Dust Bowl & the Great Depression
By Cindy Vallar
Originally written for GWN - September 1, 2001
Palm Sunday, 1935, dawned with a bright sun in a clear blue sky in western Kansas. At noon, the temperature reached ninety degrees, making it the hottest day so far that year. Within a few hours, the temperature dropped as much as fifty degrees and large flocks of twittering birds gathered in fields and yards. At 2:40 PM, a mushrooming black cloud swept across the Plains, blotting out the sun not with rain, but with dust. Drivers couldn’t see past their windshields. Static electricity cast an eerie glow around the blades of windmills and barb-wired fences. Dirt sifted through cracks and windows, coating everything whether it was left on a table or hidden within a cabinet. Wind slammed against buildings and eddies of dust swirled across floors. “I thought the end of the world was here,” Art Leonard said.
Around 6:00 that evening, the winds subsided. As the dust settled, a dull orange glow was visible to the west and an eerie stillness echoed through towns and farms. Livestock, suffocated by the dust, littered roads and fields. Houses, vehicles, and barns stood half-buried by dunes of soil and sand. The scattered dust of the Plains blackened the sky as far away as Washington, D.C.
Fourteen dust storms hit in 1932. The following year, there were thirty-eight. Black Sunday marked the halfway point of the drought that sparked the Dust Bowl. Rains had been scarce for five years, and it would be another five until good, soaking rains came again to Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. According to one resident, the wind blew for twenty-seven days and nights without ceasing in the spring of 1935. People spent most of their time cleaning up the dirt. No matter how often or how hard they worked, however, the dirt always came again. Many died from black pneumonia.
If the dust wasn’t bad enough, swarms of grasshoppers destroyed what little remained of crops and devoured anything edible. There were so many they blotted out the sun. Another problem was the jack rabbits. Hundreds of thousands of them forced farmers to hold rabbit drives to exterminate them. Summers were the hottest on record. Cattle prices fell so low that ranchers couldn’t afford to feed their herds, and they slowly died of starvation or were slaughtered. “For a farmer to buy a toothbrush, he would have to sell eight dozen eggs and he then would owe two cents.” (John A. Simpon, President of the National Farmers Union)
The Great Depression hit farmers long before it hit the rest of the nation and the world. The stock market crash of 29 October 1929, merely intensified their plight. After stocks became worthless, people raced to their banks to withdraw their savings, causing many financial institutions to close their doors forever. By 1932, one out of four men were out of work. Those lucky enough to have jobs convinced themselves there was something wrong with the unemployed – lazy, immoral, parasitic thieves – compounding the shame, guilt, fear, and worthlessness these men felt because they were no longer able to support their families. Once hard-working people, they searched for jobs and told themselves they’d soon find work, but the lack of jobs sent them farther and farther from their homes. As the days passed and no work was found, they began to look old and act poor, which further hindered them in finding employment.
Brought up in the belief that work brought its own rewards, accepting charity just to survive was a bitter pill to swallow. Some preferred to starve rather than seek help. Unable to cope with the shame of being unable to support and shelter their families, some turned to drink, others withdrew from society. Some beat their wives and children, others sought release by committing suicide. Some rode the rails, making the 1930s the heyday of the hobo. Many times the mother finally sought needed help to spare the fathers from feeling like complete failures.
