Stories from PA History
Pennsylvania and the Great Depression
Pennsylvania and the Great Depression
Chapter 4: Popular Culture and Society in the 1930s

"It's clear to me that the conception of music in society . . . is dying of acute anachronism; and that a fresh idea, overwhelming in its implications and promise, is taking hold. Music must have a social as well as an artistic base; it should broaden its scope and reach not only the select few but the masses."

American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964), shown demonstrating on the piano a passage from his "Airborne Symphony." A young woman looks on.
Composer Marc Blitzstein at the piano, circa 1946.
So wrote Philadelphia-born playwright Marc Blitzstein in 1935, two years before his controversial play, The Cradle Will Rock, premiered in New York. Blitzstein set his play in a fictional town not unlike Homestead, Pennsylvania, where, in fact, a well-publicized CIO organizing drive had taken place in 1936. And he exhorted working men and women to organize and and "rock the cradle" of America's traditional - and corrupt - social institutions. Working-class audiences loved the play, but New Deal opponents in corporate board rooms and in the halls of Congress considered it subversive. They were outraged, not just by the play's message, but because it was funded by the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Federal Theater Project.

America's culture, like its politics, was transformed dramatically during the Great Depression. Disillusioned and often out-of-work Americans became much less deferential to business interests and upper-class elites than they had been during the 1920s, more open to new ideas and social criticism, and more tolerant of minorities' and women's rights. America's artists both reflected change and promoted it. Inspired by the lives of everyday Americans, they worked tirelessly and productively to build their dream that common people could create a better, more inclusive, and more open society.

Choir singing as a group.
flip zoom
Recreational music class, Harrisburg Central High School, Harrisburg, PA, May...
WPA projects provided employment for American artists in many different fields, from painting to writing to music. Much of this work was inspired by local history and tradition, leading literary critic Alfred Kazin to proclaim that "never before did a nation seem so hungry for news of itself." In Pennsylvania, unemployed writers hired by the Federal Writers' Project produced a guidebook to the state (1940) and for the city of Erie (1938). And the Federal Art Project employed artists to create murals in nearly one-hundred Pennsylvania post offices, and to bring art to the people, marker staging as many as seventy exhibitions a month.

Aerial view of a group of picketers holding signs, in front of a radio station.
Pickets protesting WDAS for its refusal to broadcast speeches by Father Charles...
Cultural change during the Great Depression was also driven by market forces and emerging technologies, especially talking pictures and radio, which emerged as a powerful political tool exploited brilliantly by President Roosevelt in his fire side chats, and by Detroit's Father Coughlin, who attracted millions of listeners by railed against Roosevelt's New Deal in anti-Semitic and often pro-Fascist rants.

A plunge in attendance at markerShibe Park forced Connie Mack to trade away the star players who had led Philadelphia Athletics to the World Series in 1930 and 1931. To help the state's baseball teams, the Pennsylvania legislature and City of Philadelphia in 1933 repealed the "blue laws" and ordinances that had long prohibited marker Sunday baseball.

Tired of Hollywood films that celebrated the lives of the wealthy, movie audiences in Pennsylvania and across the country turned to films that presented stories of people from different cultural backgrounds struggling to make their livings, including sympathetic portrayals of gangsters and rebellious outsiders, and anarchic, ribald comedies. Working class, ethnic audiences could easily relate to Philadelphian markerW.C. Fields' portrayal of curmudgeonly misfits who kicked back at all those who made their lives miserable.
Gracie Allen and W. C. Fields Performing
Philadelphia's W.C. Fields with Gracie Allen in a publicity still from International...

Hollywood films of the 1930s also celebrated a new kind of hero, an American Everyman at odds with a corrupt establishment. And no Hollywood star portrayed this character better than markerJames Stewart. For many, Stewart embodied the wholesome values and lifestyles of Americans living in small towns across the country - towns like Indiana, Pennsylvania, where Stewart himself was born and raised. Americans everywhere loved it when, in films like Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart's characters triumphed over selfish capitalists and venal politicians.

