The 1920's was a decade often referred to a ‘the roaring twenties'; a time when successful businessmen were national heroes, land values were booming and the hems on women's skirts were getting shorter than ever before! This was a time when the traditional values of rural America were challenged - women were gaining employment, voting and driving cars. It was a time when a new type of urban centre arose; one based on production, industrial technology and massed population. The average American was busy buying automobiles and household appliances, and
speculating in the stock market, where big money could be made. Those appliances were bought on credit, however. The imbalance between the rich and the poor, with 0.1 percent of society earning the same total income as 42 percent, combined with production of more and more goods and rising personal debt, could not be sustained.
On Black Tuesday, 29 October 1929, the stock market crashed, triggering the Great Depression, the worst economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world. It spread from the United States to the rest of the world, lasting from the end of 1929 until the early 1940s. Banks failed, businesses closed, and more than 15 million Americans (one-quarter of the workforce) became unemployed.
The country fell into a depression (economically and psychologically), peaking in the winter of 1932, with citizens living on the streets in ‘shanty-towns' and surviving off government rations. The unemployment brought on by the Depression caused self-blame and self-doubt. Men were harder hit psychologically than women, with men usable to provide for their families. The percentage of women working increased and children took on more responsibilities, sometimes finding work when their parents could not.
Yet the depression was not the only disaster to strike – so too did the most devastating weather event in American history. The drought hit first in the eastern part of the country in 1930, moving toward the west in 1931, turning the Great Plains into a desert by 1934 and peaking in the summer of 1936 setting high temperature records. Most significantly affected were the farming states of Northern Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska (an area which was to become know as the Dust Bowl) with irregular, dry, hot weather. Farm fields were turned to dust as the dry soil was lifted by the wind causing regular dust storms.
When the drought and dust storms showed no signs of letting up, many people abandoned their land. Others would have stayed but were forced out when they lost their land in bank foreclosures. Left with nothing, they were driven to find hope for a better life, travelling from older, drought stricken eastern states to the rich and abundant western state of sunny California (‘the land of milk and honey'). In all, one-quarter of the population left, packing everything they owned into their cars and trucks, and headed west in an exodus which represents the largest migration in American history. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states; of those, 200 000 moved to California.