The problem with writing a blog series about decades, is I feel like I could spend the entire summer just on the 30’s. My book series takes place in the 30’s, so I’ve been researching this decade for seven years. I’ve had to omit so many things I find interesting, because I’m probably not a good judge what’s actually interesting after all this time.
The Great Depression refers to an economic crisis starting with the Stock Market crash of 1929 and ending around the time of US’s involvement in World War II. The first person to use the words great and depression together was actually President Herbert Hoover, which is interesting because he was in complete denial for more than a year after the crash. As late as December, 1930, Hoover was on record saying, “Conditions are fundamentally sound”. He felt he was being optimistic, but his critics (and there were many) saw it as a lack of action on his part and subsequently named shantytowns of homeless people “Hoovervilles”. In 1934, the phrase President Hoover had used many times in speeches, “great depression” became a proper noun when Lionel Robbins, a British economist, wrote a book called, The Great Depression.
In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Hoover in one of the largest landslide victories in US history. In his first 100 days in office, FDR pushed unprecedented federal legislation calling for programs designed to produce relief, recovery, and reform. These relief programs were called The New Deal and relief was something the country desperately needed. FDR won a record 4 presidential elections and stayed in office until his death in 1944. He saw our nation through the Depression and almost through World War II. Some of his popularity came from his “Fireside Chats” on the radio which comforted the nation. Just hearing the calming voice of the president gave people confidence and hope. And they needed hope.
During the first few years of the depression, family income dropped by an average of 40%. Around 9,000 banks shut down.
Agricultural production sufferd in the '30s. Severe droughts and over-farming caused dust storms which wiped out crops and livestock. The Dust Bowl, as it was later called, destroyed millions of acres of land and caused over 2.5 million people to lose their homes. Many migrated west to California and lived in camps they couldn’t escape because they were paid with credits that could only be used in the camp store.
There were two kinds of fashion in the 30’s -what people wore in magazines and movies, and what people actually wore.
Female models often wore hats. In 1931, they were deep and close-fitting with both large and small brims usually covering one eye. Women wore their hair a little longer and loosely waved with a side part. Fashionable shoes include the black silk style with ankle strap and the white suede style with a T-strap.
Regular people wore whatever they had. Children wore a lot of hand-me-downs, although they occasionally got something new. They often had play clothes, second best, and Sunday best, and that was it, if they even had that much. I read a story recently that broke my heart. A young man from Ohio was an honor student, but had to drop out of high school during the depression because he didn’t have pants. I know times are hard right now. Inflation and gas prices are making things really tight, but before you compare today to The Great Depression, remember this teenage boy who had to drop out of school because he didn’t have pants.
Women during this time often wore patterned dresses, floral or plaid, sometimes made from feed sack material. These “flour sack dresses” had such an interesting history. First, women used the fabric from seed or flour sacks to make clothes. Businesses caught on to this trend and began printing on the feed bags. Later, they went as far as to print patterns with washable ink on the inside. Sometimes they were dresses and sometimes they were stuffed animal patterns.
Every scrap was re-used so clothing was sometimes patched with unusual fabric and a girl’s dress might be made from one her mother wore through and then sized down for her.
Some people did have the money to buy new clothes. One way to tell if something is from the 30’s is if it has initials engraved or stitched. This was a common free service that stores offered for people who bought new.
Live theatre suffered in the 30’s because movies were more affordable. Despite times being tough, movies did well during the 30’s because people saved their pennies to go to the movies and escape for a little while. Shockingly, horror films became a staple for many studios during this time as something they could rely on to make a bit of money quickly.
Penguin Books produced their first paperback books in 1935, making affordable literature accessible to the masses. Their vision was to make great works of literature the same price and relative size of a pack of cigarettes so people could carry them in their pockets.
The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany amid a very tense political atmosphere. Hitler viewed the games as an opportunity to prove his theory of Aryan racial superiority, but was humiliated when African-American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens won four gold medals for the US.
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds was broadcast. If you haven’t heard this program, it reads like a news report where the earth is being attacked by Martians. People didn’t know it was a work of fiction, so it caused mass panic. Maybe it was the newness of radio or the fact that people only expected the worst, but they truly thought they were being invaded by aliens.
A couple of fun things happened in 1938. Seabiscuit beat War Admiral in what came to be called the “Race of the Century”. If you haven’t read the book Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, you should do that. Right now. I’ll wait. Another fun thing about 1938 was the introduction of Superman by: Action comics.
"The Wizard of Oz" starring Judy Garland premiered in 1939. Years later, when my mom’s family got their first color TV, this classic movie was the first thing they watched. My Grandpa was pretty mad when the movie started and the color TV wasn’t working. I imagine he thumped the side of the TV because that’s just what people did back then. Everyone laughed when they realized the movie was "The Wizard of Oz" and it starts out in black and white.
The music of the 30’s was very diverse. The Jazz Age was officially over (though music was still very much influenced by Jazz). Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald got their start in the 30’s. One of the biggest changes in music is in the way people listened to it. Phonograph sales plummeted because of radio which was free once you bought one. Soda fountains, taverns (which came back legally in 1933) and “Juke Joints” often had juke boxes to feature new music.
