Few people living in the booming 1920s could have predicted that the fifteen-year period starting in 1930 would be one of the most difficult times of the entire twentieth century. Yet these fifteen years are now so closely associated with two sustained historical events, the Great Depression (1929–41) and World War II (1939–45), that we can think of little else that mattered during these years. These events gripped the entire world, with ten years of economic hardship capped by six years of a bloody war that touched nearly every part of the globe. Given these important events, it is hard to remember that the 1930s and early 1940s were also a time of real innovations in popular culture, technology, and government. Both the difficulties and the triumphs of this period were reflected in the fashions of the time.
In late October of 1929 the world's largest stock market, the New York Stock Exchange, endured its biggest crash, or decline in the value of stocks, in history. This crash ended what had been a sustained boom in the economies of the United States, the world's most powerful country, and the rest of the Western world. What began as a simple dip in stock prices soon grew much worse, as the
The Depression affected the United States and Europe quite differently. The situation was desperate in the United States, where thirteen million people were unemployed and a terrible drought in the nation's agricultural area reduced food supplies and drove thousands off their land. Yet the people of the United States came together to combat the Depression. The government of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) created a set of programs, known as the New Deal, that helped protect people from the worst effects of the Depression and provided jobs for millions. The New Deal greatly expanded the power of government, which many found disturbing, but it is widely credited with helping the United States avoid the internal turmoil that tore Europe apart.
The economies of Europe were closely tied to the United States, and the Depression that began in the United States soon hit Europe as well. European politicians failed to devise programs to guide their countries safely through the Depression. Instead, Europe's major powers fell back on the habits of mistrust and blame that had led them into war in the past, most recently World War I (1914–18). In Germany especially, resentments over the way their country had been treated after World War I helped fuel the rise of the Nazi Party, a party led by Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) that favored a strong, military government and was based in extreme national pride as well as racism and anti-Semitism, or hatred toward Jews. Hitler blamed other countries and Jewish people for the troubles in his country. He convinced the German people to follow him in his desperate quest to conquer the world, and in 1939 he began to invade the neighboring countries of Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Germany's aggression in 1939 soon brought the other major European powers, England and France, into the war. Just as in World War I, the conflict soon drew in the rest of the world. Russia soon joined with England and France. Allying itself with Germany, Japan tried to seize power in eastern Asia, and it attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, in 1941. Soon the United States entered the war as well, on the side of the English, French, and Russians. Many other countries also became involved.
For nearly six years countries fought in bloody battles across Europe, in the Pacific, and in Africa. Millions died and millions more were driven from their homes. Entire countries directed their efforts to winning the war, building ships, tanks, planes, and guns. These efforts ended the economic decline that had gripped the world through the 1930s. Finally in 1945 the Germans were defeated in Europe and the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing their surrender. There was no simple way to count the costs or assess the benefits of victory in this disastrous conflict, though the victorious countries prided themselves on having made the world safe for democracy, or social equality, and defeating the evil dictator Adolf Hitler.
It is tempting to view the 1930s and early 1940s in entirely negative terms, defined as they are by depression and war. Yet there were real elements of hope and progress throughout this period. In the United States especially, popular entertainment flowered as never before as people were looking for things to take their minds off of their troubles. The 1930s were Hollywood's Golden Age, and motion picture studios produced some of their most interesting and entertaining films of all time. Hollywood stars and starlets came to be the era's greatest celebrities and some of its most important fashion trendsetters. The popularity of sports also grew, with boxing and baseball leading the way. American musicians grew more confident and creative; composers such as Aaron Copland (1900–1990) and George Gershwin (1898–1937) gained international fame, and jazz music grew more sophisticated and interesting. The 1930s also saw the birth of detective novels and comic books.
Other advances of the period are also worthy of note. In medicine, advances in medication allowed for much more effective treatment of infectious diseases, and the development of X rays revolutionized the way doctors viewed the human body. Technological innovations brought the world faster airplanes and trains, bigger dams that allowed for the creation of more electricity, taller skyscrapers, and—with tragic consequences—bigger and more powerful weapons of destruction. The year 1939 also saw the introduction of the device that would change entertainment in the second half of the twentieth century: the television.
For the very wealthy, the 1930s were a liberating, energizing time. While the masses struggled, the rich enjoyed fancy cars and yachts, travel, and rich clothes and accessories. Wealthy women traveled to Paris, France, and gladly paid thousands of dollars for dresses designed by prestigious designers. Wealthy men flocked to Savile Row in London, England, to have their suits custom made. Both men and women increasingly wore looser, more comfortable clothes for their daily activities, pioneering the idea of leisure clothes. Though their fashion choices were beyond the reach of the vast majority of people, the tastes of the rich filtered down into the fashions of the 1930s and early 1940s.
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