The photo shows Helen Richey, and Assistant Postmaster General W.W. Howes as he wished her luck when the young lady took the controls of the Central Airlines plane.
Helen Richey shakes hands with Assistant Postmaster General W.W. Howes as she...
The movies both reflected and encouraged changes taking place outside the theater, changes apparent in the lives of American women, as well as men. Relief work continued to provide women service opportunities to help their communities. In Philadelphia, marker Girl Scout cookie sales taught girls lessons in money management, teamwork, and commerce, while raising money for charitable activities. While female stars like Marlene Dietrich and Mae West portrayed independent women on the silver screen, McKeesport's markerHelen Richey became a real-life example of female independence and courage. Richey set both an endurance and speed record for female aviators before becoming the first woman to pilot a commercial airliner in 1934.

In literature, markerPearl Buck's 1931 novel, The Good Earth gave voice to the universal theme of poor and virtuous working people succeeding in the face of a harsh world. In "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1936), Bethlehem-born poet markerStephen Vincent Benet employed a fictional Webster to save the soul of a farmer led astray by an un-American devil who in the past had corrupted the country with slavery and genocide.

Three men in suits play instruments in front of a microphone.
Radio jazz broadcast with Tommy Dorsey, Philadelphia, PA, March 17, 1938.
While American writers were grappling with the challenges of making sense of the broken nation in words, popular music was uplifting the spirits of millions of everyday Americans. At first, the Great Depression nearly killed the American record industry. But radio, which became an essential appliance in many households during the 1930s, brought the music of America into homes across the nation. Drawn to "swing," an easy-flowing and dance friendly style of jazz and big band music, Depression-era youths pushed the markerDorsey brothers from Shenandoah, PA to the top of the charts.

In the 1930s, radio also helped politicians bring their messages directly to the American people. In the late 1930s, Governor George Earle delivered his own "little" Fire Side chats to the citizens of Pennsylvania, and Detroit's Father Coughlin emerged as a political force in the state through his weekly radio broadcasts.

Thousands stand before the Lincoln Memorial, gathered around the reflecting pool.
flip zoom
Marian Anderson (lower left) sings on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to more...
During the Great Depression black Pennsylvanians, too, continued to develop their own stars. While the Nicholas Brothers from Philadelphia were tapping up a storm in Hollywood musicals, the powerful markerHomestead Grays baseball team in Pittsburgh, led by superstar markerJosh Gibson, went to nine consecutive Negro League championships series from 1937 to 1946. The athletic prowess of Philadelphia's markerOra Washington on the tennis court inspired the Roosevelt administration to build hundreds of public tennis courts in poor urban areas, as part of its Depression-era construction programs. In 1939, Pittsburgh's marker Billy Strayhorn joined the Duke Ellington orchestra. And when the Daughters of the American Revolution denied Philadelphia's markerMarian Anderson the right to perform at their building in Washington, D.C., simply because she was an African American, an outraged Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000 people. Anderson's exhilarating performance sent a strong message, not only to the people in attendance but to future generations, that Americans would someday overcome the racism that had divided them for so long.

Despite the economic hardships, Americans in the 1930s also continued their love affair with the future and with modern architecture and design. Americans marveled at the Roadable Autogiro, a two-seat plane with foldable rotor blades that promoter marker Harold Pitcairn promised would put "video an aircraft in everyone's garage." Completed in 1933, Philadelphia's marker PSFS building is hailed by many as the nation's first truly modern skyscraper. Three years later, Frank Lloyd Wright gave Americans a glimpse of things to come with completion of his house of the future, markerFallingwater, in Fayette County. As the Depression was lifting in 1939, Pennsylvanians joined others in flocking to New York's popular World's Fair, the theme of which was "Building the World of Tomorrow." Pennsylvanians, of course, beckoned to the past in search of hope for the future: the Pennsylvania pavilion at the fair was a recreation of Independence Hall.

Back to Top