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article number 349
article date 06-05-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
1930s: Still a Society on the Move … Styles, Science, Mobility and Construction
by Frederick Lewis Allen, assembled by Agnes Rogers

From the 1947 book, I Remember Distinctly.

EDITORS NOTE: It is difficult to layup this fantastic coffee table book for a web presentation. In our presentation, pictures follow the commentary specific for that picture.

During the four years from the Panic (1929) to the New Deal (1933) the whole aspect of the American woman was transformed. It was not simply that since 1930 her evening dress had been touching the ground, or that her daytime dresses had descended (step by step with security prices) until by 1933 they reached a point half way between her knees and the ground, or even lower.

It was not simply that she had abandoned the tight helmet hat, had experimented with such frivolities as the Eugenie model of 1931, and had gone in for a variety of small pert hats which sat atop her head. Or that she had taken up using dark nail-polish—and matching it with her lipstick. Or that she was letting her hair grow longer.

What was most striking was that her physical shape seemed to have changed. No longer was she flat-breasted, long-waisted, with the perpendicular line unnaturally accented; now her waist was permitted by fashion to be where nature had intended it to be. And she no longer tried to flatten her figure; in some cases she was even disposed—as one anecdote had it—to make mountains out of molehills.

It was almost as if a new species had appeared in our streets. Here are some dressmaking designs published in ‘Vogue’ for September 1, 1933.


To point the contrast, we present some pages from the catalogue of Altman’s department store, in New York. Here is the underwear of 1926, as shown in the Spring and Summer number of that year . . .


. . . and some 1926 street dresses to suggest the outer aspect of a woman who wore such underpinnings.


In a couple of paragraphs we will show the underwear from the December 1935 catalogue, a little less than a decade later. A cynic has said that when times are prosperous, men are a dime a dozen and the smart woman naturally prefers to look unattainable, seeming not to be trying to advertise her specific allurements . . .

. . . but that when times are hard, eligible males are rare and she has to put out in the show window everything she’s got. A very pretty theory—but why, then, did skirts get longer when prosperity departed?

The ladies wearing the lingerie of 1926 were in the year when Rudolph Valentino died, Aimee Semple McPherson vanished, Gertrude Ederle swam the Channel, Tunney beat Dempsey at Philadelphia, Queen Marie was welcomed, and the Hall-Mills case went to trial.

The ladies in the next picture are wearing the lingerie of 1935-36, when the Supreme Court, having already killed the NRA, killed the AAA; when orchestras were playing “The Music Goes ‘Round and ‘Round,” and Mae West reported earnings for the year of $480,833, and Major Bowes’s amateur hour was the sensation in radio, and a young special prosecutor named Tom Dewey was going after racketeers, and Bruno Hauptmann was awaiting execution for the Lindbergh murder.


Even the advertising pictures of women, and the shop-window manikins, wore a different aspect now. They had left off their world-weary languor and had become brisk, bright, practical-looking—much better company for hard times. The next picture is from the Altman catalogue for January 1934. Compare the faces with those in the 1926 catalogue; and don’t fail to note the prices!


We now jump you ahead a few years more, to 1940. The lady in the long evening negligee is from an Altman catalogue of 1940; the street dresses are from ‘Vogue’ of August 1 in that year.


Times had changed. The war in Europe had begun, France had been beaten, the United States had gone into a huge defense program, and Willkie was the Republican choice to stop Roosevelt.

Women looked somewhat different by then. The open-toed shoe had arrived. The short evening dress (for practicality’s sake) had appeared, but had not supplanted the sweeping one. The hair was longer; the page-boy cut had come, and then by 1939 some women had begun to put their hair up, while others rebelled at the idea. Daytime skirts were now much shorter, as you can see. But these were minor modifications, not by any means fundamental changes.


* * *

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the cocktail bar opened to a prosperous business, and the forces of organized crime didn’t have things quite so easy. And they were out of luck in other ways too. The reform spirit ran high. The Lindbergh horror and other kidnappings, and the rackets which preyed upon business, had aroused general public wrath.

The time was ripe for action. The FBI went into high gear, tracking down Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Baby Face” Nelson, and others; James Cagney popularized the stalwart “G-man” as a movie hero; and in New York a special prosecutor named Thomas E. Dewey began to round up racketeers with ruthless but effective thoroughness.

Here we show gangsters in a patrol wagon on their way to Dewey’s office . . .


