The Lifestyle We Inherit and Pass On
A Review of William H. Young’s The 1930s (American Popular Culture Through History
William H. Young is an autonomous writer and independent scholar. He has recently retired from teaching at Lynchburg College in Virginia for 36 years. Throughout his career, Young taught English, American Studies, and popular culture. He has co-written a number of books with his wife; Nancy K. Young. Young has published books and articles, including a series.
BY NICK LIANTO
Popular culture is the system of attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, customs, and tastes that define the people of any society. It is the entertainments, diversions, icons, rituals, and actions that shape the everyday world. Popular culture is what we do while we are awake and what we dream about while we are asleep. It is the way of life we inherit, practice, change, and pass on to our descendants. Popular culture is an extension of folk culture, the culture of the people. It focuses on “the general content of mass entertainment.”1 With the rise of electronic media and communication, folk culture expanded into popular culture. Popular culture is the advertising, architecture, fashion, activity, art, and lifestyle of the people.
The Great Depression drastically changed the American lifestyle. Because of the Depression, the manufacture of goods dropped sharply. As a result, companies laid off workers, cut remaining wages, and reduced production. Without jobs, people had to find ways to keep themselves occupied. For the unemployed, times were harsh in the early 1930s. Families without income visited soup kitchens, or “breadlines.” By 1932, over 40 million Americans, urban and rural, were in poverty. In 1933, the Civilian Corps Reforestation Youth Rehabilitation Movement was formed to help the idle. It was later renamed the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC. The organization put men into work by providing them with strenuous physical labor. Overall, the CCC enlisted 3 million young men and paid them $30 a month. If the value of money back then was to be juxtaposed with today’s, $1 during the Depression-era would be worth approximately $12.50 today. Conversely, a present-day dollar would be worth about 12 cents if spent during the 1930s. As the Depression worsened, people looked sources besides their jobs to provide them with relief. Magazines, movies, radio, comic strips, and other print media kept people preoccupied. The Great Depression also included the years of advertising excess. With the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the method of advertising changed significantly. Print advertising declined, as radio promotions increased. Radio advertising increased as more unemployed people stayed home glued to the radio. For print, advertisers used elements of contemporary art, drawing ideas from expressionism, cubism, abstraction, and impressionism. Some advertisements appeared in magazines as well. For magazines such as The Post and Life, which were some of the popular concurrent magazines of the decade, automobile spreads were an important component of the advertising mix. Promotions for cars coaxed people into believing that buying the latest models was a must. Advertising presented objects and people in situations that may cause recognition by the audience, but any reflection of the time is distorted, and deliberately so. American advertising in the 1930s rose to the challenges of the Depression. It “told consumers they would survive the crisis and could go on consuming, that hard work and the genius of American capitalism would lead to better times, and that advertising would be a guide along the way.”2
The architectural and design term of the 1930s was “Modernism.” The main characteristic of most modern design during the 1930s was simplicity. Lines, both straight and curving, were the dominate compositions. Frank Lloyd Wright was the dean of American architects. Between 1935 and 1937, Wright was responsible for some of the finest homes ever designed in the United States. His design of “Fallingwater,” which was Wright’s best known and best-loved work, demonstrated the potential of modern architecture. As architecture evolved, Americans started to notice the intricate designs of interior buildings. Millions of Americans, who went to the movies every week, were aware of the emphasis film directors placed on having sets that reflected the latest trends in architecture and interior decoration. Americans were also fond of interior decoration for their homes. Popular colors included maroon, cream, mauve, tan, and even depression green—which was a medium gray-green usually used in the kitchen. Most rooms had flowered wallpapers along with patterned rugs. Sofa and chair sets dominated living rooms. Americans were also astonished by expositions. Expositions such as the 1939 New York World’s Fair provided Americans with glimpses of future innovations; they were awed upon for their innovation and artistic industry. Novelty, modernity, and constant change were the traits associated with the 1930s. The decade was “a period where the industrial designer rose to a position of cultural and artistic importance.”3 The 1930s were also a cooler, quieter time for fashion. In women’s fashions, the waist and bust, both lost in the 1920s, reappeared and became objects of attention during the 1930s. Slimness became ideal; women dreamed of being curvaceous and slender at the same time. A slim, well-dressed woman emitted an aura of success and intelligence. Women of the 1930s looked to the movies, catalogs, and magazines to learn about the current styles. At the same time that suits and dresses were becoming more formal, sports clothing was becoming more casual. For example, many women no longer wore heavy stockings when playing tennis; they appeared on the courts