THE DECADE OF THE THIRTIES
FACTS about this Decade
By the 1930s money was scarce because of the depression, so people did what they could to make their lives happy. Movies were hot, parlor games and board games were popular. People gathered around radios to listen to the Yankees. Young people danced to the big bands. Franklin Roosevelt influenced Americans with his Fireside Chats. The golden age of the mystery novel continued as people escaped into books, reading writers like Agatha Christie, Dashielle Hammett, and Raymond Chandler.
In the Great Depression the American dream had become a nightmare. What was once the land of opportunity was now the land of desperation. What was once the land of hope and optimism had become the land of despair.The American people were questioning all the maxims on which they had based their lives – democracy, capitalism, individualism. The best hope for a better life was California. Many Dust Bowl farmers packed their families into cars, tied their few possessions on the back, and sought work in the agricultural fields or cities of the West – their role as independent land owners gone forever. Between 1929 and 1932 the income of the average American family was reduced by 40%, from $2,300 to $1,500. Instead of advancement, survival became the keyword. Institutions, attitudes, lifestyles changed in this decade but democracy prevailed. Democracies such as Germany and Italy fell to dictatorships, but the United States and its constitution survived.
Economics dominated politics in the 1930′s. The decade began with shanty towns called Hoovervilles, named after a president who felt that relief should be left to the private sector, and ended with an alphabet soup of federal programs funded by the national government and an assortment of commissions set up to regulate Wall Street, the banking industry, and other business enterprises. The Social Security Act of 1935 set up a program to ensure an income for the elderly. The Wagner Act of 1935 gave workers the legal right to unionize. John L. Lewis founded theCongress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and conditions for blue-collar workers im proved. Joseph P. Kennedy, a Wall Street insider, was appointed Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commissions. By the beginning of the next decade the United States had gone from a laissez-faire economy that regulated its own conduct to a regulated economy overseen by the federal government. The debate over which is the best course of action still rages today.
Important Historic and Cultural Events
The arts, like everything else in the 30′s, were dominated by the Great Depression. In the 1930′s this discipline was supported by government programs such as the Public Works of Art Project and later the Federal Art Project. The artists employed by these projects (over 5,000 at one period of time) chose themes based on American culture and history. The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, was abe to complete hisMount Rushmore Memorial with funds supplied by the WPA. Other “starving artists” were able to survive the hard times by painting murals on the lobby walls of government buildings. There were some of these individuals who became artists of note, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. This decade saw the beginning of the American regionalist style with Grant Wood’s famous work, “American Gothic“. Artists that adoped this style include John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keeffe with her southwestern themes, and Edward Hopper with his realistic scenes from city life.
Many of the nation’s most memorable skyscrapers (the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center) were completed in the early 30′s. In 1937 the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece of home design, “Falling Water”, was built. In 1932 the word “mobile” was coined to describe the kenetic sculpture created by Alexander Calder. In 1935 Andrew Mellon gave his $25 million dollar art collection to the American people and contributed $10 million to the construction of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The 1930′s were a perilous time for public education. With cash money in short supply parents were unable to provide their children with the necessary clothes, supplies, and textbooks (which were not furnished in some states) to attend school. Taxes, especially in rural areas, went unpaid. With the loss of revenue, school boards were forced to try numerous strategies to keep their districts operating. School terms were shortened. Teachers’ salaries were cut. One new teacher was paid $40 a month for a five month school year – and was very glad for the job! When a rural county in Arkansas was forced to charge tuition one year in order to keep the schools open, some children were forced to drop out for that year. One farmer was able to barter wood to fuel the classrooms’ potbellied stoves for his four children’s tuition, thus enabling them to continue their education. The famous Dick and Jane books that taught millions of children to read were first published in 1931. These primers introduced the students to reading with only one new word per page and a limited vocabulary per book. All who learned to read with these books still recall the “Look. See Dick. See Dick run.”
