Life in the 1930s

This is a list of items describing life in the 1930s, mainly in the Los Angeles, California, USA, area.

  1. The U.S. economy was in the midst of depression.

Price Comparisons 1930 1939
gasoline (average price per gallon) 20¢ 19¢
Dow Jones Industrial Average 248 150
minimum wage (per hour) N/A 30¢
postage (first class letter)
Gross Domestic Product ($ billions) 92 94
Consumer Price Index (1977 = 100) 27.6 22.9
Inflation (1930 = 1.00) 1.00 0.83
  1. The economic situation was dominated by the Great Depression, which began in 1929. The economy dragged along throughout the decade. In 1937 there was even a "depression within the depression."
  2. The President of the United States at the beginning of the decade was Herbert Hoover, who was elected in 1928 by the biggest landslide up to that time. But with the depression, he lost the presidency to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 in an even bigger landslide. In 1936, Roosevelt was reelected by a yet bigger landslide, winning 46 of the 48 states, beating the Republican Alf Landon.
  3. King George V of the United Kingdom died in 1936, to be succeeded by his son Edward VIII. But Edward wanted to marry his mistress, American divorcee Wallis Simpson, which was unacceptable to society at the time. Edward then abdicated, and his brother became King George VI. Prime Ministers during the decade were Ramsay MacDonald (coalition, 1929-35), Stanley Baldwin (Conservative, 1935-37), Neville Chamberlain (Conservative, 1937-40).
  4. Presidents of the (3rd) French Republic: Gaston Doumergue (Radical-Socialist, 1924-31), Paul Doumer (Radical-Socialist, 1931-32, assassinated), Albert Lebrun (Democratic Alliance, 1932-40). The governments of the 3rd Republic were fairly unstable, and the government changed over 10 times during the decade. The Prime Minister at the end of the decade was Edouard Daladier.
  5. At the beginning of the decade, Alfonso XIII (b. 1886, d. 1941) had been King of Spain since his birth. At the start of the decade the government was in the hands of Miguel Primo de Rivera, who was nominally prime minister, but ruled as a dictator. By 1930 opposition to his rule was great enough so that the king dismissed him. Although the king attempted to call elections, the government remained unstable, and riots developed in major cities. When the army declared they could no longer support the king, he left the country without abdicating. A republic was proclaimed, and a new constitution went into effect in 1931. The leftists were in power, and they attempted many liberal reforms, such as giving women the right to vote and granting the regions the right to seek autonomy, but they were extremely anticlerical. Many churches were destroyed at the time, probably not by the government, but my mobs. Elections were held in 1933, and the reactionaries took control. They attempted to reverse many of the reforms. In the elections of 1936, the Socialists, Communists, and leftist Republicans ran together as a Popular Front. Their opposition, the National Front, became the opposition. The moderate center parties essentially vanished. After some assassinations, the Spanish Civil War broke out, beginning in Morocco. The war lasted until 1939, with at least half a million killed. The Nationalists received significant aid from Fascist Italy, National Socialist Germany, and Portugal. The Republicans received aid from the Soviet Union, Mexico, and the International Brigades. Although Britain, France, and the United States were sympathetic to the Republicans, their aid was insignificant. The government was now called the Spanish State, with Francisco Franco head of state, and essentially a dictator.
  6. Germany was officially known as Deutsches Reich, the word Reich best translated as "realm" in this context. Historians often call the governement from 1919 to 1933 the "Weimar Republic." The president at the start of the decade was Paul von Hindenburg, who led the German army through the last years of World War I. The head of government was the Chancellor (Reichskanzler in German): Hermann Müller (Socialist, 1928-30), Heinrich Brüning (Center, 1930-32), Franz von Papen (1932), Kurt von Schleichter (1932-33), Adolf Hitler (1933-45). At the death of President Hindenburg, Hitler combined the offices of President and Chancellor as Führer und Reichskanzler. The depression hit Germany in 1929, and the fragile coalitions that had governed the country during the 1920s became unstable. Starting in 1930, the Chancellors began governing by presidential decrees, using the "emergency powers" granted by the Weimar constitution. Shortly after Hitler became Chancellor a fire broke out in the Reichstag building. Hitler blamed it on the Communists, and had their deputies arrested. Now Hitler persuaded the Reichstag to pass an Enabling Act giving him absolute powers.
  7. Josef Stalin was dictator of the Soviet Union for the entire decade.
  8. Mussolini was dictator of Fascist Italy for the entire decade; the country remained officially a monarchy under King Victor Emmanuel III (1900-46).
