Daily Life During the Great Depression Research Paper

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Daily Life During the Great Depression

The Great Depression was one of the strongest influences on the American mindset in the 20th century. Hardly a single citizen was able to avoid its consequences. From tycoons to beggars, all Americans were forced to rethink their value and their values, and to adjust their expectations for the future. While much is known about the economic and social consequences of the Great Depression, its impact on the everyday lives of typical Americans has largely gone unrecorded except for in the memories of those who lived through it. It is important, however, to understand this impact on the individual scale in order to fully appreciate the larger cultural changes that ensued.

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Not everyone agrees on the start date of the Great Depression, though most sources agree that the year 1929 signifies the beginning of the financial disaster. On October 24, 1929, a day that would from that point on be referred to as Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed, losing an estimated $30 billion over the next month (McNeese, 118). Even before this date, however, political and financial decisions had begun to erode the nation's fiscal security. The Allied victory during World War I, along with the industrial boom that followed it, created a strong sense of optimism and invincibility in American society. While this sense of well-being created a strong market and a vibrant culture, it also led to certain contradictions that would prove disastrous later. Rapid industrial expansion led to technological innovation in agriculture, which in turn created an increased supply and drove down prices leaving farmers struggling (Downing, 10).

The pervasive sense of security also led to a certain blindness among Americans to the risks of the financial system. The Stock Market seemed primed to grow forever, and many average Americans invested their savings. Their confidence was buoyed by encouragement from the government. In his 1928 State of the Union address, only a year before Black Monday, President Warren Harding put into words the overblown sense of optimism felt by the entire nation:

Research Paper on Daily Life During the Great Depression the Assignment

No Congress of the United States ever assembled, on surveying the state of the Union has met with a more pleasing prospect than that which appears at the present time…The requirements of existence have passed beyond the standard of necessity into the region of luxury. The country can regard the present with satisfaction and anticipate the future with optimism.

(qtd. In Downing, 11)

Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth, but for the average American Harding's words rang true. There were many avenues to get rich quickly in the early 1920s. The stock market was growing. A quick buck could be made in the Florida land boom, where a 10% payment could buy rights to a piece of land that you could then sell for a profit without ever having to pay the remaining 90%. In increase in disposable income for the average American family led to a boom in household supplies; refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and radios sold almost as quickly as they were made (Downing, 10). Manufacturing jobs were plentiful, and job security seemed certain.

By mid-1920s, the Florida land market had crashed and the household goods market was saturated, leading to less demand and cuts in manufacturing jobs (Ibid). By the time the stock market crashed in 1929, banks were failing at a rate of 600 per year (McNeese, 118). Since the banks were not insured, some Americans lost their entire savings when the banks failed. After wealthier citizens lost their investments in the stock market crash, the disaster took on a life of its own. What followed was a chain reaction that affected every segment of society. Banks, frantic to stay in business, called up home and small business loans, and many middle-class Americans suddenly found their houses repossessed or their businesses closed (Downing, 15). As businesses closed, unemployment rose at an alarming rate, from 5% in October of 1929 to 23% three years later (McNeese, 103).

Life for the average American changed on a drastic scale. The first weeks after the crash saw an unprecedented suicide rate, as people accustomed to luxury suddenly found themselves penniless and gave up. The situation was even worse for those who had little to begin with. American society was largely agricultural in the 20s and 30s, and the farming market was completely devastated by the collapse of the market in conjunction with severe drought and storms. Rural families were soon homeless and starving, and found little help from the government or from overwhelmed soup kitchens and breadlines. One desperate 12-year-old boy wrote to President Roosevelt in 1936: "My father hasn't worked in 5 months. Please you do something…All the time he's crying because he can't find work…Please answer right away because we need it or we'll starve" (Schultz, 15).

At the height of the Depression, 1 in 4 Americans was out of work. Many of them would "hop the rails," traveling for hundreds of miles in freight cars to make a few dollars. As Jay Spencer, who was a young man with a wife and children when the Depression hit, put it: "A dollar a day was big money…That's how rough things got" ("Sevier County Remember"). Spencer would often leave his family for weeks to find construction work through the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was established by Roosevelt as part of a sweeping program of government relief and assistance known as the New Deal. In the course of the first three years of his first term, Roosevelt instituted the Farm Credit Act, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the National Labor Board, the Civil Works Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission, in addition to the Works Progress Administration which was designed to stimulate the economy by investing in the nation's infrastructure (McNeese, 121). It was because of this program that Jay Spencer was able to find work building roads and tunnels to support himself and his family during the most difficult years.

Despite the widespread desperation among the American populace, mainstream Americans were surprisingly resourceful with the little that they had. Clothes and shoes were often handmade or recycled, and any food that was grown during the summer months was carefully canned and preserved. Entertainment was simple. Verla Breinholt, entered adolescence during the Depression, recalled the parties of her youth: "We would have parties and we'd say, you're invited to a party at my place; bring a cup of sugar. Mother would make candy…and we'd play games" ("Sevier County Remembers").

Music, theatre and film mirrored many of the changes happening, and played a crucial role in providing an outlet and an escape from the drudgery of daily life. The sliding economic situation can be seen in popular song titles over the course of the Depression. In 1930, when it appeared that the financial crisis would be short-lived, the most popular song in the country was "Happy Days Are Here Again." A year later, the most popular song was "I've Got Five Dollars." When unemployment skyrocketed the next year, the radio stations kept "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime" on frequent rotation (Schultz, 30).

If a brother could spare a dime, it might buy you a full Saturday of movies at the local theatre. In response to the crushing reality of life for most viewers, Hollywood created a cinematic escape in the form of lush, feel-good films and musicals. In his memoir of his childhood in Depression-era Brooklyn, Irving Horowitz describes the cinema as "a critical escape hatch from a world of grinding poverty to one of divine, if momentary, affluence" (678). Even President Roosevelt acknowledge the power of movies to lift the nation out of fear and misery, marveling that for 15 cents you could "look at the smiling face of a baby [Shirley Temple] and forget your troubles" (qtd. In Cravens, 216).

When the nation finally began to pull out of the Depression towards the end of the 1930s, several permanent changes to the American mindset became apparent. Those who had come of age during the Depression developed an attitude towards material possessions that did not exist in the 20s and that quickly disappeared with the next generation. As Verla Breinholt pointed out, they developed a sense of gratitude and appreciation for simple things and a distaste for excessive consumption that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.

After Roosevelt's reforms, there was also a significant shift in the way average Americans viewed the government's role in their lives. Because of the enormous growth of government programs during the Depression, and the critical role those programs played in the daily lives of individuals, citizens came to expect a much larger government presence in their practical lives than they would have imagined or accepted a decade earlier (Schultz, 34). Because of this profound shift in attitude and expectations, the growth of the Federal government would continue virtually unchecked until early in the 21st century.


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