With the reduction of spendable income, people had to look to inexpensive leisure pursuits. President Roosevelt helped make stamp collecting a popular hobby. Parlor games and board games became the rage. In 1935 Parker Brothers introduced the game of Monopoly and 20 thousand sets were sold in one week. Gambling increased as people sought any means to add to their income. Between 1930 and 1939 horse racing became legal in 15 more states bringing the total to 21. Interest in spectator sports such as baseball grew. Stars like Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio drew fans into the stadium, and those who could not attend the games gathered around their radios to listen to the play-by-play. The 1932 Winter Olympics, held at Lake Placid, New York, renewed interest in winter sports. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal work project for youths, built ski runs and jumps on public land as well as recreational facilities in the national parks.
Paris fashions became too expensive for all but the very rich, and American designers came into their own. Hollywood movie stars such as Bette Davis and Greta Garbo set fashion trends in dresses designed by Adrian and Muriel King and hats designed by Lily Dache. Clothes had to last a long time so styles did not change every season. The simple print dress with a waist line and longer hem length replaced the flapper attire of the 1920′s. The use of the zipper became wide spread for the first time because it was less expensive than the buttons and closures previously used. Another innovation of the 30′s was different hem lengths for different times of the day – midcalf for day wear, long for the evening. Men’s pants were wide and high waisted. Vest sweaters were an alternative to the traditional matching vest of the three piece suit. Hats were mandatory for the well dressed male.
Many of America’s most distinguished writers produced works of fiction during the thirties. The list includes such names as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Thornton Wilder. Some of the novels of this period explored what was happening in the country during the Great Depression. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath chronicled the life of a displaced Oklahoma family who had lost its farm to the drought of the Dust Bowl. James T. Farrell wrote a trilogy of novels about an Irish-American named Studs Lonigan and his attempt to rise above his poor beginnings. Richard Wright took on the issue of racial prejudice and the plight of blacks in Native Son. Erskine Caldwell’s novel Tobacco Road described the life of poor whites in the rural South. All four of these works were cited on the recent Modern Library list of the top 100 novels, in English, of the 20th century. There were notable works in other forms of literature. The poet Carl Sandburg published his poem “The People, Yes” in 1936. Ogden Nash wrote light verse for the New Yorker magazine. Dr. Seuss delighted children with his rhyming books for youngsters learning to read. Wallace Stevens‘collection of poetry, The Man With the Blue Guitar was published in 1937. The public speaking instructor, Dale Carnegie, in 1936 penned the book whose title How to Win Friends and Influence People was to become a part of the language.
It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Ain’t Got Swing). The title of this Duke Ellington song sums up the “in” music of the thirties. There were popular songs such as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” that spoke to the hardships of the time, but the young people flocked to hear and dance to the big bands of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey. In this same era Broadway produced some of the most famous and lasting American musicals. George and Ira Gershwin wrote the hits Strike Up the Band, Girl Crazy, and Of Thee I Sing.Cole Porter produced such works as Anything Goes, Jubilee, and Red Hot and Blue. Songwriters and lyricists like Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and Richard Rodgers composed melodies still being played and sung today. The Federal Music Project (FMP) supported the musical arts and sponsored performances of both classical and popular compositions. The FMP emphasized American music and promoted the works of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson.In 1936 the Department of the Interior hired Woody Guthrie to travel throughout the Northwest and perform his folk songs. During this tour he wrote twenty-six songs in twenty-six days. By 1938 Guthrie was making appearances in support of labor unions and wrote such songs as “I Ain’t Got No Home”, inspired by visits to migrant labor camps.
It was in 1935 that George Gershwin’s American folk opera Porgy and Bess was first performed. In 1931 Congress designated “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. In 1938 Kate Smith sang Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and made the song her own. There have been many proponents of making this the national anthem, replacing the hard to sing “Star Spangled Banner”. In the same year a young Mary Martin captivated theatergoers with her rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me.