  9. Border changes took place in Europe during the decade. At the end of World War I, the Saar basin was made a 15-year League of Nations mandate, with France to receive the coal mined in the region, to compensate for the French coal mines destroyed in the war. At the end of the 15 years (1935), the Saar voted whether to become part of France or Germany, or to become independent. In the plebiscite, over 90% voted to become part of Germany. Under the Versailles Treaty Germany had been forbidden to station military forces west of the Rhine, but in 1936 Hitler ordered the army to march into the Rhineland. Neither the French nor the British did anything to oppose this violation of the treaty, thus surrendering a major military advantage to Germany. Under the Versailles Treaty and the treaty with Austria (Treaty of Saint Germain), Austria had been forbidden to unify with Germany. But in 1938, German forces moved into Austria. They then conducted a plebiscite, and reported that over 99% had voted in favor. Next Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, the border region of Czechoslovakia populated mainly by Germans. The Czechoslovaks were prepared to go to war, but only the Soviet Union offered to help them. Negotiations between the British and the Italians led to a conference in Munich attended by British, French, Italian, and German heads of governments. There it was agreed that Germany be allowed to annex the Sudetenland, and that Hungary and Poland be allowed to take certain Czechoslovak areas as well. The Czechoslovaks were not party to the agreement, but realized they had to accede. Chamberlain returned to London proclaiming had secured peace in our time. Early in 1939, Germany occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia, declaring a protectorate over Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia became a pro-German satellite state. The British and French now mobilized for war. Italy then invaded Albania.
  10. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, thus beginning World War II.
  11. Although World War II was the largest, most deadly conflict in human history, there were other wars during the 1930s:
  12. The Statute of Westminster (1931) transforms the British Empire into the British Commonwealth of Nations: Canada, Newfoundland, the Irish Free State, the Union of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand become legislatively independent of the United Kingdom although all remained loyal to the British Crown.
  13. Because of financial difficulties, in 1934, the Dominion of Newfoundland abandoned its independence and once again became in effect a British colony; this lasted until 1949, when Newfoundland became the 10th province of Canada.
  14. Amelia Earhart began her attempt to be the first woman to fly around the world in 1937. She left Oakland, CA and arrived in Miami, FL. From there she made numerous stops in South America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, before disappearing off Howland Island.
  15. Prohibition ended in the United States in 1933 with the passage of the 21st Amendment.
  16. New Deal
  17. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries many families tried homesteading on the Great Plains. But the climate of the plains is different from areas like Illinois and Iowa. With the coming of World War I, and the closing of the Ukraine to western Europe, there was a great need for grain. This caused many to attempt to cultivate more marginal land on the plains. With a series of droughts in the 1930s, the soil began to blow away, what came to be called the Dust Bowl, centered in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, but also affecting adjacent areas of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Many farmers lost everything. Many moved to California, where they were called "Okies", although only a minority came from Oklahoma.
  18. Only two cities were incorporated in Los Angeles County from 1930 to 1954, because the new city would have to assume all municipal services: Gardena (1930) and Palos Verdes Estates (1939).  After that most unincorporated communities were content to let the county government continue to provide municipal services.
  19. Fads of the 1930s included:
  20. Football was dominated by the colleges. The only postseason bowl game up to 1934 was the Rose Bowl, which was first played in 1902, and has been played annually since 1916. The first Orange Bowl  and Sugar Bowl were played in 1935. Then in 1936 came the Sun Bowl, and in 1937 the Cotton Bowl. People began to complain that there were too many postseason bowl games! (Now there are around 40!)
  21. In 1932 the Winter Olympic games were played in Lake Placid, NY. The 1932 summer games were held in Los Angeles. Because of the depression, some nations were reluctant to participate, so the organizers built the first "Olympic village"; the plan worked so well that the Olympic committee required every host city after that to have an Olympic village. Germany hosted both the winter and summer Olympic games in 1936, the winter games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, and the summer games in Berlin. (Originally the 1936 summer games were to be held in Barcelona, but because of the Spanish Civil War, that was not possible.) Hitler had hoped to use the games to show the superiority of "Aryans" in physical competition, but Jesse Owens and other black Americans won gold, and destroyed that idea.
  22. Because of the depression and increased sales of automobiles, passenger rail traffic declined in the decade. The railroads countered by introducing "streamliners": the Burlington demonstrated the Zephyr on a dawn-to-dusk run from Denver to Chicago on May 26, 1934. That same year streamliners began revenue service. Named trains serving Los Angeles included, on the Santa Fe: California Limited (to Chicago), The Grand Canyon Limited (to Chicago), The Chief (to Chicago), The Super Chief (to Chicago, beginning in 1937; it was named "The train of the stars."), The San Diegan (to San Diego, beginning in 1938, originally running twice daily); on the Southern Pacific: California Limited (to Chicago via El Paso), Sunset Limited (to New Orleans), the Lark (to San Francisco, overnight; there was also the Oakland Lark, which consisted of cars taken off the Lark at San Jose and then went on to Oakland), the Coast Daylight (to San Francisco, introduced in 1937) El Costeño (to Mexico City); Union Pacific (all to Chicago via Salt Lake City): Los Angeles Limited , the Challenger, the City of Los Angeles (beginning in 1936).
