1930s: The Way We Lived
1930s: The Way We Lived
The Great Depression (1929–41) that started with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, affected almost every part of people's lives during the 1930s. The optimism of the 1920s slowly faded as various efforts to "fix" the economic downturn did not work. More and more people lost their jobs and could not find others. Americans suffered as they never had before. Record numbers of people were unemployed. Nearly one million people paraded in towns across the country in "hunger marches" in 1930. For the elderly who lost their life savings in the stock market crash and for those who had purchased on credit and now did not have jobs to support their payments, the 1930s were a disaster. Thousands of sharecroppers in the South—tenant farmers who bought on credit—were unable to pay their landlords and were thrown off their farms. Millions of children lost the chance for an education as thousands of schools closed because of lack of funds to maintain schools and pay teachers. Charities and local governments could not provide enough aid to help the starving. The Great Depression took a long time for business and government to understand and correct.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), who was elected in 1932, had a plan to help. He reorganized the federal government to offer aid to suffering Americans. His plan, called the "New Deal," offered temporary work, financial support, home and farm loans, and federal protection of bank savings to millions of Americans. The New Deal created the beginning of the modern welfare state, a state that looked out for the good of its population.
Even though many have described the 1930s as a time when life stood still, the way Americans lived did change. Some of the biggest changes came from the massive construction projects during the decade. At the beginning of the decade, some magnificent structures were built, including the Empire State Building (1931) and Rockefeller Center (1934). These privately funded buildings marked a change in American cities toward massive structures, called skyscrapers. They were impressive architecturally and continue to be symbols of the New York City skyline, but they stood mostly empty during most of the Depression. The New Deal created other impressive construction projects. These federally funded projects, including the Fort Peck Dam (1940) on the Missouri River in Montana and the Hoover Dam (1935) on the Colorado River between Nevada and Arizona, were more successful financially. These large federal projects offered electricity to those in need and created revenues (sources of regular income) to repay federal loans on time.
The Depression did not wipe out all the good times. People did find ways to have fun. The automobile continued to be an important part of American life. For some families, it was the one luxury they would not give up. New drive-in theaters offered people a chance to stay in their cars and enjoy films played on huge outdoor screens. The Apollo Theater opened in 1934 in Harlem, New York, as the first entertainment theater for African Americans. Teenagers across America had to postpone marriage because they could not find jobs, but they dated each other to pass the time. Other social activities included such odd fads as goldfish-swallowing contests.