|1930||4.5 million people lose their jobs and
Al Capone arrested for income tax evasion
Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon published
Grant Wood paints American Gothic
The Shadow premieres on radio and the Marx Brothers perform in Animal Crackers
Songs: “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” and “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”
Philadelphia Athletics beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-2 to win the World Series
Gandhi leads 200-mile nonviolent march for India’s independence from Britain
Betty Boop, Pluto discovered, vaccine for yellow fever, A&P biggest retailer
|1931||Unemployment and bank closures double
“The Star Spangled Banner” becomes our national anthem
Nevada legalizes gambling
Pearl Buck publishes The Good Earth
James Cagney and Jean Harlow in Public Enemy and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein
Knute Rockne dies in a plane crash and Thomas Edison passes away
Empire State Building, Dick Tracy, Alka Seltzer, synthetic rubber
|1932||Franklin Roosevelt elected President
Unemployment reaches 13.7 million
Hoovervilles, breadlines, and soup kitchens in most cities
MacArthur disperses out-of-work veterans who marched on Washington with troops
Kidnapping of Lindbergh baby, Three Musketeers candy bar
|1933||New Deal puts Americans back to work
FDR temporarily closes all banks and airs his first “Fireside Chat”
Frances Perkins appointed first woman Cabinet member (Secretary of Labor)
James Hilton publishes Lost Horizon and Fay Wray stars in King Kong
The Lone Ranger airs for the first time on radio
Mae West speaks her famous line “Come up and see me sometime.”
Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany
Stalin’s purges begin
Ritz Crackers, Seven-Up, Spam, Alcatraz, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, “Easter Parade,” “Stormy Weather,” first All-Star baseball game
|1934||Hitler becomes der Fuehrer
FBI agents kill Public Enemy Number 1, John Dillinger
Dionne quintuplets born
It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, wins five Oscars
Shirley Temple sings “On the Good Ship Lollipop”
|1935||Huey Long assassinated
Will Rogers and Wiley Post killed in a plane crash
Clarence Day’s Life with Father and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps premiere
The first episode of Fibber McGee and Molly airs
The first nighttime baseball game played in Cincinnati
Pan Am World Airways, Alcoholics Anonymous, rumba, first beer cans, paperbacks, Social Security
|1936||Bruno Hauptmann executed for kidnapping
Dale Carnegie publishes How to Win Friends and Influence People
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind published
Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Olympics in Berlin
Civil war erupts in Spain
Edward VIII abdicates his throne to marry the woman he loves
Life Magazine, Hoover Dam
|1937||First live broadcast of a disaster, the
the Hindenburg, aired
Amelia Earhart vanishes while attempting to fly around the world
John Steinbeck publishes Of Mice and Men
Premiere of 1st full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
First soap opera, Stella Davis, airs
Japan invades China
Golden Gate Bridge, cellophane tape, grocery carts, insulin, first blood bank, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy
|1938||Edward R. Murrow broadcasts Hitler’s
War of the Worlds sparks panic among listeners who think Martians have invaded
Pearl S. Buck wins Nobel Prize
Benny Goodman and his orchestra play Carnegie Hall
Ella Fitzgerald sings “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”
Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland star in The Adventures of Robin Hood
Teflon, ballpoint pen
|1939||Lou Gehrig sets record for consecutive
then retires because of illness
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath published
William Butler Yeats dies
First major-league baseball game televised
Germany invades Poland
Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Einstein warns FDR about the possibility of building the atomic bomb
Ice cream cost twenty cents for a pint, thirty cents for a quart. Malts, ice cream sodas, sundaes, and sandwiches were a dime. Restaurants served sirloin steak with onions, roast loin of pork, roast fresh ham, or pigs’ knuckles and pigs’ head for twenty-five cents a plate. A haircut and shave cost thirty cents. Milk cost fourteen cents a quart and bread nine cents a loaf. Women’s shoes averaged $15 a pair. A negligee cost $29.95 and corsets $5-10. Men’s suits cost $39.94, shirts $1.65, shoes $12, and coats $37.50-57.50. A radio sold for $158, about the same price as a round-trip plane ticket between New York and Los Angeles. In New York, hotel rooms with bath cost $3 for a single, $4 for a double, and towels cost forty-eight cents. A new vacuum cleaner could be had for $52.20 and a ten-piece Hepplewhite dining room suite with six chairs sold for $490. The Chevrolet roadster cost $495, coupe $565, and sedan $675.
