Facts About California in the 1930s

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Californians witnessed tremendous change to their state during the decade of the Great Depression. Ironically, this was due to California's healthy economy, when compared with that of other states. Three industries, in particular, thrived in the 1930s and attracted thousands of new settlers: agriculture, oil production and film making, according to the University of California (universityofcalifornia.edu). Since these industries were concentrated in southern California, that region captured the designation of economic centre of the state.

Dust Bowl Refugees

After suffering through several years of severe drought and joblessness, farm workers from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri began arriving at the fruit and vegetable fields of the San Joaquin Valley in the mid-1930s, looking for work. Known generically as "Okies," a total of 300,000 to 400,000 migrated to California, reports James N. Gregory from the University of Washington (washington.edu) faculty. Between 1933 and 1935, wind-generated dust storms produced clouds of blowing top soil in western Kansas and in the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. The press labelled those coming into California, "Dust Bowl" refugees, because of this phenomena. Just as Okie was a misnomer, Dust Bowl was, as well. Few in the stream of immigrants came from the sparsely-populated areas hit by the dust storms. Although many of them found temporary employment, living conditions were harsh, and tents or patched-together shacks provided shelter for the families. These impoverished refugees, whose plight was immortalised by California author John Steinbeck in his novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," and by photographer Dorothea Lange in her haunting portraits, became the most recognisable symbol of the Great Depression.

Mexican Migrant Workers

Before the 1930s, at least 3/4 of California's farm workers were Mexican or Mexican-American, according to the Oakland Museum of California (museumca.org). Farm owners recruited them, believing that they would tolerate miserable living conditions because they earned more in the United States than they did in Mexico. When the refugees from the Great Plains began arriving desperate for jobs, white trade unions fought for the hiring of the Okies. Public sympathy was with the new white workers with Anglo-Saxon names. Responding to pressure from the farm owners, California state and local governments began a deportation program, sending Mexicans, and even some Mexican-Americans, back to Mexico in buses and boxcars. This was a significant event leading to the tensions between California's Anglo and Hispanic populations that continue today.

Hollywood's Golden Age

During the 1930s, the motion picture industry experienced revolutions in sound and colour production. "Talkies" were being introduced at the beginning of the decade, and most 1930s films were black-and-white, says the American Movie Classics Filmsite (filmsite.org). In the last year of the decade, however, two Technicolor masterpieces, "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind," were released. A number of film genres, such as musicals, westerns, screwball comedies, gangster films and horror shows, developed during the 1930s. Animation became more sophisticated in the hands of the pioneering Walt Disney Studios. Creative people from around the country were migrating to California to participate in the expanding medium.

Works Progress Administration

To help with demands being made on the infrastructure by the population explosion, the Works Progress Administration, one of the federal New Deal programs, made improvements in many areas. Every public park in San Francisco benefited from WPA upgrades. Urban streets and sidewalks, rural roads and bridges still in use in California are WPA constructions. Nearly every small town in the state boasts a school built or renovated by the group. Often, the facilities had features that would not have been possible if local taxpayers had been responsible for the bill, reports the "California Historian" magazine. WPA workers built many more schools than prisons because the national philosophy was that if the young are given schools conducive to learning, fewer prisons will be required.

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