Have you ever wondered what it was like to live during the Great Depression? Perhaps you think of the stock market crash of 1929, unemployed workers standing in breadlines, and dust storms swirling on the Great Plains. But the 1930s were also a time when neighbors helped neighbors, librarians delivered books on horseback, and an army of young men rebuilt the nation’s forests, roads, and parks. The Great Depression for Kids provides a balanced and realistic picture of an era rife with suffering but also deep-rooted with hope and generosity. Beginning with a full chapter on the 1920s, the book provides important background knowledge to help set the stage for an in-depth look at the decline of the economy and attempts at recovery over the next decade. Twenty-one hands-on activities invite young history buffs to understand and experience this important era in American history. Kids can recreate Depression glassware; simulate a windstorm; learn how to research, buy, and sell stocks; design a paper block quilt; play “round ball”; and much more.
About the Author
Cheryl Mullenbach is a former history teacher, librarian, public television project manager, and K–12 social studies consultant. She is the author of The Industrial Revolution for Kids: A History with 21 Activities and Double Victory: How African American Women Broke Race and Gender Barriers to Help Win World War II.
Read an Excerpt
The Great Depression for Kids
Hardship and Hope in 1930s America with 21 Activities
By Cheryl Mullenbach
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Cheryl Mullenbach
All rights reserved.
THE 1920s: ROARING TOWARD a CRASH
Robert Tyre Jones Jr. was competing for a national golf championship when he hit his golf ball into the woods. He followed the ball into the secluded area and accidentally touched it — an act that would result in a penalty that could hurt his chances of moving into first place in the tournament. Robert was alone in the woods, and no one would ever have known that he committed the error. In that moment, he made a difficult decision. When he returned to the main course, he reported his actions — resulting in a one-stroke penalty. It was enough to cost him the championship.
The 1920s were a time of contrasts. Admirable men like Robert Tyre Jones Jr. shared the spotlight with notorious gangsters such as Al Capone. Bold businesspeople made millions buying and selling stocks, while farmers struggled to feed their families. Mothers — who concealed their legs in yards of heavy skirts and constrained their waist-length hair into tight buns — clashed with daughters, who exposed not only ankles but knees too and shed their long locks for bobbed hair.
The decade of the 1920s was known by different names — the Roaring Twenties, the Incredible Era, and the Era of Excess. Those labels make the 1920s sound like a very good time. But it's important to remember that people and events in the Roaring Twenties contributed to the future decade of misery known as the Great Depression.
Men and women who worked in the factories, bought their first cars, and listened to baseball games on their new radios had no idea that the Roaring Twenties would come to a crashing halt. Young women who danced the Charleston and men who had seen the sights of Paris during World War I could not imagine that their futures held anything but a roaring good time.
GOOD RIDDANCE to 1919
All across the country merrymakers were celebrating. It was December 31, 1919 — New Year's Eve. In some ways it was like any New Year's in the past — revelers in fine clothes sharing a special night with friends and family. But it was unlike others too. Americans were especially eager to see the old year — and the old decade — pass. The previous years had been rough.
The nation had been divided over issues including the drinking of alcohol and voting by women. When the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed outlawing the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, some people were overjoyed, but others were dismayed. As men and women petitioned for laws allowing women to vote, citizens debated the wisdom of this move.
The world would never be the same after the brutal conflict that became known as the Great War. Millions of lives had been lost. A worldwide influenza epidemic — called a pandemic — caused 50 million deaths.
Many were ready to ring in a new year that they hoped would signal an era of good fortune.
LIFE WITHOUT WAR
The Great War ended in November 1918. It had affected the world in many ways. Lives had been lost, cities damaged, businesses disrupted. Food was scarce for some.
America entered the war in 1917, but other countries had begun fighting in 1914. The war affected the US economy. Factories churned out military equipment, uniforms, and guns. Banks lent money to warring governments. Farmers in war-torn countries could not plant and harvest crops, so American farmers had become responsible for feeding the world. The Great War had helped the American economy boom.
When the Great War came to an end in late 1918, it affected the economy worldwide. European nations were in bad shape because the war had been fought there. European governments couldn't repay money they owed the United States. American factories didn't need to produce all those war materials now that the fighting was finished. They started to scale back. They needed fewer workers.
The first two years of the decade of the Roaring Twenties were not good for many. In general, the economy was sluggish. It was not "roaring." Most would say it was whimpering.
A SHAKY START to a NEW DECADE
Seventy-five boys were suspended from school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in April 1920. They had thrown two classmates into a lake because the two weren't wearing denim clothes. The boys were members of a movement that swept the nation early in 1920. Overall Clubs were springing up in schools, businesses, and colleges from Boston to Seattle.
They were protesting the high cost of clothing. Members of the clubs vowed to wear denim fabrics that were cheap and normally not worn in professional or social situations. Overall Club members advised, "Use up old clothing." And, most important, "Don't purchase high-priced slacks, shirts, and dresses."
