Hard Times in Illinois, 1930–1940
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives


The use of local events to enhance the study of American history in the classroom has received considerable attention for the past several years. Teachers have recognized that their students often are not excited by traditional instruction in American history. Chief criticisms have been that textbook treatments consist of dry narratives of impersonal facts which have little relevance to students' immediate lives. And this has been the case despite the fact that one of the principal purposes of the discipline of history is to provide its students with a sense of continuity and perspective. The fifty document images provided in this teaching package are intended to provide direct glimpses of events that occurred during the Great Depression in Illinois over 1930-1940. Each offers a picture of a particular circumstance at a particular time. And each picture asks provoking questions. All of the events described by these documents occurred in Illinois and should be of interest to those who now live here.


The primary objective of this study packet is to introduce students to local history in a meaningful manner and thereby increase interest in history in general. Taken together, the fifty document images offer a kaleidoscopic picture of Illinois over 1930-1940. Individual documents describe very real historical occurrences, but each leaves unanswered questions which can be pursued by studying related documents in the packet, Illinois history in particular, and American history in general.

Subordinate objectives include teaching students how to read historical documents and exposing them to historical reasoning. Besides understanding the texts of documents, students should learn how to identify significant information. Such information will enable them to make specific statements about particular circumstances at particular times. By themselves such events may have little significance. By studying additional sources broader images can be produced and generalized statements can be made to explain isolated events. This process is designed to give meaning to historical interpretation and to broaden textbook narratives of consensus history.

State and local history offers an excellent opportunity to make the study of history in general more meaningful. A focus on a specific locality with which students associate will heighten their interest. It also offers them a sense of how their communities have evolved over time and thus gives historical perspective. But students of state and local history soon realize that the history of a locality cannot be treated as a separate entity because regional, national, and world events were of constant influence. It is hoped that this packet will not only supplement the study of American history but also invigorate it. As well as providing information, primary source documents afford the opportunity to experience history on an emotive level because those documents were produced by the actual participants in history and describe events as those persons actually saw them at the time they occurred.

Use of Documents

The fifty documents in this packet were selected from the holdings of the Illinois State Archives. Most came from record group 101.000, the Office of the Governor. Louis Lincoln Emmerson (record series 101.029) served from January 14, 1929 to January 9, 1933. Henry Horner (records series 101.030) occupied the office from January 9, 1933 to October 6, 1940. The Department of Agriculture, record group 201.000, was the second most significant document source. Specifically, record series 201.001, Directors' Files, was a rich resource. Single documents were culled from Superintendent of Public Instruction, Incoming Correspondence (record series 106.001) and Secretary of State, Illinois State Library, Extension Services WPA Files (record series 103.220).

Because all of these documents concern Illinois during the Great Depression they relate to one another at various levels. And because all of these documents are interrelated a student or combinations of students can produce syntheses. However, each document also stands alone as a statement of a particular circumstance in time. Research with additional sources, such as those found in the Selected Bibliography portion of this manual, often will help clarify a document and place it in perspective. In fact, most of the documents were intentionally selected because they create questions which cannot be answered from their internal content alone.

Any Illinois educational institution can obtain a complimentary hard copy edition of the Hard Times in Illinois, 1930-1940 teaching package by requesting the same on letterhead stationery. Please send requests: Illinois State Archives, Publications Unit, Margaret Cross Norton Building, Capitol Complex, Springfield, IL 62756.

Historical Background

The onset of the Great Depression has been linked to the collapse of the American stock market in late 1929. This has been the case despite the fact that no single event or specific combination of events empirically have been shown to have set off the decade of depression which followed. What can be explained are economic conditions as they existed at the time.

Wall Street investors saw the value of stocks fall by roughly one third from the end of October through the middle of November 1929. Many investors had bought on margin. That is, they had only paid a percentage of the purchase price and had pledged the stock itself as security on final payment. This made the situation all the worse when values fell. But unlike today less than two and a half percent of Americans in 1929 owned securities. Most were unaffected by the sudden slide immediately. Over the long term the bear market, which the crash had ushered in, was to have a significant debilitating effect. Stock prices continued to decline through 1932. Investors with capital lost confidence in the chance of a rewarding return and therefore withheld their money from the market. As a consequence businesses which wanted to expand could not do so due to a lack of investment capital.

