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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Everyday Life during the Depression

The New Deal Gas and Grocery, 1935, in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. The Great Depression and the New Deal changed everyday life for people in both overt and subtle ways. Click image to enlarge. (Courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry.)

The Great Depression transformed American social and political institutions and the ways individual people thought about themselves and their relationship to the country and the world. Though no two people had the same understanding of the Depression, everyone felt challenged and changed by the experience.

By 1932, three years after the initial crash, near thirty million Americans had lost their source of income, from unemployment or loss of a family breadwinner. This included more than a quarter of the population of Washington State. Of those lucky enough to have consistent work, many, perhaps most, took pay cuts or worked reduced schedules. Though there had been devastating economic depressions before, the 1930s crisis encompassed both urban and rural regions and devastated middle-class and working-class people alike.

Nevertheless, the pain was not equally distributed. Indeed some businesses did well even in the dark days of 1931 and 1932 and most families did not lose livelihoods or face privation. The impact varied according to industry, class, race, location, and luck. The construction trades and the lumber industry suffered greatly, and in the mill towns and lumber camps of Washington State, unemployment surged (see "Life in Raymond"). Workers in other kinds of factories often lost their jobs but those with advanced skills were less likely to be hurt. White collar jobs fared better than blue collar jobs and those lucky enough to work for a city, county, state, or at one of the military facilities generally held on to jobs. Farm families were mostly well positioned (see "Kitsap County"). Farm prices fell but not so drastically that many Washington farmers were forced to sell or abandon their homesteads. Indeed, the farm population grew during these hard times, as people who years before had left farmsteads for city jobs returned, moving in with relatives or friends.

Washington's tiny communities of color were hit especially hard. Employment discrimination doubled in intensity and African Americans and Asian Americans were pushed out of jobs, including domestic service and farm labor, that whites had previously shunned. Japanese Americans, the state's largest minority population, had built a thriving small business sector in Seattle in the decades before the Great Depression. Now many of those residential hotels and restaurants struggled for customers (see "Emerging Opportunities in Dark Times"). The crisis encouraged some families to leave. Seattle's Japanese American population fell during the 1930s, with some moving to rural areas and others to Japan.

For Washington residents of all backgrounds who lost jobs, the challenges were daunting. With no unemployment insurance and typically with only one breadwinner, the loss of wages had an immediate and devastating effect on families, often leading to eviction and homelessness. People squeezed in with relatives when possible or begged landlords to stay on rent-free. Wives and teenage children joined unemployed husbands in the desperate search for work. Minimal help with food or rent was sometimes available from churches and charities, and in some counties, governments raised property taxes in an attempt to feed the hungry. The need far outstripped these local resources.

Sudden poverty produces psychological damage. Families broke apart under the strain. Divorces escalated, as did informal divorces as one partner or another (mostly husbands) abandoned their family. Young people also fled, quitting school and setting off on the road. Marriage rates and birth rates plummeted as people worried that they could not afford to start families. Acts of domestic violence multiplied and the suicide rate increased dramatically (see "Murders, Gambling Suicide").

New Deal period

When Franklin Roosevelt assumed office in March 1933, the economy was nearly stalled. Congress quickly passed a sequence of emergency measures to rescue the banking system, to send emergency aid to the states, and to begin to re-employ the millions who were out of work. Federal funds to Washington State were funneled through the Washington Emergency Relief Administration, a state agency that dispersed some money directly to the poor in the form of cash grants while also launching dozens of public works projects that created new jobs. Soon there would be more jobs coordinated with federal agencies. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) would employ thousands of young men in the forests and national parks of Washington State. The Civil Works Adminstration set up small public works jobs, while the Public Works Administration planned huge new infrastructure projects that included Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River (see "Mason City, Grand Cooley Dam"). In 1935 many of the jobs and construction programs were consolidated under the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

With federal help, the state economy began a dramatic recovery, faster than many other states. By 1937, income payments in Washington (our best measure of economic activity) had returned to 93 percent of the 1929 level. Nationally, the level was 88 percent. Employment in the region's key industry, forest products, keyed the recovery. In 1937, there were almost as many workers employed in the woods, sawmills, paper mills, furniture, and wood products factories as in 1929, although wages remained well below normal. Other parts of the economy had rebounded, though not so dramatically (see "Economics and Poverty").

