Midpoint of History
They believed it to be the mid-point of all history. From that moment they could look back five thousand years and see the first historical record - the chronicle of mankind's journey towards an unknown destiny. They believed themselves to be fortunate not only because of medicines that could only have been dreamed of decades earlier but also because of new technologies, which would have made the most brilliant scientist of the previous era gasp in awe. Before them stood an era of optimism, or so they believed - desperate people who have seen the rough life are willing to stake anything on the uncertainty of a better world. If they looked back upon their own lives they could very well see a generation that had weathered the Great War - that nightmare world of strange foxholes and endless trenches where death and chaos ruled the muddy, gas-filled battlefields of western Europe. A generation of men had gone to war with each other and the machine that had long been kept deep inside the mind of man's ingenious scientists was finally let loose to show the world the might of the engine, of the machine gun, of the tank, of the airplane.
That time of trial and trouble had swiftly passed and the millions of bodies still stank the globe in a filth that, strangely enough, could be washed away only with more blood. But the stench was suppressed beneath the burgeoning communities and the grand ideals. The generation that had watched the dawn of the twentieth century, praying that it would not be another war-torn one, the generation that had to first face the horrors of modern battle continued to push forward, blocking away the memories, training their eyes on a peace that could eventually never be kept.
In 1928, Herbert Hoover proclaimed of the new decade about to dawn, "Given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years and we shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation." It was an optimistic statement, which as history has shown, was based on a house of lies. In this same speech, Hoover announced that "our exports are 58 per cent greater than before the war. Constructive leadership and cooperation by the Government have released and stimulated the energies of our people. Faith in the future has been restored. Confidence in our form of government has never been greater."
The thirties saw the advent of social security and unemployment insurance, hospitalization plans, the first cyclotron, sulfa drugs and the artificial lung, insulin-shock therapy, television, the five-day week and frozen foods. In the 1930s a nickel could buy a candy bar, a cup of coffee, or a magazine; a nickel could get you a subway pass, or give you a go at the slot machine. John Steinbeck, the highly acclaimed author wrote of the era:
Sure I remembered the Nineteen Thirties, the terrible, troubled, triumphant, surging Thirties. I can't think of any decade in history when so much happened in so many directions. Violent changes took place. Our country was modeled, our lives remolded, our government rebuilt, forced to functions, duties and responsibilities it never had before and can never relinquish.
The "violent changes" which Steinbeck mentioned came as a result of none other than the stock market crash in 1929. Wrote Dixon Wecter:
Upon this world of uneasy prosperity the first blow fell in late October. Like the sound of a gunshot which starts an Alpine avalanche, a minor panic on the New York Stock Exchange began on the twenty-third among stocks that speculators had pushed to fantastic heights. The next day, "Black Thursday," saw hysteria rampant. Brokers wept and tore off their collars trying to keep abreast selling orders; sight-seers jammed the Wall Street district, ogled the arrival of great bankers in their limousines before the House of Morgan, and under the rumor of mass suicide gathered to watch an ordinary workman on a scaffolding in morbid expectation of his plunge.
In the months that followed financial difficulties ravaged the nation. Gallows humor - like the one where a room clerk asks guests, "For sleeping or jumping?" - attempted to lighten spirits. John Steinbeck remembered the hard times, recounting the story of how he was forced to wash his laundry with soap made from pork fat, wool ashes, and salt. "It worked" he remembered, "but it took a lot of sunning to get the smell out of the sheets." Hard hit were the factory towns of New England. A touring writer, Louis Adamic recorded his findings:
In Lowell [Massachusetts] I saw shabby men leaning against walls and lamp-posts, and standing on street corners singly or in twos or threes; pathetic, silent, middle-aged men in torn, frayed overcoats or even without overcoats, broken shoes on their feet (in a town manufacturing shoes!), slumped in postures of hopeless discontent, their faces sunken and their eyes shifty and bewildered - men who winced and jerked queerly when they noticed me looking at them, and shuffled off uncertainly, wringing their hands in a mingling of vague desperation and or resentment at my gaze.
In the town of Lawrence, Adamic found a similar situation:
Men stood on curbs, wretchedness inherent in their every action and aspect; penniless men, most of them without any intelligent, objective idea of what was happening to them, what was going on in Lawrence or in the textile industry. One of them said to me, "I don't know nothing, only that I have no job. No job - no job," he repeated in a shrill, half-hysterical voice.