Three years after the Stock Market crashed, nine million savings accounts were gone and 86,000 businesses closed their doors. Life expectancy for a man was 58.1 years, for a woman, 61.6 years. The average family income was $1600 or less, at least $700 less than in 1929. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 1935 the average family consisted of 2 adults and 1.6 children, who rented a four- or five-room home or apartment on a gross income of $1,348. Only 3% of the population owned their homes. Most farms lacked running water and bathrooms. Only one out of every ten rural houses had electricity because each family had to foot the bill to bring the lines out to them. At least 75% of the family income provided the basic necessities.
“Doing without” became the norm. Mothers made new clothes from flour sacks, and hand-me-downs were worn until they fell apart. A total of 227,000 Kansans and more than 440,000 Oklahomans left the Dust Bowl, hoping to find a better life somewhere else. In all, 2.5 million people joined the exodus. Many went to California’s San Joaquin Valley, but there were never enough jobs and some states turned these migrants away. Californians scorned homeless farmers, derisively referring to them as “Okies.” Dorothea Lang’s photographs put faces on those who suffered the most and remain indelible portraits of a time long past.
By the end of the 1930s, 85% of homes had radios in them. Daytime serials, like The Romance of Helen Trent, were popular during the early afternoons. When the children came home from school, they listened to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy. Listeners who bought the sponsors’ products sent for a Green Hornet ring or Captain Midnight’s code-o-graph. In the evening, families gathered around the radio to listen to The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Amos ‘n’ Andy, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, and Fred Allen. Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Guy Lombardo, and the swing orchestras brought music into our homes.
Fifteen cents bought a movie, news reel, short subject, and prizes and giveaways. Other pastimes included playing bingo or Monopoly, reading comic books, watching or playing baseball, going on picnics or to barn dances, playing cards, going ice skating or having sledding parties, and attending church functions and social clubs.The thirties gave rise to G-men and bank robbers. Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger became folk heroes before the law tracked them down and permanently ended their crime sprees. Strikes and riots also became more prevalent. On 19 March 1935, a supposed killing of a twelve-year-old boy in Harlem sparked a race riot in which more than two hundred stores were burned and looted. Property damage exceeded $2,000,000 and one person was killed, more than a hundred injured, and a hundred arrests made. The year before 420,000 mill workers walked off the job, closing down the second biggest industry in the South. In 1937, ten people were killed and thirty wounded during a strike against the powerful steel industry.
Websites (verified 7/9/2015)
America from the Great Depression to World War II – photographs taken from 1935-1940
dMarie Time Capsule – create a personalized look at the events of a particular year
Dust Bowl Days -- Lessons for Grades 3-5
Inflation Calculator – calculate the value of money now and then
Lindbergh Case: the Trial of the Century
New Deal Network – educational guide to the Great Depression
1920s and 1930s: The Depression and the New Deal - words to popular songs of the period
Related Accounts of the Great Depression – economic news stories
Riding the Rails – PBS’ American Experience about hobos
Surviving the Dust Bowl – PBS’ American Experience
Voices from the Dust Bowl – audio collection of migrant workers’ stories
Low, Ann Marie. Dust Bowl Diary. University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
McElvaine, Robert S. “’Fear Itself:’ Depression Life” from The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. Times Books, 1933.
Press, Petra. The 1930s (A Cultural History of the United States Through the Decades). Lucent Books, 1999.
Riney-Kehrberg, Pamela. Rooted in Dust: Surviving Drought and Depression in Southwestern Kansas. University Press of Kansas, 1994.
Svobida, Lawrence. Farming the Dust Bowl: a First-Hand Account from Kansas. University Press of Kansas, 1986.
Van Amber, Rita. Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Van Amber Publishers, 1999.
The WPA Guide to 1930s Kansas. University Press of Kansas, 1939.
‘We Had Everything, But Money.’ Reiman Publications, 1992.
Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: the Southern Plains in the 1930s. Oxford University Press, 1979.
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©2001 Cindy Vallar