete with men for these jobs.
Corner-Cutting and Making Do
Family expectations with respect to standard of living remained high, but the means to maintain their expectations declined. The most logical way for a family to adapt to Depression conditions was to adopt a lower standard of living. The ability to do this rested on several factors such as actual family income, the family's material needs, and the skills of the family consumer manager—frequently the woman. Making ends meet involved corner-cutting, "making do," sometimes going without, and shifting around various payments. Families commonly curtailed expenses by growing and canning food that used to be bought at a store, making their own clothing, and holding on to an aging car. Some adults went to the doctor and dentist less to avoid paying for those services. By taking care of their own necessities rather than purchasing services, families maintained their standard of living.
The middle class mom prided herself on "making do" when feeding her family. If very careful, a woman could feed a family of six on five dollars a week. She relied on the basic foodstuffs in her pantry such as flour, cornmeal, and sugar or corn syrup. Meat came from the local butcher. Sending the children to the butcher for 25¢ worth of round steak could amply supply enough meat for a filling stew. Mothers could make a pot roast last an entire week—reincarnated each day as something different such as meat loaf and soup. Meals were stretched with gravy, potatoes, macaroni, and homemade bread. Vegetable gardens sprang up in backyards and vacant city lots. Women did their own canning, pickling, and preserving. A colorful array of jars on the pantry shelves lent reassurance to the whole family through winter months.
Families shared all they could with the less fortunate. Frequently, struggling families were invited to Sunday dinner. If a homeless person knocked at the back door they were given food, clothing, and even—at times—a place to sleep. Assistance and kindness towards others was a hallmark of families in the 1930s.
Most women were adequately skilled in sewing. Exciting hours were spent in picking out dress patterns from pattern catalogues. With pattern and material in hand, their foot-operated treadle sewing machine whirred until a garment was completed. Very few clothes were store bought. If the soles of a pair of shoes began to wear through, cardboard was inserted to prolong their life.
During the 1920s new labor-saving household devices had been the rage, but by the 1930s few could afford these luxuries. As a result, sales of washing machines, percolators for coffee, vacuum cleaners, toasters, and electric mixers plummeted.
By 1930 the middle and upper middle classes were likely to own automobiles. Roughly 26 million cars were on the road by 1930. Even in the worst years of the Depression, anyone who owned a vehicle, including those at the lower end of the middle class and farming families, were reluctant to give up driving. In the first half of the 1930s, however, most families put off purchasing a new car and kept driving the old. By 1933 car manufacturers began tempting families with streamlined models sporting beautiful curved lines. The box-like chassis that sat above the axle was eliminated. The new models were rounded, had steel roofs, and came in colors other than black. Engines, trunks, and bumpers molded into one whole unit, and cars had increased horsepower. Nevertheless, holding to strict budgets, people continued to resist temptation and drove their old cars longer and longer. Someone in the family likely took care of oil changes, patching tires, and doing whatever they could to keep the car running.
The automobile repair industry, which took care of the more difficult repairs, actually grew during the Depression. As economic conditions and confidence improved by 1936, purchases of the new, sleeker cars resumed. Buying on credit became one way to avoid paying the entire cash amount of the purchase up front. By 1937 the number of cars on the road had increased to 29 million.
Middle-and upper-middle-class urban families in the 1930s tended to own their own homes, usually located in a suburb at the edge of a city. Houses of the bungalow style, with one-and-a-half stories, two bedrooms, one bath, living room, dining room, and kitchen were very popular. Homes of the Colonial Revival or Dutch Colonial styles were popular in the east. In western states, neighborhoods had Spanish style houses with low-pitched red tile roofs and stucco exteriors. Most of the homes had been built and purchased in the 1920s. Most homes in cities and suburbs were electrified. In the difficult economic times, a popular way to "keep up appearances" was to paint the outside of the family home.
Perhaps the biggest middle-class Depression fear was loss of the family home. With downturns in income many families fell behind in their house payments. By the middle of 1933, those people behind in payments turned to the newly established Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) or, by 1934, to another new agency, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Through both the HOLC and FHA, home loans were refinanced. Refinancing set up new payment terms that families could meet. By 1936 the HOLC alone had refinanced 992,531 home loans, allowing millions of Americans to stay in their homes.
How did people learn of the day's news? The major source of news for most Depression-era families was newspapers, due primarily to their inexpensiveness. The New York Times cost two cents. Newspapers reported the latest in politics and sports, and kept track of the lives of Hollywood and high society celebrities. Headlines, big and bold, announced the major news story of each Depression day. Newsboys delivered papers to homes. Being a news delivery boy was a proud job for young boys as they could contribute to the family income.
Newspaper publishers could be depended on to put out special editions if a big story broke. Boys sold the special editions on street corners, calling out the familiar "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" and pocketing still more change.
Newsreels—short motion pictures of current events—had become a major news source by the 1930s. Introduced in the late 1890s, they first were shown in music halls between performances and then gained great popularity in the new motion picture theaters by the 1920s. "The March of Time" was introduced in 1935. It combined filmed news with interviews. The public would frequently go to the movies to learn what was happening in the world.
Another news source was the radio. In fact, the radio quickly became a center of family life during leisure time.
Those who maintained their steady jobs generally worked a five-day week with two days off. To fill leisure time, people looked to life's free pleasures. Dropping unaffordable club memberships, they turned to listening to the radio, playing games, stamp collecting, and visiting with neighbors on front porches. Board games, such as Monopoly (invented in 1933) were extremely popular. In Monopoly people could wheel and deal in real estate even if in reality the house payment was a struggle.
Card games were a popular way to spend an afternoon or evening. Adults would invite friends over for Canasta or Bridge. Children loved to play Old Maid. Baseball was the most popular sport of the day. Going to the movies, having family picnics, going to church and church socials, attending bingo parties, playing miniature golf, enjoying a soda at the corner drug store, and dancing were all popular stepping-out activities.
Radio and Movies
The radio and movie industries provided an exciting escape from the worries of Depression living. The sale of radios increased from 10 million sold at the beginning of the 1930s to around 30 million at the end of the decade. Almost 90 percent of American households owned a radio. Just as popular as radio were the movies. Once a week around 65 percent of the population found the movie ticket, which cost 25 cents or less, affordable, even necessary. The United States had over fifteen thousand movie theaters, more than the number of banks and twice the number of hotels. The 1930s proved to be a golden age for radio and motion picture industries.
The typical family spent hours in the living room each evening listening to their favorite programs. The big rounded radio was a window to adventure, comedy, music, romance, and news. Americans stayed glued to their radios when President Roosevelt gave a "fireside chat," explaining what was happening in Washington, DC, to ease the Depression.
Families gathered together after supper for such programs as the comedy Amos 'n' Andy that aired from 7:00 to 7:15 PM each weekend evening. Another favorite comedy program was that of husband and wife team George Burns and Gracie Allen, airing at 8:00 PM on Monday. Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy provided hours of laughter on the Chase and Sanborn Hour, Sundays at 8:00 PM Just before the Chase and Sanborn Hour, there was a thirty-minute segment featuring Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard, who quickly became the famous Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, one of America's first families of entertainment.
