When the U.S. stock market crashed in October 1929, it brought hard times to California, the nation, and the world. For businesses and millions of individuals, fear and failure became as commonplace as optimism and prosperity had been before the economic collapse. The Great Crash soon became the Great Depression. Owners of manufacturing plants could not sell their goods, so they laid off workers. Unable to find employment, workers lost their savings and could not afford to make purchases. Additional businesses closed down. In the downward spiral, society was devastated. To make matters worse, one of the worst droughts in history struck the nation in 1930. On a half million farms from Virginia to Oklahoma, crops vanished and livestock died of thirst.
By late 1932, more than 12 million U.S. workers-about one in four-were unemployed. Many others were reduced to part-time employment. Thousands lost their homes and farms. Cities and counties ran out of funds to feed the unemployed. Millions went hungry.
In California, farm income in 1932 sank to less than half of its 1929 level. By 1933, building permits had plummeted to one-ninth of their peak in 1925. By 1934, more than 1.25 million Californians were on public relief-about one-fifth of the state's population.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised a "New Deal for the American People," soundly defeated incumbent president Herbert Hoover in the 1932 election. Roosevelt instituted a number of economic measures. He pushed for a banking reform bill to restore confidence in financial institutions. He devalued currency so that borrowers could more easily repay debts. He pushed for stock market regulation. He "primed the pump," spending public money through newly created programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and Public Works Administration, which undertook projects that put people to work and money into circulation.
In California, the Depression gave birth to bitter and sometimes violent struggles between labor and employers. Violence resulted when growers and the local police attempted to crush several Central Valley strikes. The 1934 San Francisco waterfront strike culminated in a day still known as "Bloody Thursday," when two strikers were killed and 64 people injured after strike breakers and police attempted to "open the port." A four-day general strike against businesses throughout the Bay Area ensued.
By mid-decade, more than a hundred thousand Americans who had lost their farms and homes in the Dust Bowl were arriving in California each year, many of them joining the ranks of migrant farm labor. Their presence increased the interest of the general public in the plight of farmworkers, a consciousness further raised by John Steinbeck's 1939 classic book The Grapes of Wrath, which later was made into a Darryl Zanuck film.
Hollywood was enjoying part of its Golden Age, producing films such as Frankenstein, King Kong, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz that took movie-goers' minds off the troubles of the times.
As the decade ended, a world war loomed on the horizon and the Golden Gate International Exposition, which celebrated the recent completion of both the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, was enjoyed by large crowds on Treasure Island.
With the outbreak of World War II, the nation's toughest economic times would soon be over.
11.6 Students analyze the different explanations for the Great Depression and how the New Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government. (11.6.2, 11.6.3)