. . . Dutch Schultz, boss of the numbers racket, on trial in 1935 . . .


. . . then John Dillinger, “Public Enemy No. 1,” killed in 1934.


The man in the light suit is J. Edgar Hoover, head man and chief publicizer of the FBI, with the young Melvin Purvis who in 1934 led the group of agents who waited outside a Chicago theatre for the disguised Dillinger, and shot him as he emerged.


Below is Dewey, elevated to District Attorney at the end of 1937, with New York’s energetic reform mayor, Fiorello H. LaGuardia.


* * *

Late in 1936—just after Roosevelt’s re-election over Landon—the country rocked with excitement over a royal romance abroad. King Edward VIII of England wanted to marry Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, formerly of Baltimore, and Prime Minister Baldwin and the other guardians of the dignity of the throne would not permit it, she having been divorced.

Edward had his choice, and chose the woman; he abdicated, announcing his decision in a radio speech on December 11, 1936, which began, “Now at long last . . .”

America buzzed with talk about the romance (the other day we ran across a ‘New Yorker’ cartoon of the time, in which a salesgirl was saying, “Here’s the same scarf with the abdication speech on it—or do you prefer polka dots?”).

Here we show the engaging cause of the Empire crisis . . .


. . . below is a picture taken at Kitzbühel in the Tyrol in 1935, when Edward was still the Prince of Wales, and was practicing skiing with an easily recognizable companion.


And here is Edward VIII broadcasting.


Below: the wedding party at the marriage which took place later in France. At the left, Herman Rogers, the couple’s American host; then the Duchess and Duke of Windsor, as they were now to be called; then the best man, Major Metcalfe.


* * *

A few pages back we were looking at the changes in the aspect of American women between the days of Coolidge prosperity and the days of the WPA. Let us now glance at some items of men’s wear.

The boy in the next picture illustrates a progressive change in the age of consent to long trousers.

In the nineteen-twenties this age was likely to be fourteen or so; in the next decade it moved down to twelve or so; since this picture appeared, in the 1940 Altman magazine, it has moved down still further to—well, we haven’t had a good look at a baby carriage in the past few minutes, but we wouldn’t be at all surprised. And where did knickers go?


The man in the next picture is from a Jantzen advertisement in ‘The New Yorker’ on June 10, 1933; those big holes under the arms represented a stage in the abandonment of the top; by 1934 the topless swim-suit was on its way in, and soon it was standard.


The shirt advertisement below appeared in the Altman magazine of January 1935; we reproduce it out of pure unkindness. Look at the prices!


* * *

The public passion for personal drama—for the event or the situation which is readily intelligible in human terms—is confined to no one decade. If Americans got excited, in 1925, over a Kentucky boy trapped in a cave, they also got excited, in 1934, over the arrival of quintuplets in Callander, Ontario.

In that remote town in the Canadian backwoods, on May 28, 1934, Mrs. Ovila Dionne, twenty-five years old and already the mother of six children (one of whom had died), gave birth to five little girls, identical twins whose combined weight at birth was less than ten pounds.

Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, the country doctor who had brought them into the world, saw to it that they all survived. Then—as newspapermen, movie men, advertising men, and tourists converged upon the scene—began an extraordinary story which, if it did not win headlines quite as steadily as that of Floyd Collins, was of longer duration and more sensational magnitude.

By 1938 the town of Callander, which had been a half-abandoned lumber town with a box car for a railroad station, was booming. Over a wide, paved highway, 3,000 visitors a day (8,000 on week-end days) converged in summer upon what Merrill Denison called “the most spectacular, if refined, sideshow on earth.”

To protect the Quintuplets against exploitation, they had been made wards of the King. They had fourteen people on their payroll. Already, at the age of four, they owned $600,000 in government bonds, earned through movie contracts and other fees.

And despite the fact that Dr. Dafoe and the Board of Guardians took every precaution not to commercialize them unduly and that no admission was charged for the privilege of seeing them in the Dafoe Nursery—where they were on delightful exhibition somewhat as in a very demure zoo—they were estimated to be worth at least twenty million dollars a year to the Canadian tourist business!

In the picture below we cannot give you left-to-right identifications, front row and rear; but the names of the Quints, in case you have forgotten, are Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie.


Among the strange happenings which caught the popular imagination because they involved the predicament of a single person, few were stranger than the last hours of John Warde, the young man who on a summer morning in 1938 climbed out on a ledge on the seventeenth floor of the Hotel Gotham, New York, threatening to leap—and after attracting a huge crowd and tying up metropolitan traffic for eleven hours, finally did leap, to his death.