Many favorite shows opened with a standard line that people eagerly awaited. At the start of her variety show, singer Kate Smith belted out, "Hello everybody" at 8:00 PM every Thursday night. Variety shows drew loyal audiences. Kraft Music Hall was popular with Bing Crosby crooning over the airwaves at 10:00 PM Thursdays. A great success of the mid-1930s was Major Edward Bowes Original Amateur Hour. Comedians Fred Allen and Jack Benny entertained with their original wit. If you didn't go to the movies Saturday night you stayed home and listened to Your Hit Parade on the radio.
Popular news broadcasters of the day were H.V. Kaltenborn and Lowell Thomas. Radio also bought sports into people's living rooms. Americans could listen to army-navy football games, boxing title fights, horse racing, tennis matches, the 1932 Winter Olympics from Lake Placid, New York, and the World Series. Fearing no one would come to the park, however, baseball teams in the early 1930s resisted broadcasting games. As early as 1931, golfer Bobby Jones had a radio program on which he handed out golf tips.
Daytime broadcasts were aimed at target audiences. The first woman's service program to go national in the 1920s was the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air. Betty gave out recipes and suggested ways to "make do" in the home throughout the 1930s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture broadcast a daily 15-minute home economics program coast to coast. A female voice known as Aunt Sammy anchored the program. As housewives washed clothes they could listen to soap operas such as "Guiding Light."
One of the most memorable radio programs of all time aired on the night before Halloween, October 30, 1938. The broadcast—a dramatization of H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds—was intended as a simulation of a real news broadcast. It was so realistic, however, that people thought the play about Martians landing in New Jersey and devastating the countryside was real. Many Americans, especially those in New Jersey and New York, panicked, packing up their children and possessions in preparation to evacuate and calling newspapers and police stations to find out where they should go to avoid the Martian attack. The reaction of the public was a testament to the realism of Welles's broadcast and to the mindset of a nation that was worried about the possibility of another world war. CBS had to issue repeated assurances that the play was entirely fictional and promised not to broadcast any more "news" programs like "War of the Worlds."
All through the Depression, Americans lined up in front of the movie theaters. Many of the 1930s films featuring glamorous stars offered pure escape focusing on romance, good times and wealth. Mae West, a curvaceous blonde, earned $480,000 a year. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers became America's favorite dance partners and starred in the first of ten romantic musical comedies, Flying Down to Rio (1933). The extravagant musical Gold Diggers of 1933 introduced the song "We're in the Money."
Comedies and gangster films were very popular. The most famous comedians were the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplain, and W.C. Fields. Gangster films with stars such as Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney included Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931). By 1935 the gangsters were surrendering to government agents as depicted in another Cagney film, G-Men.
At a Glance Miniature Golf
Garnet Carter of Lookout, Tennessee, had an entrepreneurial idea—golf for the whole family played on a series of small courses. In 1929 he built the Tom Thumb Golf Course, and miniature golf was born. Later that summer he went to Miami to build a course there. Miniature golf was a huge instant success, and by 1930 roadside courses appeared in many areas. The owner provided putters and balls and created imaginative course designs with an array of obstacles to challenge balls heading for the cup. It became quite the rage to stop at a roadside course for a game. For a time some optimists actually suggested the miniature golf industry might lift the United States out of the Great Depression.
Depression-saddened Americans cheered up when the kind-hearted people won out over greedy individuals in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). Walt Disney's first full-length animated fantasy, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, fascinated audiences in 1937. Perhaps two of the biggest stars of the 1930s were child stars Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney. Mothers all across the nation would dress their little girls and curl their hair into ringlets for Shirley Temple look-alike contests. Two enduring classics of the silver screen premiered in 1939, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.
The lives of the movie stars were everyday topics of conversation. Newspapers and magazines followed their every move. Even people in the poorest families were likely to know the latest "doings" of their favorite star.
Some movie houses had a platform at the front which rose up out of the orchestra pit. On the platforms were musicians, perhaps one playing an organ or an entire band. People packed these movie houses and waited in great anticipation for the platform to rise.
Swing became the dance craze for the mid-and late 1930s. Swing evolved from jazz played by black groups in the 1920s. Jazz was characterized by a driving beat and improvised solos. In the early 1930s, most white Americans had only heard the sedate orchestra versions of jazz. In 1934 Benny Goodman decided to form a band and take it across country playing real jazz. He was disappointed in his reception, as the 24-year-old's band was reduced to playing tame dance music by the time it arrived in California. At the end of an evening's performance in Hollywood at the Palomar Ballroom, however, Goodman told his band to swing out. The crowd went wild and the swing craze swept into mainstream American culture.
Older adults still preferred the tamer orchestral big bands or "sweet" bands, but young adults and teens adopted swing bands. The hard-driving beats conjured up dance steps such as the raucous Big Apple that became a national craze. Even Depression years could not suppress the energy of youth as they danced their troubles away to the likes of Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. A whole vocabulary called jive talk emerged to accompany swing.
The Dance Marathon
One of the more unusual types of music and dance entertainment in America was the dance marathon. Dance marathons began as fads but evolved into a bizarre way to make money both for the participants and the dance hall owners. Couples—a male and female team such as brother and sister, father and daughter, mother and son, or boyfriend and girlfriend—competed against other couples. Contest rules required the couple to be in motion on the dance floor 45 minutes of every hour, day and night. The couple who lasted the longest won the monetary first prize. Ringside seats and balconies for spectators surrounded the dance floor.
The first dance marathon contest in America was held in 1910 but attracted few interested spectators. The real craze began in the spring of 1923 and spread to big cities across the nation in only a few weeks. The zany early marathons evolved into endurance dances lasting months. The dance for money often became a dehumanizing spectacle of exhaustion, sometimes with tragic results. In 1935 Horace McCoy wrote a novel titled They Shoot Horses, Don't They? about dance marathons as an exploitative form of entertainment, featuring a participant who dies at the end. A movie adaptation of the book starring Jane Fonda was made in 1969.
What did Depression kids do for fun? Besides leisure time activities with families and spending hours at the movies on Saturday afternoon, children lived in the world of heroes and heroines brought to them in the media of the day. The world of these characters remained always cheery or exciting, often much preferred to the rather drab days of the Depression.
"Leapin' lizards" was a favorite saying of a redheaded moppet of comic strips and radio, Little Orphan Annie. She and her dog, Sandy, entertained throughout the Depression. Children poured over her comic strips in the newspapers and by mail joined her secret society. She also came into their homes through radio. Annie was actually quite conservative politically. She had undying faith in regular old capitalism which pleased many Depression-frightened parents. Through Annie, cartoonist Harold Gray expressed his pro-business, anti-labor, and anti-liberal politician stances. Her famous philosophy was "Ya hafta earn what ya get." Children, however, were simply interested in her exploits and decoding the secret messages from the radio program Adventure Time with Little Orphan Annie with the help of badges and decoders that they would receive for sending in Ovaltine labels (Ovaltine was the sponsor of the radio show) and nominal amounts of money.
