Following the Crash of 1929, which occurred on October 29, 1929, people quickly found that the jobs they thought were secure, were not only not secure, they were gone. That day became known as Black Tuesday. It was the day the stock market took a huge hit, as investors traded some 16 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange in a single day. Billions of dollars were lost, wiping out thousands of investors. The Great Depression followed the crash of 1929…banks failed, businesses closed, city streets were desolate, families lost their homes, and unemployment in rose to nearly 25%. The crash was the culmination of many years of economic instability. In the middle part of the United States, the depression occurred during the drought season. The farmers quickly lost their lands, because their crops died out, and many became migrant workers. They traveled around the country, hoping to find work for all members of the family in exchange for a meal or a place to sleep. Husbands and fathers traveled great distances from their homes in search of any work that they could find. There was no work…anywhere. Times were just about the worst they could possibly be.
Architects, bankers, engineers and educators suddenly found themselves standing in long unemployment lines, competing for menial, basic jobs with pay that was barely enough to put food on their tables. Men who had defined themselves by taking care of their families, being the breadwinner, struggled with the emotional depression that came with the economic depression. As men traveled farther and farther away from home looking for jobs, they are forced to find lodging in public housing or shelters, waking up to begin job hunting again the next morning. Husbands and fathers who had previously earned enough money to feed and clothe their families were forced to stand in bread lines to receive free food so their families would not starve.
People became so desperate for work. As men went from town to town, they were met with billboard signs telling them to keep going, because there was no work in the town. Men with families even got their children involved, carrying signs asking why no one would hire their dad. Then men started wearing their resume on cardboard placards that they wore as they walked along. It seemed incredulous to the men who had been in higher paid jobs, that they could no longer find work…even with their qualifications. Signs like one saying, “I know 3 trades, I speak 3 languages, fought for 3 years, have 3 children and no work for 3 months. But I only want one job,” appeared everywhere. Times couldn’t possibly get worse. While there’s no consensus about the exact end of the Great Depression among economic historians, the unemployment rate remained high for the rest of the 1930s, even as the banking crisis eased up. One major event, however, shifted the focus of the country away from the Great Depression. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, millions of men and women would join the work force as the US entered World War II.
Drought…anywhere and at any time, is a perilous situation. Crops can’t grow, and food prices go up. But when a drought happens in the middle of an economic depression, it is catastrophic. The Dust Bowl, which was also known as the Dirty Thirties, was a period of severe dust storms during the 1930s. Mistakes were made during this drought…mistakes like a failure to implement dryland farming methods to prevent wind erosion caused the Dust Bowl. The drought came in three waves…1934, 1936, and 1939–40, but some regions of the high plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years. The people had no real understanding of the ecology of the plains. The farmers had plowed deep into the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains during the previous decade. This displacement of the native, deep-rooted grasses that normally trapped soil and moisture even during periods of drought and high winds were gone. During the drought of the 1930s, the unanchored soil turned to dust, which the prevailing winds blew away in huge clouds that sometimes blackened the sky. These choking clouds of dust…named “black blizzards” or “black rollers” traveled cross country. The Dust Bowl forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms.
The drought, along with the already depressed economy, caused many people to have very little money. It was during this time that people had to get creative to meet their needs. Enter the flour sack…say what!! Yes, the flour sack. When the people didn’t have money for fabric to make clothing, they began to use the cloth flour sacks as material for clothing. Then, some industrious flour distributor somewhere decided to assist the people. The flour sacks began to have pretty designs on them. Just because the people were going to use the sacks for clothing, didn’t mean that they had to look like they were wearing a flour sack. It didn’t matter that everyone knew it was a flour sack either. It looked pretty, and that really helped with morale. In reality, cloth is cloth, but I suppose the flour sacks were not of the normal dress quality. Still, when that was all you had, you did what you had to do. When you are given lemons, make lemonade, and all…right.
As the flour sacks began to be prettier, the dresses became quite fashionable, and looking back on some of the dresses that were made, I doubt that most people would know the difference between a flour sack dress and any other dress…had they not been told. The people of those times really got quite creative in meeting the needs of the family…clothing, furniture, or even their houses…people persevered. Of course, food was a little bit more difficult in those days, because if the crops wouldn’t grow, you simply had to find something else to eat. I’m sure there were a lot of people who were pretty skinny in those days…as well as pretty hungry. Nevertheless, with the help of creative mothers, and industrious flour distributors, the girls looked very nice, and quite fashionable.