For those who lived through it—and those who didn’t—here’s a snapshot of 20th Century U.S. history
■ Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
It amazes me that in the mad rush towards tomorrow, 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 reality. In this series, I will bring you along as we moved from farm to space in less than a century. Now let’s get started.
Despite the 19th Century Industrial Revolution, 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 drastic decline , the Roaring Twenties (the “anything goes” decade) came to a screeching halt.
President Herbert Hoover, a man of intellect with good ideas, seemed dumbfounded on how to deal with the fallout. He coined the slogan, “a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage.” However, he failed to notice there was no fuel for the stoves nor gasoline for the vehicles. For almost two years the general public did not feel the economic slump and then the Great Depression took hold and became a reality.
A new president, a New Deal
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) if an able-bodied male resided in the home. It made no difference that there was no work.
Veterans march on Washington
Veterans of World War I were promised a bonus based on their service. Those who served in areas of hostilities would receive more. In spring of 1932, they settled into their own Hooverville in Washington, D. C., begging for a down payment on the promised bonus.
Brig. Gen. 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 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 on 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.
Gen. MacArthur’s darkest hour
Almost 9,000 veterans decided to stay on. President Hoover felt their occupation of the area would adversely affect his re-election campaign and ordered the army, under command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, to disperse the encampment. Early in 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, and dispersed 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 three million were unemployed due to deflated crop prices, soil depletion, and farm mechanization. The depression hit farmers 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 found themselves in debt over their heads without means to make payments.
The ship of state lists
Even some moneyed people 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 compared to that during the thirties when, at its peak, the economy was so depressed that 25 percent of American workers—predominantly men, were unemployed.
Two presidents, one situation
President Hoover deemed that providing relief to the unemployed destroyed character, but the incoming president felt that if a man was 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 spring of 1932,the economy completely collapsed and in some states ordinary people were dying in the streets from starvation and malnutrition.
Rioting in the streets
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 moneyed 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.
The disappearing middle class
Meanwhile, on the homefront, the perennial poor and dislocated were joined by the disappearing middle-class who had lost everything in 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 themselves. Americans held out a hand to those in need as they had never done before or since.
Home is where there is shelter
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. Divorces 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 the decade of vaccinations.
Discrimination and racism
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, e.g. Ku Klux Klan, dressed in white robes and masks, waving their torches of death and destruction for any who disobeyed.
A woman’s place
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 own 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 a 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 backyard clothes line. Washing machines and wringers were rare. Clothes were wrung out by hand.
The male ego
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 their 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 (bond) found a welcome reception among investors after 16,000 German Brown Shirts filled Madison Square Garden to the delight of a public seeking whatever solace was available.
No match for FDR
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 the regular people. 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 government for the people
A hopeful populace turned to their new president, a man of enormous wealth, now boycotted by his wealthy peers because he cared about those at the lowest levels of the economic ladder. He opened up the government to ordinary people. The New Deal created what was generally known as the alphabet agencies because they involved letter programs like the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) bringing electricity to 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, and 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.
WPA, the greatest alphabet program
The WPA, or 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, and 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.
Fun and beauty before vittles
One of the amazing things about the depression was what businesses continued to stay afloat, despite all the poverty. Funeral homes, entertainment industry, beauty parlors and 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 their 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 the farm family’s reading.
Movies rated number 1 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, there were films that 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 cents for a ticket to see Bette Davis or Shirley Temple. Kids tickets were a dime. Anything distracting from their untenable situations became an attraction.
Music and dancing
During the second half of the thirties, big swing bands dominated the airways and dance pavilions with the likes of 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.”
Big band singers were the rock stars of their time, i.e., Frank Sinatra, Bob and Ray Eberle, Dick Haymes and Bing Crosby and the ladies included Helen Forrest, Kate Smith, Marion Hutton, and the Andrews Sisters.
God and faith
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 hard to decide which was the most important.
Power with determination
President Roosevelt, from a wheelchair, brought this country out of the worst depression in memory. That was considered an awesome feat and his name is still mentioned as the last face on Mt. Rushmore.
A dark side to the moon
Things were looking up and 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 future were about to become nightmares. You think you’ve got it bad? Bet you didn’t know a lot of this. Bet most kids know nothing of it. Why not share it with them.