Life at the Time: 1930s America and the 1940 United States Census

October 23, 2018  - by 

Have you ever wondered what events in 1930s America affected your ancestors who were listed in the 1940 U.S. census? Social history is an important part of any family’s history, and learning what was going on in the world around your ancestors can add interest and insight to their life stories.

The people listed in 1940 U.S. census records were greatly affected by what was going on in 1930s America. The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the start of World War II on the European front were some of the most impactful historical events of the time. These events influenced what our ancestors wore, what they did for work, how they managed their homes, where they lived, what they did for fun, and much more. If your ancestors were included in the 1940 census records, these events likely played a role in their lives.

 

You can search for your ancestors in the 1940 United States census for free on FamilySearch.org. Find out how they were employed, where they lived, and if they had migrated—all life experiences that were likely shaped by the major historical events of the 1930s.

 

To understand what life might have been like for your ancestors, let’s take a look at some of the historical events in the 1930s leading up to the 1940 United States census.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression (1929 to 1939) was brought on by many factors, but its catalyst was the October 1929 stock market crash. The effects were felt not only in the United States, but in virtually every country of the world. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25 percent, and other countries experienced similar or worse unemployment rates.

When people lost their jobs during the depression, they stopped earning money, and as a result, they stopped spending money. The adage “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” reflected the spirit of the times. Frugality and resourcefulness helped many families withstand the economic crisis of the 1930s. Women started transforming flour and feed sacks (made out of cotton) into dresses, underwear, dish towels, curtains, and other items for the home. Some manufacturers noticed this trend and began creating flour and feed sacks with appealing, colorful designs so the sacks could be multipurposed as attractive clothing fabric.

A 1930s woman wearing a flour-sack shirt, next to a man in 1930s fashion.

1930s America culture
1930s Clothing and Entertainment

While the Great Depression ended up having a major impact on 1930s culture and fashion, people still found ways to enjoy life with what they had. The common house dress was quite practical, and feed-sack dresses became a popular trend of the time. Some women in the 1930s still wanted to “look smart” when going out, however. Afternoon tea might call for a dress of silk or rayon crepe with puffed sleeves and belted waists. And don’t forget the hat!

Though fashionable suits with padded shoulders and tapered sleeves were popular for men, the average man wore work clothes most of the day because of the hard times. Work attire sometimes meant a white button-up shirt, slacks, and a tie. A jacket and cap were also very practical for men in the early 1930s. Trench coats and waistcoats also became quite popular.

Though life was difficult and money was tight, some entertainment options still grew in popularity during the 1930s—particularly the radio. Many found a way to purchase a radio set, knowing it would provide unlimited free entertainment. The whole family could sit together around the radio at home and enjoy big band music, sporting events, and comedy programs, such as Amos ’n’ Andy.

Not surprisingly, people still enjoyed going to the movies as well, if only to escape the pressures of life for a little while. To draw in viewers during this era, Hollywood would hold sweepstakes and drawings for prize money at movie theaters. The beloved Wizard of Oz was released toward the end of the Great Depression, in August 1939, and sung by Judy Garland, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

The Dust Bowl

1930s America was also devastated by the Dust Bowl, a series of dust storms brought on by a lengthy drought in the Midwest and Southern Plains regions of the United States. Heavy wind conditions across millions of acres of overcultivated and dry ground in the country’s agricultural belt caused massive dust storms that killed people, livestock, and crops.

Many farming families of the plains left their land in search of work and better living conditions. Nicknamed “Okies” because many came from Oklahoma, they actually came from other states as well, including Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. An estimated 2.5 million people fled the Dust Bowl, making this migration the largest in American history.

1930s america and the new deal, great depression, and WWII
Many refugees went to California, which at the time had a reputation for abundant opportunities and resources. However, there weren’t enough jobs in California for the refugees who arrived there, and pay was low. As a result, many continued living in poverty, making their homes in tents and makeshift towns.