Science fiction hero Flash Gordon appeared in comics, books, and movie house cartoons. Gordon was frequently left in a precarious position, such as hanging from a cliff, to ensure children would be back the next week to see what happened. As Americans became increasingly uneasy about the emerging Asian Continent, Gordon always triumphed over Ming the Merciless from Mongo. Jack Armstrong, football hero of Hudson High, came over the radio waves encouraging children to love America and have "hearts of gold." If they did they would conquer meanness and have the world's riches.
The character of Tarzan came on the scene in 1914. Tarzan was once an orphaned boy in Africa who had grown into an agile jungle man. By the end of the 1930s, he could be found in 21 novels, 16 movies, comic strips, and on the radio. Behind the western straight-shooting character Tom Mix was a real western movie stunt man. His radio show began in 1933, but previously he had been in numerous action films and the comics. Other super heroes of mega-fame were science fiction character Buck Rogers and hard-nosed detective Dick Tracy.
More About… Jive Talk
Depression or not, to be hip in the late 1930s you had to speak jive. Jive was spoken fast, loud, and sassy. Hip teens and young adults knew the following words (adapted from Our American Century, Hard Times: The 30s, p. 144):
Alligator: follower of swing
Canary: a female singer
Cats: musicians in the swing band
Cuttin' a rug: dancing to swing
Disc or swing platter: a recording
Hepcat: a fan who knows all about swing
Ickie: a person who doesn't understand swing
In the groove: feeling the beat of swing
Jitterbug: dancing to swing
Kicking out: dancing fast and free
Licorice stick: clarinet
Long hair: dull, one who likes symphonic music over swing
Skin beater: drummer
Sweet: music good only for tame dancing
Two favorite real-life little girls were English princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. It was easy for little girls to forget their homemade Depression clothes when dressing dolls of the princesses in paper finery. Perhaps the sunniest of all the heroes and heroines was another real-life girl, Shirley Temple. Besides her many movies, merchandisers created Shirley Temple dolls, trunks of doll clothes, and books. What all of these characters had in common was their theme—clean living will bring unlimited rewards. This message seemed very important to Depression-weary children.
After school and during long summer days, another favorite activity of children was designing, building, and playing with homemade toys. All that was needed to build a scooter was a scrap piece of 2 x 4 lumber, an orange crate, and a dismantled roller skate for wheels. The scooters would take children on wild rides down city or country hills. Skateboards were built out of a board and roller skate. Racer airplanes were built using wood and glue. Although boys grew into men, many never outgrew their love of flying the planes. Kites were also popular everywhere. All that was needed to create one was newspaper, flour paste glue, and string from the big ball that mom always had on hand.
Children also enjoyed outdoor activities of all sorts. Sandlot baseball was the favorite sport. A game called "king of the mountain" occupied many hours. It was an exciting game where boys would climb up the steepest hill, pushing each other down until only one was left—the king. Jacks, jump rope, and kick-the-can were also favorite activities. If a swimming hole was available, it was a place to cool off and have a grand time.
As the Depression wore on, few Americans could afford vacations in Europe, but they could hit the open road in their automobiles. They could camp along the way and see the United States. Gasoline prices were lower, and the road seemed to be the quickest way to escape the hard times and recreate. Businesses sprung up along the roads to service all the tourists.
Campgrounds and motor courts appeared across the nation, first in California, Texas, and Florida. The motor courts had the luxury of indoor plumbing and private bathrooms. Howard Johnson opened a chain of roadside restaurants. Big Boy restaurants offered Americans hamburgers and fries. Roadside culture became a permanent feature of American life. The only families to still travel freely abroad were the very wealthy, who seemed to have voted not to participate in the Depression.
The Very Rich
As the Depression dragged on, the lives of all but the most wealthy Americans were affected in some way. Generally, the very wealthy had financial roots in the industrial empires begun in the nineteenth century rather than in the 1920s stock speculation. It was the quickly accumulated wealth of the 1920s that had vanished in the early years of the Depression—not the wealth of the industrial giants. Although not unaware of those struggling mightily under the weight of the Depression, the lives of the very rich went on pretty much as usual. The sacrifices they did make seemed shallow. T.H. Watkins reports in his book, The Hungry Years (1999, p. 106), that in the early spring of 1932, John P. Morgan Jr., banker, decided to not sail his yacht believing "it is both wiser and kinder not to flaunt such luxurious amusement in the face of the public."
Local newspapers and tabloids were diligent in their coverage of the very rich, and generally even the destitute likely knew many details of the lives of the wealthy. Favorite events to cover were the débutante balls. Débutante balls were extravagant parties thrown by the very rich each year to introduce their daughters to high society and advertise their eligibility for marriage. Balls cost between $10,000 and $100,000, and families tried to outdo one another. Débutantes, wearing beautiful fashionable gowns attended dances almost nightly from late November until January. Champagne, fresh flowers, elegant table settings, sumptuous food, and extravagant stage sets all pointed to conspicuous consumption. The débutante's new clothes alone could add up to $10,000. Popular magazines such as Life and Saturday Evening Post published pictures of the affairs for the public to view and possibly imagine that they too could be a part of the parties. As they had done for decades, New York's upper tier, such as the Vanderbilts, Belmonts, and Harrimans, continued their stylish summers in Newport, Rhode Island, with croquet on the lawns, cocktails, swimming, and sailing, oblivious to the world outside.
A problem that had greatly troubled the very rich during the 1920s was the servant problem. After World War I (1914–1918), fewer individuals were willing to work for the low wages coupled with long, irregular hours. As the Depression reached its lowest ebb in 1932, the servant pool grew dramatically. Women would work for as little as $4 a month and board. A gardener could be hired in Los Angeles for $1 a week. The easing of the servant problem greatly pleased the rich as they hated to abandon any part of their privileged lifestyle.
Trend setters for young people by the mid-and late 1930s were the celebrities of the so-called Café Society. Out of the darkest days of the Depression, as the country hit rock bottom, high society found its way out. The old New York speakeasies of prohibition days when the sale of alcohol beverage was illegal had transformed into trendy restaurants such as the Stork Club, El Morocco, and the Colony. Occupying tables at these establishments were an energy-charged, glittering social set.
Women from families such as Chicago's Marshall Fields, Boston's Kennedys, and New York's Vanderbilts rivaled the Hollywood stars to be the most fashionable and glamorous. Reigning glamour girl of the set in the late 1930s was Brenda Frazier, an heiress due to inherit four million dollars at age 21. She would dine and dance the night away with various handsome beaus. Brenda was an extraordinary beauty with black hair, penciled eyebrows, pale skin, and red, red lipstick. She started a national fad with the strapless evening gown. Tabloids and newspaper social columnists reported her every move. She became the idealized woman of the decade. Young women and girls across the country attempted to imitate her look and style.
