Oct. 29, 1929 is the day that most historians say that the Great Depression officially began. Up till then America had been enjoying a high climbing bull market but by Sept. 1929 it began to fall and by Oct. 29th the stock market officially crashed. Life for America, and soon the world, would be drastically changed. In the following months, after the bulls demise, people began to run on the banks. Withdrawing all their money; fearing it would soon be lost. But so many people flooded the banks that they soon ran out of money and could no longer pay everyone. Some bankers, in a panic, began to throw themselves out of windows. After only a few short months, on Mar. 4, 1933, the American banking system officially collapsed. With money so tight employers would soon be forced to make job and pay cuts. African Americans were typically the first to go and by the end of 1933, 25% of all Americans were in the category of unemployed and hourly wage dropped by 60%.
Cutting back was a must, but there were still a few wealthy individuals untouched by the fallen banking system. Brenda Frazier, a 21 year old debutante, inherited 4 million dollars on her birthday despite the failed economy. Frazier and the few Americans like her who remained financially unaffected during the Great Depression, began a new trend of their own known as Café Society. These wealthy few would spend their nights in ritzy Cafes, which were trendy restaurants with names like 21 and The Stork Club. They would chat, smoke, be entertained, dance, and most importantly be seen and photographed. And with the repeal of Prohibition, they could share a few drinks. These wealthy debutantes, princes, actors and the few remaining millionaires were well known for spending lavish amounts of money on the latest fashions for their nights out in the Cafes while the rest of America was just hoping to have enough money to put food on the table.
Trying to find a job during the depression was a job in and of itself. Some people would walk around with signs advertising their employment needs and some people even paid to work. One man in particular paid $10.00 to eventually make $13.50. It was even tougher in the south. Although farmers didn’t have to worry about being fired they did have Mother Nature to contend with. During the Great Depression, on top of financial distress, the plains of the south west suffered years of severe drought and by 1934 about 80% of the entire U.S. was suffering. Most of the ground had turned to dust and the winds turned that dust into dust storms. The 30’s saw record dust storms for years to come. The Dust Bowl effected Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico among several other states. 500,000 people were made homeless and many died from suffocation by the dust. The dust storm left farms and homes in ruins, covered in piles of dirt. Most folks left and became what many called Migrators and Okie’s, since many came from Oklahoma. Many headed for California and often by foot. One family traveled almost 900 miles from Arkansas to the cotton fields of the Rio Grande just to get away from The Dust Bowl. Upon arrival Migrators usually had no place to live. Many made shacks for themselves out of cardboard and would cluster together in communities known as Hoovervilles. Named for President Herbert Hoover because many blamed him for the fallen economy. Once relocated to a new state the prosperity many Migrators hoped for was usually not found and many were left to go from crop to crop picking for pennies. Having almost no money at all forced some to eat wild greens straight from the fields like cows. It was tough being a farmer during the Great Depression but things weren’t much better for those still in the work force. Many men were abused in places like mines, factories, and even the G.M plants.. These workers, because of their employers, were not allowed to join unions which would help ensure safe working conditions and proper pay. Many, however, tried to strike but were often beaten and even killed for doing so and some were forced to work at gun point to prevent striking. But the leader of the United States mine workers, John L. Lewis, would not stand for this abusive behavior. He fought long and hard for workers rights and by 1937 he had helped 7.7 million workers get into unions.
In the midst of all the economic, work, and weather related stress Americans had to face they needed to find some means of escape, a way to just sit back, relax and be a family again. Most found this escape in the radio and the movies. During the weekday evenings you could find many American families seated in front of their radios listing to their favorite shows. Amos ‘N’ Andy was a particularly popular show of the time. Listening to the radio wasn’t always about sitting though. Lots of people liked to get up, move the furniture and dance to their favorite tunes but on Saturday America headed for the silver screen where they could see stars like Shirley Temple or Clark Gable. It was during the Great Depression that Disney presented its first feature-length cartoon and in color no less. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Superman also made his debut during the Depression, on June 30th 1938. It was a time when children needed a superhero, especially when many children were having to get jobs themselves. America had a few real hero's up during the Depression. Once such hero was Director J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. He and his men brought down John Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Arizona Clark “Ma” Barker and “Pretty Boy” Floyd, the latter of whom robbed so many banks in Oklahoma that the insurance rates had doubled. But America would find a hero in and it's way out of the Depression through Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He would chose to deal with the Great Depression by taking real action and bring back the people‘s confidence.
Roosevelt "FDR" was inaugurated in 1933 on the day that the U.S. banking system officially crumbled. He had a lot on his plate to amend and make right and he was fully aware of it. Once inaugurated he said “This Nation asks for action, and action now.”(1) and he took action right away. Less than a week after he became president the banks started opening again. One thing FDR is most famous for is his New Deal. The New Deal was fifteen new laws that assured concerted government action: to employ the jobless, to develop the Tennessee Valley, to support crop prices, to repeal Prohibition, to stop home foreclosures, to insure bank deposits, to stabilize the economy, and much more.(2) FDR knew how to treat the people like they were all important often calling them his “friends” during his radio broadcasts. And during his first re-election campaign he said to the American people “You look much better than you did four years ago,” to which they replied “God bless you, Mr. President!”.(3) FDR as a whole was preferred by the people to that of the former President, Herbert Hoover. Hoover was seen by most as having a hands off approach to leadership often fearing aiding the people lest they become too dependent upon the government. He felt the Americans should be an independent people. But the people really need their President to come on the scene during such economic crisis. But when Hoover did step in the people would wish he hadn’t. In 1932 20,000 veterans of World War I set up camp in front of the White House begging to have their 1945 war bonus now; when they needed it most. They called themselves The Bonus Expeditionary Force. Brigadier General Pelham D. Glassford, Washington’s chief of police, tended to the veterans providing them housing in empty government buildings and in tents and cots across the Potomac. He called them his boys and made sure they were treated right while they awaited an answer. When the Senate voted against the matter most veterans went home but 8,600 had no home to go to. So they stayed in Washington much to the Presidents chagrin. He lived in needless fear of them and had guards on watch and put chains on the White House gates. Finally on June 28th he ordered Glassford to get the men and their families out of the government buildings.(4) But because Glassford had been so good to them the men complied. The evacuation went on throughout the day, but proceedings did not go fast enough for Hoover. By the late afternoon the United States Army showed up with machine guns, Calvary, and tanks and tear gas bombs. They set fire to the veterans shacks and even chased after some remaining legless veterans, their wives and children. It was even reported that one 11-month old baby died from the tear gas. President Hoover said of this handling of the veterans that “A challenge to the authority of the United States Government has been met.” (5) Hoover was voted out of office three months later. When FDR was President the veterans came back for another try. This time they didn’t face the army instead they were met by FDR's wife. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spent time with the veterans. She would listen to their music, walk among them and sample their food. The men cried out “Hoover sent the Army, Roosevelt sent his wife.”(6)
Roosevelt took a bite out of the Depression but studies indicate that what helped the most in making recovery possible was the suspension of gold convertibility. Although most economic historians believe the Depression came to an official close with our entry into WWII. They believe the government spending in the war and the jobs the war created is what finally brought an end to The Great Depression. It was a hard time that no one will forget. It had world wars on either side of it and one might say it was a war in and of itself with many casualties. Regardless of the officially ending cause, I think all America can agree we won that war.
The Editors of TIME-LIFE BOOKS. This Fabulous Century Vol. IV 1930-1940.
Time-Life Books, New York. 1969.