These events of the “Dirty Thirties” influenced many artists. For example, the Dust Bowl and the plight of the Okies was the inspiration behind John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Woody Guthrie, a folk musician, created an album titled Dust Bowl Ballads in 1940 that told about the hardships the refugees endured.

The Dust Bowl compounded the effects of the Great Depression. To counteract these effects, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced The New Deal, a series of programs, projects, and reforms intended to help Americans get back on their feet. One of the notable projects of the New Deal was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided jobs to the unemployed. These jobs focused on building the nation’s infrastructure and promoting the arts. The Social Security Act was also introduced in the New Deal.

The United States Social Security Death Index, available for free on FamilySearch.org, is another resource to research your ancestors.

The Start of World War II

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, on September 3, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and New Zealand declared war on Germany. World War II had begun. Other countries joined both sides of the war in the months and years that followed, with the United States entering the conflict in December 1941.

At the end of the 1930s in America, having survived a depression and a severe drought, our ancestors would again prove their resilience in the 1940s. With the Second World War looming internationally, the American people rallied around a common cause. The war marked the end of the Great Depression. With government-funded factories and millions of soldiers deployed overseas, employment rates slowly rose, and the standard of living rose with it.

At the beginning of this turning point in American history and culture, census takers arrived in 1940 on our ancestors’ doorsteps.

How did your ancestors answer the questions in the 1940 census? Find out by searching the 1940 United States census records for free on FamilySearch.org.

 


Learn More about the 1940 U.S. Census

The 1940 U.S. Census

Learn about the 1940 U.S. census and how it can provide important clues about your family history.

Questions on the 1940 Census

What questions were on the 1940 census form? How was it different from other U.S. censuses?

1940 us census

1940 US census questions

Amie Tennant

Amie Bowser Tennant is a genealogy researcher, writer and presenter.She writes blog articles and other content for many top companies and societies in the genealogy field. Her most treasured experience is working as a consultant for family history. Amie lives with her husband and three children in Ohio, surrounded by many of her extended family.

Latest posts by Amie Tennant (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments

    1. There is a “72 year rule”. Census 1950 will be released April 2022. Then it will be about 6 more months until the name index (to search people by name) will be done on the genealogy websites. Google it!

  1. Yes youve helped greatly. If you would send me your address, or email address, I will send a copy of all the information and documents I have of my Mothers. If I hear from you email addrss or mailing address I’l send you my phone number and we can talk. I think sending you the info. might help better. I Really do appreciate your help. My mother worked on this for along time and before she passed, she asked me to find the truth and her Indian leanage .
    Oh, In the carter county, Mo. historical, I cant remember whether or not sociaty or museum, or it could be the McCarter Museum. But in their Genealogy Book. It shows William Smith as a full blood Indian. If I remember right it shows he came off the trail of tears near cape girado, Mo. and married there. I looked the trail of tears maps and 2 of the trails come into Cape Girado,Mo. Hope to hear from you. Do you charge for this, just need to know cost, Thank you again

  2. The ones you’ve found sound right. Did it show in what area the 2 Georges lived, If it shows either Counts, or Weathers, Pittsburg County, Ok. They are the right ones. I have pics of Emaline’s Grave stone. It should show the 2 George Sr. & Emaline & George Jr. & Rosa Lee are buried in the Hartshorne, Ok. Cemetery. Hope this will help. as I said I can send copies of all info. I have. I Really Thank You. Im now further than Ive ever been, Im just not a researcher.

    1. The 1900 census shows a “Georgette” George Smith in Township 9, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory. That would be in the area around McAester. The 1910 is Degnan, Latimer County, which is right next door to Pittsburg County (McAlester). There is an 1860 census for Pulaski Co. Missouri that lists a William Smith, wife Elizabeth, sons George W., Wm.S, daughter Mary J., and son James. Not real sure about these though. The same family shows up in Dent Co. Missouri in the 1870. Haven’t found the 1880 yet.

  3. Loved reading your summary. Love host. With the pandemic now we are really part of it. The early 1900-1918 would be great. Thanks for your great work

  4. This is absolutely the best interesting and entertaining information ever!
    Please keep it coming!!!!