Throughout the United States, in smaller towns and in cities, Americans who had managed to stay in the middle and upper middle class mimicked the Café Society. Young people pledged social clubs with names such as the Sub-Debs and Stardusters. The clubs entertained with teas, luncheons, picnics, and many dances. Protocol always included formal invitations and local newspaper coverage of every detail, including descriptions of flowers, dresses, table settings and, of course, the complete guest list. Within these social circles, especially in the later 1930s, the Depression ills seemed to have been overcome. One area, however, where the Depression's consequences would last for lifetimes was family relationships—babies, marriage, and divorce.
Effects on the Family—Babies, Marriage, and Divorce
The Great Depression put severe strain on family relationships. While some families grew closer in the face of adversity, others broke apart.
Hard times forced couples to postpone marriage. The marriage rate in 1929 was 10.14 marriages per 1,000 persons. By 1932 it dropped to 7.87 per 1,000 persons. Among those aged 25 to 35, the number of women who had never been married in 1935 was 30 percent higher compared to women of the same age group in 1930. Prolonged engagements were also common.
Birthrates dropped during the early years of the Depression. Many couples had fewer children or put off having children rather than bring them into the uncertain climate of the Depression. The birthrate, long declining, hit a low point in 1933 when only 75.7 of every 1,000 women of childbearing age gave birth. One-quarter of all women in the United States in their 20s during the Depression did not bear children.
Divorce rates dropped in the 1930s because people could not afford the costs of an official divorce. Between 1930 and 1935, 170,000 fewer divorces occurred than would have been predicted had 1920s divorce rates continued. Men just simply walked away. Unemployed men who had been dependable and self-respecting workers now took to the streets in search of jobs. A few weeks or months were endurable, but as the time period stretched to one or more years and families suffered, some men became so discouraged that they left and never went back. As husbands left their families without divorcing their wives, there were more than 1.5 million married women living apart from their husbands by 1940. Compared to 12 percent in 1930, 15 percent of all households were headed by females in 1940. As the Depression continued through the decade, the divorce rate did begin to increase and by 1940 was above the 1920s divorce levels.
Needy relatives stretched thin the resources of families. Single people in their late teens and early twenties and sometimes even young married couples lived with parents, resulting in crowded quarters and tensions. There was a lack of privacy, and young people often disliked close parental supervision.
Who Stayed Together?
The unemployment of the husband sometimes led to the wife taking a job outside the home. Even if it did not, a husband's unemployment always brought changes to the family relationships. The man's continual presence in the home might contribute to his loss of status. If the provider role in his family was his key to importance within the family, unemployment was devastating. On the other hand, if the father's role was primarily based on love and respect, the family often showed a remarkable stability in the face of unemployment. The attitudes of both husband and wife affected the family's adaptation. Companionship marriages where couples shared activities, mutual interests, work, and chores held together the best.
The Depression broke apart some families but others stayed close. The well-organized family, even if severely affected, tended to continue as a unit. The initially disorganized families became further fractured and often did not survive. An organized, adaptable family could accept a lower standard of living without losing its togetherness.
The Depression was terribly hard on young people aged 16 to 20. More than 200,000 youth left home in the 1930s looking for better opportunities. Those who stayed home learned to lower expectations. More stayed in high school. In 1930 less than one-half of youth aged 14 to 18 attended high school, but by 1940 three-quarters of that age group were in school. Those who did not continue on to college generally had a great deal of difficulty finding a job. It could take several years of job hunting to finally find work. Young people therefore remained dependent on their families longer in the 1930s than they had in the 1920s.
Those youth that could go on to college usually were on strict budgets, took part-time work—often at the college—and viewed their education as serious business. The college generation of the early 1930s was much less of a "rah-rah anything goes" group than the college students of the 1920s. They largely got on with the business of earning a degree. Campuses became involved with the social and political issues of the times. Students at UCLA and other large universities demonstrated for more involvement in administrative affairs. Liberal and communist groups were very active. Students of the 1930s, however, also found time to play. Football, fraternities, and other social clubs were popular diversions. Drinking and sexual promiscuity among students worried deans and parents alike as it had in the 1920s during prohibition. In 1935 a new campus craze emerged. Lothrop Withington, Jr., a freshman at Harvard, swallowed a live goldfish on a bet. Three days later another young man at Franklin and Marshall College downed three goldfish. The race was on to see who could swallow the most. Reportedly, in 1938, an M.I.T. student swallowed 42 in succession.
The Depression's Most Susceptible Victims
While 25 percent of the national workforce overall was unemployed, national unemployment of black Americans stood at 48 percent, much higher in some cities, especially in the south. The unemployment rate among blacks in Memphis, Tennessee, was 75 percent and in Charleston, South Carolina, was 70 percent.
While for some middle-class white families the Depression was an inconvenience or at worst a disruption of their usual daily life, for already poor black Americans and the elderly the Depression turned into a struggle for survival. Likewise, Mexican Americans and American Indians faced a harsh existence during the Depression.
Over 75 percent of black Americans lived in the South, where the conditions of their Depression life were very difficult. Most had always lived in extreme poverty, and the widespread economic plunge had only made life more miserable. Eighty percent were agricultural laborers and worked as hired hands, sharecroppers, or tenant farmers. Tenant farming is a system of farm work where the families supply their own tools but rent the farmland for cash. Sharecropping is a system of farm work where a landlord supplies the tools and land to be farmed. Both tenant farming and sharecropping requires the family to give a part of the crops to the landlord. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers work all spring and summer to have something left over to live on in the fall. More than likely after rents, sharecropping fees, grocery bills, and doctor bills were paid, little or nothing was left. This meant there was no money to live on all winter. In early spring owners would advance the families $10 a month for seed and to live on. That was $10 for a family of perhaps eight or more. For picking cotton a hired hand might be paid as low as twenty cents for one hundred pounds. For a 14-hour day a hand might make only 60¢.
Most rural black American families lived in housing that could only be described as shacks which had no windows or screens, little furniture, dirt floors, and no sanitation or running water. Bathing was done in a tin tub, making personal cleanliness difficult to achieve. Most lived on a diet of corn bread, greens from the garden, hominy grits (corn), salt pork, and molasses. Malnutrition was common. Most women faced childbirth without a doctor or midwife because they could neither pay medical fees nor find transportation into town. In the early 1930s, black women died in childbirth at almost twice the rate of white women. Their children were more than twice as likely to die before reaching one year of age than were those of whites. If children attended school at all it was generally in one-room substandard structures that families in the community had banded together to build. Parents hoped their children could get enough education to read, write, and "figure" so as not to get cheated. Rural high schools for black students in the South were all but nonexistent. There were technical high schools for blacks in some southern cities. With no power, few connections, little education, and being surrounded by the racist activities of terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, blacks kept to themselves, did not protest, and did their best to live.
