Wall Street Journal Bestseller
Opening on September 3, 1929, in the days before the stock market crash, this information-packed volume takes us through one of America’s darkest times all the way to the light at the end of the tunnel.
Following Black Tuesday, America plunged into the Great Depression. Panic and fear gripped the nation. Banks were closing everywhere. In some cities, 84 percent of the population was unemployed and starving. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, public confidence in the nation slowly began to grow, and by 1936, the industrial average, which had plummeted in 1929 from 125 to fifty-eight, had risen again to almost one hundred. But America still had a long road ahead. Popular historian Frederick Lewis Allen brings to life these ten critical years. With wit and empathy, he draws a devastating economic picture of small businesses swallowed up by large corporations—a ruthless bottom line not so different from what we see today. Allen also chronicles the decade’s lighter side: the fashions, morals, sports, and candid cameras that were revolutionizing Americans’ lives.
From the Lindbergh kidnapping to the New Deal, from the devastating dust storms that raged through our farmlands to the rise of Benny Goodman, the public adoration of Shirley Temple, and our mass escape to the movies, this book is a hopeful and powerful reminder of why history matters.
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The 1930s in America, September 3, 1929â"September 3, 1939
By Frederick Lewis Allen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1968 Agnes Rogers Allen
All rights reserved.
PRELUDE: SEPTEMBER 3, 1929
Do you remember what you were doing on September 3, 1929?
Probably not—unless you have an altogether exceptional memory.
Let me refresh your recollection. For if we are to understand the changes in American life during the nineteen-thirties, we must first recall what things were like before this period began—before the Panic which introduced the Depression. Perhaps the most convenient way of doing this is to imagine ourselves re-living a single day in 1929: seeing what things look like, listening to the talk, glancing at the newspapers and magazines and books, noticing what are the preoccupations and assumptions and expectations in people's minds—and doing all this with the eyes and ears and intellectual perspective of today.
I have chosen September 3, 1929, as the day to re-visit, for it was then that the Big Bull Market reached its peak: that the Dow-Jones average of stock-market prices, which had been rising so long and so furiously, made its high record for all time. If there was any single day when the wave of prosperity—and of speculation—which characterized the nineteen-twenties may be said to have attained its utmost height before it curled over and crashed, September 3, 1929, was that day.
So let us go back and look about us.
It is a very hot day, this first Tuesday in September, 1929. Not everywhere, to be sure: in the Far West and South the temperatures are moderate. But from the coast of Maine to the wheatfields of Nebraska the sun beats down implacably.
Yesterday was Labor Day; and last night, as the long holiday week end came to its close, the suburban highways approaching the larger American cities were nightmares of congestion as endless lines of cars full of sunburned, sweltering vacationists and weekenders crept cityward through the night, inch by angry inch. On the New Jersey highways leading to New York the tie-up was so complete that people by the thousands, hopeless of reaching the Holland Tunnel for hours, parked their cars in Newark or Hoboken and finished the journey to New York by tube. The railroad stations, too, were jammed with people—not only vacationists and week-enders but boy and girl campers returning to town en masse; never had Labor Day traffic been so overwhelming, or the collective discomfort of Labor Day travel been greater. (There were, of course, no air-conditioned cars.)
As you get up on Tuesday morning, September 3, after an airless night, the weather prediction in the morning paper offers you no relief. "Fair and continued warm today and tomorrow," it says. You are in for it: for a temperature of 94.2° in New York; 90° in Chicago, Detroit, and Kansas City; 92° in St. Louis; 94° in Minneapolis; 97° in Boston.
After breakfast you go out on the street. The men you see there do not look so very different from those of a decade later, though more of them are wearing starched collars and waistcoats than in subsequent years, and not nearly so many of them are going hatless. But the women are different indeed. The fashionable figure is straight up and down-no breasts, no waist, no hips; and if few of the women you see can even approximate this ideal, at least they are visibly making the effort. Not yet have Mae West's curves become a national influence. The waistline—if it can be called one—is round the hips. The skirts are short, reaching only two or three inches below the knee: shorter than they will be again until 1939. (The new evening dresses—backless and sleeveless—have panels, godets, or drapery hanging about the ankles, but the dresses themselves are still short.) Every dress has a v-neck, almost every sweater even. If this were a wintry day, instead of one of the hottest days of summer, you would see every woman hugging herself energetically to hold in place her straight wraparound coat. The women's hats are small helmets that fit tightly right down to the nape of the neck and so closely surround the face that a profile view of a woman shows hardly more than an eye, the nose, mouth, and chin, a lock or two of hair to decorate the cheek—and the helmet. Not all women wear their hair short, but the approved style is to shingle it in the back and draw it forward over the ears.
