Culture in the Thirties

Culture in the Thirties

Despite the Great Depression, culture in the 1930s, both commercial and funded by New Deal programs as part of the relief effort, flourished.

Learning Objectives

Describe the culture in the 1930s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Despite the Great Depression ‘s devastating impact on many Americans, the 1930s witnessed the emergence of many influential cultural trends. Literature, arts, music, and cinema of the period became vehicles for establishing and promoting what would be presented  as truly American traditions and values.
  • A number of New Deal programs were established to support artists, writers, musicians, and theater professionals. Projects funded through these programs were often seen as serving an important mission of bringing culture and arts to the masses.
  • Fine arts followed both global and regional trends, including Social Realism, American Regionalism, and Precisionism. Photography also became a popular medium of documenting the lives of ordinary Americans.
  • The 1930s came to be known as the “golden age” of Hollywood. Many popular low-budget and epic expensive movies that reached the status of classic were produced during the period.
  • The Motion Picture (or Hollywood) Production Code of 1930 forbade certain subjects from being addressed or portrayed in film.
  • The 1930s were also a very important and productive decade for American literature.

Key Terms

  • Public Works of Art Project: The first New Deal program that employed artists to create public art works. It ran from December 1933 to June 1934.
  • Section of Painting and Sculpture: A New Deal program that aimed to select high quality art to decorate public buildings in the form of murals, making art accessible to all people.
  • Federal Art Project: The visual arts arm of the Federal Project Number One (under the Works Progress Administration) operating from August 29, 1935, until June 30, 1943. Through the program, artists created posters, murals, and paintings, some of which still stand among the most significant pieces of public art in the country.
  • Motion Picture (or Hollywood) Production Code of 1930: A set of rules and guidelines that major Hollywood film studios agreed upon under the pressure of Christian leaders and organizations that sought to remove what was considered obscene and indecent from the movie industry.

The Great Depression and American Culture

Despite the Great Depression’s devastating impact on many Americans, the 1930s witnessed the emergence of many influential cultural trends. Historians note that literature, arts, music, and cinema of the period flourished and became vehicles for establishing and promoting what would be presented as truly American traditions and values–a phenomenon that was a response to the demoralizing effect of the economic crisis. The New Deal, with its core idea of the government’s intervention in the economy, politics, and social life, included also programs that funded and promoted various cultural projects, many of them focusing on the documentation of the experience of ordinary Americans during the dramatic economic depression.

The New Deal and Culture

The first short-lived New Deal program that supported cultural projects was the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) that ran from December 1933 to June 1934. PWAP was a relief program that created jobs for artists who were hired to paint scenes depicting contemporary ordinary American life in public buildings and spaces. PWAP was replaced by the Federal Art Project (FAP), one of the cultural programs under the 1935 Works Progress Administration (WPA) and a much more ambitious and expansive arts program than its predecessor. FAP provided funding for artists and artisans to create murals, easel paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, theater design, and arts and crafts. It established more than 100 community art centers throughout the country, researched and documented American design, commissioned a significant body of public art without restriction to content or subject matter, and sustained some 10,000 artists and craft workers during the Great Depression. Additionally, in 1934, the Section of Painting and Sculpture was established in order to commission high quality murals in public buildings. Artists worked with government-provided guidelines that focused on realistic themes relevant to the life of local communities.

FAP was part of the Federal Project Number One, a WPA umbrella program that supported not only visual arts but also literature (under the Federal Writers’ Project), music (the Federal Music Project), and theater (the Federal Theater Project). Writers, musicians, and theater artists were funded to create both their own original projects and projects under the auspices of the government. Documenting what was seen as American traditions drove many of the latter. For example, literary professionals were hired to produce the State Guide Series–a series of popular guidebooks for every state. Writers and musicians engaged in a series of ethnographic and archival projects that aimed to preserve American history and cultural legacy, including collecting oral histories among former slaves, recording traditional folk songs, or preserving and organizing archival collections. Public funding was also used to make theater productions easily available to mass audiences.

