Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Thirties - Nickel and Dime Decade

A good introduction to the 1930s:

The Nickel and Dime Decade: American Popular Culture during the 1930s, by Gary Dean Best. Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT, 1993.

- Introduction
- Chapter One the Setting
- Chapter Two Fads and Crazes
- Chapter Three Comics and Popular Literature
- Chapter Four Newspapers and Radio
- Chapter Five Music, Movies, and the Arts
- Chapter Six Sports
- Chapter Seven Style and Life
- Chapter Eight Coping
- Conclusion


The picture of the depression years that most of us have is one of unremitting bleakness: of street-corner apple sellers, soup lines, foreclosures, closed factories, armies of unemployed, hunger if not starvation, and labor violence. The contrasts drawn with the decade of the 1920s that preceded it have been stark: a decade of “Fords, Flappers and Fanatics,” as George Mowry described it, followed by a decade of “Hard Times,” to use the title of Studs Terkel’s oral history. The frivolity, fads, and mad speculation of the 1920s came crashing down with the stock market as the decade ended, to be replaced by a decade of down-at-the-heels, worn-at-the-elbow, emphasis on survival--or at least so we assume. Thus, the popular culture of the 1930s has attracted little of the attention directed by historians toward the “roaring twenties.”

The 1930s was a decade that defies such easy labeling as has been applied to the 1920s. That decade, we are told, was the “roaring twenties,” or the “jazz age,” or the “flapper era,” or a dozen other easy characterizations. The 1920s unfolds between 1920 and the stock market crash of 1929 without any major demarcations or turning points. The 1930s was not so simple. The depression had scarcely begun when the 1920s ended, but it was a fact of life from the beginning of the 1930s to the end of the decade. That alone meant that much about the 1930s would be dramatically different from the previous decade, and not only in an economic sense. The defeat of Hoover in November 1932 and the inauguration of Roosevelt in March 1933 brought alterations in American life far greater than most people expected from a change of leadership and party in the White House. The inauguration of almost any other leading Democrat as president on that day in March would have brought only mild changes at most. The inauguration of Roosevelt, on the other hand, brought momentous transformations that are with us yet over a half century later.

The apparent upturn in the economy in the mid- 1930s, followed by the collapse in 1937 and 1938, marks yet another demarcation. Americans who had good reason to feel that they were riding in a “down” elevator from 1930 to early 1933 found that they had replaced the elevator ride for a roller coaster under Roosevelt. Meanwhile, the tide of events in the rest of the world was also exerting its influence on American life, particularly toward the end of the decade.

Through all of these “micro-eras” of the 1930s, however, there was at least one consistency--unemployment. With between 14.3 percent ( 1937) and 25.2 percent ( 1933) of the work force unemployed during the 1930s, many others employed for shorter hours due to an absence of work or because of work-sharing, and still others insecure about the future of their own jobs, the reality or specter of unemployment was obviously an important influence on American behavior during the decade. The growing popularity of psychology since the 1920s, combined with the traumatic conditions of the 1930s, meant that one product of the decade would be the study of the psychology of unemployment.

It is unfortunate that the study of the psychological effects of unemployment was in its infancy at precisely the time in history when its insights might have been most useful. Although the field has become more sophisticated in recent decades, later studies are of only marginal utility in understanding the 1930s. This is true because of a number of differences between the 1930s and more recent decades. No economic recessions of recent times compare with the devastating effects of the Great Depression, which called into question the very viability and survival of the free enterprise system. No economic recessions of recent times brought workers and their families face to face with a sense of shame at their idleness and dependence on charity as did the Great Depression. The precedent of the 1930s has, in fact, served to ameliorate for later generations much that was extremely traumatic for workers and their families during the Great Depression.

In 1938 P. Eisenberg and Paul Lazarsfeld summarized the conclusions that could be drawn from over 100 studies of the unemployed done during the 1930s. In general they found that the unemployed tended to be more unstable emotionally, to have lower morale, and to pass through psychological stages in response to unemployment. In these stages they progressed from initial optimism, through pessimism, to fatalism or resignation as their unemployed situation dragged on over time. As they described it:

We find that all writers who have described the course of unemployment seem to agree on the following points: first there is shock, which is followed by an active hunt for a job, during which the individual is still optimistic and unresigned; he still maintains an unbroken attitude.