Even in a large city you may see one or two backless dresses among the shoppers and a few pairs of stockingless legs, for the sun-tan craze is in the full flush of novelty. As the advertisements in the Ladies Home Journal declare, "This is a sun-worshipping year ... all the world has gone in for sun-tan." You will have to look long and hard to detect any tinted nails, however; that style is still in the future.
The automobiles surging by you are angular; there isn't a streamline among them. Horizontal and perpendicular lines; square tops, with the upper rear angle hardly rounded at all; perpendicular or almost perpendicular windshields; perpendicular, flat radiator fronts. No pointed or rounded prows, no sloping rears, no draft ventilators.
You will not be able to go far, in the central part of any of the big cities, without hearing the deafening clatter of riveters, for although the Florida boom went to pieces in 1926, and the boom in suburban developments—which has been filling up the open spaces in the outskirts of the cities with Cotswold Terraces and Rosemont Groves and Woodmere Drives—has been lagging a bit since 1927, the boom in apartment-house construction and particularly in office-building construction is still going full tilt. Not in the poorer districts are the riveters noisiest, but at the centers of big business and of residential wealth, for it is the holders and manipulators of securities who are the chief beneficiaries of this last speculative phase of Coolidge-Hoover prosperity. That network of steel girders which you see rising so high above the street is going to be a luxurious cooperative apartment house; that place where the sidewalk is roofed over and the steam shovels are gobbling up an immense excavation is the site for a new skyscraper for brokers' offices and investment-trust offices and mortgage-bond salesmen.
In New York they are tearing down the old Waldorf-Astoria to make room for a skyscraper to end skyscrapers, the Empire State Building. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., has architects quietly at work making preliminary plans for a big mid-town development which he hopes will have a new Opera House as its central feature (he doesn't know yet that the Opera will decline to come in and that his colossal investment will have to take new shape in a Radio City). The Chrysler Building and several other major skyscrapers are still shooting upward. Most of the other cities of America are doing their best to emulate New York's frenzy for monuments of steel and stone ever loftier, more ambitious, and more expressive of the era of confident speculative finance.
As you walk on, a man passes you whistling "Singin' in the Rain," which at the moment rivals "The Pagan Love Song" and "Vagabond Lover" in popularity.
Here is a movie theatre advertising Al Jolson in "Say It with Songs"; across the street another one advertises "Our Modern Maidens," with Joan Crawford (still in her harumscarum phase) and Rod La Rocque. A little further Ronald Colman may be seen in "Bulldog Drummond." The fact that this is advertised as Mr. Colman's "first all-talking picture" bears witness that the invasion of the movies by sound is not yet complete. Even in the big cities there are still silent pictures competing with the talking ones. The migration of Broadway stage celebrities to Hollywood has been under way for some time, as movie producers search for actors who can speak their parts acceptably, but still the studios are fumbling uncertainly with the new medium, and still the critics regard the "talkie" as something of an awkward parvenu. When your local theatre, succumbing to the trend of the times, gets itself wired for sound, the noises which blare forth are sometimes wonderful indeed. The actors lisp absurdly; the outbursts of song, coming after "silent sequences," are often cacophonous; and as Gilbert Seldes remarks in an article in the current Harper's, "The tinkle of a glass, the shot of a revolver, a footfall on a hardwood floor, and the noise of a pack of cards being shuffled, are all about alike."
Steadily, however, the medium is being improved; and indeed there are many people in this era of rapid engineering advance and bold business enterprise who are wondering whether the talking picture will not soon be superseded in its turn by television. "Within twelve months—eighteen months at the latest—the talkies will have to meet the competition of the talkie-projector in the home," writes Mr. Seldes. "... And within another year we shall probably have the simple and comparatively inexpensive mechanisms, now being perfected, which will throw on a small screen set up beside the home radio set a moving picture projected from a central broadcasting station."
