Notes over 1930-1940

FACTS about this decade. Population: 123,188,000 in 48 states Life Expectancy: Male, 58.1; Female, 61.6 Average salary: $1,368 Unemployment rises to 25% Huey Long propses a guaranteed annual income of $2,500 Car Sales: 2,787,400 Food Prices: Milk, 14 cents a qt.; Bread, 9 cents a loaf; Round Steak, 42 cents a pound Lynchings: 21

FACTS about this decade. Population: 123,188,000 in 48 states Life Expectancy: Male, 58.1; Female, 61.6 Average salary: $1,368 Unemployment rises to 25% Huey Long propses a guaranteed annual income of $2,500 Car Sales: 2,787,400 Food Prices: Milk, 14 cents a qt.; Bread, 9 cents a loaf; Round Steak, 42 cents a pound Lynchings: 21

Kingwood College Library

American Cultural History

1930 – 1939

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


n 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 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and conditions for blue-collar workers improved. Joseph P. Kennedy, a Wall Street insider, was appointed Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commissions.


he 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


aris fashions became too expensive for all but the very rich, and American designerscame 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 – mid calf 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

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 peak 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 Einsteinimmigrated 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.


he theater flourished in this fourth decade of the twentieth century. In addition to musicals, Broadway marques lit up with play titles like Green Pastures by Marc 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 tap 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 Joan 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.



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 story War 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.

Researched by Wilbur Bush