Wartime music is usually upbeat and cheerful, but the depression didn’t seem to follow that trend. Many of the ballads were haunting and beautiful, but not exactly cheery. Songs like “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” come to mind. They're so heartbreaking.
The music industry had a boost because of FDR’s New Deal in which the Works Progress Administration Federal Music Project sponsored radio programs, commissioned new work from composers, and sought out unique American musicians to feature in recordings.
The Blues were popular in urban areas. Famous “bluesmen” like Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Robert Johnson migrated north to cities like Chicago. These albums were cheap to record, making blues record sales quite profitable. Boogie-woogie, gospel, and swing music were all influenced by the blues.
Hillbilly music, a folk music from the Appalachian Mountains and the Southeast, became popular because of artists such as the Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, and the Smoky Mountain Boys. Hillbilly music got a boost from radio programming like the National Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts and Mexican radio stations that could be heard in forty–eight states. These folk musicians influenced the later bluegrass music of the decade. When I was writing my first book, Silvery Moon, I only listened to this style of music because my main character (inspired by my Grandma) loved Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. This music will always hold a special place in my heart.
The American West made “singing” cowboys very popular. This “Western” music by singers like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers was played in Texas and Oklahoma where people dressed up like cowboys to dance in taverns and enjoy a drink without the fear of being caught. This music gave rise to honky-tonk and western swing music.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the 30’s was all the gangsters. The 1920s and 1930s were a time of rising crime, driven at first by Prohibition and then after its repeal, taking on a life of its own. During this time, many bank robbers and murders gained celebrity status – a strange phenomenon unique to this decade. Newspapers loved chronicling the crimes sprees of famous gangsters like Al Capone, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, and Ma Barker. During this time, the FBI began to keep "Public Enemies" lists of wanted criminals charged with crimes.
In 1930, the first Public Enemy No. 1 was Al Capone. Capone, also called Scarface, was a major gangster during the Prohibition era in Chicago. He was eventually prosecuted and convicted for tax evasion in 1931. He was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison and served 8 before he was released. He died from a stroke in 1947.
John Dillinger was declared Public Enemy No. 1 in 1934. Dillinger was a bank robber and murdered. The media loved writing about him. He was famous for having escaped from jail twice, one time carving a bar of soap to look like a gun. He died in a shootout with Federal agents in Chicago in 1934 after he was identified by his escort, who wore a red dress and became known as the woman in red.
Another notable gangster was Alvin Karpis, nicknamed “Creepy” because of his smile. was a prominent member of the Barker gang during the Great Depression. He served 26 years in Alcatraz, the longest time a federal prisoner spent there. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary also know as “The Rock” opened near San Francisco in 1934 and was used to hold some of the most dangerous and well-known US criminals.
Pretty Boy Floyd was a bank robber very popular with the media. The public generally had a positive view of him because when he robbed banks, he would destroy mortgage documents, freeing many people from their debts. He was killed in a shootout with the FBI in 1934 -that was a big year for FBI shootouts.
I know I promised recipes, but why don’t we hold out for another decade. Depression-era recipes are pretty gross looking. There were things called Creamed Chip Beef, Balogna Casserole, and Hoover Stew. I’ll save your gag reflex and just talk about recipes next week. Even with rationing, they’re better than Balogna Casserole.
Books Set in the 30’s:
Sometimes it feels like all historical fiction books are about WWII, and, of course, it is a popular era, but there a many great books set in the 30’s as well. Beyond the classics like, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinback and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, more recent books set in the 30’s that I love are:
Seabiscuit (which I already mentioned) by Laura Hillenbrand
The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michelle Richardson
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
Olympic Pride, American Prejudice: The Untold Story of 18 African Americans Who Defied Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler to Compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Deborah Riley Draper
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon
Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough
On September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland and World War II began. You may be wondering why this is my favorite decade. What with all the poverty, dust storms, dangerous killers on the loose. It’s a decade that started a month after the stock market crash and ended in a war, but still it’s my favorite. Of course it’s partly because my Girls of Hope Series which we’re in the process of pitching to publishers takes place during this time.
But it’s more than that. It’s a decade where feed companies printed patterns for people to make stuffed animals for their kids because they knew people rused the fabric afterward. It was a time when people brought crops to church to swap with others so they could have something to eat. When publishers made affordable books the size of a pack of cigarettes. The children of the 30’s were and are some of the strongest people you’ll ever know. They were resilient and tough as nails. I remember a conversation with my Grandma once. I said, “How is it you like almost every food?” (she doesn’t care for paw paws, but that’s it) She said something profound: “When I was a kid, I ate whatever was on the table.” It put things into perspective. I love this decade because people like my amazing Grandparents were shaped by it. And I love it because God redeems hard times. And the 30’s were a hard time.
If you're in the midst of something hard, take a lesson from the people of The Great Depression. God will redeem what you're going through. He truly will. It's what He does.