The Great War had brought the American farmer unprecedented prosperity over 1914-1919. Then prices fell off sharply in 1920 and stayed down. Nationally net farm income stood at $9,500,000,000 in 1919. It had fallen to $5,300,000,000 in 1928. Across the county thousands and thousands of farms failed and were forfeited to rural lending institutions. Rural banks in turn folded when they ran out of liquid assets.

After the World War the United States, mainly through its private banks, had been propping up European economies which had been bled dry by the great conflict. American loans financed trade deficits, war debt, and the reparations imposed upon the defeated nations. European recovery was taking place in the latter half of the 1920s and this vitality was enriching American traders and investors. However, if the flow of U.S. credit were to stop, the entire European economic structure was subject to failure.

Of the total 27,500,000 American families in 1929, seventy-one percent had annual incomes of less than $2,500, a figure considered adequate for a decent living standard. Forty-two percent of the total had incomes of less than $1,500 each year. A $1,500 family income was considered subsistence or below. This was at a time when the top five percent of income receivers were the recipients of twenty-six percent of the nation's total income. Clearly income distribution was grossly inequitable.

Other major economic factors in place in 1929 included the country's gold standard which did not allow the federal government to control the money supply adequately, a lack of government regulation of stock market excesses, and needless inventory accumulations at manufacturing plants. It is difficult to state authoritatively what caused the Great Depression which began late in 1929. Surely most or all of the factors outlined above came into play. Over 1929-1932 conditions went from bad to worse. Stock market investment fell from $10,000,000,000 a year to $1,000,000,000. The value of imported goods and raw materials was down from $4,463,000,000 to $1,343,000,000. Exports dropped from $5,347,000,000 to $1,667,000,000. Over these years 109,371 corporations failed and left behind over $3,000,000,000 in liabilities. Whereas corporate net profits totaled $8,400,000,000 in 1929, they stood at only $3,400,000,000 in 1932. Industrial production declined by half as did freight shipments.

Unemployment grew by leaps from month to month and from year to year. Some 2,500,000 persons nationwide were without jobs in April 1930. In October of that year the figure was 4,000,000. October 1931 saw 7,000,000 unemployed. A year later the number was 11,000,000. Over these years those who did hold jobs saw salaries cut by forty percent and wages by sixty percent. The farmer who had been hurting since prices had plummeted in 1920 found no relief as production outstripped demand.

Across the county people hunkered down and coped with the hard times. More and more became self-reliant by growing their own vegetables, canning produce, and cooking homemade soap. Marriage and birth rates declined while divorces increased. Very real physical images of the distressed economy appeared in the forms of foreclosures, evictions, Hoovervilles, soup lines, garbage picking, apple selling, drifting, and outright begging. Public school financing became problematic as teachers went unpaid and physical plants deteriorated. Private relief efforts quickly exhausted themselves as resources became depleted and renewed funding was found wanting.

President Herbert Hoover had been reluctant to use federal resources to combat the malaise. The financial crisis of 1931 which destroyed European currencies and set their economies into spiraling depression changed his mind. A total of 659 U.S. banks with aggregate assets of $250,000,000 failed in 1929. For 1930 the figure was 1,352 with $853,000,000 in assets. In 1931, the year of the European financial crisis, 2,294 American banks with $1,700,000,000 in uncollected assets defaulted. The U.S. was facing economic meltdown.

Congress chartered the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) on January 16, 1932 to combat this threat. From its regional offices the RFC loaned over $1,500,000,000 to some 5,000 banks, railroads, building and loan associations, and other lending institutions over the course of the year. Later in 1932 the Federal Home Loan Bank Act established a series of home loan banks with combined assets of $125,000,000. Their purpose was to extend federal loans to private lending institutions which deferred foreclosures on home loans. As a result of these measures only 1,456 banks with assets of $750,000,000 closed their doors in 1932. The tide had been turned, at least temporarily.