Arts

Visual arts in the United States of the 1930s followed both global and regional trends. Many of the works created under WPA belonged to Social Realism–an international art movement that depicted the everyday life of ordinary people, most notably, the working class and the poor. The movement’s aim was not simply to represent but to critique the realities of social inequalities and injustice. Related to Social Realism was American Regionalism, which depicted rural America, both realistic and as a subject of myths and folk legends, as well as images drawn from American history. Regionalism and Social Realism are sometimes described as a rural branch and an urban branch (respectively) of American Scene Painting, although borders between the meanings of these three terms are not always clear. Another movement of the era, Precisionism, focused on images of urban industrial America. While sometimes differences between artists and art works belonging to these movements may be blurry, the one characteristic that they all shared was realism, or focusing on depicting American life as it was.

The commitment to realism resulted also in the popularization of photography. For example, under the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency that aimed to combat rural poverty, photographers documented rural areas and the misery of working class rural Americans. The works of such photographers as Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans remain among the most iconic images of the Great Depression. Much later, these documentary photography projects would be criticized for their racial bias. Despite the fact that at the time, so many poor rural Americans were black, the New Deal photographs create an impression that poor rural America was predominantly white.

In architecture and design, the 1930s was the height of Art Deco–an eclectic style inspired by industrialization that combines traditional craft motifs with Machine Age imagery and materials.

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Migrant Mother: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother–an iconic image of the Great Depression–depicts Florence Owens Thompson, age 32, a mother of seven children and a migrant worker, in Nipomo, California.

Hollywood

1930 marks the beginning of what is considered to be the “golden age” of Hollywood, a period which lasted through the 1940s. The studio system was at its height, with studios having great control over creative decisions. While in the first years of the Great Depression all the major studios experienced losses (much less people went to see movies and ticket prices decreased), already in the mid-1930s, they began to record profits.

A lasting example of the studio influence was the Motion Picture (or Hollywood) Production Code of 1930 (known also as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America). In response to a number of scandals in the 1920s and under the pressure of Christian leaders and organizations, the studios adopted a series of topics that were to be avoided (e.g., strictly defined sexual content and ridicule of clergy) and guidelines for how certain topics should be depicted (e.g., a kiss could not last longer than three seconds). The code was not strictly implemented until 1934, when the Production Code Administration was established. The PCA enforced the code by reviewing and making suggestions on all studio scripts before they went into production, then doing the same with all completed films before issuing a PCA certificate. Directors frequently found a way to manipulate the codes that were enforced more and more loosely during the post-World War period and finally abandoned in the 1960s.

As the late 1920s witnessed the popularization and commercialization of a sound film, both popular and more ambitious cinema flourished in the 1930s. A number of popular genres, including gangster films, musicals, comedies, or monster movies, attracted mass audiences, regardless of the economic crisis. Careers of some of iconic Hollywood’s performers also flourished in the 1930s, including Greta Garbo, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Mae West, the Marx Brothers, Errol Flynn (best known for his role as Robin Hood), or child star Shirley Temple. Charlie Chaplin, the greatest star of the silent era, successfully transitioned into sound film.

In addition to more popular and low-budget genres, the most acclaimed works of the period were much more ambitious and expensive films with epic stories at their center. Adaptations of classic or best-selling literary works, biographies of famous individuals, and big adventure movies were the most common examples. Among them are such classics of American cinema as King Kong (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gone With the Wind (1939), and Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Literature

The Great Depression produced some of the greatest works in American literature. Similar to visual artists, writers focused on blunt and direct representation of American life and offered social criticism, coming often from the perspective of leftist political views. John Steinbeck (1902–1968) became the quintessential author of the era. He often wrote about poor, working-class people and their struggle to lead a decent and honest life. The Grapes of Wrath, considered his masterpiece, is a socially-oriented novel that tells the story of the Joads, a poor family from Oklahoma, and their journey to California in search of a better life. Other popular novels include Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and East of Eden. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.

Other important literary works of the Great Depression that reached the status of American classics include William Faulkner ‘s Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August, and As I Lay Dying; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy; Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra; and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Among American authors in the 1930s who wrote their usually more controversial or experimental and less realistic works were Gertrude Stein, who in 1933 published the memoir of her Paris years entitled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and Henry Miller, who in the 1930s wrote and published his semi autobiographical novels Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn. Although their themes and stylistic innovations exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of American writers, Miller’s groundbreaking novels were banned in the United States until the early 1960s.

