Topics in the News
Childhood and the Depression
Children in Poverty.
The Depression brought extreme poverty to families who were already poor or in low-paid jobs. Children went hungry and contracted disease. Malnutrition was reported to be over 90 percent in the coal-mining regions of Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Investigators found Kentucky children so hungry they had begun to chew their own hands. One-fifth of the children in New York City were malnourished. A teacher reportedly told a hungry child to go home and eat, and the child replied, "I can't. This is my sister's day to eat." In some communities children could not go to school because schools closed for lack of funds. Poor children contracted pellagra and rickets, diseases that indicated malnourishment. According to a 1937 Children's Bureau report, many children found themselves, "going for days at a time without taking off their clothes to sleep at night, becoming dirty, unkempt, a host to vermin. They may go for days with nothing to eat but coffee, bread and beans."
Children who were over age twelve were often enlisted in their families' efforts to cope with the economic loss of the Depression. Children's labor made a vital contribution to home production. Girls helped their mothers cook, clean, and sew; boys assisted their fathers repairing the house or working the...
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Farmers and the Great Depression
The Depression was one of the most devastating agricultural disasters in American history, and American farmers suffered terribly. In 1934 more than 30 percent of all Americans still lived on farms, and agriculture—even in that drought year—produced $9.5 billion. But a combination of natural disasters and human miscalculations devastated American farming in the 1930s. The decade opened with a series of natural catastrophes: in 1930 hail destroyed wheat crops, and 1932 to 1935 were years of unrelenting drought. This, combined with plummeting agricultural prices, ruined countless farm families. Caroline Henderson, who lived on her family farm in Shelton, Oklahoma, wrote in the summer of 1935: "[Our] daily physical torture, confusion of mind, gradual wearing down of courage, make that long continued hope look like a vanishing dream.…"
Such despair was common among farmers and their families. Rural America had traditionally embraced bedrock values such as hard work, thrift, religion, and self-reliance. Few understood the impersonal force of
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Making do: Family Life in the Depression
In the 1930s more than half of American families earned between $500 and $1,500 per year. In 1935-1936 the median family income was $1,160. An income of $2,000 per year guaranteed a comfortable life-style and put a household at the top 10 percent of incomes. On an average annual income of roughly $1,000, most families had between $20 and $25 per week for food, clothing, and shelter. Budgeting and stretching scarce resources was essential. In adapting to economic deprivation families used two strategies: they curtailed expenses and found alternative sources of income. Expenses were curtailed by using family labor to produce goods that used to be store bought, such as food, clothing, and home repairs. This reponsibililty typically fell on women, who did most of the household spending. The government gave guidelines for a family budget, recommending setting aside 35 percent of the family income for food, 33 percent for shelter, and 4 percent for taxes. One wit reacted to such budgets by noting, "In order to run a budget, you have to have money … I don't feel that I can afford one right now—there are so many other things I need worse."
Tight budgets demanded that women watch every penny. If a woman shopped carefully, she could feed a family of six on five dollars per week. Low food prices helped: milk cost ten...
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A New Deal for Blacks
Blacks and the New Deal.
While the Great Depression dealt blacks a severe blow, with the New Deal the federal government addressed the issue of black poverty for the first time. In doing so, the New Deal marked a turning point in American race relations. Blacks needed government intervention, since they suffered severe economic dislocation in the Depression: by the mid 1930s the proportion of blacks on relief doubled that of whites, and in some southern cities 80 percent of the black population needed public assistance.
The Black Family.
The Depression severely disrupted lower-class black family life. Rural black poverty was extreme in the late 1920s, but the Depression made it still worse. Payment for picking cotton dropped to a low of sixty cents for a fourteen-hour day. Sharecropping families were given as little as ten dollars a month for a family of six or eight to live on. The Depression also erased the host of menial "Negro jobs" that had provided employment for blacks, especially in the urban South. Instead, unemployed whites took jobs they formerly disdained: street cleaning, garbage collection, elevator operation, domestic service. Whites organized vigilante groups such as the Black Shirts and the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize blacks and take their jobs. By 1932 half of all blacks living in the urban South could find no work. In...