Early in July 1932 Congress had passed the Garner-Wagner bill which would have provided for a massive federal public works program as well as direct federal relief for individuals. Hoover vetoed it on the grounds that it was dangerous and impractical. He argued that relief efforts were handled best by state and local authorities. When Congress then passed legislation which provided a pool of $1,800,000,000 for the RFC to loan to those states and municipalities which had gone broke, the president acquiesced.

Both the Democratic and Republican Parties met in Chicago in the summer of 1932 to nominate their respective candidates. Franklin Roosevelt, Governor of New York State, was the Democratic choice on the fourth ballot. Herbert Hoover, the incumbent president, was nominated by the Republicans on their first ballot. In the course of the campaign Hoover defended his management during the economic downturn while Roosevelt promised change and largely unspecified measures to combat the upheaval. In the popular vote Roosevelt won by an overwhelming 22,821,857 to 15,761,841 and all of the electoral contests but six.

Roosevelt received 1,882,304 votes in Illinois as opposed to Hoover's 1,432,756. The new president enjoyed substantial pluralities both in Cook County and downstate. Other candidates included Norman Thomas, Socialist, who polled 67,258 votes statewide; William Foster, Communist, with 15,582; William Upshaw, Prohibition, 6,388; and Verne Reynolds, Socialist Labor, 3,638.

Because Illinois enjoyed a diverse agricultural and industrial economic base in 1929, the depression's full impact was not felt here until late 1930. By then the numbers of unemployed had swelled significantly and private relief organizations were functioning at full capacity. The prospect of a harsh winter had many fearing for life itself. Governor Louis Emmerson, a moderate Republican, came to favor a state income tax as the means by which to finance public relief. For this he won legislative approval but the measure was struck down by the state's supreme court as unconstitutional because it did not adhere to uniformity requirements. Emmerson appointed an Illinois Emergency Relief Commission in February 1932. Its purpose was to distribute state relief funded by a bond issuance. This came after private sources had been exhausted.

Henry Horner, a Democrat, was elected governor over Republican Len Small in 1932 by a vote of 1,930,330 to 1,364,043. Governor Emmerson had been sixty-eight years old in 1932 when he had chosen not to seek reelection. Minor party candidates included Roy Burt, Socialist, 39,389 votes; Leondies McDonald, Communist, 12,466; J.E. Procum, Socialist-Labor, 2,986; and W.W. O'Brien, Independent, 1,182. Horner, a former Cook County probate court judge, had a reputation for integrity. He enjoyed the backing of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. When he became governor he was somewhat of a novelty in that office in that he was a native of Cook County, a bachelor, and a Jew.

When Franklin Roosevelt was sworn into office on March 4, 1933 most states had either suspended the operations of the banks in their jurisdictions or had allowed them to remain open but operating on very limited bases. This had been done to prevent bank runs in which large numbers of customers descended upon tellers' windows and demanded their deposits in full and in cash. Such occurrences quickly drove banks out of business. Two days after his inauguration Roosevelt closed all banks nationwide for four days by presidential proclamation. Then a special session of Congress on March 9 enacted the Emergency Banking Act. Essentially it gave federal backing to those banks the U.S. Treasury Department allowed to reopen. This bold step revitalized public confidence in the nation's banking system, a fundamental foundation for the economy itself.

Unlike most Republicans who considered the federal government's role to be that of a somewhat distant referee, Roosevelt New Deal Democrats intended to be players in making the economy work. When Roosevelt and his "brain trust" first came into office their initial intention was to limit production in order to meet real needs in both industry and agriculture.

The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) were both enacted in the spring of 1933. The NIRA set up an authority whose job it was to bring in representatives from management and labor in the various industrial fields, negotiate production goals to meet real anticipated consumption needs, and structure reasonable work hours and wages. The AAA was a program by which farmers were paid not to grow excessive crops or raise unneeded livestock. Reduced production was designed to increase prices. The NIRA, which met with only limited success, was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the middle of 1935. The AAA, which did go a long way towards restoring worth to the American farmer, was struck down in early 1936.

