From Ballroom Contributor Cam Reid
7 November 2023
Join us as we explore the history of companionship and discover how people made friends, fell in love, and found one another throughout the last century.
The economic crash of October 1929 kicks off the Great Depression in the United States, which is a period of widespread unemployment, underemployment, and business failure that lasts for nearly a decade. The Great Depression also coincides with things like The Dust Bowl, huge floods in China, and the rise of facism in Europe to make the 1930s a pretty stark time in history. So, this is not a time heavily associated with social levity. The Constitutional Amendment banning the sale of alcohol gets overturned in 1933, following a decade of counterculture movements and organized crime resisting the amendment, but that doesn't really coincide with a revival of nightlife due to the Depression. Economic struggles strain on a lot of families through the 1930s. More so than other times in history, a lot of marriages end in the 1930s, both through legal divorce and other, informal means.
In some ways we can think of rising divorce rates as a progressive social move, because it at least indicates increased political autonomy for women1, but in the 1930s American context in particular, the rise in legal divorce comes from a place of economic hardship wherein struggling families sought to disband rather than fight their way through feeble times. At first, in 1929, the divorce rate drops, as it often does in times of economic hardship2. However, as the Depression roars on, a lot of families start to split up when, for example, husbands leave their wives and children behind in order to shrug off a financial burden that they can't bear. In other cases, struggling women leave their husbands as rates of unemployment, alcoholism, and domestic abuse all creep upwards3.
Thinking about this era on the trail of WWI and the 1920s, we see that this is a generation of adult Americans who were young during WWI; some of whom served while others were children of military families during the War. Either way, there's been a lot of loss for this generation early on. If you imagine someone who was born in 1900, by the time they turn 50, the world has completely changed. There's first the invention of the modern telephone and Telenet, which made global connectivity a possibility for the first time. This generation also sees the early widespread distribution of personal automobiles, which drastically changes the way that people socialize, travel, and handle daily errands. Then, in the 1920s is a time of social conservatism bashing against countercultures and a way that results in a lot of social revelry and also a lot of social strife. Some of the people in this generation are going to college during the 20s, while some of them are raising kids or trying to adjust to life back at home post-war. Then suddenly, in 1929, they see the worst economic downturn of any of their lifetimes. There had been a Depression in the 1880s that was pretty bad, but nothing like the 1929 crash and everything that came after.
So, that's all to say, that going into the Great Depression there is very much a generation of young adult people who are highly affected by their historical condition. This is something that will continue as we study through modern history, but this is when you start to see a generation of people whose day-to-day lives are affected by dramatic world events and rapidly changing global conditions in such a way that had very few previous comparisons, but is a lot like our lives now.
By the time the Depression hits, telecommunications are at an all-time technological peak, a trend that’ll continue upwards for decades to come. Radios are in 40 percent of American households by 19304, and FDR delivers his famous Fireside Chats to families across the country throughout the Depression and subsequent New Deal. Some social historians consider this widespread use of cultural media to be the start of modern mass culture as we know it5, and will point to events like Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast as one of the first cultural phenomena to spread through personal communication devices.
Art Deco, which arose mostly as a style of art, architecture, and fashion, had its heyday during the 1930s. Influenced by the impressionists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a reactionary realism movement takes hold of the art world in the 30s and 40s. Expressive uses of color and movement in art endure from the preceding eras6, but abstract and impressionist art allows painters of this era to express a sense of disillusionment during the Great Depression and World War II, and also respond to the rapid technological advances of the time. Before the widespread use of photography developed during World War I and the following years7, a vast majority of painters studied portraiture, as demand for portraits from wealthy members of high society was steady. After WWI, cameras became more common and thus many painters moved on from portraiture. Painting, in turn, became a more expressive discipline, one that artists could use to articulate emotional sentiments about the troubling world around them. Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton are two of the most iconic American painters from this time period, and their work shows the influences of both impressionism and realism, edging on an existential broodiness that would soon give way to Modernism8.
In Europe, art movements like Cubism, Dadaism, and Impressionism responded to rapidly changing technology, war, and political struggle. Art was also being used for a new communication method, one that would foment, transform, and change the very nature of information, communication, and politics forever: propaganda.