The idea spread. In Missouri a minister pledged to wear overalls during services. In Washington students attended classes in old clothes made of khaki. Students in Lewiston, Idaho, claimed they had enrolled 200 members in their Overall Club.
The Overall Movement was big news for about 10 days. And while it may not have made a difference in clothing prices, it brought attention to a problem that affected many Americans in the early 1920s. High prices for goods would be an ongoing issue.
Eleven-year-old Hallie Underwood didn't know much about the economy in the early 1920s. But she knew her coal miner dad couldn't find work. Hallie lived with her parents and seven siblings in West Virginia.
The Underwoods were about to be evicted from their house. They had little food. They heated the house with coal that the kids picked up from scrap piles. Things looked bad for the Underwood family and many other miners' families.
Miners shared hard times with other wage earners, including textile, steel, and rail workers during the early 1920s. The unemployment rate in the United States was 11 percent. Thousands were out of work.
In Michigan eight-year-old Charles was in charge of his brothers and sister — ages five years to three months. He cooked the meals for the kids and packed lunch for his parents, who were picking beets in a nearby field. The family lived in a one-room shack with no windows.
Charles and his family were migrant workers in the Roaring Twenties. They moved from farm to farm harvesting crops for the farmers who owned the land. It was a tough life.
Farm families' lives were hard too during the Roaring Twenties. During the Great War, farmers produced food to feed the world. "Food will win the war" was a popular slogan farmers liked to boast. American farmers earned high prices for their products. They bought more land and equipment. Some borrowed money to purchase additional land.
When the war ended, farmers began to suffer. Soon there were surpluses of crops. It was a very bad time for farm families. And hard times continued throughout the 1920s. So when farmers talked about the Roaring Twenties, they saw it as a time to "roar" or complain — not a time to have a "roaring good time."
THE ROARING TWENTIES TAKE OFF
By 1922 the economy was beginning to turn around. For the first time in history, more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas. New products — radios, appliances, and automobiles — were being manufactured in record numbers. Advertising in magazines and newspapers and on the radio made consumers eager to purchase these items. People had money left over after they paid for the essentials. If they didn't have extra money, there was a new option available.
The installment plan was designed to let buyers take home their merchandise immediately and pay for it over time. Even houses were purchased on the installment plan — with mortgages through a bank. It was a new idea in the 1920s. It helped make the economy "roar." People began buying like crazy.
One man joked that his wife was headed to "make three back payments on the furniture, one back payment on the radio, part of a back payment on the rug." He was exaggerating, but getting behind on payments was no joke for many Americans. It became a real problem.
Something else began to make headlines. Stories circulated about hardworking, ordinary Americans investing in the stock market — buying shares of large corporations. And it sounded like quite a few people were becoming millionaires overnight!
There was a nurse who made $30,000 playing the stock market — a fortune to most Americans, who made around $2,000 a year. A valet was reported to have made a quarter million. People heard about these fabulous successes, and it made them believe that anyone could get rich.
Some of those investors bought stocks in a way that caused problems. They bought stocks on margin, which meant, for example, a buyer who wanted to buy a stock worth $1,000 paid $100 and borrowed the other $900. This was a risky move. If the stock increased in value, the buyer paid off his or her $900 loan and made money on top of it. However, if the stock decreased in value, the buyer couldn't repay the $900 loan. This practice of buying stocks on margin helped cause a disaster in the late 1920s.
TIME to CLOSE AMERICA'S GATES
"Any change that will give us less immigration is to be desired. Our gates have stood open long enough." This was the opinion in 1924 of the commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island, the port of entry for many newcomers. This opinion was shared by many Americans in the 1920s. Congress passed laws that made sure the gates slammed shut on some immigrants.
Two immigration laws were passed in the 1920s that limited the number of immigrants who came to the United States. By 1927 only about 160,000 immigrants were allowed into the country each year. It wasn't so much the reduction in numbers of immigrants that was unfair. The acts discriminated according to ethnicity. People from southern and eastern Europe and from Asia were considered less desirable than immigrants from western and northern Europe. Immigration from Canada was not restricted.
The laws slowed down the arrival of new immigrants, but there were plenty already in the country. Some Americans decided to deal with immigrants in their own ways.
"... [Y]ou policemen may protect them, but we will get them sooner or later." In the summer of 1921 a newspaper reported this threat made by a resident of a Pennsylvania town. Residents had decided to drive out "undesirable foreigners," whom they blamed for crimes in the community.
In Indiana a group of citizens drove about 100 "foreigners" from their town. The immigrants had been hired by the local coal mine, and the resident miners said there were plenty of local men who should be hired instead.
Life for immigrants in the United States could be dangerous in the 1920s. Why did so many Americans fear and hate them? After all, many Americans had been immigrants at one time too.