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At 5:32 P.M. EST on 5 December 1933, the "noble experiment" called Prohibition came to an end when the state of Utah became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment, which had been passing feverishly through state legislatures across the country since 10 April, repealed the Eighteenth Amendment (1919), which had barred sales and consumption of alcohol nationwide for nearly fourteen years. As expected, there was dancing in the streets, but only a little dancing. The police in Los Angeles and New York had put their entire forces on call to combat the anticipated celebrations, but Prohibition passed away more quietly than expected. Both The New York Times and the Los A?igeles Times reported subdued celebration, though patrons of the St. Moritz Hotel in New York did dance their way single file to the lake in Central Park for a symbolic drowning of Old Man Prohibition. Similar effigies were burned, drowned, buried, and shot nationwide.
Call for Restraint.
One reason for the subdued party was the late-afternoon ratification. Although liquor was distilled and loaded, ready to be delivered at the crucial hour of repeal, the timing of Utah's vote was too late for many deliveries in the East. Only a few of the larger hotels and clubs in New York were able to procure...
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The Red Decade: Solidarity and Individualism in the 1930s
From Individual to Community.
The 1930s were a decade of community and class consciousness unprecedented in American history. A 1937 poll revealed that the majority of impoverished Americans did not "think that today any young man with thrift, ability, and ambition has the opportunity to rise in the world, own his own home, and earn $5,000 a year." The traditional radical individualism of most Americans was abandoned, and people began to conceive of themselves as parts of communities and distinct interest groups. This consciousness was an important component of many of the important political events of the decade, responsible for the repeal of Prohibition, the success of labor organizations and strikes, the passage of the Social Security Act, and the creation of the federal bureaucracy. Most important, however, the collective consciousness Americans developed in the 1930s was instrumental in providing the social cohesion necessary to carry the United States through World War II. In the 1930s Americans began to conceive of themselves as a "people"; in the 1940s Americans realized themselves as a nation.
The new community consciousness of Americans had several sources. One was simply the wide-spread misery of the Great Depression, Americans were by necessity forced to rely on one another, and that sense of mutual dependence...
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Working Women in the 1930s
The Depression did little to alter the role of women in the American workplace. According to the 1930 census almost eleven million women, or 24.3 percent of all women in the country, were gainfully employed. Three out of every ten of these working women were in domestic or personal service. Of professional women three-quarters were schoolteachers or nurses. The 1940 census did not post dramatic changes in the numbers of working women: thirteen million women, or 25.4 percent of all women over the age of fourteen, worked. The greatest numbers of women continued to work in domestic service, with clerical workers just behind. Out of every ten women workers in 1940, three were in clerical or sales work, two were in factories, two in domestic service, one was a professional—a teacher or a nurse—and one was a service worker. Women in the 1930s in fact entered the workforce at a rate twice that of men—primarily because employers were willing to hire them at reduced wages. In unionized industries, however, women fared better. Women constituted 7 percent of all workers in the automobile industry and 25 percent of all workers in the electrical industry. The integrated International Ladies Garment Workers Union had 200,000 members and secured for pressers in Harlem high wages of $45 to $50 per week.
Poor Working Conditions.
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One of the most popular American pastimes of the 1930s was attending fairs. A longstanding tradition, especially in rural areas, fairs took various forms. Many were local events, tied to special holidays; some were county fairs, often celebrating a historical occasion; and many states held fairs, usually annual events. A variety of events took place at these fairs: bartering and trade, especially of agricultural products; cooking competitions; prizes for the fattest hog, the largest tomato, or the longest-jumping frog; exhibitions by schools, community groups, and business; rodeos and other sporting contests; daredevil airplane performances featuring parachutists and wing walkers; and carnival rides of various sorts. Such fairs were an opportunity to express civic pride, social occasions welcomed by isolated rural people, and an opportunity for cheap fun, a rare commodity during the Depression.
While fairs were held all over...