If you are to be in New York this evening, perhaps the stage will be more to your taste than the movies. "Street Scene" is having a long run there, and so is that grim reminiscence of war, "Journey's End," which you may prefer if you have liked the current best-selling novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. Eddie Cantor is on the stage in "Whoopee," you can see Bert Lahr in "Hold Everything!" If you enjoy opening nights, you can go to the first performance of a new musical show called "Sweet Adeline," which exemplifies a budding tendency to turn back in nostalgic mood to the sentiments of the gay nineties. If you had rather sit quietly at home on such a hot night and listen to the radio, you can hear the Fada Symphony Orchestra, the Pure Oil Band, Whiteman's Old Gold Orchestra, or the Freed Orchestradians. Not yet has the technique of the radio variety show been perfected, nor can you listen in on a world-wide broadcast, but the crooners—led by Rudy Vallee—are on the air in full force. The average price of a radio set is still as high as $135, for the low-priced small sets have not yet come on the market. In these prosperous times, however, radios are being bought in quantity despite their size and price, and already some twelve million American families own them.
Let us look at the newspapers. They may help us to orient ourselves. What will tomorrow morning's headlines say about today's events?
They will agree that the most exciting and important events of September 3, 1929, aside from the heat wave and purely local happenings, are a speech by the Prime Minister of England, a golf tournament, and two incidents in aviation.
The Prime Minister is Ramsay MacDonald; his speech is delivered at Geneva before the Assembly of the League of Nations. (Yes, the League, in 1929, is an important—though hardly determining—factor in international relations.) MacDonald announces in his speech that negotiations between Great Britain and the United States for the limitation of naval armaments are progressing favorably, and that full agreement seems near. He hopes shortly to visit the United States to further that agreement. (He will come, a little later, and he and President Hoover will sit and talk on a log by the Rapidan River near Hoover's rural camp.)
These armament negotiations of 1929 are incidents in the long post-war struggle for agreement—and for national advantage—in a Hitlerless world. Germany is a republic and a member of the League of Nations; the Dawes Plan of collecting reparations from Germany is about to be succeeded by the less oppressive Young Plan; France, the most powerful nation on the Continent, still occupies the Rhineland. Japan has not yet gone into Manchuria, let alone into China, nor Italy into Ethiopia; Spain is not yet torn by civil war; and Adolf Hitler is the little-regarded leader of a noisy minority of German Brown Shirts, his name quite unknown to most Americans.
There is plenty of tension, to be sure. National feelings run high, and for years past the attentive students of international affairs have been intermittently predicting a major war. At this very moment there is a grave threat of war between Russia and China. Mussolini is cherishing dreams of empire; there are Arab riots in Palestine; and Gandhi is giving trouble to the British in India. But still in the main the lines drawn at Versailles in 1919 are holding, and the democratically governed nations are on top.
Much more exciting than Ramsay MacDonald's address, to most Americans, is another front-page event of September 3: the National Amateur Golf Championship at Pebble Beach, California. The incomparable Bobby Jones is there, tying for first place with Gene Homans in the qualifying round. Will Jones go on victoriously to win his fifth American amateur title? (He will not; he will be beaten tomorrow by young Johnny Goodman, who in turn will be beaten by nineteen-year-old Lawson Little. Not till next year will Jones be able to perform the feat of taking the British amateur and open titles, and the American amateur and open, all in one season.) Meanwhile the question whether Jones will win is in millions of people's minds all over the country; for golf is in its heyday as the business man's game. For years past, aspiring executives have been drilled in the idea that afternoons spent in plus-fours provide not only enjoyment but useful business contacts, and country clubs have been becoming more palatial, more expensive, and more heavily mortgaged with membership bonds.
Of the two headlined incidents in aviation, one is a triumph, the other a disaster. The triumph belongs to the great German dirigible, the Graf Zeppelin. Having successfully circled the world, it is now on its way home across the Atlantic from Lakehurst to Friedrichshafen; by the evening of the third of September it has completed the ocean crossing, and observers in little Spanish towns see it floating overhead, its cabins brilliantly lighted against the sky. So impressive has been the Graf Zeppelin's demonstration of the possibilities of lighter-than-air flying that the designers of the Empire State Building are about to build a mooring mast on top of the skyscraper; they will announce their decision on December 11 with this somewhat premature prophecy: "The directors of Empire State, Inc., believe that in a comparatively short time the Zeppelin airships will establish transatlantic, transcontinental, and transpacific lines, and possibly a route to South America from the port of New York. Building with an eye to the future, it has been determined to erect this mooring tower."
In striking contrast to the Graf Zeppelin's triumph is the air disaster of September third: the crash of a Transcontinental Air Transport plane in New Mexico during a thunderstorm, with the loss of eight lives: a severe setback to heavier-than-air flying.
