Living through the Great Depression

The following assignments on the 1930s come from my intermediate-level survey course, "HIS 261: 20th Century U.S.", and illustrate the variety of resources available online, and thereby, the history student's need for cognitive flexibility. The sequence begins with an examination of the economic roots of the Great Depression with a link to an online economic history of the twentieth century. Then we move from data points to faces and individual experiences. Students choose among three sets of resources: the photographs of the Farm Security Administration as supplemented by a contemporary account of the migrant experience and a course site at George Mason on the Dust Bowl that makes effective use of audio; accounts of the Bonus March; and contemporary accounts of "riding the rails." We then turn to the early days of the New Deal with FDR's first inaugural address, complete with sound files, two of the early Fireside Chats, and an essay by one of the leading members of his Brain Trust. Next we turn to some of the New Deal's critics: Huey Long, Dr. Francis Townsend, Fr. Charles Coughlin, and Upton Sinclair. Much of the controversy swirled over what became Social Security, so we turn to the Report of the committee chaired by Frances Perkins that laid the groundwork for that measure.

The trials of the so-called Scottsboro Boys provide the next topic. We use the materials put together by Professor Doug Linder of the University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Law on his "Famous American Trials" site. This enables us to explore racial and political tensions. Then we turn to labor-management battles, first to a comparatively obscure strike of female pecan shellers in Texas and then to the famous GM Sit-Down Strike. Then we turn to the arts, starting with one of the New Deal's most controversial programs, the Federal Theatre Project. We also take up the refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution to allow black soprano Marian Anderson to sing at a recital hall they owned and of her triumphant free concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Our focus on race and the arts continues with a look at the Library of Congress' site on Orson Welles' production of MacBeth for the Federal Theater Project in Harlem with an all-black cast.

We wrap this part of the course up with a film, Preston Struges' comedic masterpiece "Sullivan's Travels," that explores Hollywood, the Depression, race relations, and much else. What have their readings enabled students to appreciate in "Sullivan's Travels" they would otherwise have missed? What did the movie enable them to see about the other materials they had worked with?

I should note that, despite occasional complaints about the amount of work required, students did exceptionally fine work on these assignments. Almost all found topics they loved. Many confessed to spending far more time on assignments than they had originally planned just because they found the materials fascinating. For a large majority the 1930s really came alive.

October 3: The Crash and the Depression Introduction

October 5: As we begin this segment of the course, we need to give the Depression a human face or, more precisely, many human faces. Choose one of the three sets of materials listed below. Choose two or three details that you find most powerfully evocative of the human experience of the Great Depression. For each, e-mail a paragraph describing what it is about the detail that you find revealing.

American Memory - Great DepressionTo the left are some of the most remembered faces, because of the powerful photographs taken by employees of the Farm Security Administration. The Great Depression made worse an existing recession among small farmers. The weather then made matters worse still. Here is a contemporary account of the “Dust Bowlers” from the Survey Graphic magazine at the New Deal Network.

Another group of faces belonged to the members of the “Bonus Army.” These were WWI veterans who came to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1932 to demand passage of a bill speeding up payment of bonuses due them for wartime service. They set up camp in the city. The U.S. Army, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur and his second-in-command, Dwight D. Eisenhower, set fire to the camp and drove off the veterans. Here are several versions of what happened: The Bonus Army—DeLong’s account; the FBI’s account; President Hoover’s account at History Net.

As unemployment mounted and families found themselves more and more pressed to make ends meet, young men (and some young women) left home to seek work. They would travel from place to place by “hopping” freight trains. They would sleep in hobo camps near rail yards. Here is a brief introductory essay and ten short accounts by teenagers describing what Riding the Rails was like.

October 8: Columbus Day Holiday

October 10: Report on FDR and the New Deal—FDR, inaugural address, including sound file; FDR, Fireside Chats for March 12 and May 7, 1933; Harold L. Ickes, “The Social Implications of the New Deal."

  • The “run” on the banks was the most immediate crisis facing the new administration. How did FDR describe it? What remedies did he prescribe?

  • The “run” was the most visible manifestation of a widespread sense of panic among Americans in the winter of 1932–33. How did FDR describe this state of mind? What did he recommend?

  • How did he define the “New Deal” in May 1933? How did Harold Ickes define it in 1934?

[Note: For this and subsequent reports, you will want to take advantage of the FDR Cartoon Archive]

October 12: Report on radical opposition to the New Deal: Huey Long and Father Coughlin from George Mason University; Social Security Administration sites for Coughlin, Long, Dr. Francis Townsend, and Upton Sinclair’s EPIC campaign:

  • Huey Long was one of the most outsized figures in American history. What were the key details to his “Share the Wealth” program?
  • Father Coughlin exercised enormous influence during the 1930s as the “Radio Priest.” An early supporter of FDR, he later became a sharp critic. He also engaged in open anti-Semitic demagoguery, reminiscent of Henry Ford’s rantings in the Dearborn Independent. What were Coughlin’s proposals for economic justice?
  • Both Dr. Francis Townsend and Upton Sinclair concentrated upon California, although both claimed their plans would work for the nation as a whole. What were their schemes?
  • Historians sometimes label these four as “populists,” sometimes as “radicals,” sometimes as “demagogues.” These categories can overlap. How would you describe the four?

