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.
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.
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
Learn about the 1940 U.S. census and how it can provide important clues about your family history.
What questions were on the 1940 census form? How was it different from other U.S. censuses?