Approximately three million blacks lived in northern cities and were not much better off than those in the South. The Works Progress Administration estimated a family of four needed $800 a year just to survive, but those employed blacks generally earned much less, often less than $500 a year. Industrial jobs that blacks held in the 1920s, such as coal mining and construction, became all but nonexistent in the 1930s. Traditional jobs such as chauffeurs, maids, cooks, elevator operators, door hops, garbage collectors, and hospital attendants disappeared as the middle and upper middle class saw their salaries decline. By 1933 many of these same white Americans realized they could rehire household help, either black or white, for pitiful wages. Four dollars a week for long, unpredictable hours was common.
The Depression years also saw an increase in racial violence against black Americans by unemployed whites competing for the same jobs. Black Americans were often intimidated into quitting.
Northern urban blacks fared no better than southern blacks when it came to housing. Blacks, along with poor urban whites, were crowded into tiny apartments. Buildings that once housed sixty families now were crammed with two hundred families. Landlords accomplished this by dividing a six-room apartment into six tiny "kitchenettes," each with a single bed, refrigerator and hot plate. All six families shared a single bathroom. The previous six-room apartment had brought in $50 a month, but the same space subdivided into six kitchenettes brought $142 a month. Landlords' profits soared.
If families failed to pay their rent, a city official would show up to evict the tenants, putting all their belongings out on the street. In Caroline Bird's memoir of the Depression, The Invisible Scar, she noted, "Eviction was so common that children in a Philadelphia day care center made a game of it. They would pile all the doll furniture up first in one corner and then in another" (1966, p. 34). Nevertheless, neighborhood networks were created in the buildings, and eviction protests developed in some cities, namely New York, Baltimore, and as far away as Sioux City, Iowa. Men and women, greatly outnumbering officials, would gather, march to an eviction site, put all the tenants' belongings back into the apartment and thereby buy two or three months of time before officials showed up again.
As in the South, malnutrition and diet-related diseases such as rickets and pellagra were common. Although many vacant lots were turned into gardens, many inner-city families still had no access to any garden vegetables. Children would wait at the back door of the butchers for chicken feet or bones—anything for a watery soup. Restaurant garbage was scrounged through daily. Schools recognized that many children were suffering from malnutrition. An estimated one-fifth of children living in New York City were malnourished.
As a consequence of the poverty, just as in the middle-class families experiencing unemployment, poor families broke apart under the strain. Lack of a steady job left men devoid of their role as breadwinner and authority figure. Because of desertion or premature death, it is estimated that as many as 50 percent of black American urban families were without a husband and father. Many mothers both worked outside the home and cared for children and all domestic duties.
Overall, public relief programs helped many more whites than blacks. Before 1933 relief agencies often turned blacks away or gave them much less than they gave white families. President Roosevelt, inaugurated in March 1933, attempted to correct some of the inequalities with his New Deal programs. By 1935 almost 30 percent of black families received some sort of aid, and in some cities 50 percent were receiving aid. Roosevelt became very popular with black Americans.
During the early years of the twentieth century, more and more Americans over 65 years of age lived in cities. As had younger people, they had followed the growing job market in urban factories and other industrial jobs. As they aged they could no longer keep up with the rigorous physical demands of such jobs. Before industrialization extended farm families cared for the aging, but urban elderly workers had no such extended family care. Most had no pensions, and social security payments did not exist. When they lost their job, they quickly fell into poverty, living off their meager savings. By the end of the 1920s, it was estimated 50 percent of the elderly lived at the poverty level.
For many older Americans the Depression became a nightmare when numerous banks failed between 1929 and 1933. Some elderly lost all of their savings and were left with nothing. Others saw their incomes disappear with the stock market crash. Often, the few pension plans that existed with companies were poorly planned and collapsed. Twenty-eight states offered state-funded pension programs, but most paid very little, between $7 and $30 a month. Proud older Americans—often loyal employees all their lives—were forced to turn to relatives and friends who were also struggling or to private charities. Dignity and self-respect were lost. Many elderly neither had adequate food nor housing and were forced to move in with relatives, usually their children.
The Depression forced many thousands of the poorest to leave their homes and travel the country looking for work or eventually giving up. The nomads included single men who had left their families; young adult males leaving families in search of a better life; rural families uprooted by the 1935 and 1936 Dust Bowl storms which affected eight mid-western states from Texas and Oklahoma to Montana and the Dakotas; and tenant and farm laborers. Many headed for California to work as migrant farm workers. Transportation included hitchhiking, jumping on a freight train boxcar, or piling in an old car for the journey. While on the road getting enough to eat was very difficult. People asked for handouts at backdoors in towns along the way, found an occasional meal at a mission or shelter in bigger cities, or stole from farmers or shopkeepers rather than starve. Single drifters often slept on the ground and ate in "jungle" campsites along the railroads. When subfreezing temperatures hit, people did not have adequate clothing or overcoats. Many developed severe health problems and suffered from malnutrition. Deaths from pneumonia and tuberculosis were common. Those hopping on and off moving boxcars often were injured or killed.
Once the destitute travelers arrived in California or Oregon, life did not improve much. Some found jobs on farms, in canneries, or picking fruit and vegetables up and down the west coast. Some applied for relief, and many resorted to begging. Cities and towns could barely care for their own poor and offered little in the way of housing. Shantytowns known as "Hoovervilles" sprung up on vacant land, so called because of the derision in which President Herbert Hoover (served 1929–1933) was held by many in the public, who saw him as responsible for their Depression woes. Despite his search to alleviate the harsh economic situation, Hoover held fast to his opposition of granting money to feed hungry Americans. He referred to direct relief as the "dole." Calling the shacks, often made of scraps of wood, cardboard, or tin—any material that could be found or pulled from the rivers, "Hoovervilles" was an effective insult to the president.
Indeed, a scornful vocabulary evolved using Hoover's name. "Hoover blankets" were old newspapers. "Hoover flags" referred to empty pocket linings turned inside out. Jackrabbits caught for food in the country were "Hoover hogs." Broken down cars moving only with the help of mules were "Hoover wagons."
The residents of Hoovervilles shopped for their food at the local dumps and in the garbage of restaurants. Many lived in tents, cooking outside. Families crowded into the shacks or tents and had no water or sinks. One toilet would serve many. Garbage was tossed on the ground. Children paid a terrible price. They were malnourished, sick, had no schooling, and had been pulled away from all familiar surroundings. In the worst years of the Depression (1930–1933), increased numbers of children were placed in orphanages by parents who could no longer support them. The number of children entering orphanages increased by 50 percent between 1930 and 1931.
The Depression came at the culmination of several decades of unprecedented prosperity—decades in which many families were making the important and nearly irreversible adaptation to a mass consumption society. The 1920s were marked by the new material culture—the automobile, the lure of new time-saving devices such as washing machines; fashionable clothes in store windows; the freedom of youth; the rage for jazz, radio and movies; and the intrusion of school and community affairs into the life of the family. All had occurred since the late nineteenth century and with the new materialism, the growing sense that people lacked control over those changes within their own family grew. Family breakdowns due to the pressure of changing values increasingly concerned social scientists.
