WHAT WAS LIFE LIKE IN THE 1930s?
Updated: May 11
The decade that opened with the stock market crash in 1929 and ended with the outbreak of World War Two was a tumultuous time. But what was it like to live through it?
Life in the 1930s, not unlike today, was both good and bad, or sometimes worse depending on your individual situation. Globally, economies were in recession as markets collapsed and crops failed, and political turmoil consumed countries whose power structures had evaporated in the wake of the Great War. Populist movements began to take hold in countries like Germany as post-war governments failed to appease citizens looking for answers amidst unprecedented economic hardship.
The world was undoubtedly a very different place from what it is today. Communism was in its infancy, large swathes of the Middle East were almost unchanged from the previous century, and African-Americans were experiencing intense prejudice and segregation, with slavery having ended less than a generation ago.
Some have referred to the 1930s as the world's darkest decade, in which two of the world's most toxic ideologies flourished. Many readers will have grandparents or parents who still save every scrap of plastic and all of their glass jars, having lived through a time when nothing could be taken for granted. Remember, 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic is just a single year--the Depression era was a whole decade, a period long enough for people to build habits that would stay with them for life.
The 1930s and today
At the movies:
Some pop-culture traditions arose from this era in history. Going to the cinema, for example, was a fashionable pastime and extremely popular with the public. Hollywood was just starting to take off in the thirties, and some "classics" like King Kong, Gone With the Wind, and The Little Princess hit the big screens during this decade. Famous stars like Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn and Frank Sinatra, all got their start around this time; and it was in/around this same decade that later stars like Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, and Michael Caine were born!
Another product of the 1930s is Christmas! At least, the commercialised version of the holiday. Some of the most iconic holiday season songs for example, were written between 1930 and 1945, and Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker was performed outside of Russia for the first time in 1934 (in England). Even leaving cookies and milk for Santa was a tradition that started among Americans in the 1930s, purportedly as a reminder to be thankful for what one had when things (like sugar) were scarce.
Everyday life in the 1930s
When it comes to day-to-day living in the 1930s (in the west), the majority of people still walked to work (though the world had made a firm move away from horses towards automobiles by this point). The majority of people still worked in manufacturing, or farmed, while other occupations like accounting, banking, advertising, law, and medicine were also common among those who could afford an education. Mandatory schooling was gaining favour however, and in this decade, more and more young people were becoming literate.
For men, suits were the order of the day. Suits from this era were cut to be a little more roomy, but not 1990s roomy (which could tend towards being baggy). Movies like Public Enemies and The Highwaymen will show you the sort of fashion which was popular for this time--men's hats were generally wide brimmed, as fedoras wouldn't come into vogue until later.
Women generally lived a more repressed existence, as it would not be until the Second World War that they would move into the factories and begin to gain more independence. Simple over-the-knee dresses (oftentimes sewn at home) with floral patterns were quite popular among younger ladies, while older women would have likely retained a more reserved, Edwardian, fashion sense.
The radio, or "the wireless", as it was often called, was fundamental to how people learned about the world around them, as well as for entertainment like music and drama. These could often be found in public spaces like restaurants, diners, or offices, where people would gather round to hear the news of the day. And, for those who could afford it, a wireless set would likely occupy pride of place in the home too, where evening sports games and special broadcasts could be heard. (War of the Worlds was broadcast in 1938 and provoked public hysteria.)
The music of the day was big band jazz, though most of what was sung in bars and on the radio actually would have been considered pop. The classical orchestras of the previous century began experimenting with new sounds around the turn of the century, and by 1930, jazz was king. Dance halls sprang up everywhere, and were where the unwritten rules of courtship would be on display for all to see. Famous conductors of the time included Glen Miller (everyone even today knows In The Mood), Art Landry, and Fats Waller, while some famous voices were Billie Holliday, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra.
Among the upper class, automobiles became ever more comfortable and luxurious, while among the working poor, horses could still be seen in use. A little known fact is that once the Depression hit the Canadian prairies, fuel became unaffordable, leading many families to chop their motorcars in half and yoke a pair of horses to the front. These vehicles became known as "Bennett buggies", named so after then Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.
In the kitchen:
In the 1930s, most people cooked on a wood or gas range. These were similar to our ovens and stovetops today, but they were fuelled by wood or charcoal. Keeping a wood range clean was a part-time job as they could get quite sooty. Many wood ranges came with a hot water attachment to the side (some could even be piped into the bathroom!).
Refrigeration was primitive compared today, though the ice-box was viewed a modern convenience at the time. Ice would often be gathered in large chunks from lakes and rivers when they broke up in the spring, and stored in sawdust to keep cool. When the kitchen ice-box was nearly thawed, one simply had to visit the ice shed to break off a new piece!
The 1930s is often looked at with more than a little nostalgia by 21st century folks, but we should remember it wasn't all rainbows and butterflies. The fun and glamour was reserved for a select few, and hardship and toil was still the lot of many. It's a tendency of ours to look longingly at the past as though it was better than today; i.e. "the good old days", but funnily enough, songs like "White Christmas" were written in the 40s--a time we might idealise--longing for yesteryear even then! One of the lessons we can take from this era however, is to find pleasure in the small things, and to be grateful for what we have. These are timeless principles which help us find satisfaction in any time. Of course, we can also always admire the fantastic music and fashion too!