Second, when all efforts fail, the individual becomes pessimistic, anxious and suffers active distress: this is the most crucial state of all. And third, the individual becomes fatalistic and adapts himself to his new state but with a narrower scope. He now has a broken attitude. 1

To put it another way, during the early stages the individual’s personality shapes the response to unemployment, but by the latter stages the effect is in the other direction: the fact of unemployment is shaping the individual’s personality.

Studies of the unemployed in the 1930s indicated that they significantly reduced their social contacts outside the family, but the early studies paid little attention to other changes in their leisure time pursuits. More recent studies have explored quantitative changes, but not qualitative ones. One study, for example, showed that its unemployed subjects spent more time preparing meals than when they were employed, listened to more radio and watched more television, spent more time window shopping and reading and gardening and doing home repairs, and less time on entertainment that required the expenditure of money. 2 These are results that are not likely to surprise anyone. A more useful pursuit would be to learn if the unemployed were involved in new and perhaps socially less-desirable pastimes in their new condition. Did their tastes in reading, television, and movies change under the impact of unemployment? Are they more prone to illegal, immoral, and unethical activities than when employed? Are their leisure time activities consistent with what we might expect of individuals suffering blows to their egos?

Those studies and others done more recently indicate that the unemployed feel stigmatized by their condition, and that as a consequence they often continue for some time to act as if the condition did not exist. They may, for example, delay as long as possible applying for assistance for themselves and their families, since this would denote acceptance of their condition and expose it to others; they may go on vacation as if this were a normal break in their employment routine rather than the cessation of it; and they may continue as long as possible to spend money at the same level as when they were employed. 3

Eventually, however, they are forced by circumstances to accept their new condition, and with that acceptance comes a sense of diminished control over the unemployed’s own life and those of others. The breadwinning male, for example, whose control over his wife and children has been based on their respect for his earning abilities and dependence upon him for the necessities of life, now finds his status eroded not only in the eyes of his family but in his own, as well. 4 The unemployed tend to feel dehumanized, insignficant. Such a situation can easily lead to feelings of alienation or of depression in the individual’s response to unemployment. Typical results are increases in mental hospital admissions, alcoholism, drug abuse, marital violence, family abuse, and the suicide rate. 5

Moreover, those who suffer from prolonged unemployment are almost always forced into a condition of dependency--on public or private charity, or on the assistance of family members. While such a situation is more accepted today, it was more traumatic during the 1930s when it lacked the precedents that have existed since then. When employed, these people had regarded out-of-work recipients of charity with contempt and disgust, never imagining that they could fall into such a situation. Now, that contempt and disgust was turned on them, not only by the employed but even in their own eyes. The unemployed regarded themselves as inferior, even as they were so regarded by many others.

Two basic psychological needs that we all share are a need for self-esteem and a need for social status. Obviously an important ingredient in attaining both is success, which increases both the values we attach to ourselves and which others attach to us. The unemployed were, by their own definition and that of others, failures rather than successes, and therefore were unable to fulfill either of these needs in what were for them the normal ways. Moreover, they suffered from the insecurity of their position--the lack of definiteness as to what opportunities, emergencies, and responsibilities the next hour or day or week might bring, even how people would react to them in the next social situation.

Such attacks on the ego are, Freud found, countered by essentially four defense mechanisms: repression, projection, reaction formation, and regression. In influencing the popular culture of the 1930s, two of these in particular appear to have been important: repression and regression. Through repression, the individual is able to purge painful realities from conscious awareness, thereby evading feelings of guilt, anxiety, and other psychic conflicts. Regression, on the other hand, finds the individual escaping from stress by reverting to fantasy--usually to an earlier childhood stage of development, in which the behavior exhibited is that which one would expect of a child or adolescent rather than an adult. Modern psychiatry has added many variations of, or additions to, Freud’s four basic ego defenses, a number of which are helpful in understanding the behavior of the 1930s. Identification, for example, is useful in understanding the fascination of young women with movie stars during the decade, and Roosevelt’s early popularity. Comprehensive studies of ego defenses, in fact, read like a catalog of the popular culture of the 1930s. 6

Much of the popular culture of the 1930s was clearly attractive for the means it offered to escape from the guilt, anxieties, stresses, and insecurities of the depression years. It was of value, in short, not so much because it filled in idle time as for its repressive role in permitting the individual the opportunity to escape, at least for a time, from the conscious awareness of unpleasant realities. Some aspects of popular culture during the decade were clearly regressive, as in the case of adult participation in children’s games and pastimes. Others found Americans identifying with “stars” of one type or another, or with groups.