Family expectations with respect to the standard of living were high. Perhaps more than anything else, owning a car represented the American dream. Through the 1920s car makers came out with new models every year and for every size pocketbook. Car manufacturers encouraged consumers to trade their year-old model in and to trade up; that is, buy a more expensive model each year. The number of gasoline stations rapidly increased. Standard Oil went from 12 stations in 1920 to one thousand stations in 1929. When the Depression hit in 1929 Americans found they had lots of reliable cars that with good care could keep on running.
The 1920s were a time of spending. Shopping was a national pastime. A revolution in merchandising was establishing fast-growing chain stores across the nation. The chain stores offered a broad selection, lower prices than "mom and pop" stores, and convenience for the housewife. Lerner Dress Shops grew from six stores in 1920 to 133 stores in 1929. In that same time period, Woolworth enlarged from 1,111 stores to 1,825 stores, J.C. Penney from 312 to 1,395, and Western Auto Supply from three to 54 stores. The 1920s ushered in commercial advertising. Products were described in flashy color ads in national magazines. General Electric refrigerators, Listerine mouth-wash, Coca-Cola, Palmolive soap, and cigarette companies all pushed their products via advertisements. Magazines and newspapers received a majority of their revenue from advertising by 1925. Grocery store chains such as A & P, Safeway, and Piggly Wiggly sprang up nationwide. The power of buying soared for millions. Wives of construction laborers could afford store-bought food products, silk stockings, and fashionable dresses.
No group exemplified the excitement and gusto of the 1920s more than young adults. Girls cut their hair to the ear level in a style called the "bob" and hemmed dresses as high as the knees. Raccoon coats and peek-a-boo hats completed the dress of the fashionable young lady. These "flappers" could dance the night away doing the shimmy, black bottom, and Charleston. Born in black American communities, the jazz craze swept the country. More and more young men owned cars and parked them at city overlooks and dark roads to "neck" with girlfriends. Morals liberalized. A hip topic was physician and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's views on sexual complexities.
Reaching the mass market in the 1920s, radio sales rose. In 1922, sixty thousand families owned radios, and by 1930 13,750,000 did so. Fictional characters Little Orphan Annie and Tarzan were created in the 1920s and their adventures aired through the radio waves. Going to the movies also became a way of life for most Americans. Sets were magnificent in this fantasy world where adventure and sex dominated the screen. By 1927 "talkies" arrived, adding even more inducement. By 1929–30 close to 100 million people went to the movies weekly.
The pleasure loving, self-gratification society did not reach into all homes. Many farming families already feeling the pinch of low prices for their products had likely rarely bought a store-made dress, didn't know who Freud was, had only seen flappers in magazines and the movies, knew little of jazz, and went to church faithfully. Most of their life was untouched by the extravagance of the 1920s. For these reasons, farming families not devastated by the Dust Bowl or set adrift from their tenant or sharecropping farms probably weathered the Depression as well as any group.
By the early 1930s, family values and lifestyles for all but the most wealthy would be altered. How well people adjusted to lower incomes and a reduced standard of living determined their lifestyle of the 1930s and whether or not their family life survived.
Even after the stock market crash in 1929, most Americans wanted to believe President Hoover (served 1929–1933) that everything was basically all right. The American optimism continued for a time. Immediately after the crash, most people resumed going about their everyday business. As the months, then years, began to drag by with little improvement, some still clung to their optimism, but many others turned highly pessimistic.
Those individuals who had lost their jobs began to believe that they would not be able to find work. Many became highly pessimistic, as it was most difficult to be optimistic when you were hungry. Some people were so demoralized by the hard times that they lost their will to survive. Between 1928 and 1932, the suicide rate rose by nearly 30 percent. Also, three times as many people were admitted to state mental hospitals than in previous years.
The working class, middle class, and upper middle class were steeped in the American work ethic and self-reliance. When these Americans found themselves unemployed or with greatly lowered wages, the psychological impact of the Great Depression became apparent. These once-proud individuals were deeply embarrassed by the situation in which they and their families found themselves. If they sought relief, they often begged that their request for help be kept confidential. They always pointed out how long and hard they had worked. They stressed they did not want charity, but were only asking to borrow money for a time. Riots or protests rarely broke out, for the men and women of the Depression ultimately blamed themselves for their predicament.
More About… Women's Fashion
Between the stock market crash of 1929 to the beginning of the New Deal in 1933, fashions for the American women changed dramatically, replacing the short straight lines of the 1920s. Hemlines plummeted just as the market had. By 1930 evening dresses touched the ground. By 1933 the hemlines of everyday dresses reached halfway between the knees and shoes. The flat-busted straight dresses of the 1920s gave way to curvaceous, womanly outfits. Lingerie of the 1930s followed suit. Hats were likely to be small, perky, and resting on the top of the head. The tight helmet hat of the 1920s was definitely out.
Those who could afford store-bought dresses could view examples of them in store windows adorning lifelike mannequins or in various catalogues. The Depression triggered a return to simple fabrics and design. Cost became a prime consideration in dress design, from material to cut out to decoration. The dominant look for women's everyday dress was a simple printed dress made of synthetic material, reasonably priced, and easy to accessorize. Women used hats, a "pocketbook," gloves, and jewelry to help change the look of rather plain outfits. The dresses reflected the nation's quieter, more somber mood as compared to the high-spirited flapper look of the 1920s. By 1934 the bright practical dresses served the hard times and the new working women well. Dresses made of polka-dot material were very cheery and popular. The typical cost of a practical dress was $4.50. Those many thrifty-minded women who sewed their own clothes took their ideas of styles from the store windows and catalogues.
By 1940 the hemline of the everyday dress had changed again—upward to just below the knee. Hemlines would continue to rise and fall through the 1960s, causing women to purchase new wardrobes frequently to keep fashionable and sustain the income of the garment industry. Sometime in the mid-1970s, hems became less important with length left up to the individual.
Having been employed all their lives, older Americans were bitter that the Depression had taken all the joy from their last years. Up to 50 percent of Americans 65 years and older lived in poverty and in fear that necessary medical care would not be available to them. They often thought of themselves as the forgotten men and women of the Depression.
When Roosevelt came into power and started offering programs for the poor, people for the first time had hope. Black and white Americans came to nearly worship the new president. They were glued to his fireside chats, soaking in his confidence. Most would have followed him anywhere. When the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps became organized, even many drifters went back home because they qualified for help in their own states.
Individuals often thought of the Roosevelts as parental figures. They frequently wrote letters for help directly to the Roosevelts. It was not unusual for writers to offer cherished possessions as security for loans they requested from the Roosevelts.
Middle Class Who Stayed Put
Middle-class Americans continued to believe that hard work, thrift, and self-reliance would bring them through. Tomorrow was bound to be a better day. Families spent a lot of time with each other. They were always willing to lend a helping hand or share with less fortunate families. It was also very important to "keep up appearances." They might paint the outside of their house, make their own clothes or shop for nice secondhand clothes found at thrift stores, and attend social gatherings in homes or churches.