One might be misled by the word "Transcontinental." There is no coast-to-coast passenger service by air in 1929. During the summer the T.A.T., with Colonel Lindbergh as its adviser, has begun a pioneer service in conjunction with the Pennsylvania and Santa Fe railroads: passengers take an overnight train from New York to Columbus, Ohio; fly by day from Columbus to Waynoke, Oklahoma; take another overnight train to Clovis, New Mexico; and then continue by air to the Coast. In newspaper advertisements you may see Lionel Barrymore as he alights from the "Airway Limited," which has reduced the journey from New York to Los Angeles to the record-breaking time of forty-eight hours. No night flying is permitted. Yet now, before the first summer is over, one of the big Ford trimotor planes has gone smashing into Mount Taylor in New Mexico. The disaster is an ugly blow to the fledgling air-transport industry. Since Lindbergh's flight to Paris in 1927 the adventurers of the air have been crossing oceans boldly, airplane stocks have been soaring, and the Post Office Department has been successfully flying the mail across the country; but passenger flying in the United States is still in its hazardous and uncertain infancy.
Excerpted from Since Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen. Copyright © 1968 Agnes Rogers Allen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- I. Prelude: September 3, 1929
- 1 & 2. A Very Hot Day
- 3. What the Headlines Said
- 4. The Crest of the Wave
- 5. “A Friend of Mr. Jones’s”
- 6. A Few People, 1929
- II. Exit Prosperity
- 1. Panic!
- 2. Afterglow, 1930
- 3. Bathtub Gin and the Crime Wave
- 4. Miniature Golf and Free Wheeling
- 5. Hoover in Trouble
- 6. What Did It Mean?
- III. Down, Down, Down
- 1. In June, 1931
- 2. The Hoover Moratorium
- 3. A Dole for Corporations
- 4. Oh, Yeah?
- 5. Black Depression
- 6. The Lindbergh Kidnap Case
- 7. “Every Man Is Afraid”
- IV. A Change of Government
- 1. Roosevelt Nominated
- 2. The Battle of Washington
- 3. Rebellion and Ferment
- 4. Technocracy
- 5. Poor Hoover!
- 6. The Banks Give Way
- 7. Curtain
- V. New Deal Honeymoon
- 1. The New President Speaks
- 2. Off with a Rush
- 3. All Roads Lead to Washington
- 4. Extraordinary Session
- 5. New—And Multiple—Deal
- 6. Happy Days Are Here Again
- VI. A Change of Climate
- 1. Marriage and Morals
- 2. Fashion Parade
- 3. Repeal and Drinking
- 4. Play, Sports, Gambling
- 5. How the Churches Fared
- 6. The Social Salvationists
- 7. “We Don’t Know”
- VII. Reform—and Recovery?
- 1. The Honeymoon Ends
- 2. Reforms, Dionnes, and Uproar
- 3. Relief
- 4. Dillinger, G-Men, and Dewey
- 5. Huey Long and Others
- 6. The Court Says No
- VIII. When the Farms Blew Away
- 1. Black Blizzards
- 2. Land of Promise?
- 3. The Tractors Go Rolling Along
- 4. Floods—and Dams
- 5. Mature America
- IX. The Voice with the Smile Wins
- 1. The Changed World of 1936
- 2. The Pump Works—Up to a Point
- 3. Streamlined Trains and Trailers
- 4. They Hated Roosevelt
- 5. Landon, “The Kansas Coolidge”
- 6. The Voice with the Smile Wins
- 7. Ex-Rex
- X. With Pen and Camera Through Darkest America
- 1. Cocktail Party, 1935
- 2. “Tobacco Road” and Best Sellers
- 3. Social Salvationists Writing
- 4. The Communists
- 5. Candid Camera
- 6. Benny Goodman and Bach
- 7. You Can’t Say That
- 8. Hollywood Heaven
- XI. Friction and Recession
- 1. Rainy Inaugural
- 2. The CIO Sits Down
- 3. Taylor, Lewis, Girdler
- 4. The Supreme Court Battle
- 5. 1937 Montage
- 6. The Recession
- 7. Was the New Deal Played Out?
- XII. The Shadow of War
- 1. “We Take You Now to Prague”
- 2. Isolation or Intervention?
- 3. Martians—and Germans—Advance
- 4. The World of Tomorrow?
- 5. A Royal Visit and a Summer Lull
- 6. An Era Ends
- About the Author