Some of the fear was fueled by people called "nativists." They were people who were born in the United States — native born. They believed their religions, customs, and interests were moreimportant than those of others. They feared that the ideas and cultures of immigrants would bring unwanted changes to the United States.
Some labor unions feared immigrants would take jobs away from American workers. Because immigrants were willing to accept lower wages, companies were willing to hire them.
Even government leaders expressed fear of immigrants. It wasn't enough that new laws were passed to keep newcomers out of the United States. Some officials were intent on getting rid of those who were already in the country.
THE RED SCARE
Events in a country far from the United States led Americans to fear immigrants. A revolution occurred in Russia in 1917. The czar, or king, was driven from power. The country was taken over by Communists — people who believed the government should have total control over the economy.
Communists were active in the United States at the same time. They were nicknamed "Reds." Some Communists had very frightening ideas. They thought violence and bombings were necessary to bring attention to their beliefs. Some Americans joined the Communists. They believed the only way to make life better was to overthrow the American government and set up a new economic system.
Government officials didn't like the sound of this. And neither did many Americans. It happened that some of the Communists were immigrants. That's all it took for some Americans to lump all immigrants into one category — Reds!
It was not against the law to be a Communist in America. However, it was a crime to use violence and to try to overthrow the government, so government leaders wanted to put an end to illegal activities by Communists.
In 1919 and 1920 Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was extremely active in trying to find Communists who were advocating the overthrow of the American way of life. Many immigrants were unjustly accused of illegal activity. Their civil rights were disregarded. Some were deported. This period became known as the Red Scare.
Some believed two Italian immigrants were victims of the Red Scare. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of murder in Massachusetts in 1920. The evidence against them was weak. Their rights were violated during the trial, but they were found guilty and executed in 1927.
Sacco and Vanzetti were known to have radical ideas about the government. They both believed the Great War was unjust, so they refused to fight on the side of America. Although the two held radical opinions, there was little proof that they were murderers. There were many who believed they were unjustly convicted and executed.
OPPORTUNITIES, DISAPPOINTMENTS, HOPE for AFRICAN AMERICANS
Emile Treville Holley had been an outstanding high school student in Flushing, New York. He was a member of the dramatic club and a skilled athlete. His accomplishments and reputation in high school had helped him get into college. In the spring of 1922 Emile was only 17 years old and finishing his first year at the College of the City of New York.
While in college Emile was nominated to enter the US Naval Academy. And he was just the type of young man the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, wanted in its ranks. So why did Emile's appointment cause such a stir?
It was newsworthy because Emile was African American. The New York Times reported that officials at the Naval Academy made it clear Emile would have a difficult time at Annapolis if he passed the entrance exam. The reporter who interviewed officers had "not talked to a single officer who does not deplore Holley as a candidate for Annapolis."
The navy never had to deal with the issue, because Emile didn't pass the entrance exam. Although a military career was not in Emile's future, he went on to finish college and became an English professor.
In some ways the Great War had created opportunities for black families. During the war business owners were desperate for workers. Many white men had left their jobs to join the military. So business owners went to southern states to hire black men to work in the northern cities. Families left their homes in the South for jobs in the northern factories.
While this meant better wages, there was uncertainty too. Many who moved knew business owners might apply the "last hired, first fired" policy after the war. Black men who had been hired could be fired when the white men returned. Many of those African Americans who were hired for war jobs were fired. In some cases, it was because there were fewer jobs after the war. In some situations they were fired so that white men could have the jobs.
Over 350,000 African American men had served in the military during the Great War in segregated units. They were hopeful that their service would change the way white Americans treated them. They thought they might be welcomed home as heroes and that job opportunities would await them. This was not the case. Little changed in terms of civil rights for black Americans during the 1920s.
The 1920s brought about the rebirth of a hate group — the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). This secret society was a danger to immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and African Americans. It became more powerful in the 1920s after being quiet for a few years. The size of the Klan increased. And its violent activities were renewed.
In 1900, 90 percent of African Americans had lived in the southern United States. This changed drastically at the time of the Great War, when African Americans left the South for northern states. The black populations of northern and western cities grew by about 40 percent between 1910 and 1930. This mass movement became known as the Great Migration.
Excerpted from The Great Depression for Kids by Cheryl Mullenbach. Copyright © 2015 Cheryl Mullenbach. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Mystery of the Migrant Family,
1. The 1920s: Roaring Toward a Crash,
2. America Looks to Its Leaders for Help,
3. Broken Cities and Breadlines — Urban Life,
4. Droughts, Dust Storms, and Pest Plagues — Rural Life,
5. Growing Up in Tough Times,
6. Helping Hands and a "New Deal" Awaken Hope,
7. Finding Fun in Gloomy Times,
Epilogue: Hardship and Hope,
Postscript: The Mystery of the Migrant Family Solved,