Radio reached its zenith of popularity in this decade.By 1939 about 80 percent of the population owned radio sets. Americans loved to laugh at the antics of such comedians as Jack Benny, Fred Allen,George Burns and Gracie Allen, Amos and Andy, and Fibber McGee and Molly. The soap opera dominated the daytime airwaves.Our Gal Sunday began each episode with the question, “Can a girl from a little mining town in the west find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?’ Many a woman’s ear was glued to her radio every day in hopes of learning the answer. The heroics of the Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet, the Shadow, and Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy, thrilled listeners both young and old and sold countless boxes of cereal. News broadcasts by commentators like H. V. Kaltenborn and Edward R. Murrow kept the public aware of the increasing crisis in Europe. Franklin Roosevelt used the medium in his “Fireside Chats” to influence public opinion. One of the most dramatic moments in radio history occurred on May 6, 1937, when the German airship Hindenburg burst into flames as it was about to land in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The horror of the incident was conveyed live by the reporter Herb Morrison. His reaction to what was happening in front of him still enthralls today. On October 30, 1938, a twenty-three-year-old Orson Welles’ broadcast on his Mercury Theater of the Air the H.G. Wells storyWar of the Worlds. Despite the disclaimer at the end of the program, the tale of a Martian invasion of Earth panicked a million listeners who mistook the play for a newscast. Such was the influence of radio in this its golden age.
The New York’s World Fair of 1939 - true to its theme of “The World of Tomorrow” – gave its estimated 25.8 million visitors a glimpse of the future. The fairgoers marveled at the flickering images of a TV set and were amazed at the General Motors exhibit of a seven-lane cross-country highway system. Many of the innovations demonstrated did not become a part of every day life until after World War II, but there was a peek at the technology to come. Medical advances in the thirties included a new and safer way to do blood transfusions. An advance that was to save many a soldier’s life in the upcoming war. In 1937 Chicago’s Cook County Hospital opened the first blood bank that stored blood given by live donors. This, with improved anesthesia, made the chances of surviving major surgery on vital organs much greater.
Pure scientific research suffered from the lack of funding. Nevertheless, in physics ground breaking experiments in atom smashing were being conducted at such institutions as Columbia University and the California Institute of Technology. Albert Einstein immigrated to the United States in 1933 and became a professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. From here in 1939 he wrote his famous letter to President Rooseveltrecommending the development of the atomic bomb. In the field of astronomy the ninth major planet, Pluto, was discovered in 1930. Industrial research led to better refrigeration for foods, a variety of products made from synthetic materials such as plexiglass, nylon, and cellophane, and improved manufacturing techniques such as polymerization, which increased production of gasoline by nine million gallons a year. In 1938 American physicist Chester F. Carlson made the first copy by an electrostatic process called xerography.
The theater flourished in this fourth decade of the twentieth century. In addition to musicals, Broadway marquees lit up with play titles like Green Pastures byMarc Connelly, The Man Who Came to Dinner by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman, Winterset by Maxwell Anderson, Abe Lincoln in Illinois by Robert Sherwood, and Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets. In 1936 the foremost American dramatist Eugene O’Neill won the Nobel prize for literature for such works as Anna Christie and Mourning Becomes Electra. Hollywood turned out movie after movie to entertain its Depression audience and the 30′s are often referred to as Hollywood’s “Golden Age”. Movie goers wanted mainly escapist fare that let them forget their everyday troubles for a few hours. They swooned over such matinee idols as Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, and Errol Flynn. They laughed at the likes of W. C. Fields, Bob Hope, and the Marx Brothers. America fell in love with the little curly headed moppet Shirley Temple and flocked to see her tap dance and sing to the song “The Good Ship Lollipop”. Busby Berkeley’s elaborate dance numbers delighted many a fan. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tapping and ballroom dancing across the screen enthralled the audience. Notable writers like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald penned screneplays. Not all movies were fantasy and lightness. The picture version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath brought to film the story of the Joab family and its migration from the Dust Bowl of Oklanhoma to the agricultural fields of California. One of the top money makers of all time Gone With the Wind debuted in Atlanta, Georgia in 1939. Walt Disney produced the first full-length animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.