Stories from PA History
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Pennsylvania and the Great Depression
The Great Depression hit Pennsylvania hard, causing devastating unemployment and forcing more families to seek relief here than in any other state in the nation. It also fueled civil unrest, spurred the rise of organized labor, and unleashed a political realignment that has continued to the present day.

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Overview: Pennsylvania and the Great Depression
Chapter 1: The Great Depression Strikes Pennsylvania
Chapter 2: Political Change and the New Deal Coalition
Chapter 3: The New Deal in Pennsylvania: Public Works and Organized Labor
Chapter 4: Popular Culture and Society in the 1930s

Historical Markers In the Story
marker icon William Strayhorn (Allegheny) marker icon Fallingwater (Fayette)
marker icon Girl Scout Cookies (Philadelphia) marker icon Harold F. Pitcairn (Montgomery)
marker icon Helen Richey [Great Depression] (Allegheny) marker icon Homestead Grays (Allegheny)
marker icon James Maitland Stewart [Great Depression] (Indiana) marker icon Josh Gibson (Allegheny)
marker icon Marian Anderson (Philadelphia) marker icon Ora Washington (1899-1971) (Philadelphia)
marker icon PSFS Building (Philadelphia) marker icon Pearl S. Buck (Bucks)
marker icon Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium [Great Depression] (Philadelphia) marker icon Stephen Vincent Benet (Lehigh)
marker icon The Dorsey Brothers [Great Depression] (Schuylkill) marker icon W. C. Fields (Philadelphia)

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Story Bibliography

Original Documents
icon full text Philadelphia City Council, Ordinance repealing Philadelphia Blue Laws and permitting Sunday sporting events, November 19, 1933.
icon full text Former state director Richard Hood discusses the Federal Art Project in Pennsylvania,  December 15, 1964.

