(Changes in American Life)


Depression to World War II

It amazes me that in the mad rush towards tomorrow, that many seem to have lost the desire to understand, or even care about, how we arrived at our current destination. Our trip has been like a science fiction movie, except it is no longer sci-fi. It is a reality. In this series, I will bring you along as we moved from the farm to space in less than a century. Let’s get started.


Despite the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, the United States pretty much remained an agrarian society until the end of World War II.

On October 29, 1929, when the American Stock Market took a dump, the Roaring Twenties (the anything goes decade) came to a screeching halt. Herbert Hoover was president, a man of intellect with good ideas who seemed dumbfounded as to how to deal with the fallout. He coined the slogan, “a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage.” He failed to notice that there was no fuel for the stove nor gasoline for the vehicle. The general public did not feel the economic slump for almost two years until the Great Depression took hold.


America was at a standstill when President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March of 1933, promising a New Deal that would include the common man. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, shanty towns called ‘Hoovervilles” popped up overnight. Men without jobs nor any hope of finding work took to riding the rails. Hobo camps along railroad lines became a blot on the land. They were not abandoning their families. They hit the road because their women and children could not obtain welfare (known as relief in those days) as long as an able-bodied male resided in the home. It made no difference that there was no work.


Veterans of World War I were promised a bonus, based on their service. Those who served in an area of hostilities would receive more. In the spring of 1932, they settled into their own Hooverville in Washington, D.C., actually begging for a down payment on the promised bonus. Brigadier General Pelham D. Glassford, chief of the Washington police, provided them with makeshift housing in empty government buildings. When space ran out, others were settled into a swampy area by the Potomac River, where General Glassford prevailed upon the Army to provide them with tents, cots and a field kitchen. He referred to the veterans as “my boys,” and they looked to him as a savior. At Hoover’s urging, the Senate voted to kill the bonus bill. Most of the crestfallen veterans gave up their cause and went home.


Almost 9,000 decided to stay on. President Hoover felt their occupation of the area would adversely affect his re-election campaign and ordered the Army, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, to disperse the encampment. Early on the morning of July 28, 1932, MacArthur, with a young major, named Dwight D. Eisenhower at his side, swept into the mass of humanity, accompanied by armaments that included tear gas and sabers, dispersing the haggard squatters who were no match for such an assault.


Poverty was not new in farming communities when Wall Street went down in 1929. Almost 3 million were unemployed by then due to deflated crop prices, soil depletion and farm mechanization. The depression hit like a bolt of lightning, adding to their already untenable economic problems. Banks, suffering their own problems, foreclosed on farmers before the awful truth hit urban areas. Insurance Companies paid pennies on the dollar for those properties, although the banks were blamed. The middle class began to disappear. Those who opened credit accounts during the lucrative twenties, for “things,” found themselves in debt over their heads without means to make payments.


Even some of those with money went broke. The working class and the poor found themselves in the same dire condition. No money and no job. Banks were in disarray. Savings disappeared. A rush to withdraw funds from banks, caused many to close their doors after no funds were left to dispense. Families struggling to just get by were forced to share their homes with others, who were losing theirs, in order to not find themselves homeless on the streets. While Washington wavered, ordinary people discussed their problems and the day’s events at the supper table. It was the social hour of the day for most.

Today’s homeless population is a pittance of that during the thirties when, at its peak, the economy was so depressed that 25% of American workers, predominantly men, were unemployed.


President Hoover deemed providing relief to the unemployed destroyed character; the incoming president felt that if a man were provided a stipend for government work he would maintain his dignity until things got better. Roosevelt was a visionary while Hoover believed in the status quo. By the spring of 1932, the economy ultimately collapsed and in some states, ordinary people were dying in the streets of starvation and malnutrition.


In mid-1933, a thousand local governments were facing bankruptcy and ruin. Charities all but disappeared. Grocery stores were looted by thousands of starving citizens. Despite the despair, the monied class continued to prosper, milking the system. The ultra-wealthy organized tax strikes and liquidated private charities to the detriment of those who had the most need and the least resources.


