What was it like to live in the big city during the Depression? We will find out tomorrow as we simulate urban strife during the 1930s. For our activity in class tomorrow, your task is to READ the following information concerning life in the city during the Depression and the overview of the class activity.During the Depression, life was very difficult for farmers, but it wasn’t much better in the cities, where fourteen million people lived in crowded, unheated, unsanitary tenements. In a letter to Harry Hopkins, the director of the Civil Works Administration, Martha Gellhorn described the unemployed workers and their families:
“This picture is so grim that whatever words I use will seem hysterical and exaggerated. And I find them all in the same shape - fear, fear driving them into a state of semi-collapse cracking nerves; and an overpowering terror of the future.... They can't pay rent and are evicted. They are watching their children grow thinner and thinner; fearing the cold for children who have neither coats nor shoes; wondering about coal.”
As the Depression deepened, cities attracted beaten people from all parts of the country. Farmers whose livelihoods had been foreclosed packed up their families and moved into the cities. Hoboes and other itinerants sought shelter in cities during harsh winters. City dwellers themselves were not immune to the rails of the nation. Thousands of unemployed residents who could not pay their rent or mortgages were evicted into the world of public assistance and bread lines. At the peak of the Depression, seventeen thousand families were put out on the street each month. Although residents were given priority over newcomers for local aid, there were too many other residents standing in the same lines waiting for a check or a bowl of soup. Municipal resources were overwhelmed quickly, and city agencies resorted to thinning relief payments to below the cost of living and watering down the soup to help more people over a longer time.
Many cities just ran out of money and were even forced to pay city employees in scrip (a temporary voucher, redeemable for food and other products). At the height of the Depression Chicago had half a million unemployed, and in New York the jobless figure topped a million. With so many taxpayers both jobless and homeless, American cities lost a major source of income. Relief budgets meant to last a year were spent in several months.At President Hoover's beckoning, charities had stepped in to help ease the burden on municipal resources. Hoover was a firm believer in volunteerism. Feeling that each community was responsible for aiding people in distress, Hoover created programs that bolstered morale and encouraged charity. But the charities were themselves in trouble because they depended on contributions from a public who could not give any more. In many cities philanthropic groups of businessmen mounted relief drives, but the funds collected dwindled quickly as conditions worsened.
In 1930 the International Apple Shippers Association was faced with an oversupply of fruit and came up with a unique solution to a national problem: to clear out their warehouses and give the unemployed a way to make a little money, they sold apples on credit. The ploy worked. Months later a shivering apple vendor could be found standing over a fruit crate on the corner of every major American city. By the end of November there were six thousand people selling apples in New York alone. The trend spread, and suddenly there were pitchmen of all persuasions standing alongside the apple sellers, handling everything from patent medicines to gaudy neckties. There were even chalk artists who drew figures of women on the sidewalks for passersby to appreciate with a few coins. Many cities soon passed ordinances, however, which banned the street vendors as a nuisance to the public.
Crowded living conditions were not uncommon in the working-class home. Extended families were formed who shared the same space, food costs, rent, and even bed- ding: the "hotbed- was a living arrangement in which night workers slept during the day and day workers used the same beds at night. Furnishings in working-class apartments were sparse. There were a few chairs, tables, and boxes that served as dressers. There was rarely any carpeting, and not all homes had hot water. In older buildings heat was pro- vided through coal grates, which forced ten- ants to scour the neighborhood for coal or other fuel. Many people planted subsistence gardens in vacant lots or rooftops to feed themselves when grocery money was really scarce. Twenty thousand of these gardens were reported in Gary, Indiana, alone.When they could no longer pay the rent and were evicted from their apartments, city dwellers used scraps of lumber and cardboard boxes to build shacks that they could live in. These new shantytowns on the edges of the cities were called Hoovervilles, for President Herbert Hoover, since many blamed him for causing the depression. In public parks, homeless men slept on benches, covering their bodies with "Hoover blankets," or newspapers. "Hoover hogs" were jackrabbits or gophers caught and cooked to replace the traditional Sunday ham. "Hoover villas" were public latrines used for overnight stays. "Hoover flags" were empty pockets turned inside out. Probably unfairly, Americans made the president accountable for their situation, and he became the fall guy-the focus of the abuse.