More immediate human needs were addressed by other programs enacted in the spring of 1933. The Farm Credit Administration consolidated federal measures designed to prevent foreclosures and expanded resources made available. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enlisted young men from relief families and employed them mostly in open air projects such as reforestation, flood control, and soil conservation. By the time this program ended in 1942 some 2,750,000 had been employed in nearly 1,500 camps across the country. The Federal Emergency Relief Act provided huge sums to fund relief efforts at state and municipal levels nationwide. Portions of these funds were handed out without restraint while others were tied to a ratio of in-kind contributions by the recipient state or municipal government. Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's close friend and advisor and old New York State relief administrator, was named to head this project.

When the NIRA first had been enacted $3,300,000,000 for public works projects had been added to it at the last minute. The Public Works Administration (PWA) was formed to administer these funds. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was put in charge. Ickes, a progressive Republican who had headed a committee of like-minded members of his party who had supported Roosevelt in 1932, was a meticulous administrator who abhorred waste and saw projects through to their completion. The ultimate result was a vast number of very useful public works projects. On the downside careful administration caused fewer people to be put to work fast enough to invigorate the economy sufficiently.

Politics played a significant role when it came to federal relief funding for Illinois. Throughout the relief period Illinois received generous allotments when compared to the other states. Chicago in particular was a major beneficiary. Mayor Anton Cermak had backed Henry Horner for governor in 1932. Cermak died on March 6, 1933, the victim of an assassin. The Chicago City Council chose Ed Kelly as his replacement. Kelly shared power with Patrick Nash, the Cook County Democratic Party chairman.

Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed close working relationships with big city mayors who were known to be able to deliver large blocs of voters. Roosevelt and Kelly quickly forged an alliance. Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's close personal advisor and often times emissary, saw to it that the Kelly-Nash machine had more than its fair share of federal relief funds to dispense to the needy. Hopkins bypassed the governor and had his hand-picked administrator distribute federal Illinois Emergency Relief Commission monies from a headquarters office in Chicago.

Governor Horner's chief advocate in the Roosevelt administration was Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior and administrator of the PWA. Ickes had been a longtime Chicago resident and a progressive advocate politically. His sympathies were with Horner rather than Kelly and Nash.

As the midterm 1934 Congressional elections approached the Roosevelt administration was reevaluating its strategy. Clearly the New Deal was not offering substantial comfort or hope to those Americans occupying the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Millions were turning to more radical leftist leaders. Huey Long of Louisiana would tax the wealthy in order to provide each and every family a homestead worth $5,000 and an annual income of $2,500. Father Charles Coughlin of Detroit advocated socializing industry and banking. Dr. Francis Townsend of California had a plan to provide every unemployed American over age sixty $200 a month for the rest of their lives. Radio addresses expounding these proposals enthralled many. Huey Long in particular was a master of oratory.

The 1934 election gave the Democrats large majorities in Congress and signaled a demand for expanded reform legislation. The first of these new initiatives was the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which was authorized on April 8, 1935. With this initiative the federal government ended its participation in the dole. Those indigent and unable to work became the responsibility of state and local relief efforts. The WPA on the other hand provided jobs for the able-bodied unemployed. Harry Hopkins was the new WPA chief. Over 1935-1941 approximately $11,365,000,000 was spent on some 250,000 public works projects across the county. Project scopes ranged from municipal airport to state park footpath construction. A little over twenty percent of these funds was spent to employ white collar workers. At the community level thousands of writers, actors, artists, musicians, and historians found WPA work.

The Rural Electrification Administration was established on May 11, 1935. It provided loans to rural cooperatives which were formed to provide power plants and extend electrical lines to rural areas thus far not served by private power companies. Oftentimes WPA labor was provided for this purpose at little or no charge.