Meanwhile, on the home front, the perennial poor and dislocated were joined by the disappearing middle-classes who lost everything with the market crash. Extended families grew into existence overnight. Homeless uncles, aunts and grandmothers, with no biological connection, popped up in families who were barely able to fend for their own. Americans held out a hand to those in need as they have never before nor since.


Single teenagers who had only recently set out in the world to make their own way and fortunes, found themselves back home with their parents, as did young married couples. Planned weddings were shelved until some later date. Birth rates plummeted. Divorce declined due to necessity and cost. Self-representation and waiver of court fees were unheard of. Equal rights were for those who could afford them. Childhood diseases were rampant, especially among the poor and homeless, mostly due to unsanitary conditions. It became a decade of vaccinations.


Native Americans, Mexicans, Asians and Blacks were last in line for anything. The ugly face of bigotry and discrimination was prevalent up and down the east coast and as far west as the Mississippi. The Ku Klux Klan was solidly embedded in the South. If a restroom was labeled, “White Only” it meant just what it said. All others used “Colored Only.” Such rules were enforced by the dreaded horsemen, dressed in white robes and masks, waving their torches of death and destruction for any who disobeyed.


Few women with children were part of the workforce. Their employment mostly involved being wife, mother, housekeeper cook and doing the bidding of their husbands. She cooked, kept house, raised the children and expected her spouse to support them through his employment. They shopped and knew where something could be purchased for a nickel or dime less, mended clothing and worked the pedals of Singer Sewing Machines to make their clothing from flour sacks, or to reduce the size of hand me downs to fit the younger children. Cardboard often became inner soles of school children’s shoes because resoling was too expensive. It was a time of “do it yourself, or it doesn’t get done.”

There were no laundromats. Homemade yellow lye soap, a washboard and a number 3 washtub heated over a backyard fire pit sufficed as laundry in cities as well as farms. Women scrubbed overalls, on those washboards until their knuckles bled, every Monday morning and hung clothes on a back yard clothesline. Washing machines and wringers were rare. Clothes were wrung out by hand.


When women were forced out of the house to take jobs as maids and cooks in the homes of those with wealth, men resented becoming “housewives.” They resented doing “women’s work.” The ‘little woman’s” place was in the home, not taking care of rich folks kids and kitchens or making their beds. It was an insult to the male ego. However, ego be damned, they knew that without their wife’s income, when there were no jobs for men, their children would suffer the consequences. So, no matter the resentment, they bowed to reality.


The Communist and Fascist parties made their greatest inroads during the depression because they took advantage of the less fortunate. How easy it was for soothsayers to sway public opinion with promises of apple pie, when there were no apples. Coffeehouses popped up in urban communities where intellectuals and pseudo-psychologists embraced Stalinist ideas. Hitler was not so bad. He built the autobahn and wasn’t he getting rid of the rich and selfish Jews? The German Bund found welcome when 16,000 German Brown Shirts filled Madison Square Garden to the delight of a public seeking whatever solace available.


None of these fantasies came even close to the mesmerizing influence of the 32nd president of the United States. Roosevelt’s fireside chats beamed into every home with a radio. People believed he was one of them. The one thing he offered that no one else had was hope. In his first inaugural address, at the height of the depression, his statement, “All we have to fear is fear itself,” electrified and united a nation looking for the promised land.


A hopeful populace turned to their new president, a man of enormous wealth, boycotted by his wealthy peers because he cared about those at the lowest end of the economic ladder. He opened up the government to ordinary people. The New Deal created what was generally known as the alphabetical government, because it involved letter programs like the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) bringing electricity to the rural America where none had previously existed, NRA (National Recovery Act – later overturned by the Supreme Court), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps which took young men and women off the streets into the forest service), NYA (National Youth Authority, a program that taught young men and women to become machinists, radio operators, bookkeepers, other trades), FFA (Future Farmers of America) and so on. Youngsters in these programs were paid $21 a month plus room and board, the same as a buck private in the military. As they advanced, so did their wages. Most of these young folks allocated most of that income to their families, just as soldiers and sailors did with allotments when they enlisted at the onset of the coming war.