1929 Stock Market Crash on the 29th heralds the start of the Great Depression.
1930 Vowing to fight utility companies and rising unemployment, Gifford Pinchot is elected to a second term as Pennsylvania governor. Pennsylvania has the third highest unemployment rate in the country; more than 200,000 people are out of work and their numbers increasing daily.
1931 With one-fourth of the Pennsylvania labor force unemployed, Governor Pinchot announces the first of several special sessions to deal with the Depression and relief.
1932 : Father James Cox, Pittsburgh's "Pastor to the Poor," leads thousands of unemployed in a march on Washington, D.C. to protest the lack of relief.
1932 Pearl S. Buck wins a Pulitzer Prize for her bestselling novel, The Good Earth, whose touching portrayal of the troubles of Chinese farmers strikes a chord with Depression-weary Americans.
1932 A mass march of unemployed descends upon Philadelphia's City Hall and the "Battle of Reyburn Plaza" breaks out when Mayor J. Hampton Moore orders the police to disperse the marchers.
1932 Pittsburgh Courier publisher Robert Lee Vann gives speech in Cleveland urging his fellow African Americans to "turn Lincoln's portrait to the wall" and support the Roosevelt's Democratic Party.
1932 Herbert Hoover wins in Pennsylvania, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected president of the United States; Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas, with Reading, PA's James Maurer as his running mate, wins almost 885,000 votes; Anna Brancato from Philadelphia becomes first female Democrat elected to Pennsylvania General Assembly.
1933 During FDR's first 100 days in office, the federal government establishes a host of new agencies, including the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) to employ young men in labor camps on conservation projects. From 1933 to 1941, the CCC establishes 114 camps in Pennsylvania that employ more than 160,000 persons.
1933 The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, created to distribute federal relief to the states becomes the first relief agency of the newly christened "New Deal"; children garment workers stage a "baby strike" that draws national attention to sweatshop labor in Pennsylvania.
1933 Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins visits Homestead to promote New Deal policy. When local officials prohibit her from meeting with grieving steel workers on borough property, she meets with them at the federal post office.
1933 With industrial production down more than 50 percent from 1927 and the state suffering 37 percent unemployment, Governor Gifford Pinchot calls a special session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to address the crisis by increasing state relief.
1933 Hoping to stimulate slumping gate receipts at major league ball parks, the state legislature repeals blue laws banning Sunday baseball.
1933 Philadelphia's newly completed PSFS building is hailed by many as the nation's first truly modern skyscraper.
1934 Westmoreland Homesteads, the fourth of close to 100 federally funded experimental "subsistence homesteads" receives its first families.
1934 Pennsylvania voters elect George Earle the first Democratic governor in more than forty years. State Democrats also win control of the state House of Representatives.
1934 Riding the first wave of the swing craze, brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey start their own band, which soon splits into two bestselling rival groups, the Jimmy Dorsey Band and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
1934 Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman from Germantown, sells 5,000 sets of his new board game, "Monopoly," to Wanamaker's Department Store in downtown Philadelphia. Monopoly will become one of the most popular board games in history.
1935 FDR establishes the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which in the years to come will provide work relief for millions of Americans; the Allentown Chamber of Commerce sponsors a "window shopping evening" and a community day to stimulate shopping downtown in the retail district.
1935 Congress passes the National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner Act, which creates a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to ensure that employers bargain in good faith with union representatives and to guarantee workers the right to strike, boycott, and picket.
1935 Members of unemployed leagues march on Harrisburg, occupy the Senate Gallery, and demand the legislature reform the state welfare system.
1935 George H. Earle III, a former Republican turned impassioned FDR supporter, becomes the first Democrat to be elected Governor in more than forty years.
1935 Governor Earle signs into law the 1935 Equal Rights Law, which outlaws discrimination in restaurants, theaters, hotels, and other places of public accommodation.
1935 Federal Art Program begins in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, providing both public work and private exhibitions for professional artists during the Depression. Artists employed by the program included Katherine Milhous, Julius Block, and Dox Thrash.
1936 S. Davis Wilson becomes mayor of Philadelphia and opens the city to New Deal funding rejected by outgoing mayor J. Hampton Moore.
1936 The Great Flood of 1936 causes tens of millions of dollars of damage in Pennsylvania and devastates Johnstown, leaving twelve people were dead, 9,000 homeless, 60,000 in need of food, and the city covered in muck and debris.
1936 The largest jobless army to date converges on Harrisburg and demands $ 100 million from state legislature in immediate relief; the Republican controlled Senate subsequently agrees to $45 million in relief spending.
1936 Pennsylvania's first rural electric pole is installed in Crawford County by the Northwestern Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
1936 FDR is elected to second term in office. In Pennsylvania, Democrats gain control of State Senate and now control both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in the 20th century; Philadelphians elect five African-Americans to the state legislature, including the first Democrat, Reverend Marshall L. Shepard. Reading elects Socialist Darlington Hoopes its City Solicitor.
1936 Pennsylvania duo George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart collaborate on You Can't Take it With You, a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage comedy about an eccentric New York family that resists the forces of conformity and shows that money is not everything. In 1938 Frank Capra directs a film version of the play, starring another Pennsylvanian - Jimmy Stewart.
1937 U.S. Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp. and the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively
1937 Northwestern Rural Electric Cooperative Association becomes first of Pennsylvania's 14 rural electrical cooperatives to provide the "miracle of electricity" to farm families. In 1936, 75 percent of the Commonwealth's farm families still lived without electricity.
1937 A strike organized by newly created Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) escalates into violent confrontations in Johnstown and Bethlehem; Governor Earle dispatches units of State Police to keep the peace.
1937 Pittsburgh's Homestead Grays baseball team wins the first of nine consecutive Negro League championships series.
1937 When the National Negro Congress holds its annual meeting in Philadelphia, delegates lodge in private homes because of continued illegal exclusion from city hotels.
1937 Under a new Democratic majority, Pennsylvania's General Assembly passes more social legislation during this session than any time before or since; Governor Earle then signs key elements of Pennsylvania's "Little New Deal" into law, including the Little Wagner Act of 1937, which creates a state Labor Relations Board.
1937 The Philadelphia-based American Friends Service Committee opens Penn Craft, subsistence farming community for the families of unemployed bituminous coal miners, in Fayette County.
1938 Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural masterpiece Fallingwater, built for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufman, is introduced to the world in a feature article in Time Magazine.
1938 Republican Arthur James is elected governor as Republicans regain control of state government; Crystal Bird Fauset wins election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as first black female state representative in U. S. history.
1938 Pittsburgh hosts the first convention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the newly created national labor organization that represents unskilled and semi-skilled workers.
1939 Defiantly vowing to undo the New Deal, incoming Republican governor Arthur James takes the oath of office. During the 1939 session, Republicans pass amendments that reduce worker benefits won during the Earle administration, enable employers to bring in strikebreakers to resume production, thus bypassing the state Labor Relations Board, and improve the business climate by creating a state Department of Commerce.
1939 When the Daughters of the American Revolution bans Philadelphia native Marian Anderson from Constitution Hall, she sings instead in front of the Lincoln Memorial to an audience of 75,000 people, while millions more listen on radio.
1939 Hailed as America's "everyman," Indiana, Pennsylvania's Jimmy Stewart, is nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of several Frank Capra films to star Stewart. Though Stewart loses the Oscar to Robert Donat, he wins in 1941 for The Philadelphia Story, and his statuette goes on display in his father's hardware store for the next twenty-five years.
1940 The Pennsylvania Turnpike opens its first 160-mile stretch of road, from Middlesex to Irwin.
1941 Governor James calls out the Pennsylvania National Guard to end a sit-down strike at Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem; bootleg mining still accounts for one out of four jobs in Schuylkill and Northumberland Counties
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