The very affluent or wealthy continued to believe people should work for whatever they got. They believed people on relief were lazy and incompetent and lacked the virtue of thrift. Although the suffering of other American families made them nervous or uneasy, they carried on with their lives of privilege with rarely any alteration.
Differences Between Men and Women
Unemployed men were more affected by their situation than their wives. Women could continue their rounds of cooking, cleaning, and mending, while men often seemed helpless when their routine was disrupted. Some unemployed men helped with housework, and companion marriages developed. Others, however, deeply resented doing "women's chores" and felt an acute loss of self-esteem.
Married Working Women
For most white Americans, a working wife was a stigma on the husband and families. Although a George Gallup Poll showed that 805 of the men surveyed did not want their wives to work for pay, for many it was an economic necessity. Married working women were often criticized for taking jobs away from men. In a 1936 Gallup Poll, 82 percent of the respondents agreed married women should not work if their husbands had jobs. Interestingly, black families did not share the white value system. Black Americans had a much higher proportion than whites of married women in the labor force at all economic levels. It had long been accepted in black American culture that married black women worked outside the home as a necessity to make ends meet.
At a Glance The Dionne Quintuplets
A sensational Canadian news story broke in 1934 that captured the interest of Depression Americans. In the backwoods town of Callander, Ontario, on May 28, Mrs. Ovida Dionne gave birth to five baby girls. The babies were identical quintuplets whose combined birth weight was under ten pounds. A country doctor, Allen Roy Dafoe, delivered the girls, who were named Annette, Cecile, Emilie, Marie, and Yvonne.
When their survival seemed assured, newspaper men, movie men, advertising agents, and tourists began arriving in Callander. For the quintuplets' protection, they were made wards of the King and had fourteen individuals on their payroll. By the ages of four, they already owned $600,000 in government bonds earned through movie contracts and fees. The town of Callander received up to three thousand visitors—eight thousand on weekends—to visit the Dafoe Nursery. Americans eagerly followed their development throughout the 1930s, and they were a popular topic of household conversation.
The stigma of poverty remained with many people for the rest of their lives. The memories of scrimping and going without never really disappeared. Likewise, for many, even if they themselves were not devastated, the Depression pictures of starving and homeless families left indelible impressions. The fear persisted that it could happen again, and they might then be the homeless. Hence, achieving financial security and then maintaining that security became the foremost goal of many Americans. People developed habits of saving and thrift that saw them through the 1930s and into the dark days of World War II (1939–1945). When food was rationed in World War II, Americans quickly adjusted. They had practiced doing with less for the entire decade prior to the war. So-called "victory gardens" appeared in backyards and city vacant lots just as in the 1930s. Married women worked outside the home in factories supporting the war effort. After the war most returned to raising children and taking care of domestic duties, but many enjoyed the partnership style of marriage that had evolved in the 1930s. Marriage partners shared more duties and enjoyed activities together. Married women working outside the home, however, would not gain wide acceptance until the late 1960s and 1970s.
Following World War II, the United States as a whole experienced unprecedented prosperity through the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, many of those who lived through the Depression held tightly onto all possessions with the rationale that you never knew when times would turn bad and something you needed would not be available.
The Depression-era "psyche" also contributed to the infamous generation gap experienced by young people and their parents in the late 1960s and 1970s. Having lived only in times of plenty, many young people of those decades questioned the strong emphasis of their parents on money and possessions. That emphasis seemed to have been more lasting than the helping and sharing attitudes of the 1930s. When young people decried their parents' materialism, many older Depression-era Americans were baffled. The resulting "generation gap" loomed wide and for many families never closed.
Louis Armstrong (1901?–1971). Born in New Orleans, Armstrong learned to play the cornet as a teenager and played in local jazz clubs. Even at this early age, Armstrong's natural ability, unique style, and passionate playing caught attention. He moved to Chicago in 1922 to play with Joe "King" Oliver, a premier horn player from New Orleans who had moved north. In 1924 Armstrong joined the Fletcher Henderson big band in New York City. He became a trumpet player and innovative soloist. Returning to Chicago, he went on to become the premier trumpeter in jazz. His influence in the jazz world was unmatched. His early recordings are classics: "Hot Five," the "Hot Seven," and the "Savoy Ballroom Five." Recordings that rank as the greatest in jazz include "Cornet Chop Suey," "West End Blues," and "Potato Head Blues."
Hattie Carnegie (1889–1956). Hattie Carnegie was one of the most well-respected and popular dress designers of the 1930s. She began as a milliner (hat maker) with a shop on East Tenth Street in New York City. Although never learning to sew herself, she began designing dresses. She believed in simple but beautiful clothes and soon was the talk of the fashionable women of New York. Carnegie's original designer clothes were too expensive for most Americans, but were copied by other designers and produced at lower prices. Carnegie herself soon designed an inexpensive line of ready-to-wear clothing that she allowed some department stores to carry. Her influence was extensive over both designer and everyday clothing.
Lilly Daché (1913–1990). Lilly Daché was the most well known milliner of the 1930s. By 1940, 47 department stores sold her hats for $25 apiece. Daché opened her own shop producing forty to fifty hats a day in the late 1920s, and by the early 1930s moved into her own building. Daché's hats, which were produced utilizing a wide range of fabrics and design, usually had brims tilted to the side. She made hats for many Hollywood stars. Police often had to be called to her hat sales as customers fought over the hats.
At a Glance"Jigs"
By 1934 over 3,500,000 jigsaw puzzles were in the hands of Americans. Whether the attraction was solving a problem or not having to worry about the more serious matters of the day, people diligently worked over the puzzles. Puzzles consisting of hundreds or thousands of irregular-shaped little pieces lay on a table waiting to be fitted together into a single picture.
At first, puzzles were expensive wood cuts, but a New England entrepreneur began cutting puzzles from heavy cardboard. These more affordable jigsaws sold from ten cents up to a few dollars for a thousand-piece colossal puzzle. By 1934 they could be found at newsstands, drugstores, toy departments with adult games, and shops where books and stationery were sold. Throughout the 1930s solving jigsaw puzzles remained a favorite national pastime.
Lou Gehrig (1903–1941). In 1931, following the great Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig had become the captain and symbol of the New York Yankees. Baseball was the favorite American sport during the Depression, and Gehrig became a baseball hero. He hit four home runs in one game on June 3, 1932. In 1934 he won baseball's triple crown and was awarded his second MVP in 1936. He played in 2,130 consecutive games, earning the name "the Iron Horse." Gehrig died in 1941 of a degenerative muscle disease—Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis—that now bears his name.
Benny Goodman (1909–1986). Benny Goodman, known as the "King of Swing," introduced swing to America in 1935. Swing was a form of jazz. His recording, "The Music Goes 'Round and 'Round," fueled the swing rage. Goodman quickly gained a national, then an international, reputation as a clarinetist and swing bandleader.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, was viewed as a champion of the American people. She worked tirelessly for women's rights in the work place, supported civil rights for black Americans, and lent a compassionate ear to working class families and the unemployed. She was a chief advisor to the President and frequently helped him devise political policies.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945). President Franklin D. Roosevelt instilled confidence in the American people mired in a deep Depression. Families eagerly gathered around the radio for his regular "fireside chats," through which he reported the whys and wherefores of his numerous programs. As he established his New Deal agencies, many people began to regain hope that the future would take a turn for the better.