Hoovervilles had no electricity or running water but were usually built near rivers or fireplugs. They were not supported by the city or government in any way, so moving into such an encampment required no registration or security deposit. Prospective residents simply looked around and picked a spot. City dumps, construction sites, and trash bins pro- vided materials for constructing shelters. The gutted husks of old cars made acceptable homes, as did stacks of fruit boxes and worn tires. If a shelter was built well enough, a resident could sell it. There was always turnover, since people continually came and went. A good pre-built home could easily be worth as much as $50. Despite zoning violations and health hazards, many Hoovervilles were allowed to exist. Some cities even lent tracts of public land for the cultivation of small gardens. Not everybody was tolerant, however. Many Hoovervilles were raided and burned down by sheriffs and vigilante groups.
By 1933 millions of Americans (we'll never really know how many) were desperate. Out of work and with his family depending on him, the breadwinner, the patriarch, the father/husband bore the brunt of the despair. When he couldn't provide for his family, he felt ashamed and humiliated. Many of these men abandoned their families and became what one has called "a generation of wanderers," vagabonds, or hobos. Unable to find work and seeing that each job they applied for had hundreds of seekers, these shabby, disillusioned men wandered aimlessly without funds, begging, picking over refuse in city dumps, and finally getting up the courage to stand and be seen publicly - in a bread line for free food. To accommodate these shamed, idle, and malnourished legions, charities, missions, and churches began programs to feed them.
Resembling "a gray, black human snake," bread lines often formed as early as 4 a.m. on cold wintry days when men lined up six across to wait as long as two to three hours before they could sit down inside a soup kitchen and partake of the meager fare offered. (In January 1931, 82 bread lines in New York City served 85,000 "meals" daily!) Men who experienced the waiting in line recall the personal shame of asking for a handout, unable to care for oneself or to provide for others. Most men found it difficult to look into the eyes of other men in line, who, if asked, had similar stories to tell.
What was it like to be in a 1933 soup kitchen (the term is used synonymously with bread line, although there is a slight difference)? Piecing together recollections, it seemed to resemble an experience at summer camp, with obvious distinctions. First, the men might be "asked" to listen to a sermon for 10-20 minutes before being served any food. Once the speech was over, the men got back in a shorter line and, cafeteria style, were served a cup or bowl of soup or stew. They then sat down at community tables where hunks of stale bread awaited them (but never soda crackers, writes historian William Manchester) on large plates. Sometimes coffee was served. Most men described the soup as tasteless, thin, watery, lukewarm, and rarely with any vegetables. Some recall never being offered a second bowl or having bread to accompany the soup. Others, though a smaller number, remember second helpings, bread, cheese sandwiches, and oatmeal. After several minutes, some authority figure from the mission or church came up to the men who had been eating and asked them to leave, to make room for the others still outside. At this point the departing men went over to another bread line to begin their wait for another meal. This process would be repeated until the third day when familiar "chronic deadbeats" were evicted from the long lines.
Humiliating as it was to wait and get into a soup kitchen in 1931, it was nearly a universal experience for urban people of all classes, or at least it was a metaphor for what most Americans were caught up in during the "hard times" of the early 1930s Now you will re-create this experience with your classmates. Play your role to the hilt and, as you do, feel some empathy for an earlier generation's struggle to survive, cope, and hang on to some dignity in the winter of 1933, amidst personal calamity no doubt unique in our history.
The Great Depression. San Diego:
Lucent Books, 1996.
The Great Depression in American History.
Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1997.
Lacey, Bill. Depression Soup Kitchen, 1933. Carlsbad, CA: Interact Publishers. Inc., 1995.
Deb, ed. We Had Everything But Money. New York: Crescent Books,
Nishi, Dennis. Life During the Great Depression. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998.