In this picture, his sister, a rope around her waist, is trying to coax him in.


On a bigger scale was the tragedy of the liner Morro Castle, which burned mysteriously off the New Jersey coast in the late summer of 1934, with a loss of 137 lives. The fire had first been detected in a locker off the portside writing room, and had spread with curious rapidity.

Later the smoking hulk of the Morro Castle went ashore on the beach at Asbury Park, where crowds of curiosity-seekers stared at her—while fishermen fished calmly on.


Toward evening on May 6, 1937—when the sit-down strikes were raging, and Roosevelt was trying to reorganize the Supreme Court, and the Duke of Windsor was in Austria awaiting his wedding to Mrs. Simpson, and Charlie McCarthy was just beginning his rise to popularity on the air waves—an NBC radio reporter was at Lakehurst, New Jersey, describing the approach of the German airship ‘Hindenburg’ to the mooring mast there.

He was reading his script quietly—telling all about this successor to the famous Graf Zeppelin, and her successful transatlantic flights with passengers in 1936, and the completion of her first trip to America of the 1937 season—when suddenly he gasped, “it’s burst into flame!” and then began a strange, hysterical, sobbing outburst of clichés and awkward phrases like “Oh, the humanity!”—the sort of things that come to one under awful stress.

What had happened was that the after part of the hydrogen-filled ‘Hindenburg’ had exploded; she went down in a roaring mass of wreckage, killing 36 people. The photograph above was taken almost at the instant of the explosion. Note the two men standing on the mooring mast at the right.


* * *

The panic of 1929 ended the skyscraper-building mania, but it didn’t quite end skyscraper-building—for some people had gone too far to stop.

Take New York, for example. When the Panic came, the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was just being torn down to make room for the Empire State Building (which was designed—because of the success of the Graf Zeppelin—with a mooring mast for dirigibles).

The project had to go on. And at the moment of the Panic, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was deep in plans for a huge civic center west of Fifth Avenue; it was to be clustered about a new Opera House.

Below is the residential region he was planning to transform. The picture was taken in 1930, before the demolition of 229 houses began.


After the Panic, the Opera House decided not to move. But Rockefeller had to go ahead somehow—and only skyscrapers would pay their way on such expensive property. So the brownstones were torn down and Rockefeller Center—at first called Radio City—went up, building by building, at a moment when the noise of the riveter was little heard elsewhere.

Here we show the excavation for the International Building, opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as it looked after a late 1933 snowfall.


The pinnacles of Rockefeller Center, Manhattan, were completed in the nineteen-thirties.


* * *

Which were more important, the strikes which were headline news day after day in 1937, or the advances in applied science and industrial engineering which won few headlines, but represented an application of the American genius for which we were to be profoundly thankful after 1941?

We show here, as symbolic of that advance, a photograph of some huge gears for turbines, machined at General Electric to an accuracy of 1/10,000th of an inch. . .


. . . and one (left) of Dr. W. D. Coolidge of the same company holding a million-volt x-ray tube in whose development he led.


A characteristic American triumph in applied science during the interwar years: a million-volt x-ray unit radiographing a big casting in search of flaws.


We have made no attempt, in this book, to picture the fundamental scientific discoveries of the years between the wars. The most significant work in pure science lends itself ill to the camera. But at least we can give a hint of one phase of it by showing a piece of apparatus—of pretty considerable size—used in carrying out researches on the behavior of atoms.

The pictures on this page are of an atom-smasher at the Westinghouse Laboratories at East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, built in 1937—many years before the word “atomic” came to connote, in the minds of most people, terrific destruction.

Here, men are looking at the 40-foot vacuum tube atom “gun” in the center of the atom-smasher.


Then you see an outside view of the 90-ton pear-shaped structure in which the “gun” is housed, atop the laboratory building. . .


. . .and below is a diagram of the apparatus, which shows the vacuum tube serving as the central spine of this odd tower. The “gun” could mobilize 4 million volts to shoot sub-atomic particles at the target on the ground floor.


Our next picture shows the result of research in applied science in which doesn’t take a doctor’s degree to grasp: the first experimental sale of nylon stockings, held in Wilmington, Delaware, under the auspices of the Nylon Division of the duPont Company, on October 25, 1939. These stockings came from a single pilot plant; production on a big scale followed later.