The 1930s also witnessed the development of popular literary genres. Pulp fiction magazines began to feature distinctive, gritty, adventure heroes that combined elements of hard-boiled detective fiction and the fantastic adventures of the earlier pulp novels. Two particularly noteworthy characters introduced were Doc Savage and The Shadow, who would later influence the creation of characters such as Superman and Batman. Near the end of the decade, two of the world’s most iconic superheroes and recognizable fictional characters, Superman and Batman, were introduced in comic books.

Popular Culture

The 1930s witnessed the development of mass cultural trends fueled by contemporary technological advances, including radio and sound film.

Learning Objectives

Describe the popular culture of the 1930’s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Despite the Great Depression, popular culture flourished in the United States in the 1930s. Similar to visual arts and literature, popular culture of the era focused on emphasizing what was presented as uniquely American experiences and contributions.
  • Technological advances like radio and sound in film contributed to the massive popularity these forms of entertainment.
  • Next to jazz, blues, gospel, and folk music, swing jazz became immensely popular in the 1930s.
  • Radio, increasingly easily accessibly to most Americans, was the main source of entertainment, information, and political propaganda.
  • Despite the Great Depression, Hollywood and popular film production flourished.
  • The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, were a key popular sporting event of the era that caused controversy over Hitler’s politics.

Key Terms

  • fireside chats: Term used to describe a series of 30 evening radio conversations (chats) given by President Franklin D. Roosevelt between 1933 and 1944.
  • Motion Picture (or Hollywood) Production Code of 1930: A set of rules and guidelines that major Hollywood film studios agreed upon under the pressure of Christian leaders and organizations that sought to remove what was considered obscene and indecent from the movie industry.
  • Leni Riefenstahl: An innovative and favorite filmmaker of Adolf Hitler. She was commissioned by the German Olympic Committee to film the games for $7 million and her film, titled Olympia, pioneered many of the techniques now common in the filming of sports.

Despite the Great Depression, popular culture flourished in the United States in the 1930s. Similar to visual arts and literature, popular culture of the era focused on emphasizing what was presented as uniquely American experiences and contributions. The mass popularization of culture was also linked to important technological advances. Many Americans, even in poor rural areas, had access to phonographs and radios. The latter was incredibly popular in the 1930s, becoming the critical source of information and entertainment. Another contemporary groundbreaking technological development was the popularization of sound film. While in the first years of the Great Depression, Americans did not visit movie theaters as frequently as prior to the economic crisis, in the mid-1930s, cinema was one of the favorite forms of entertainment.

Music

Trends in popular music reflected social processes triggered by the economic crisis. Although the Great Migration of African Americans from the South (initiated around 1910) slowed down with the onset of the economic depression, hundreds of thousands of black Southerners continued to seek opportunities somewhere else, mostly in northern cities. With the transfer of people, music created and popularized by African Americans, including jazz, blues, and gospel, became increasingly popular in the North. Despite the existing racial inequalities and the ongoing black civil rights struggle, the American origins of these musical genres fit into the narrative of uniquely American cultural contributions. Analogously, American folk music, created and performed by both white performers and musicians of color, attracted mass audiences across the country. With their focus on the plight of ordinary Americans, folk songs were now collected and recorded as part of the American legacy by the Library of Congress and artists working for the Works Progress Administration.

The 1920s (known as the “Jazz Age”) witnessed the transformation of jazz from its modest African American/New Orleans origin to a global phenomenon. By 1930, new forms and styles developed and swing emerged as a dominant form in American music. Virtuoso soloists often led their swing big bands (thus swing was also known as “big jazz”) and their popularity was enormous, also because swing music developed with corresponding swing dance. Live swing bands were broadcast on the radio nationally every evening. Among the most famous bandleaders and arrangers were Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Harry James, and Jimmie Lunceford. The pioneer of jazz music, Louis Armstrong, continued to inspire both mass audiences and fellow musicians. Musical theater also followed the predominant trend and contributed some of the most popular standards of the 1930s, including George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “All the Things You Are.”

Swing uses a strong rhythm section of double bass and drums as the anchor for a lead section of brass instruments such as trumpets, trombones, saxophones, clarinets, and sometimes stringed instruments such as violin and guitar at medium to fast tempos and a “lilting” swing time rhythm. The period between 1935 and 1946 is known as the Swing Era.