October 15: Report on Social Security: The New Deal response to proposals such as Long’s “Share the Wealth” or Sinclair’s “End Poverty in California” was, amid much else, the Social Security System. It would provide pensions for older workers, assistance for the disabled, and provide other benefits. More fundamentally, it would change the relationship between the individual citizen and the nation-state by making the individual “entitled” to various benefits from the state. The report of the Cabinet-level committee FDR created is online.

  • What, according to the Report, were the needs the Social Security System would address?

  • Why, according to the Report, were these properly national responsibilities?

October 17: Report on the Scottsboro Boys Trials

  • What were the charges?
  • What was the evidence?
  • What was the role of the CPUSA in the trials?

One way of contextualizing Scottsboro is to look at the original 1930 lyrics of Irving Berlin's "Putting On The Ritz":

[VERSE:] Have you seen the well-to-do
Up on Lenox Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air
High hats and colored collars
White spats and fifteen dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time

[REFRAIN:] If you're blue and you don't know where to go to
Why don't you go where Harlem sits
Puttin' on the ritz

Spangled gowns upon a bevy of high browns
From down the levee, all misfits
Puttin' on the ritz

That's where each and ev'ry Lulu Bell goes
Ev'ry Thursday ev'ning with her swell beaus
Rubbing elbows
Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee
And see them spend their last two bits
Puttin' on the ritz


October 19: Report on the GM Sitdown Strike of 1936–37 and the 1938 San Antonio Pecan Shellers’ Strike (now available via subscription from Alexander Street Press). Here is an account of the sitdown strike drawn from the files of the Detroit News + many photos; an account of the sitdown strike from The Nation + another and still another and yet another; here is an “audio gallery” including reminiscences from strikers at Historical Voices.

  • What was at stake in these strikes?
  • Why did the sitdown strike succeed when other big strikes, such as the 1919 Steel Strike and 1919 Seattle General Strike, did not?
  • What does the story of the Pecan Shellers’ Strike suggest to you about the state of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest in the 1930s?

October 22: Report on the Works Progress Administration: Few New Deal programs proved as controversial as the WPA. Unlike the Public Works Administration or the Civilian Conservation Corps, the WPA set out to employ people in the arts. It commissioned artists to paint murals, directors to put on plays, historians to interview elderly African Americans about their experiences under slavery. WPA translators in Chicago translated that city’s foreign-language newspapers. In almost every state WPA workers drafted Guides to the state providing history, geographic and geological information, descriptions of major (and minor) attractions, amid much other information. What made the WPA so controversial was the openly political nature of some of the art and, especially, theatre produced. Here are four key sets of sources: Hallie Flanagan’s Address on the purposes and goals of the Federal Theatre Project she would direct; the National Archives’ exhibit A New Deal for the Arts; Federal Theatre Project; WPA Posters, both at the Library of Congress’ American Memory site.

  • What was the scope and nature of WPA projects? Be specific.
  • Why did some of these projects so enrage conservative opponents of the New Deal? Again, be specific.

October 24: Report on the arts:
As the controversy swirling around the Federal Theatre Project suggests, the 1930s were a time of tumult in the arts. One of the most interesting, and artistically impressive, of the theatrical experiments was the Mercury Theatre Company, founded by Orson Welles and John Housemann. They produced plays on the New York stage and, beginning in 1938, on the CBS Radio Network. The most famous of all these broadcasts was The War of the Worlds (October 30, 1938). Despite an opening warning that the program listeners were about to hear was a radioplay, many in the audience believed that Martians had actually landed in New Jersey and were seeking to conquer the Earth. The broadcast made Welles famous and won a sponsor, Campbell Soups, for the program. Welles next turned to making movies. His first, featuring many members of the Mercury Theatre Company, was Citizen Kane. It is no exaggeration to say that it revolutionized movie making.

A major controversy emerged over race and the arts when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to rent their hall in D.C. for a concert by Marion Anderson, a black woman who also may have been the greatest singer of her generation. Eleanor Roosevelt publicly resigned from the DAR and arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. There is an online exhibit about Anderson, with some audio and video files, at the University of Pennsylvania.

With this report we encounter a new type of historical evidence, audio. We can actually listen to the Mercury Theatre Company’s radio broadcasts. We can read about Welles’ Macbeth staged in Harlem. We can look at posters, designs for costumes, the script, and other materials. But we cannot attend a performance. We can listen to War of the Worlds, however, or any of a number of other broadcasts. With Marion Anderson, we can not only listen to some of her performances, we can also listen to her recall episodes and incidents from her career.

How might we use the Mercury Theatre Company recordings to get some idea of what listening to the radio in the 1930s was like? Every evening families gathered around their radios. What did the listener have to do in order to listen, i.e., what demands on his/her imagination did the Mercury Theatre programs make? What sorts of programs did Welles and Company put on? What does this array of programs suggest about audience tastes?

Anderson’s successes show the “progress” Americans had achieved in creating a society in which people were judged on their ability. The limits she faced show the obstacles that remained. How might we use Marion Anderson’s career, and especially her performance at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939, to get some idea about race relations during the Roosevelt administration?

October 26: Review of Sullivan’s Travels due; you can view the movie at the Media Center at your convenience Tuesday, October 23; Wednesday, October 24, 8:00–2:00; Thursday, October 25. I will screen the tape in F113 at 3:20 on Wednesday. You should:

  • Choose three specific incidents in the film which deepened or complicated your understanding of Depression-Era America. Explain each.
  • Choose three specific pieces of evidence you have encountered this semester which deepened or complicated your understanding of the film. Explain each.