How People Lived
Nearly every American knew someone who had lost everything, so most felt insecure. Read how one family who had an income cut back on expenses.
But even with the hard times, life went on, and sometimes it was normal and even joyous. Movie attendance had increased greatly before the Depression as the first “talking” film (The Jazz Singer) was released in 1927.
Although movie attendance slipped 25 percent between 1930 and 1933, it started rising afterwards.
Saturday matinee movies cost only a dime. They featured serial movies, a continuing adventure story that ended each week in a cliff-hanger (the hero was in trouble). Thus viewers were encouraged to come back next week and see how the hero escaped.
A young girl named Shirley Temple captured the imagination of the movie-going public and was the top star of the 1930s. The characters she played in her movies were often orphans in dire circumstances who found wealth and happiness by the end of the movie. This appealed to the Depression audience who wanted to watch movies with happy endings.
Popular movies in the 1930s included The Wizard of Oz, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Lone Ranger, Grapes of Wrath, King Kong, Dracula, and Public Enemy.
Radio became the most popular entertainment during the Depression with 79 percent of all homes in America having a radio by 1938. For the first time in the country’s history, there could a national audience listening at the same time to important events like the president’s speeches, sports or cultural events.
Radio station programs included soap operas, dramas, talent shows, comedy shows, mysteries, quiz shows, sports events and popular and classical music. In what would amaze people today, top bandleaders were as famous as movie stars during the Depression. Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Duke Ellington were some of the bandleaders.
Weekdays between 5 and 6 o’clock was known as the children’s hour on radio. Children could listen to 15 minute radio serials that often featured children as the main characters. “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy” featured a teenager who had adventures all over the world.
The radio shows gave their listeners, including children, a chance to obtain things through the mail. For example, since cereal companies were often sponsors, children could order kites, whistles, tops and other toys by mailing in cereal box tops. Adults could also receive items through the mail. In the Depression years, this was very popular.
- A farm family from East Tennessee was photographed in front of the fireplace. Although the picture was staged, the adults are doing chores that would have been done at night. The wife is shelling beans or peas in a bowl while holding her baby while the husband is repairing a shoe. The other four children are sitting around the fire. The photograph was taken in 1933 by Lewis Hine. He was hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority to document life in the soon-to-be-built Norris Dam area. Tennessee State Museum Collection. 86.36.3
- Photograph of a young girl listening to the radio, probably taken during the 1930s or early 1940s. The photograph was taken for the Rural Electrification Administration. New Deal Network, Sponsored by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute http://newdeal.feri.org/
- This photograph was identified as “Negro housing in North Memphis. The caption says “Some of the occupants of these houses work at a powder plant in Millington. Rent of twelve dollars a month was recently raised to fourteen dollars.” Photograph was taken in 1940 by John Vachon. Library of Congress
- A street scene in Maynardville, Tennessee, in 1935. Notice the business in the background that sells both coffins and cabinets. Various automobiles are parked around town showing that this small northeastern town still had citizens who owned cars. Photographer was Ben Shahn, employed with New Deal projects. Library of Congress
- Photograph of a woman washing her clothes outside using a wringer to take the excess water from the clothes. This photograph was taken for the Rural Electrification Administration to show before and after electrification. This is obviously a "before" picture. New Deal Network, Sponsored by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute http://newdeal.feri.org/
- Photograph of a man looking at the advertised movies at a movie theater on Beale Street in Memphis in 1939. Photographer was Marion Post Wolcott, who worked for the Farm Security Administration. Library of Congress
- A photograph showing a woman holding a chicken beside a "Rolling Store." She evidently planned on trading it for goods. Her children are standing beside her as the man leans inside the truck. Notice the cage with chickens on the cab of the truck. Photograph taken in 1939 in Sevier County. Tennessee Department of Conservation Photograph Collection, Tennessee Library and Archives
- A photograph of the 1940 homecoming parade at Middle Tennessee State Teachers College (now Middle Tennessee State University) in Murfreesboro. The photograph shows two majorettes marching with male cheerleaders while the band follows behind. Courtesy of the Albert Gore Research Center's University Collection
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