Radio

The 1930s was the era of the immense popularity of radio. Those Americans who did not own a radio could still access one in their communities through friends or neighbors. Popular content spanned from comedy, with Bob Hope being one of the biggest comedic radio personalities of the time, and music, theater, and soap operas, to news and political content. Never before was radio used as such a powerful tool of dissemination of political messages. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt informed about and advocated for New Deal policies in his fairly regular “fireside chats.” His political opponents also used radio to attract their supporters. Huey Long and Charles Coughlin, FDR’s two most fervent populist critics, built their vast popular support through radio shows that attracted tens of millions of Americans. In 1938, Orson Welles’ famous broadcast of War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, caused panic among the show’s listeners who feared that the conflict between humans and aliens (the subject of Wells’ novel) was real. Although historians debate over how wide the audience of the show was and thus how widespread the panic could be, the episode demonstrates the incredible power of radio broadcast at the time.

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Fireside chat on government and capitalism (September 30, 1934)

Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House in Washington, D.C., delivering a national radio address in 1934. National Archives and Records Administration

Hollywood

1930 marks the beginning of what is considered to be the “golden age” of Hollywood, a period which lasted through the 1940s. The studio system was at its height, with studios having great control over creative decisions. While in the first years of the Great Depression all the major studios experienced losses (much less people went to see movies and ticket prices decreased), in the mid-1930s, they began to record profits.

A lasting example of the studio influence was the Motion Picture (or Hollywood) Production Code of 1930 (known also as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America). In response to a number of scandals in the 1920s and under the pressure of Christian leaders and organizations, the studios adopted a series of topics that were to be avoided (e.g., strictly defined sexual content and the ridicule of clergy) and guidelines for how certain topics should be depicted (e.g., a kiss could not last longer than three seconds). The code was not strictly implemented until 1934, when the Production Code Administration was established. The PCA enforced the code by reviewing and making suggestions on all studio scripts before they went into production, then doing the same with all completed films before issuing a PCA certificate. Directors frequently found a way to manipulate the codes that were enforced more and more loosely during the post-World War period and finally abandoned in the 1960s.

As the late 1920s witnessed the popularization and commercialization of a sound film, both popular and more ambitious cinema flourished in the 1930s. A number of popular genres, including gangster films, musicals, comedies, or monster movies, attracted mass audiences, regardless of the economic crisis. Careers of some of the iconic Hollywood’s performers also flourished in the 1930s, including Greta Garbo, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Mae West, the Marx Brothers, Errol Flynn (best known for his role as Robin Hood), and child star Shirley Temple. Charlie Chaplin, the greatest star of the silent era, successfully transitioned into sound film.

In addition to more popular and low-budget genres, the most acclaimed works of the period were much more ambitious and expensive films with epic stories in their center. Adaptations of classic and best-selling literary works, biographies of famous individuals, and big adventure movies were the most common examples. Among them are such classics of American cinema as King Kong (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gone With the Wind (1939), and Grapes of Wrath (1940).

1936 Summer Olympics

The 1936 Summer Olympics was an international multi-sport event that was held in Berlin, Germany. To outdo the Los Angeles games of 1932, the Nazis built a new 100,000-seat track and field stadium, six gymnasiums, and many other smaller arenas. The games were the first to be televised, and radio broadcasts reached 41 countries. Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, a favorite of Adolf Hitler, was commissioned by the German Olympic Committee to film the Games for $7 million. Her film, entitled Olympia, pioneered many of the techniques now common in the filming of sports.

Hitler saw the games as an opportunity to promote his government and its ideals of racial supremacy. The United States considered boycotting the games, as to participate in the festivity might be considered a sign of support for the Nazi regime and its anti-Semitic policies. However, others argued that the Olympic Games should not reflect political views, but rather be strictly a contest of the greatest athletes. The 1936 Summer Olympics ultimately boasted the largest number of participating nations of any Olympics to that point. However, some individual athletes, including Jewish Americans Milton Green and Norman Cahners, chose to boycott the games.

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Jesse Owens: American track and field star Jesse Owens on the podium after winning the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics.  He was the most successful athlete at the games and, as black man, was credited with disrupting Hitler’s white supremacist vision and message.