When faced with the worst economic crisis in U.S.
history, many Americans blamed the nation’s president, Herbert Hoover. The degree to which Hoover became the symbol of the crisis was best seen in the growth of poor, makeshift settlements known as Hoovervilles.
The Great Depression
Many of us spend a great deal of time imagining what we’d do if we had a lot of money–if we won the lottery, for example. We spend less time wondering what we’d do if we lost it all and had to make do with virtually nothing.
The suffering in the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1941, is hard for modern Americans to wrap their minds around. The numbers, as mind-boggling as they are, tend not to reflect the actual state of suffering caused by the greatest economic catastrophe in U.S. history. A look at how people lived, especially in the makeshift dwellings they constructed, gives a better sense of this, as does an understanding of the bitter humor behind the naming of these dwellings, known as ‘Hoovervilles’.
Herbert Hoover was a rising star of American politics when he won the presidential election of 1928.
He had first achieved fame during World War I when he ran the U.S. Food Administration, and his managerial skills, relentless work ethic, and ability to feed both the troops and the homefront simultaneously won him enormous praise. As Secretary of Commerce, Hoover presided over the economic boom times of the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ and when he entered the White House in early 1929, it seemed clear that the nation was in good hands.However, that didn’t last long. On October 29, 1929, the date known as Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed, signaling the beginning of the Great Depression. The nation turned to Herbert Hoover expecting help, but he had none to give.
He was the President, after all, and there were many things he could do–but he was in trouble from the start, for a couple of different reasons.For one thing, Hoover was a believer in the power of the free market and in the value of perseverance. As such, he was highly reluctant to shift the federal government into high gear to try and solve an economic crisis. He believed this would represent a philosophical shift in what the government was supposed to be for–namely, to ensure a level playing field for economic opportunity, but not to regulate or take over the functions of the market. Hoover also didn’t think it would work and that a crisis such as this one would have to blow over on its own.Hoover’s other problem was his own personality.
He wasn’t a particularly warm, charismatic individual; he had won the presidency on the strength of his record and his character, but very few people would have described him as sympathetic (though by all accounts, he agonized over the suffering of the Great Depression). When disaster struck, Americans looked to their President for leadership and compassion, but Hoover seemed to be short on both counts.As the Great Depression worsened, so too did people’s moods.
Banks closed, and factories shut down; thousands and then millions of jobs were lost. At its peak, roughly 25%, maybe more, of the American work force was unemployed. This was at a time when most workers didn’t have access to unemployment benefits, health care, or Social Security–in fact, none of the programs that could provide that kind of help even existed.The reaction to all of this was often characterized by a grim sort of humor, sometimes represented by popular songs like the 1930’s ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ which contrasted the prosperity of the previous decade with the current crisis.
This is especially clear from the lyrics which included this line:’They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead; why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?’This sort of fatalism was especially apparent in the language that developed around the iconic representation of the Great Depression –the Hooverville.
Homelessness was rampant during the Great Depression. Throughout the country, Hoovervilles, or makeshift shanties, would spring up to provide shelter wherever possible, often near water sources or the soup kitchens operated by churches and charities. The term ‘Hooverville’ probably originated with Charles Michelson, who was a newspaper reporter and, in 1930, the publicity director for the Democratic National Party.Hoovervilles were not fancy or well-constructed. Although people would often use castoff lumber and building materials, more often than not Hooverville structures were built with cardboard, tar paper, and other comparatively flimsy elements. Technically, these settlements were often in violation of state or local law; and even though they were often raided, it became common practice for authorities to endure them.
The anger directed at Herbert Hoover didn’t stop with the label given to the makeshift settlements. Many features of life during the Great Depression were given bitter connotations with Hoover’s name. A ‘Hoover blanket’ was a newspaper, covering a homeless man on a city bench; a ‘Hoover flag’ was a turned-out pants pocket, a sure sign of pennilessness.
Cardboard covering a worn-out shoe sole was ‘Hoover leather,’ and cars pulled by horses (since no one could afford gasoline) were ‘Hoover wagons.’Probably the most famous Hooverville was the one founded on Anacostia Flats, just outside Washington, D.C.
, in 1932. Thousands of World War I veterans, calling themselves the Bonus Army, had arrived in the nation’s capital to demand early payment of a bonus they had been promised at the end of the war. When Congress refused payment and the veterans refused to leave, President Hoover sent in the army under the direction of Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur; the riot scene that followed included tear gas, bayonets, and tanks, and resulted in the burning of large parts of the Bonus Army’s Hooverville as well as several deaths.
Hoovervilles began to disappear after the election of Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal promised to put the federal government into activist mode to try to end the Great Depression. Hoover was largely blamed for the ineffective federal role to that point, and Americans were largely thankful to see their government trying any policy.But even as the Great Depression eased and the Hoovervilles began to vanish, they remained a potent symbol of how a combination of bad luck, governmental philosophy, and rotten timing could create a lasting, negative image.
‘Hooverville’ was the nickname for any variety of makeshift shelters for homeless people, mostly victims of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1941. Named for President Herbert Hoover, the ramshackle settlements ranged in size and were set up across the nation. Ultimately, they were a bitterly ironic symbol of the suffering inherent in the worst economic crisis in U.