Copyright © 2003 Henrietta W. Hay
February 21, 2003
Across the entrance to the Norlin Library on the C. U. campus back in
the thirties were the words of George Santayana, "Those who cannot
remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Those of us who can remember the thirties all too vividly, are seeing
some frightening similarities to today.
It was the decade of the great depression, the election of Franklin
Roosevelt, the dust bowl and the beginning of social security. It was
the decade we started slowly on the road back from bread lines and
The population of the U. S. was a little over 123 million in 48
states. The average salary was $1368 and unemployment rate was 25%.
The number of unemployed reached 13 million. In March, 1933, when
Franklin Roosevelt took office, the country was in desperate straits. He
scared the daylights out of all of us when he declared a four-day bank
holiday. But during that time Congress came up with the Banking Act of
1933. That stabilized the banking industry and restored people's faith
in the banking system by putting the federal government behind it.
Some things change, but college kids don't. They are in a private world
of their own. I was in C. U. those first four years of the decade, and
in our self-absorption we were barely aware of the rest of the country
and its financial crisis. Tuition was $22 a quarter and board and room
was $25 a month. Somehow my folks managed to come with that but it was
a long time before I realized how hard it had been for them.
But the dust storms I do remember. Severe drought hit the midwestern
and southern plains. As the crops died, the 'black blizzards" begin.
Dust from the over-plowed and over-grazed land began to blow -- and blow
-- and blow.
In 1935, experts estimated that 850,000,000 tons of topsoil had blown
off the Southern Plains during the course of the year. I was living in
Denver that year, and I remember that most of Kansas blew into
Colorado. Probably there were even dust particles that crossed the
mountains and there still may be little bits of Topeka in Grand
There were days when I could not see across the street. April 14, 1935
is remembered as Black Sunday -- the worst "black blizzard" of the dust
In the fall of 1939 the rains came -- and so did the war in Europe.
But in spite of the depression and the dust storms and all the turmoil
in the world, we did manage to have a pretty exciting and entertaining
Entertainment had to be cheap. Stamp collecting became popular and
Parker Brothers came out with Monopoly. We could at least have lots of
For fifty cents you could dance all evening to Glenn Miller and the
other big bands at the Trocadero in Elitch's. That's when Elitch's was
in north Denver. I have trouble understanding today's popular music,
because our favorite songs were "String of Pearls" "Mood Indigo." And
they always ended up with a slow version of "Goodnight Sweetheart." In
those days you usually said "Goodnight" instead of "Your place or mine?"
Movies were cheap and strictly escapist entertainment. it was
Hollywood's golden age. Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Shirley Temple, the
Marx Brothers -- laughter and romantic sighs, not tears. And we had
"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Gone With the Wind."
If we couldn't even afford a movie, the radio was with us -- Jack Benny
and Gracie Allen, Amos and Andy, Fred Allen and "The Shadow".
I found one of my favorite poets, Ogden Nash, and the kids were
introduced to Dr. Seuss. Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" was perhaps
most definitive book of the decade.
We lived our lives and had fun. But over us all hung the depression and
the dust-- and the war, over there. Sound familiar?