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Youth, Dating, and Sex
The Depression hit youth aged sixteen to twenty terribly hard. Maxine Davis described the despair she saw when she traveled the country in 1936, talking to young people: "The depression years have left us with a generation robbed of time and opportunity just as the Great War left the world its heritage of a lost generation." More than 200,000 youth left home in the 1930s and took to the road, seeking better opportunities. For the rest, coming of age in the Depression meant doing without, lowering expectations, making do. A special issue of Life magazine in 1938 devoted to "The Youth Problem," explained, "by and large, U.S. youths today are a sober lot."
While families depended on the economic contributions of their children, pervasive unemployment made getting jobs hardest for young people. With prospects for employment so bleak, many youth responded by staying in school: in 1930 less than half the youths between fourteen and eighteen attended high school; in 1940 three-quarters of this age group were in high school. Numbers of...
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Bloor, Ella Reeve "Mother" 1862-1951
RADICAL, LABOR ORGANIZER, JOURNALIST,
A radical activist, Ella Bloor had little patience with ideological debate. Her single goal was "to make life happier for the world's unfortunates." Reeve grew up on Staten Island, New York. She attended public schools, briefly went to the Ivy Hall Seminary, and then was taught by her mother at home. When Reeve was seventeen, her mother died in childbirth, and Ella was responsible for caring for her nine younger siblings.
Early Political Interests and First Marriage.
Reeve's father leaned toward political and religious conservatism, so that when she became interested in social and political reform as a teenager, she turned to her great uncle, Dan Ware, who was an abolitionist, Unitarian, and free-thinker. Ware had a strong influence on her intellectual growth. When she was nineteen, Reeve married Dan Ware's son, Lucien Ware, an aspiring lawyer. She gave birth to six children over eleven years. During those years Ella Ware was introduced to the woman's...
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Dewson, Mary Williams 1874-1962
SOCIAL WORKER SUFFRAGIST, DEMOCRATIC
Childhood and Education.
Mary Dewson, known as Molly, grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, the youngest of six children. Because of her father's poor health, her mother became the backbone of her family. Dewson acquired her father's interest in history and government and would always remember her mother's happiness in being a wife and mother. She was also influenced by her neighbor Elizabeth Cabot Putnam's idealism and commitment to prison reform, Dewson was educated at Dana Hall School in Wellesley and at Wellesley College, There she studied economics, history, and sociology and related these subjects to emerging industrial problems. As president of the senior class at Wellesley, Dewson demonstrated her leadership and organizational talents and the class predicted she would become president of the United States.
After graduating from Wellesley in 1897, she became secretary of the Domestic Reform Committee of the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, Boston's most influential women's social and reform club. Dewson was charged with finding out ways to professionalize housework, in order to provide working women with alternatives to factory work, and to free middle-class women to pursue work outside the home. Dewson conducted statistical...
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Bois, W. E. B. Du 1868-1963
SOCIOLOGIST, CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois grew up in rural Tennessee, where the terrible social and economic conditions in which blacks lived inspired him to devote himself to improving the status of blacks. He believed that higher education was the best means to overcome racial oppression. W. E. B. Du Bois received his bachelor's degree from Fisk University and a second bachelor's in philosophy and a Ph.D in history and social sciences from Harvard University. Du Bois wrote his doctoral dissertation on the suppression of the African slave trade. He also received a fellowship to study at the University of Berlin, where he wrote another thesis on agricultural economics in the American South. In 1895 he became the first black to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
On the night before his twenty-fifth birthday Du Bois described himself in his...
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Randolph, A. Philip 1889-1979
LABOR AND CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER
A leading labor organizer and civil rights leader, A. Philip Randolph's nonviolent activism against American racism improved the position of blacks in the twentieth century. Randolph believed that improving the economic position of blacks was essential to achieving justice for them within American society. Randolph grew up near Jacksonville, Florida, reading Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto while still in high school. His father, an itinerant minister, wanted him to enter the clergy, but his early sense of social injustice against blacks led him toward a career in political activism. He attended City College of New York, working as a porter, a waiter, and an elevator operator to support himself.
At City College.
While at City College Randolph met Chandler Owen, a law student at Columbia University who shared his socialist vision, and the two started a small employment agency for...
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People in the News
In 1930 Jessie Daniel Ames, a white suffragist from Texas, formed the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL), dedicated to challenging the southern, male pretense that lynching was a chivalrous act designed to protect white female purity.