The preoccupation with one form or another of gambling during the 1930s was revealing of at least two forms of ego defense. As one psychologist put it nearly a century ago, gambling was a “diversion (that which turns aside, distracts), a way of pretending to work, or filling up the blanks in existence, of ‘killing time.’ “ 7 For other psychologists, gambling offered a form of hope for those whose lives seemed otherwise so hopeless. 8 It provided a feeling of expectation, in which, one observed, the future prospect becomes more important than the present reality. 9 At the same time, as another psychologist has observed, gamblers possess a “fanatical belief in infantile megalomania.” Like children, they expect that they will win simply because they want to win. “Mentally, [the gambler] has regressed to the earlier period in which he was, to all intents and purposes, omnipotent, that is, to infancy, when all his desires were automatically fulfilled.” 10

Much of the popular culture of the 1930s, then, seems to present itself as a study of the effects of unemployment and related economic trauma on leisure time pursuits. This study, however, is intended to be descriptive of that popular culture rather than analytical in the chapters that follow. This brief consideration of psychological influences on the 1930s ought, nevertheless, to demonstrate the complexity of the decade and the difficulties of applying to the popular culture the kinds of simplistic descriptions and explanations so commonly applied to the decade that preceded it. There was much about the popular culture of the 1930s that was ugly and depressing, side by side with as much, or more, that was, and still is, inspiring and beautiful. There was more continuity from the 1920s than one might expect under the circumstances, but other aspects that harkened back even farther in time--to the 1890s. Technological advances influenced American popular culture during the 1930s to a degree unprecedented even in the previous decade, but the poverty of the depression brought back to family life some of the closeness that the technological advances of the first three decades of the century had eroded.

Much of the popular culture of the 1930s seems familiar to us today; some of it, however, is difficult to relate to over a half-century later. The dreariness and desperation of the dance marathons and walkathons--on the part of both the participants and spectators (not to mention the promoters)--seem alien to us today, as if something out of a nightmare. Much of the rest of the popular culture of the decade, however, is reflective to some degree of that same dreariness and desperation if examined closely. Thus, even the fads of the 1930s that duplicated or resembled those of the 1920s were indulged in for very different reasons during the depression than those which had motivated people during the previous decade.

Straitened economic circumstances meant that it was a decade in which the nickel and dime achieved an importance unprecedented then or since, with each of the coins more precious for consumers than in prosperous times. For housewives trying to feed a family of four on $1 per day or less, the cost per-person per-meal was less than a dime.

In another respect the heightened importance of nickels and dimes was the result of a combination of the speculative fever of the 1920s and the depression of the 1930s. The real estate and stock market “plungers” of the 1920s were replaced in the 1930s by millions who gambled on a smaller scale: five-cent chances in a punchboard or jar game, or a tencent investment in a chain letter.

And finally, the 1930s would deserve description as the nickel and dime decade if only because of all the devices that appeared during those years to separate Americans from those coins--from dime beer to pinball machines to parking meters, from jukeboxes to comic books. Even technology and entrepreneurship in the 1930s, then, seemed to focus to a considerable degree on the nickels and dimes in the pockets of Americans. Not surprisingly, the director of the U.S. Mint reported that in 1935 nearly three times as many nickels and dimes had been coined as in 1934, because of the many new uses to which they were being put. 11 Simplistic as it is, The Nickel and Dime Decade seems as useful as any other title in describing the contents of this book.

As one who was born two months before Roosevelt’s first reelection in 1936, I have always been fascinated by the decade. My childhood recollections of the late 1930s and early 1940s include many of the pastimes described in the pages that follow--the jar games and punchboards, curling up in front of the Stromberg-Carlson console to listen to favorite radio programs, and the almost daily appearance at our door by transients seeking food to take back to their packing-crate shantytowns near the railroad tracks. When I read in school later that such shantytowns had been referred to as “Hoovervilles” before March 1933, I wondered what name should be applied to those that still existed after seven years of the Roosevelt presidency.

In the research and writing of this book I have received again the exemplary support that I have begun to take for granted from the director of the University of Hawaii at Hilo Library, Kenneth Herrick, and his fine staff. Dan Eades, history editor at Praeger, was also as supportive as usual. I have been badly spoiled by the encouragement I always receive from these two. The most profound debt of all, however, is always owed to my wife Lani, whose presence in my life is the greatest encouragement of all.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/01 at 12:22 PM
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