Propaganda is hard to define, and that’s partly by design. Unlike other types of art, which are best enjoyed alongside a breadth of worldly associations and discipline-specific knowledge, propaganda is a type of art that works best if you don’t know what you’re looking at, who made it, and why and how they went about it. Propaganda can be made using many different forms and mediums.Generally, “propaganda” is a word for politically charged media that seeks to influence its audience under misleading pretenses9. It’s different from news media in that it isn’t strictly informative and, in fact, sometimes untrue, if not simply misleading. Today, everything from AI-generated videos, Instagram infographics, and clickable headlines can be propaganda10. However, things like newsprint, paintings, Hollywood films, and radio broadcasts have been used to spread propaganda for more than a century.
Propaganda is different from art because it lacks the technology and mechanisms of a discipline, and it doesn’t invite criticism the same way art does. But, especially in the 1920s and 30s, propaganda creators adapted the conventions of art to create stylized designs that attract audiences willing to believe whatever message that propaganda contains, with little emphasis on who sent the message, and why. Another thing that makes propaganda distinct early on is that it is produced by a governmental body, rather than an artist acting as an expressive individual. However, government-issued talking points can be repeated in media created by individuals under the influence of propaganda, which complicates the idea of propaganda as only something that is created by governments11.
Something that I think is particularly cool about the 1930s was the way that filmmaking as an art develops during this time, even if it is, from the start, occasionally used for state-sponsored political messaging. The silent film era of the 1910s and 1920s propped up what’s called the Studio Era starting in the late 20s and early 30s. This a time where a lot of major films were being made on studio lots by large-scale production companies. You might also hear this time period referred to as “the Golden Age of Hollywood”, but that actually even lasted until the 1960s. The Wizard of Oz's debut in 1939 marks the beginning of color film in America, though black and white films continue being popular for a while and continue to be made even now. Sound is first introduced to film during the 1930s, with movies like King Kong (1933) paving the way for complexity and innovation in the medium. Horror films, political films, and experimental films all become popular starting in the 1920s, but in the 30s Hollywood comes to life with celebrity actors and directors, and a sense of “Hollywood glamor” that captivated American audiences.
Hollywood stars like Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, and Rita Hayworth worked through the 30s and 40s. The Screen Actors Guild (predecessor to the modern SAG-AFTRA union) forms in 193312. In a lot of ways, we can think of this era as the birth of the modern celebrity, with Los Angeles, California as the center of the American popular cultural world, with New York City acting as its distinct East Coast counterpart13.
American audiences quickly become infatuated with Hollywood glamor. In peak years of the Depression, such as 1929 and 1932, movie theater attendance hits an all-time high, with a sustained average of 88 million moviegoers per week in both of those years14. To put that in perspective, the U.S. population has just about tripled since 1932, but our weekly average of ticket sales sits at around 17 million, or a quarter as much as in 193215.
Movies are one of the great American pastimes of the 1930s and 40s, but I’d be remiss to fail to acknowledge the American pastime, which has its roots as a cultural mainstay in the first half of the 20th century. The MLB first came together in 1908. Attendance rates for games dropped during the Depression, but some cities were still selling up to a million tickets a year16. If you’ve ever seen A League of Their Own (either version; I’m not picking sides between Geena Davis and D’arcy Carden), you know that baseball had a serious cultural foothold going into WWII, so much so that the wartime preservation of the sport became a venue for equality and serious discussions about civil rights. Major league baseball doesn’t integrate racially until 1947 (at which point , baseball attendance skyrockets to an all-time high following the concurrent end of WWII), and women’s major league baseball didn’t entirely stick as a long-term concept, but female and Black professional athletes alike found celebrity and opportunity as early as the 30s and 40s. Famously, Jessie Owens was the most decorated athlete at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, winning four gold medals as a track star for the United States and coming home as a household name17.
In our last post, I offered a queer reading of the 20s as a preface for the Iconic Duos list. I’m not going to do the same thing now, but I invite you to think critically about the information you have received about LGBT people in history, especially if that information suggests that they simply didn’t exist. As long as there has been patriarchy there has been queerness; the two necessitate each other. For this Iconic Duos list, I invite you to keep an open mind.
Einstein: 'What I most admire about your art, is your universality. You don't say a word, yet the world understands you!'
Chaplin: 'True. But your glory is even greater! The whole world admires you, even though they don't understand a word of what you say.'18
If you would like to learn more about the social history of this era, check out these sources, and the others listed in the footnotes:
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