  23. Air travel was a novelty in the 1930s, usually for those in a hurry, as it was more expensive (and dangerous!) than rail travel. The airport for Los Angeles was supposed to be Mines Field in Westchester, but not until 1937 did the city purchase it; it occupied a square mile bounded by Sepulveda Blvd, Century Blvd, Redondo Blvd (now Aviation Blvd), and Imperial Hwy. Most air passengers flew out of Grand Central Airport (no longer an airport) in Glendale, or Union Air Terminal (later known as Lockheed Air Terminal; now Burbank Airport) in Burbank. Because of the unpredictable winds, most airlines moved from Grand Central to Union Air Terminal in the 1930s.
  24. California added state highway numbers to its roads, featuring a sign representing a miner’s spade.
  25. Notable literature of the decade included Tender Is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934), The Sword in the Stone (T. H. White, 1938; it became the first in his King Arthur tetralogy The Once and Future King), The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien, 1937; it became the prologue to his The Lord of the Rings), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932), Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939), Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck, 1937), To Have and Have Not (Ernest Hemingway, 1937), U.S.A. trilogy (John Dos Passos, 1930-6), As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner, 1930) and Absalom, Absalom! (William Faulkner, 1936), Appointment in Samarra (John O’Hara, 1934) and Butterfield 8 (John O’Hara, 1935).
  26. Notable hardboiled crime fiction included The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammet, 1930), The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain, 1934), The Thin Man (Dashiell Hammet, 1934), and The Big Sleep ( Raymond Chandler, 1939).
  27. Notable plays included Our Town (Thornton Wilder, 1938).
  28. Art Deco dominated architecture in the 1920s and 1930s, but became sleeker in the 1930s as Streamline Moderne. An example in Los Angeles is the Coca-Cola Building, located at 1334 S Central Avenue. It was built in 1939. Another example, no longer in existence, was the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, which opened in 1935; destroyed by fire in 1989 after years of neglect.
  29. The Empire State Building (1931), built in the Art Deco style, becomes the world’s tallest building.
  30. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened in 1936 as a series of three bridges: the western portion, connecting San Francisco with Yerba Buena Island is a suspension bridge; the eastern section connecting Yerba Buena Island with Oakland was a cantilever bridge and a ramp. Originally only automobile traffic was on the upper deck and truck and interurban rail cars on the lower deck. But after rail service was abandoned in 1958, in 1963 the bridges were reconfigured to put westbound traffic on the upper deck and eastbound traffic on the lower deck. The western section has been retrofitted to meet seismic standards, but the eastern section has been replaced. The eastern section now consists of a single-tower suspension bridge and a viaduct; the bridge portion has traffic on a single deck, and is now the widest suspension bridge in the world.
  31. The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, connecting San Francisco with Marin County. At its opening it was the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world.
  32. The 1930s was the golden age of radio. The Radio networks dominated the air waves: NBC Red Network (from 1926), NBC Blue Network (from 1927; divested from NBC in 1945 and became ABC), CBS (from 1927), and Mutual. (Mutual was the only network in which the stations owned the network, rather than the network owning the stations, as was the case with NBC and CBS.) Notable were President Roosevelt’s "Fireside Chats." Comedy shows included "The Jack Benny Show", "Burns and Allen", "Amos ’n Andy",  "Stoopnagle and Budd", and "Fibber McGee and Molly". Drama series included "Sam Spade", "The Adventures of Charlie Chan". Adventure programs included "Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders", "The Cisco Kid", "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy", "Captain Midnight", and "The Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters". In 1938, the broadcast of Orson Welles Mercury Theater adaptation of H. G. Wells’s "The War of the Worlds" had many people convinced that an actual invasion from Mars was taking place!
  33. With the advent of synchronized sound in 1927 and full color in 1930, Hollywood movies entered a new and golden era in the 1930s. Many people consider 1939 the greatest year for filmmaking ever. The film industry was dominated by the five major studios, MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and RKO. These studios controlled all aspects of the industry,  production, marketing, and screening. (Each studio owned its own chain of theaters, with its own name, except that MGM’s theaters were called Loew’s.) Minor studios included Columbia, Universal, and United Artists. Notable stars of the decade included Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Norma Shearer, Jean Harlow, Robert Montgomery, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn . Notable movies of the 1930s included:
  34. Broadway musicals of the decade included: 

This list is intended to be similar to the "Mindset List", published each year by Beloit College. For more information about social, political and cultural trends in the decade, see the Wikipedia article on the 1940s. For suggestions, additions, and corrections to this list, please email me: tf_mcq {at} yahoo {dot} com.


See also: