The 1930s 

(or better to say, the time between the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the bombing of Pearl Harbour 1941)

This page was originally part of a course assignment in the seminar "American Drama" in 2000. Due to the years passed and due to an e-mail I recently recieved, I decided to do some update work, clear dead links and include new ones.

(Download the original text as a pdf HERE, the updated text can be downloaded HERE)

Bits of information and links collected by Martin Mathes

The movies established themselves as the leading features of culture. The stars from Hollywood set the style for all Americans. With the talkies the movies reached a new peak of economic success. In the late 30s the first true color movies introduced a feeling of reality unquestioned by any media till the beginning of cyberspace in the early 90s. Likewise the movies fall under a new quality of governmental censorship. In 1934 the Production Code Administration alias the Hays Office was finally set in charge for all Hollywood productions.

Some images and flashlights from the 1930s [external link]

Some color photographies dated from 1939 to 1943 [external link]

The radio established itself as the first nationwide simultaneous media. Soap operas united the citizens in their daily life and politicians had, for the first time, the opportunity to reach every single voter at once. F. D. Roosevelt established a nationwide broadcasting of his "Fireside Chats" [external link] in 1933.

The Prohibition (1917 - 1933) 

The Prohibition was - the fruitless - measure of a society, ruled by puritans and benevolent humanists against the realities of life. No one can be stopped from any vice by a law. In total contrast to the intention, the Prohibition led to flourishing crime and nourished criminal activities to a peak. In the 20s the notorious Al Capone and other gang leaders created a parallel society, still in control of legal, semi-legal and illegal activities concerning leisure industry, gambling, smuggling and prostitution throughout the states. Some leaders, especially Al Capone, were arrested in the early 30s but the legalization of gambling and bets in several states during the depression offered the criminal organizations a new operation field.


The Wall Street Crash (1929)

The starting point of this era is marked by the Wall Street Crash. An event unmatched in the history of economics. The snowball effect started by this financial crisis ruined national economics all over the world. None of the industrial nations around the world was unharmed by the Wall Street Crash, but as different as their political situation were their counter measures against the financial disaster. American President Hoover laid his emphasis one the self healing abilities of the capitalistic economy. As they failed to solve the crisis, the "New Deal", a slogan of his rival for presidency F. D. Roosevelt, gave new hope to Americans.

From the Great Depression to the New Deal (1929 - 1933) [external link]


The major studios of Hollywood ceased the production of silent film production. The sound films were in production since 1927.


The Dust Bowl (1931 - 1939)

A meteorological phenomenon starts to ruin the farmers in the middle west. The land that produced for one generation the food for the nation is stricken by a drought. Once fertile land erodes to dry dust. The farmers, most of them first or second generation pioneers, loose all their property that the financial crisis of 1929 left them. In total, either from the financial crisis or the drought, 25% of the farmers of the USA lost their land during this period.

Migration to California

A vast westward migration of unemployed from the eastern states and ruined farmers leads to California, the new promised land. Families cramped in rusty vehicles, together with all their belongings can bee seen on many photographs of that time.

California was the place for the new movie industry as well. Lots of artists and stagecrewmen were looking for new opportunities, as the movies - first talkies and later in full color - lured away the visitors from small theatres and variety shows. Hollywood offered these opportunities and so the unemployed followed the money to the West Coast.

(Pre-Code Hollywood, Thomas Doherty, Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 5)

Woody Guthrie

Hobos are a common nuisance. Despite their romantic (self)attitude they are mostly the poorest of the poor. Their cultural mixture with gypsy culture and pioneer freedom crystallizes in the songs of Woody Guthrie and some modern myths of legendary hobos.



F. D. Roosevelt [external link]

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is inaugurated as 32nd president of the USA. His "New Deal" tries to overcome the depression with public programs. The "New Deal" does not merely center on economic aspects, but has some cultural activities included as well. Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady, is one of the main advisors of her husband and is responsible for several government activities.

The New Deal and The New Deal Cultural Program [external link]

A political program covering nearly every area of living. Beside economic measures, to overcome the depression caused by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the effects of the drought in the Western and Midwestern plains, stood cultural programs to help the actors, musicians and other artists who suffered from the technical revolution caused by the talkies, gramophone and the radio.