Here are some other synthetics to which we were introduced during the interwar years. First we show contact lenses made of “Lucite,” or, if it will make you easier in your mind, methyl methacrylate resin. . .


. . .then, a slide fastener—zipper to you—molded of FM-1 nylon to make it immune to dry-cleaning solvents and unharmed by ironing temperatures. . .


. . .finally, some plastic razor cases.


Below are various types of boxes made of ethocel sheeting, with drawn tops and cardboard bottoms.


* * *

There was a change, between the wars, in household interiors. Any such evolution is hard to picture accurately, because at any moment one can find houses whose equipment and decoration date, essentially, from a much earlier time.

But housewives may catch a reminder, from the pictures on this page, of what happened when modern design, color, and—for that matter—servantless housewives invaded the kitchen. The room below is unashamedly pre-modern.


Then we show a dream kitchen of about 1930: the sort of room that was built to demonstrate the very latest thing in equipment, and that aroused fierce yearnings in housewives’ hearts.


The aesthetic eye has been at work, as you can see, but the stove and icebox have not yet been quite assimilated into the decorative scheme of the room.

Below is a dream kitchen of the nineteen-forties, with three “work-centers”: a refrigeration and preparation center, a sink and dishwasher center, and a range and serving center. The whole design hangs together, the lighting is fluorescent and provides “adequate shadowless illumination,” and altogether we seem to have made considerable progress.


Next is an unregenerate pre-nineteen-twenties living room, in which the lighting fixtures, the furniture, and the picture-hanging show no trace of the influx of modern ideas in household decoration. (Privately, we think the pillows a little unfortunate even for 1918.)


Then a model living room of the latter nineteen-twenties, with less obtrusive lighting, a general lightness of effect, and less clutter. (No pillows at all, you will note.) The improvement is so great that we dare say a good many readers would be willing to settle for this room today.


Our nineteen-forties exhibit, showing the effect of the modern influence, is not a living room at all, but a bedroom. Pretty antiseptic-looking, it seems to us, and are pictures supposed to keep one awake? But the lighting is admirable and the design is wholly (if severely) harmonious.


During the twenties and thirties, the “modern” was only one decorative style among several; there was a strong Victorian revival as well, and many women still clung to the ruffles and roses of the “Colonial” period.

Not only women, but automobiles too, went in for curves in the nineteen-thirties. The next two pictures are both of Chryslers. First a 1930 straight eight sedan. . .


. . . then a 1934 Chrysler Airflow, in which for the first time the “streamlining” idea was wholeheartedly adopted.


Subsequently Chrysler modified its streamlining; but no manufacturer returned to anything like the angularity of the designs of the nineteen-twenties.

* * *

Below is a sample of the road-building of the thirties: a parkway connection above the Harlem River in New York City. It reminds us that our super-parkways with their clover-leaf intersections and other traffic-dispersion intricacies are almost all products of the years since 1929.


The development of our airlines was prodigious during the nineteen-thirties. Here is a plane departure in about 1932, with a Ford tri-motor plane about to leave; it carried only twelve passengers and cruised at 125 miles an hour.


Here are some air stewardesses of 1935, when small girls were preferred and they all had to be nurses.


During the latter part of the decade, the Douglas DC-3 (C-47 for military purposes) was the standard plane of the airlines.


It was followed by the DC-4 (in military use, the C-54), with a cruising speed of 211 miles an hour at 10,000 feet.


If money was scarce in Depression days, nationalism was strong. The first picture is of the great French liner ‘Normandie’ on her first night in New York, after her tumultuous welcome in June 1935.


A year later her British rival, the ‘Queen Mary,’ was likewise applauded as she completed her first crossing; the next picture shows her leaving New York.


* * *

In the mid-nineteen-thirties a camera craze swept the country. It grew out of the growing popularity of Leicas and other imported German cameras; it set people of both sexes and all ages to rushing about taking “candid” shots and buying complex apparatus.

The camera craze hastened the birth of ‘Life,’ ‘Look,’ and other popular picture magazines; and it immensely improved photography technically and in artistic value.

We illustrate it here only with a trick shot of Rockefeller Center, New York, taken with a wide-angle lens by Wendell MacRae; but many other pictures in this book—notably the sociological studies, which were stimulated by the expert interest and contagious enthusiasm of Roy Stryker of the Farm Security Administration—benefited by it.

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