Popular Culture during the Great Depression
All Americans suffered to some degree during the Great Depression. Their suffering and coping mechanisms, as well as traditional American values such as self-determination, self-reliance, and optimism, were reflected in the popular culture of the 1930s. Movies came into their own during the depression, and some believe it was the Golden Age of Hollywood. At the start of the depression, “talkies” were a novelty. By the time the depression was coming to an end, Americans were entranced by lavish musicals and epics in color.
In the earliest days of the Great Depression, theaters had to drastically reduce prices to keep people coming. But movies came to be an inexpensive way to escape reality, and whoever could save on the cost of admission would welcome a couple hours away from reality. By the end of the decade, an average of 80 million tickets were sold every week.
Blockbuster musicals reflected renewed hope and dramatic epics reminded viewers they weren’t struggling alone. Nearly all the films produced at this time reflected the country’s changing value system. Some of the biggest movies of the 1930s were Little Caesar (1930); Dracula (1931); Duck Soup(1933); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939); The Wizard of Oz (1939); Gone with the Wind (1939); and, perhaps the most timely and realistic movie of the era, The Grapes of Wrath (1940), based on the classic John Steinbeck novel.
Two board games that are still popular today were invented during the Great Depression. One was Monopoly. It seems contradictory that a game about earning money and bankrupting your competitor would become so popular during an economic depression. Perhaps it was an escape from reality, or maybe the possibility of getting rich, even using fake money, was its allure. Another game invented during the depression was Scrabble. This famous and well-loved word game was invented by an unemployed architect who wanted to create a game requiring good vocabulary skills with the element of chance. The legions of Scrabble fans have grown over the years, and tournaments, special dictionaries, and clubs can be found throughout the country.
Art, Music, Literature, and Sports
The exuberant music and behavior of the 1920s was reflected in the artistic movements of that decade, with abstract and modern paintings in vogue. In just such a way, the gritty truth of day-to-day American life during the Great Depression was reflected in its art, known as “The American Scene.” Paintings and sculptures were realistic, with a touch of idealism. Painters, sculptors, and photographers had a wealth of subject matter, and their work remains popular today as a visual record of the era. Two of the most prolific photographers were Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, whose stark photographs revealed a grinding poverty balanced by the strength of the human spirit.
Reading, as always, remained a convenient way to escape from reality. During the 1930s, several notable new writers emerged on the scene. One, Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss), became one of the most beloved children’s authors. His first book, And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published in 1936. It was about a young boy who uses his imagination to change a horse and wagon into an extraordinary beast. John Steinbeck is perhaps the best-known adult novelist to write about the Great Depression. His books, although works of fiction, used his keen eye for observation and detail to reflect the experiences of those around him. His 1936 novel, In Dubious Battle, was about a fruit pickers’ strike in California. Of Mice and Menwas published the following year and detailed the experiences of two men whose dreams were destroyed by the drought in the Midwest. His third novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), clearly transmitted how hope for the future and love of family could hold a family together as they migrated westward in search of a better life.
Many other authors who remain popular today published during the depression era. Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind, although set during the Civil War, spoke of the same type of deprivation and survival skills that depression era families were forced to use. Some of Ernest Hemingway’s most popular works were also published in the 1930s; they include Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, and To Have and Have Not. Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Good Earth, was published in 1931. Aldous Huxley, best known for his 1932 novel, Brave New World, speculated on the downfall of civilization several centuries in the future.
In the world of comics, two well-loved superheroes were also “born” during the Great Depression, and one little red-haired girl moved into the nation’s hearts. Superman was dreamed up by two teens from Cleveland. He debuted in 1938 as a champion of the oppressed. His character has spawned TV shows, movies, and all types of toys, without losing any of his original appeal. Batman came out a year later. Both he and Superman reflect the New Deal liberalism of the day, with Batman reflecting President Roosevelt as a wealthy man who adopts a different persona to fight injustice. Finally, Little Orphan Annie demonstrated that the super rich could still be “good guys,” as Daddy Warbucks, her benefactor, rescued her from a life as a poor orphan and helped her fight villains.
The decade’s music also reflected both the highs and lows of the Great Depression, as hope again appeared on the horizon. It ran the gamut from soulful blues and spirituals to bouncy tunes meant to keep one humming while one worked. The song “Blue Skies,” released in 1927, was all about the shining days of the optimistic 1920s; “Stormy Weather” (1933) was the exact opposite: “Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky … Life is bare, gloom and misery everywhere ….” And then there was the classic theme song from 1939’s Wizard of Oz. Sung by Judy Garland, “Over the Rainbow” promised that better days lay ahead if one could only believe.
The most popular sports of the depression era were boxing, baseball, and football. Household names from back then are still recognizable today: Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Joe Louis. Two black sports stars of the decade proved that racist attitudes were still very much a part of society. The first was Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As Hitler and his racist policies were growing, Owens forced the world to recognize his talent. The second was Joe Louis, who fought German boxer Max Schmeling in the late 1930s. Backing the black American over the white German, Americans began a subtle shift in attitude toward African Americans.
1. Why do you believe that movies, sports and other forms of entertainment became so popular during the Great Depression?
2. Why do you believe that the game of Monopoly became so popular at the time?
3. What role does race, sex and class play in these cultural elements?
4. It is safe to say that these cultural elements are still popular today. Is the cause of their popularity today the same as the Great Depression? In other words, do we like these things for the same reasons that people did back then?