without unneeded garments such as corsets, garters, and hoses. For makeup, women wore dark nail polish to match the color of their lipstick. The fashionable hair style for women was tightly curled and sculpted hair. For men, padded shoulders signaled perhaps the biggest style change in men’s clothing. The zipper fly on pants was also an improvement over old-fashioned buttons for men. The pompadour was the main hair style for men during the 1930s. Children’s fashions changed as well. During the decade little girls wore saque dresses, which were simple little dresses worn with bloomers beneath. Little boys often wore either scaled-down versions of men’s suits or sailor suits. Americans then also had a smaller scope of food choices than that of today. Because of the Depression, people relied on cheap prices of canned peas, corn, tomatoes, carrots, beans, and asparagus. However, people of country fairs, regional festivals, and church bazaars still served a variety of foreign food depending on their ethnic diversity. Traditional grocery stores existed in which customers had to stand in front of a counter and ask for each item they desired; the more modern supermarkets were appearing in larger cities. These supermarkets had self-service. Self-service was perhaps the most significant shipping advance of the 1930s. For much of the decade, most Americans still owned iceboxes, which was a primordial refrigerator. Iceboxes were messy, inefficient, and required a block of ice. An iceman would come to each house daily to replace the large block of ice. It was not until the end of the decade when the majority of Americans owned the electric refrigerator. However, despite the efficiency of the electric refrigerator compared to the icebox, it had one small storage compartment, leaving small space for food. For popular culture, the marketing of products provided many memorable images of innovation.
Because of the Depression, increasing layoffs and unemployment gave millions of Americans more free time. Card games rapidly rose in popularity, as well as a rise in gambling. With high unemployment rates and reduced working hours, the amount of hobbies of various activities increased. Leisure was turned into substitute work as hobbies such as woodworking or auto mechanics became more prominent. Some of the more lackadaisical hobbies of the decade included listening to the radio, jigsaw puzzles, and stamp collecting. Stamp collecting gained widespread popularity, as Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President of the United States at that time, collected stamps himself. Woodworking, ceramics, model airplanes, collectibles, coins, railroad layouts, painting, hiking and camping, and photography are also examples of what people did during their leisure. The 1930s were also an increase in the amount of sports played. Sports such as baseball, softball, football, basketball, and boxing were traditional favorites. Horse racing, tennis, and golf were viewed as activities for the wealthy, leisured class. Other sports open to most Americans included skiing, ice-skating, swimming, and bowling. The print media also enjoyed large audiences throughout the decade; books, magazines, and newspaper readership remained strong. Some of the decade’s best-selling novels were Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The sales and circulation of books, magazines, and newspapers remained powerful throughout the 1930s. Music also flourished during the decade. Jazz and Swing music were the most popular types of music during the era. In the summer of 1938, a Swing Festival on Randall’s Island in New York City drew 24,000 participants. Dancing also had an influence during the Depression-era. Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, “The Home of Happy Feet,” became the spot for devoted dancers. Throughout the swinging 30s the management had to replace the hardwood dance floor every three years. Not all music had attracted nationwide attention. Classical music little attracted the public during the decade. Still, Americans had no shortage of music. The radio was popularized, and the jukebox was introduced, giving Americans access to music in most places. The 1930s witnessed a “dramatic rise of recordings and radio, and the impact swing had on all facts of the music business.”4
Although there may have been an economic depression, Americans still visited the movies regularly. From comedies to tragedies, the movies were a good distraction from the depression. Though attendance, like the attendance of most other leisure activities during the Depression-era had fallen, films still proved irresistible. Most theaters during the decade switched to a new format: the double feature, a movie format where a theater showcased two movies. One was considered a “quality” picture; it had recognizable celebrities and more costly production values, such as special effects and lighting. The second feature, however, was what was known as a “B” movie. It was a short, one hour movie with lower budget; it had crude effects and few big stars. In addition to sound, the movie industry began experimenting with color. Some popular “quality” movies of the 1930s include gangster films, such as Scarface (1932), police films, such as Bullets or Ballots (1936), and westerns, such as Stagecoach (1939). Other types of Depression-era films which attracted attention were musicals and comedies. At the end of this tumultuous decade, two of the greatest pictures of the 1930s were released. The films are The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind; both came out in 1939. Although a significant number of Americans went to the movies every week, there was still plenty of time to listen to the radio. Some programs, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats,” drew people to the stations. Radio comedies such as