The National Labor Relations Act was made law on May 16, 1935. It provided for a National Labor Relations Board with the power to supervise elections for or against union representation. Additionally it could compel employers to bargain with unions in good faith. This represented an unprecedented gain for organized labor.

The National Youth Administration was created within the WPA on June 6, 1935. Under it high school and college students were put to work at their respective institutions in such jobs as typists, library assistants, and tutors. This allowed many to remain in school and out of the labor market. At this same time funding for the CCC was doubled.

The Social Security Act of August 14, 1935 was described by Franklin Roosevelt as his "supreme achievement." On a permanent basis it provided for an old age pension, unemployment benefits, and care for dependent mothers and children, the crippled, and the blind. For the first time in this nation's history a significant number of Americans were provided a safety net. If someone lost a job, became too old to work, or lost the ability to walk or see, some provision would be made for them. If they died and left behind dependent widows and children, they too would receive benefits.

In the 1936 election the Kelly-Nash machine put forward a candidate to challenge Governor Horner in the primary. Roosevelt offered Horner a federal judgeship if he chose not to run. This incensed the sitting governor who went on to win in the general election as well as the Democratic primary. Nationally Franklin Roosevelt defeated Republican Alfred Landon by a popular vote of 27,752,869 to 16,674,665.

Emboldened by his landslide and piqued by a series of decisions which had hamstrung many of his programs and in some instances had outlawed them entirely, Roosevelt attacked the Supreme Court early in 1937. He proposed legislation that would have allowed him to appoint up to six additional members to that body. After influential members of his own party strongly objected to this plan as an affront to the Constitution and after Joseph Robinson, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate and a key floor operative, died at the height of the debate, the president agreed to abandon his scheme. The threat itself had served Roosevelt's purposes. Shortly after his proposal had been made two swing justices began consistently siding with their more moderate colleagues in upholding New Deal legislation.

Although the White House was weakened somewhat in Congress by its unsuccessful struggle with the Supreme Court, later in 1937 it was able to push through two additional major New Deal measures. The Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act helped migrant families find housing and helped provide basic medical and dental care. Over 1937-1944 some 870,000 marginal farm families received short-term rehabilitation loans totaling over $800,000,000. Between 1937 and 1946 another $260,000,000 was loaned to 41,000 such families on a forty-year basis at three percent interest per annum. These long-term loans offered tenant farmers and sharecroppers escape from virtual indentured servitude. Often for the first times in their lives these farmers found themselves working for their own futures.

The Wagner-Steagall National Housing Act, approved September 1, 1937, set up the United States Housing Authority (USHA) within the Department of the Interior. Its purpose was to establish public housing construction guidelines and to make loans for the same through local housing authorities. Before 1941 the USHA loaned over $750,000,000 to construct 161,162 units at 511 projects across America.

In Illinois the year 1937 is best remembered for the violent strike at Republic Steel. On Memorial Day of that year some 1,000 strikers demanding recognition of their union marched on the Republic plant at Chicago. A double line of policemen held them back. The sequence of subsequent events is not entirely clear. It is known that ten strikers were shot dead while thirty others suffered gunshot wounds. Three policemen required overnight hospital care but none of their injuries had been the result of gunfire. A congressional investigation concluded that the Chicago policemen involved clearly had overreacted. It was not until 1942 that Republic Steel and the nation's other smaller steel companies signed their first contracts with the United Steelworkers of America.

The final New Deal measure was the Fair Labor Standards Act which became law on June 25, 1938. By its provisions the minimum wage was set at twenty-five cents an hour and the work week was forty-four hours. No goods could be transported across state lines if they had been produced in whole or in part by children under age sixteen. A wage and hour division was established within the Department of Labor to supervise enforcement.

The worst of the Great Depression in terms of employment, industrial production, and wages was over by the end of 1932. The years 1933-1935 experienced a maddeningly slow but steady improvement in all three areas. From the spring of 1936 to the fall of 1937 all three areas brightened significantly. Then the economy backslid into recession. But recovery came in the summer of 1938 largely due to government spending. As the economy recovered world order deteriorated.