New concerns/ new possibilities

After 1933, the expansion of the New Deal meant that the government now intervened much more clearly in people’s daily lives, employing them and giving them aid, as well as providing new forms of social insurance. The political mood also changed. A wave of labor strikes and unionization allowed for a new way of thinking about the power of ordinary people and racial and gender divisions. Some responded to the crisis by looking for different forms of social, political, and economic organization, and turned to radical— and sometimes, conservative —movements (see "Strikes and Unions"). Ethnic communities, marginalized by race or religious categorizations, sought out different strategies for economic and social survival. A new kind of civil rights activism became evident, especially in Seattle where it was centered in the African American and Filipino American communities and given voice in the Northwest Enterprise and Philippine-American Chronicle. Jewish organizations and activists played an important role in the civil rights struggles of the 1930s, as did the Communist Party and some left wing unions (see "Civil Rights").

Late in 1933, Utah ratified the 21st Amendment to the constitution, ending prohibition. The legal sale and consumption of alcohol and the reopening of bars and nightclubs changed the contours of everyday life in dramatic ways, bringing drinking out of the shadows, making it cheaper, safer, and more widespread. It was just one of the notable cultural changes of the Great Depression era. The repeal of prohibition changed how leisure was understood, while at the most intimate level, family relationships adapted to the new conditions of work and unemployment that the Depression brought.

Gender expectations were changing. Massive unemployment disrupted the husband-as-sole-breadwinner ideal. Women entered the paid labor force at higher rates than ever before, including married women and mothers. And some women reworked their understandings of their role in communities, in the nation, and in the world. This included female students at the University of Washington (see "Challenging gender stereotypes")

Copyright (c) 2019, James Gregory

Next: Culture and Arts During the Depression

Click on the links below to read illustrated research reports on everyday life during Washinton's Great Depression:


Bellingham Families during the Depression: Changes in Everyday Life by Annie Morro

Whatcom County residents developed new social and familial roles in response to economic hardship.


Life in Raymond Washington During the Early Years of the Great Depression, 1929-1933 by Jacob Monson

Like other resource dependent communities in Washington State, the town of Raymond struggled during the Great Depression. A local newspaper, the Raymond Advertiser, chronicled the challenges of the 1930's, while also striving to maintain optimism and consumer confidence among local residents.

The Town the New Deal Built: Mason City, Grand Coulee Dam, and Visions of New Deal America, by Allison Lamb

Mason City, WA was built by federal New Deal funds and private contractors to house the workers and families who were building the Grand Coulee Dam, and was consciously promoted as an example of the social vision, technological capacity, and high standard of living that New Deal America aspired to.

The 1932 Seattle Sports Scene: Helping the Emerald City through Hard Times, by Brian Harris

Seattle rallied around its sports teams and prospective Olympic athletes as a symbol of community life and leisure during the Depression, despite loss of funds for many sports programs.

Changing Advertising Trends in the Seattle Times During the Great Depression, by Yifeng Hua

A statistical sample of consumer advertising from 1928-1935 in the Seattle Times.

The Rainy City on the “Wet Coast”: The Failure of Prohibition in Seattle, by Kayta Katherine Samuels

Prohibition failed to control the production, consumption, and enjoyment of alcohol in Seattle and the entire “wet coast.”

Emerging Opportunities in Dark Times: Japanese Americans in the Northwest, 1933-1934, by Yukio Maeda

During the Depression, many Japanese Americans in the Northwest began to embrace both Japanese and American cultures, nurtured cross-cultural social life, carved out economic sectors for themselves, and created political organizations with active participation in local cities and towns

Responding to Anti-Semitism in the Jewish Transcript: Seattle's Jews during America's Great Depression, by Stephanie Fajardo

Seattle's Jewish community sought out several strategies for responding to Anti-Semitism during the Great Depression through their newspaper.

Murders, Gambling, and Suicides: Crime in Seattle during the Depression, by Sarah Lawrence

Crime was one way Seattle residents dealt with the Great Depression.

Challenging Gender Stereotypes during the Depression: Female Students at the University of Washington, by Nicolette Flannery

Female students in the 1930s challenged accepted ideas of women's education, participation in college athletics, and domestic and social responsibilities.

Kitsap County The Great Depression in Kitsap County, 1929-1932 , by Lauren Champa

During the early years of the Great Depression, many communities in Washington State and across the nation struggled to survive economically. In Kitsap County, however, residents were able to rely upon a network of strong local businesses as well as a productive agricultural sector to help weather the finacial storm.

Income Tax The Banking Crisis of 1933: Seattle's Survival during the Great Depression Bank Closures, by Drew Powers

The nationwide banking crisis of 1933, brought on by corruption, customer loan defaults, and an unstable banking system brought first state-wide and then nation-wide bank closures in 1933. Seattleites developed different strategies for surviving without cash, while Roosevelt and Congress stabilized American capitalism and preserved public faith in American finance.