Amos ‘n’ Andy attracted one of the largest repeated audiences in the history of radio media. Soap operas such as Backstage Wife (1935-1939, NBC), and When a Girl Marries (1939-1957, CBS) were some of the favorite soap operas of the decade. By the end of the 1930s radio became an important factor in media communication, since “more drama, more sports, and more news and reporting on special events came to play a larger role in scheduling.”5 The 30s were a rich, exciting period for most of the performing arts. Because of new technologies and innovations like radio, popular culture reached even the most isolated people and places. The choices were “so great, the entertainment so geared to wants and needs, that only the most pessimistic could fail to enjoy it all.”6 Throughout the decade many Americans traveled either because of drifting unemployment or for recreation. Those traveling for recreation had the desire to tour the nation. Americans traveled the country by car, train, plane, or ocean liner. Since Henry Ford’s Model T was introduced in 1908, most Americans preferred to travel by automobile. By 1936, trailer fever had hit the United States, and a large number of Americans owned a trailer. While people were busy driving their cars, visual arts received very little proclaimed accolade. The arts included painting, photography, sculpture, and illustration. One of the most acclaimed sculptures was Mount Rushmore. It was built by Gutzon Borglum in 1938 first with dynamite and then with pneumatic drills and 400 assistants. Mount Rushmore consisted of the faces of four presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. It has since become a National Memorial, and millions have journeyed to South Dakota just to see it. Cartoons and comic books were also considered an “art” by some and provided some comical relief from the Depression-era. No arts “exist in some aesthetic vacuum, isolated from the ongoing world, and never was this fact illustrated more forcefully than during the Depression years.”7
William H. Young focuses generally on the content of mass entertainment. He discusses “the movies, the discovery of the teenager as a marketable entity, the increase in leisure time and travel, the innumerable dance fads and the dominance of swing, the rise of the radio comedians—and all the other fads and phenomena that made the 1930s so memorable.”8 Young also criticizes President Herbert Hoover for using the term “depression” to describe the decade. He continues to state that Hoover was not an active enough president, and how the word “depression” suggests “misery, a quiet dulling of spirit, [and] something that wears a person down without dramatic symptoms.”9 In addition, Young expresses that “panic” or “crisis” would have been better terms to describe the era, as “panics and crises can be approached spectacularly but effectively, whereas ‘depression’ presents no dramatic resolution.”10 The author taught English, American Studies and popular culture at Lynchburg College in Virginia for 36 years, and used his extensive knowledge of popular culture to publish a series. Angela Schwarz, a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Duisburg-Essen articulates that the book “offers a detailed and highly readable exposition of the decade’s most prominent crazes and phenomena.”11 Ray B. Browne of Bowling Green University continues to commend the book because of its “compact yet complete outline of US popular culture.”12 The 1930s was insightful in terms of enriching the reader of the lifestyles during the decade. It galvanizes thought-provoking information as well as keeps its audience engaged with news about how people interacted in society during the Depression.
According to the author, the decade marked a significant turning point in American political, economic, and cultural history. The 1930s was the Depression-era, which severely influenced the economic turnouts. Because of financial hardships, people “left their own properties and turned to sharecropping and tenant farming.”13 As new immigrants arrived, the culture of America during the decade dramatically changed as well. With the influx of newcomers, new cultures were continuously introduced to society. It wasn’t before long that a medley of traditions coexisted with each other and was eventually spread.
The 1930s changed previously held values and ideas mainly because of the Depression and The New Deal. For example, during the 1920s alcohol was prohibited. However, the 21st Amendment, or Repeal, was passed in 1933; people were again “free to enjoy their alcoholic beverages of choice, and restaurants were free to serve them.”14 The 1930s influenced popular culture because of change. Throughout history the American people inherited popular culture, changed it, and passed it on to their descendants.
America during the Depression-era suffered great moral loss. Because of unemployment, Americans sought out new hobbies to distract themselves from the gloomy Depression. Many who turned to American culture during the Depression found escape from the crestfallen atmosphere. Popular culture acts as “a model for the American Dream, the dream to pursue happiness and a better, more interesting life.”15 People of the 1930s influenced popular culture today by passing their habits down to their children. America today is experiencing the lifestyle as it was shaped throughout the century.
1: Young, William. The 1930s (American Popular Culture Through History, Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002. xi
Nick Lianto is a junior at Irvine High School. He is enrolled in athletics including Cross Country and Track and Field. When he is not doing academic work at school, Nick would usually be seen either running for his high school track team or in the art building sculpting clay.
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