Herbert Hoover: The American Franchise

Herbert Hoover: The American Franchise

The defining event in the United States during the Hoover years was, without a doubt, the Great Depression. Quite simply, it ranks second only to the Civil War as the greatest domestic crisis in the nation's history. The Depression shaped the nation's politics, economics, culture, social structure, and imagination, and its causes and its effects varied both regionally and temporally. (See Herbert Hoover, Domestic Policies.)


The Depression hit recent immigrants very hard. The majority of newcomers to the United States were of southern or eastern European descent, lived in American cities among other immigrants, and worked in low-paying, blue-collar occupations, many in industry or manufacturing. Unemployment was the chief problem facing recent immigrants during the Hoover years, as newcomers who lost their jobs found it difficult to regain them or get new ones. Women and children, research has shown, had an easier time keeping or finding work during the Depression because they labored largely in sectors that lost fewer jobs, and because employers could pay them less.

The effects of the Depression were devastating and not limited to economics. As the crisis worsened, the pillars of recent immigrant communities—local, immigrant-owned businesses like butcher shops, haberdasheries, and banks—collapsed. Immigrants previously had turned to these institutions (and their owners) in times of trouble, but the Great Depression eliminated this safety net, placing more pressure on already strapped private charities like religious organizations and state and local governments.

Additionally, during the 1920s, Congress passed a series of laws that restricted immigrant admissions to the United States both by number and by country of origin. The stunning results of this legislation became clear during the Hoover presidency. In 1921, over 800,000 immigrants came to the United States; in 1931, two years after the last of the most restrictive immigration legislation had gone into effect, just over 97,000 immigrants arrived. Immigration levels would remain severely depressed until after 1945, when they began to rise slowly and steadily.

Families and Women

The Depression reshaped American family life. While divorce rates fell, abandonment rates rose significantly, suggesting that couples simply split up rather than pursue through legal channels a costly divorce. Both the marriage rate and the birth rate dropped in the Hoover years as well, although the former began to rebound by the mid- to late-1930s. Finally, the average annual family income dropped by 35 percent between Hoover's inaugural speech and his retirement from office—from $2,300 to $1,500. Less money meant more sacrifice. Two or three families sometimes lived in a single residence; the resulting overcrowding surely tested the mental and emotional strength of all who lived in these conditions.

Women faced unique challenges during the Great Depression. Often in charge of managing the household and running the family, women coped on a daily basis with the Depression-induced stresses placed on families. The decline in family income forced women who ran those households to stretch their families' clothing and food allowances to the limit. Women patched clothes, transformed old adult garments into children's wear, planted gardens, and canned and dried foods for future use.

At the same time, many women—including both married women and single women who lived with their families—joined the workforce, looking to supplement (or even replace) their family's income. But women in the workforce encountered numerous difficulties. Female employment concentrated in the clerical, trade, and service sectors. While these jobs vanished less frequently than jobs in industry or manufacturing, they were lower paying, had fewer—if any—benefits, were less likely to be unionized, and had fewer opportunities for advancement. Indeed, competition for these jobs increased as the Depression deepened and more women entered the work force. Interestingly, research shows that while men did not compete for so-called "woman's jobs," a cultural backlash against working women did develop in the 1930s. In many cases, men resented women for the latter's ability to find jobs or provide for their families. The Great Depression, then, jumbled the established hierarchies that had marked gender and family relations for decades.


The Hoover years were especially dark for American labor. Workers suffered horribly during the Great Depression. Jobs disappeared at a dizzying rate, especially in the industries like railroads, mining, and steel that had powered the American economy for the previous fifty years. "New" economy businesses that produced automobiles, consumer appliances, chemicals, and petroleum also saw significant job losses. While some major firms like U.S. Steel and Westinghouse made efforts in the initial years of the Depression to stanch job loss and wage reductions, small and medium-sized businesses lacked the resources for such efforts and cut jobs and wages accordingly. As the economy continued its downward spiral, even large firms succumbed to the inevitable job lay-offs and wage cuts.

Conflict between employers, their workers, and the unemployed increased dramatically in the early 1930s. One of the most stunning examples occurred in 1932 at the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. Henry Ford, who had been touted throughout the 1920s as an exemplar of wise business leadership, had fired sixty-thousand workers since the onset of economic hard times. The small, communist-dominated Auto Workers' Union organized the Ford Hunger March of March 7, 1932, with three thousand protestors marching on Ford's large River Rouge plant to demand jobs for the unemployed and an end to evictions of former Ford employees. As the protesters neared the plant, Dearborn police and Ford's private security force attacked with teargas and bullets. Four marchers died and more than sixty were wounded. While violence between workers and employers during the early years of the Depression was not commonplace, such incidents did occur sporadically throughout the country.

The Dearborn protest, notwithstanding, unions were actually quite weak during the Hoover years—and especially compared to the prominence they would achieve over the coming two decades. Union membership by early 1933 had tumbled below three million to less than 10% of the nation's workers. As a further illustration of this trend, over 900,000 construction workers had been unionized by 1929; four years later, that total had shrunk to 583,000. Moreover, as the specter of unemployment grew, unionized workers became more reluctant to engage in tactics like walk-outs that might cost them their jobs. Unions did win one significant victory during this time: passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act, which severely curbed anti-union activities like federal injunctions and "yellow" dog contracts. (See Hoover, Domestic Affairs.) On the whole, however, unions in the Hoover years had fewer members and engaged in more conservative tactics.


African-Americans witnessed some important gains during this time. In the same year that Hoover won election to the presidency, voters in Illinois sent black Republican Oscar DePriest to the House of Representatives, the first African-American elected to Congress since Reconstruction. First Lady Lou Hoover defied racist custom and invited DePriest's wife to the White House, marking the first time an African-American had visited the White House since President Theodore Roosevelt had dined with Booker T. Washington in 1901. Finally, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) successfully led the fight against Hoover's nominee to the Supreme Court, John J. Parker, in 1930. (See Hoover, Domestic Affairs.)Nevertheless, African-Americans felt the effects of the Depression as acutely, and perhaps more so, than any other group of Americans. In the South, black sharecroppers faced poor weather and plummeting agricultural prices that made even mere survival difficult. More and more blacks in the South moved from rural areas to cities, but encountered difficulties just as often. By 1932, more than half of the African- Americans living in the urban South were unemployed. The horrible conditions in the South, in turn, inspired increasing numbers of African-Americans to move north, a migration that had begun in the 1910s and continued into the 1930s, and accelerated greatly during World War II.

In northern cities, blacks saw their jobs—which were usually of the entry level, low paying, and unskilled or semi-skilled variety—disappear, either consumed by the faltering economy or snatched up by desperate unemployed whites. This was the case for both African American-men and women. The employment situation for African-Americans in the urban North was only marginally better for the growing black middle class. In Harlem, black ownership or management of property dropped precipitously in the first half of the 1930s.