Japan had invaded Manchuria back in 1931 and by 1937 it had consolidated its gains in the north of China and was advancing to the south. The U.S. refused to recognize these Japanese conquests but was unwilling to engage in open confrontation. In Europe the situation was even more grave. On March 16, 1935 Hitler denounced German disarmament as required by the Versailles Treaty and at the same time inaugurated conscription. A year later he stationed troops in the demilitarized Rhineland. Austria was taken over by a Nazi government in March of 1938 and subsequently virtually annexed by Germany. Great Britain and France capitulated to Hitler's demands on September 30 when they signed the Munich Pact which ceded to Germany the German-speaking Sudeten Province in Czechoslovakia. By mid-March 1939 German troops had occupied Prague. The world was stunned on August 23 when Hitler and Stalin agreed to a nonaggression pact. Each was aware that the other pragmatically was buying time.

In short order Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and on September 28 Germany and the Soviet Union negotiated a new treaty by which they divided Polish territory between themselves. Two days after Poland's invasion Great Britain and France declared war on Germany in accordance with their mutual assistance treaty with the Polish government. Thus the Second World War began. German armies swept into Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940 and the blitzkrieg was released on Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and northern France on May 10. By the end of May the Allied armies had collapsed along the western front and thousands of British and French troops frantically were being evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk in the north of France.

In the U.S. the words "isolationist," "neutrality," and "nonintervention" had been used to describe the sentiments of a majority of its citizens. Most had come to believe that American participation in the Great War had been a tragic mistake. Losses had been bitter and gains unclear. If the world chose to embroil itself in yet another futile slaughter oceans away from her own shores, it was not America's responsibility to again sacrifice her precious sons.

The president disagreed. Japan threatened to control the Asian continent, and Germany all of Europe. Totalitarian dominance over most of the world was unacceptable. Roosevelt had succeeded in saving the American economy from ruin and in the process he had taken pains to preserve its democratic institutions intact. Like it or not the U.S. was very much a part of the world. Economic, political, and social forces abroad did affect those at home. As the world's leading democracy America was obliged to help like-minded peoples elsewhere. Gradually the president was able to sway other American leaders and the American people, especially as events unfolded worldwide. One of the first steps taken in that direction was a joint resolution passed by Congress on August 27, 1940 which authorized the president to mobilize the National Guard.

The United States proceeded to spend its way towards economic recovery as it geared up to aid Great Britain in its fight for survival. When Japan struck America at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the United States formally entered World War Two and in so doing fully committed its resources to that effort. At that point there was no question as to the demise of the Great Depression in this county. For Americans the new challenge was to defeat fascism worldwide, a goal for which the outcome was altogether uncertain.

Selected Bibliography

T. H. Watkins's The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America (New York: Owl Books, 2000) is one of the more recent scholarly contributions. It presents vivid glimpses of people whose lives were upturned by their times. Frederick Lewis Allen's Since Yesterday: the Nineteen-Thirties in America, September 3, 1929-September 3, 1939 (New York: Perennial Library, 1986) is a most readable account of the Great Depression era. Originally published in 1940 this journalistic narrative is both informative and entertaining. Studs Terkel's Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (New York: New Press, 2000) first was printed in 1970. It provides personal recollections of a cross-section of Americans who lived through the period.

Most Illinois-specific scholarship on the subject is found in somewhat obscure journal articles, doctoral dissertations, and hard-to-find monographs. Exceptions are Lizabeth Cohen's Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), Thomas B. Littlewood's Horner of Illinois (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969), and Herman R. Lantz's People of Coal Town (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958). Robert P. Howard's Mostly Good and Competent Men (Springfield: Institute for Public Affairs, University of Illinois at Springfield, 1999) capsules the administrations of Governors Emmerson and Horner. David J. Maurer's "Unemployment in Illinois During the Great Depression" appears in Donald F. Tingley's (editor) Essays in Illinois History, In Honor of Glenn Huron Seymour (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968).