End of the Prohibition


During the 1930s Depression, many Americans, nearly helpless against forces they didn't understand, made heroes of outlaws who took what they wanted at gunpoint. Of all the lurid desperadoes, one man, John Herbert Dillinger, came to evoke this Gangster Era, and stirred mass emotion to a degree rarely seen in this country. Dillinger, whose name once dominated the headlines, was a brutal thief and a cold-blooded murderer. From September, 1933, until July, 1934, he and his violent gang terrorized the Midwest, killing 10 men, wounding 7 others, robbing banks and police arsenals, and staging 3 jail breaks - killing a sheriff during one and wounding 2 guards in another. (from the FBI homepage) [external link]


Bonnie and Clyde

Clyde Champion Barrow and his companion, Bonnie Parker, were shot to death by officers in an ambush near Sailes, Bienville Parish, Louisiana, on May 23, 1934, after one of the most colorful and spectacular manhunts the Nation had seen up to that time. Barrow was suspected of numerous killings and was wanted for murder, robbery, and state charges of kidnapping. (from the FBI homepage) [external link]



The Spanish Civil War [external link]

The Spanish Civil War shows an alarming political instability in Europe. The struggle for domination in Europe between the democracies – France and Great Britain – and the totalitarian systems – Nazi Germany and fascistic Italy – as well as the Soviet Union are a direct foreboding of the coming war. Spain functions as a test ground for modern warfare and weapons.

Margaret Mitchell

"Gone with the Wind" is the masterpiece of the "southern" revival in literature.

Olympic Games

The Olympic Games in Germany are one of the widest broadcast events. First greater scale live TV broadcasting.


War in East Asia

The official begin of the Chinese Japanese war. The USA supply the Chinese Forces with some weapons and goods. It is obvious that the Japanese expansion is likely to interfere with the American politics for the Pacific area.

Japan has conducted a vast expansion scheme since the late 19th century, any country or area in Japan’s vicinity showing weakness or political instability is likely to be conquered by Japanese forces. Whole parts of the Chinese Empire fall under Japanese domination. Korea is annexed, and the Manchukuo Empire, between the territories of China and the USSR, is a Japanese construct in total control of the Japanese Empire.

The Hindenburg Crash [external link]

The Hindenburg Crash at Lakehurst, May 6th 1937. The Hindenburg disaster is one of the first catastrophes that happens "life", a radio reporter describes the inferno he witnesses to the audience. The exact reasons for the disaster are not clear even today but the disaster would have been impossible if the USA hadn’t banned helium exports to Hitler’s Germany.


The War of the Worlds [external link]

The broadcasting of the radio adapted novel from H. G. Wells by Orson Welles causes a panic.


The German annexation of some parts of Czechoslovakia is tolerated by Great Britain and France. The British Prime Minister Chamberlain tries to keep peace in Europe at any costs. The costs are the freedom of the smaller countries around Germany.



The Hitler-Stalin pact enables Germany to attack Poland and France, as Stalin agrees to stay neutral in exchange for the eastern parts of Poland. The union between Germany and Austria strengthen Hitler's position.


The number of emigrants from Europe to the USA reaches a peak. There is little doubt that there is a war going to happen in central Europe. Refugees that have left Germany with the start of the Nazi regime and have found shelter in other European countries around Germany now apply for immigration to the USA.

Gone with the Wind [external link]

The movie "Gone with the Wind" creates a sentimental feeling for the lost past. The idealistic picture of the South create an atmosphere of guilt for the Civil War.



Pearl Harbour [external link]

The Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour ends any attempt of the USA to stay out of the WW II. Due to a over complicated decoding procedure, the diplomatic note that de facto included a declaration of war reached the USA government later than the Japanese carrier based bombers bring havoc to the Pacific Fleet. As a bad joke the American intelligence had decoded the declaration of war hours before the Japanese ambassador had - even in time to alert American bases in the Pacific. But a struggle about procedure, line-of-command and some technical problems hindered the American military to warn the Hawaiian base in time.

The industry, already in the production of weapons and war goods for friendly nations – China, the UK and USSR, shifts to a full scale wartime scheme.

Some other internet resources dealing with the 1930s:

American Studies at the University of Virginia: The 1930s

The World Wide Web Virtual Library: WWW-VL: HISTORY: USA 1930 - 1940

Value Stock Guide (a professional broker firm): The Great Depression - The Stock Market Crash and Beyond (link provided by Natalie)

last updated: 2011-05-11