The WPA, Works Projects Administration, much to the disdain of industrial moguls, put men (and women) to work for the government. They rebuilt our rotting infrastructure. Built roads where none previously existed. Restored run-down buildings and schools. It was Roosevelt’s most successful effort at restoring dignity to the common man. It paid $29.75 every two weeks plus commodities when available. Commodities were food surpluses.


One of the amazing things about the depression was what businesses continued to stay afloat, despite all the poverty. Funeral Homes, the entertainment industry and beauty parlors. Mortuaries were a given. Death and poverty go hand in hand, so that might not be such a surprise. No matter the lack of funds, women felt they had to keep up appearances, so the permanent, finger wave and manicure ranked high in their budgets. Today, both men and women will overspend on hair and looks.


With looking good came the entertainment nickels and dimes. Dime detective magazines were the early tabloids, filled with murder and mayhem, the precursors of television shows like Forensic Files. Modern Romance magazines were found in almost every urban home. A Farmer’s Almanac provided much of farm reading.

Movies rated number one in entertainment. The names of stars like Kay Francis, Janet Gaynor, Jean Harlow and Mae West emblazoned theater marquees. Little girls hugged their Shirley Temple dolls long before anyone ever heard of Barbie. Sound did not come to the screen until 1929, so throughout the thirties it was still a rather new innovation. Men emulated James Cagney, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. Theaters on Saturday mornings were invaded with young boys hoping to someday become cowboys like Gene Autry and Buck Jones. Cowboys and Indians had nothing to do with organized sports. Stars, more often than not, displayed life in high society – a life to be desired by the underprivileged.

Yes, some films depicted real life: The Dead End Kids, Shop Worn Angel, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. During the middle thirties, more than 85 million people a week popped .25 for a ticket to see Bette Davis & Shirley Temple. Kids were a dime. Anything distracting from their untenable situations became an attraction.


During the second half of the thirties, big swing bands dominated the airways and dance pavilions. Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

They were often sponsored by cigarette companies who paid doctors to advertise their products in fan magazines, advocating that smoking soothed the nerves. Slogans like Chesterfield’s “Them that Smokes them, likes them.”

Prominent band singers were the rock stars of their time: Frank Sinatra, Bob and Ray Eberle, Dick Haymes and Bing Crosby. Helen Forrest, Kate Smith, Marian Hutton and the Andrews Sisters.


The age of religious revivals under tents set up in local fields became very popular during the thirties. Faith in God was the only hope many held and their beliefs were as firm as concrete. Aimee Semple McPherson who founded The Four Square Temple in Los Angeles, was without a doubt the most popular of the lot. Her radio sermons drew an audience of millions at a time when not every home could afford a radio. She raised money to feed hundreds of thousands of the homeless and hungry. Oral Roberts, Kathryn Kuhlman, Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart and their like all became famous because of television evangelism, but that’s for a later episode.

Common folk found their faith in God, an anchor like no other. Especially in rural communities. The church was their social center. In the coal country, three pictures hung on the living room walls: Jesus Christ, FDR and John L. Lewis, the sometimes bombastic head of the United Mine Workers. On any given day it was sometimes to decide which was the most important.


President Roosevelt, from a wheelchair, brought this country out of the worst depression in memory. That was considered an impressive feat and his name is still mentioned as the last face on Mt. Rushmore.


Things were looking up; rumors of distant wars didn’t affect us. That was somebody else’s problem. On September 1, 1939, came the horrible headline: HITLER INVADES POLAND. Our dreams of a brighter were about to become nightmares. You think you’ve got it bad?

Bet you didn’t know a lot of this. Bet most kids don’t know anything of it. Why not share it with them. Just sayin’

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