Father Charles E. Coughlin began to give weekly radio sermons from Detroit in 1922. By 1930 his sermons were broadcast over seventeen networks in the East and Midwest. In 1934 the "radio priest" founded the Union for Social Justice, which served as a platform for his growing bigotry, anticommunism, and anti-Semitism.
In 1935 Parker Brothers of Salem, Massachusetts, released Monopoly, a board game adapted by unemployed engineer Charles B. Darrow from the turn-of-the-century Landlord's Game, originally designed to exemplify the economic theories of single-tax advocate Henry George. Darrow's patent to the game made him a millionaire.
Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement with French poet and philosopher Peter Maurin in 1932. Through the movement Day attempted to reconcile radical politics with the teachings of the Catholic Church and was devoted to improving conditions of the poor.
The Peace Mission movement, founded by Father Devine (George Baker), had a membership of nearly two million in the mid 1930s. He preached...
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Grace Abbott, 60, social worker, director of the Federal Children's Bureau from 1921 until 1934, 19 June 1939.
Jane Addams, 74, social reformer, settlement founder, peace worker; founded the Hull House settlement in Chicago in 1889, which housed clubs, classes, a day nursery, a dispensary, and served as a cooperative boardinghouse for working girls, 21 May 1935.
Alexander Berkman, 65, anarchist and associate of Emma Goldman, shot Carnegie Steel head Henry Frick during the Homestead strike of 1892; was deported from the United States in 1919, 28 June 1936.
Marion Butler, 75 educator and lawyer; led fight for state university at Greensboro, North Carolina; led fight for appropriation to save state university at Chapel Hill; led fight to improve public schools, favored cooperative marketing of cotton and tobacco, 3 June 1938.
Louise Bryant, 40?, wife of radical leader John Reed, journalist for the Hearst papers following his death; briefly married to United States envoy to the Soviet Union William Bullitt, 6 January 1936.
Hugh Frayne, 65 labor organizer, prison reformer, began work at age nine as breaker boy in a coal mine in Pennsylvania; learned sheet metal trade and served as general vice president of the Sheet Metal Workers Union from 1901 to 1904 and as general...
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Louis Adamic, My America, 1928-1938 (New York & London: Harper, 1938);
Herbert Agar and Allen Tate, eds., Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence (Boston 8c New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1936);
Robert C. Angell, The Family Encounters the Depression (New York: Scribners, 1936);
Mary Beard, A Changing Political Economy as It Affects Women (Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Women, 1934);
Ruth Shonle Cavan and Katherme Howland Ranck, The Family and the Depression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938);
Maxine Davis, The Lost Generation: A Portrait of American Youth Today (New York: Macmillan, 1936);
John Dewey, Freedom and Culture (New York: Putnam, 1939);
Margaret Jarman Hagood, Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Women (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935);
Karen Horney, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (New York & London: Norton, 1937);
Grace Hutchins, Women Who Work (New York: International Publishers, 1934);
Robert M. Hutchins, The Higher Learning in America (New Haven: Yale University Press / London: Oxford University...
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- The number of miles of paved roads in the United States has doubled since 1920, reaching 695,000. Gasoline consumption is at 16 billion gallons per year, up from 2.7 billion gallons in 1919.
- With smoking glamorized by the movies, 124 billion cigarettes are produced in the United States, up from less than 9.7 billion in 1910.
- The United States has 6.3 million farms, and a quarter of its population either lives on farms or grew up on farms.
- For the first time in history, emigration from the United States exceeds immigration.
- On February 10, a major bootlegging operation is shut down in Chicago. The operation has done some fifty million dollars in business while providing over seven million gallons of illegal whiskey to customers across the nation.
- On March 6, General Foods introduces Birdseye Frosted Foods: frozen peas and spinach, three kinds of berries, fish, and various meats. Because the prices of these products are relatively high (thirty-five cents for a package of peas, as opposed to ten to thirteen cents for a pound of dried navy beans) and because they are hidden away in grocers' ice cream freezers, frozen foods are not immediately successful.
- On March 7, commenting on the stock market crash of October 1929, President Herbert Hoover tells the...
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