“Brother, can you spare a dime?”
This is a very popular Bing Crosby song in 1932, a year when the Great Depression was in full swing in America. This song encapsulates the very desperation that Americans felt during this time of great economic scarcity. From a time of great abundance in the swinging 20s to an era of extreme poverty in the 30s, Americans really had a lot of toughening up to do during the Great Depression. If they were to survive this era, they needed to condition themselves mentally and psychologically for the tougher times that might stretch on for years on end. This is where culture and appurtenances come in.
The cultural change that happened in America during the Great Depression can be divided into two types – one was an overt culture that reacted to the era by accepting and embracing the extreme poverty of the time and by finding pragmatic ways to stay alive. The other was a more subtle conditioning of the mind, and one that offered people an escape from the hunger and scarcity that they faced from day to day.
A good example of the first kind of cultural change is the phenomenon of mass migration that occurred in the 1930s. This is best described in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. At the start of the Great Depression, people simply packed up their belongings and took their families with them on the road, hoping to chance upon “greener pastures”. The rising trend of migration from the rural areas to more urban centers shifted the population and stressed the living capacity of cities. Migration uprooted families and changed their cultural milieu. Cultural nuances brought from different parts of rural America to the city centers also influenced urban mores.
Another cultural effect of the Great Depression is the sharp fall in birth rates as couples opted to not add any more to the mouths they were feeding. The compaction of the basic family unit led to many a single child. Marriage rates also decreased as matrimony was put on hold until “better” times. Divorce rates during the Great Depression fell sharply as well, although more partners simply chose to just abandon their spouses as a cheaper alternative. A darker effect of the economic hardship was the rise in antisocial activity, namely crimes such as theft and robbery. People who have survived through the Great Depression were also found to be more frugal, wary of banks and the stock market, and apt to hoard food.
In order to forget their pressing troubles, more and more people turned to the mass media for entertainment. Despite the crisis, the Broadway play Tobacco Road set all-time attendance records. Superman was introduced in 1938, which played into people’s desires to have a hero to solve all their problems. The radio flourished, with radio shows such as The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet becoming hugely popular. Movies like Frankenstein, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Gone With the Wind also found millions of audiences in America’s cinemas. The blues musical genre also became hugely popular during the time.
Of course, movies and entertainment were not enough to get Americans through the Great Depression. The task of overcoming the crisis was square on the shoulders of the American government and in its ability to effect successful economic reforms. The adapting culture, however, helped Americans ride the years of crisis.