Lowell Thomas (1892–1981). Lowell Thomas made his radio debut in 1930 as a news reader. After the first six months, Thomas was heard only on NBC until 1947. He had a strong voice without a trace of an accent and presented balanced political commentary in his nightly broadcast. In 1939 Thomas broadcast NBC's first televised news program.
Growing Up in Rural Texas
Rita Van Amber, in Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Vol. II, (pp. 6–7) shares the memories of George Stockard of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, when he was growing up in rural East Texas:
We were a large family; at times sixteen sat around the table. That included aunts and cousins brought in to Grandma's house when we learned they had no food or money. I was sixteen years old.
This was Texas, 80 miles east of Dallas. It was 1931 when the depression really hit. Oil wells had stopped operating because prices of consumer goods had dropped out of sight.
We lived on a farm and raised and sold cotton, peanuts, and all kinds of fruits and vegetables. We had our own cattle for beef and milk, plus hogs for butchering and to sell as well. There was lots of waste out there for the hogs to fatten up on. But we didn't have electricity then and ice had to be shipped in. It was a valued commodity, especially in the warm season which we had a lot of.…
Jobs were unheard of, and when the drought hit we were lucky to be able to raise some of our food for our accumulated family.
Women made everything out of flour sacks from the Hackers Best flour mills. Yukon flour was popular, but the ink didn't wash well. When the girls strolled by with new skirts on we called them "Yukon Queens." They wore "prairie skirts," and when the wind blew it did all sorts of flirty things with them.
Our parents had to learn to be inventive and make do and passed these qualities on to their kids. We actually had a lot of fun. We'd work incredibly hard to figure out how to make a toy and then scrounge to find the scraps of material to build it. We made the Paddle & Wheel. A syrup-can lid provided the wheel and a stick and handle made a toy you never tired of playing with, going up and down the dusty roads and fields. The stick horse, of course, never went out of vogue especially for the smaller ones who couldn't keep up with some of our big toys. The Flying Jenny was something else. The biggest we made was a true to life merry-go-round. Crude and rough, but it went around and was made to last. Our wagons had wheels cut from logs. Big boys had to do the cutting, but we all had wagons for play and for our chores. And we had the swimming hole. Boys stepped out of their overalls and jumped in and the girls came after, put on the overall and jumped in, too. It was wonderful through all the hot weather. No electricity meant no air conditioning and no refrigeration. Ice was scarce.
The following is a description of a shantytown, or Hooverville, located in Knoxville, Tennessee, as recounted by Fan Flanigan. This selection was collected by team members of a Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration and compiled into a 1939 book, These Are Our Lives (pp. 372–373):
As much sand and gravel as they is about here, you wouldn't hardly think nothing would grow. But it does. Every house down here, they's a spot for a garden near it if them that lives in it ain't too trifling to put it in. We have plenty of corn and 'taters and cucumbers and tomatoes in season. We shares with them that ain't got any if they's been down on their luck. I has flowers, too. Them seeds over there in the drying box is every one of them flower seeds. I save them from one year to the next.…
It's all right here … and I like it pretty fair as long as the river don't start acting up. We don't have no rent to pay, jest sort of squat here betwixt the railroad tracks and the water and build our places out of what we can git off the dump and the wood we can ketch floating down the river. Me and mammy been here sence [sic] nineteen and thirty-two, that hard old year.…
You kind of grow to like this place… You'd like any place, though, if you live in it long enough, I reckon. A rich man up to Knoxville give this whole strip betwixt the bridges for poor folks to build they houses on. Them that come first taken the pick of what they was here. Ma done that. She come right after Pop died. We use to live in that biggest house over there. My brother'in'law lives there now. Him and Sis had sech a flock of children you couldn't stretch a leg without tromping on one. So me and Mammy moved out. This one room here we has is fair size and plenty for us. Mammy owns that brother-in-law house. She don't own a stick of this one.
When you git your claim that rich man don't care what you make your house of. But the's one thing about it, the outside, I mean the roof, is got to be tin. That's the law. No way to put out a fire in Shanty Town. So it's tin roofs here or you can't put up a house.
The Upper Crust
The most wealthy families in the United States seemed to have gone through the Depression relatively unscathed. The daughters of those privileged families, débutantes, were young women being introduced in high society. The débutante's ball was the parent's lavish way of making the announcement that their daughter had reached marriageable age. In New York society, two hundred or more débutantes were introduced each year. In addition to her own ball, each débutante was expected to attend many other balls, luncheons, and teas. The December 1930 issue of Fortune magazine, in a short article titled "The $3,000,000 Machine" (pp. 96, 98), reports on the average cost of a ball and on the average débutante clothes allowance. Remember these figures are in 1930 dollars:
With these expenditures the ball should be paid for unless late in the evening a guest happens to throw a potted palm at a mirror. But that is rare. Thus, taking an approximate average of the…figures, we find that a débutante's ball cost:
Ballroom … $500
Music … 1,350
Supper … 3,000
Entertainment … 500
Cigarettes … 200
Mineral water … 250
Champagne … 2,000
Tips … 400
Flowers … 2,500
Invitations … 800
(Total) … $11,500
Which can probably be made less, which can, but very easily, be made more …
There remains the matter of clothes. The average débutante allowance is $200 a month, and the time during which she buys clothes is from September to March, which would give her $1,400 for clothes if she didn't have to pay for taxis. However, the parents provide and will usually give the offspring an evening wrap, three best evening dresses, and a fur coat. Most girls wear $7.00 or $8.00 hats and cheap evening slippers, satindyed and with buckles that can go from one pair to the next. It must be remembered that débutantes dance continuously and that no matter how gallant the swain, he is prone to step on her toes. The débutante's evening wardrobe will probably consist of four good evening dresses ($150–$250), four others for lesser occasions ($100), one new evening coat with fur, and one old one. And it is quite all right to wear the same dress twice in the same week, but never should one wear it on consecutive nights. Your débutante can dress on $4,000 and be very smart, and there is no reason why she cannot meet the situation with $3,000. Be it said, however, that the above statements are anathema to most of New York's smartest shops. Bergdorf Goodman, for instance, cannot imagine the débutante who does not spend at least $10,000 on her clothes…
This was a large sum of money as $10,000 in 1930s dollars would be equal to more than $100,000 in 2000 dollars.
- What pressures did the American family experience during the Great Depression? Were there fewer births, marriages, divorces? If so, explain likely reasons.
- What groups of Americans had their lifestyles severely affected? Which groups fared better? Are there any groups whose lifestyle went unaffected?
- Make a list of persons who students know that lived during the Depression. Decide on which person to interview. Develop questions ahead of time. Tape record the interview and later transcribe the recording into notes. Share this oral history with the class.
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