The Great Depression was a brutal era in America: brutal for the 15 million people who couldn’t find work, brutal for the farmers out west whose crops failed in the Dust Bowl, and for the up to 1.8 million people of Mexican descent who were rounded up and illegally deported in “repatriation drives.”
But even as many Americans struggled to survive, they still found ways to have fun. Here’s what people did to distract themselves from the deprivations of their daily lives during the Great Depression.
1. Watching Dance Marathons Where Contestants Danced Till They Dropped
Before reality television, Americans who wanted to see strangers do unusual or dangerous things for money and attention went to dance marathons. These marathons started in the 1920s as part of an endurance contest craze; but when the Great Depression set in, dance marathons became more than just a form of recreation for the contestants. As long as dancers kept dancing, they had food, shelter and the chance to win a cash prize (though as with reality TV, show-runners often rigged the contests to favor certain couples).
These marathons could last for days or weeks. Usually, dancers received a whopping 12 meals a day that they had to eat at chest-high tables on the dance floor. They also typically got a break for 15 minutes per hour, during which they might lay down on a cot and have a nurse attend to them or rub their feet. Because they had to stay moving for the other 45 minutes per hour, dancers learned to sleep while their partner held them up and dragged them across the dance floor. If a sleeping person’s knees touched the floor, the couple was disqualified, so dancers sometimes tied their wrists together behind their partner’s neck for extra security before going to sleep.
The fact that dance marathons could be physically dangerous was part of the reason people paid to see them in the first place, and it was also one of the reasons that they went out of fashion. By the late 1930s, dance marathons had faded in the wake of increased criticism and laws that banned them in many parts of the country.
2. Venturing into Haunted Houses
Halloween traditions like trick-or-treating, costume parties and haunted houses began during the Great Depression as a way to keep young people out of trouble. October 31 had long been a night for mischief-making, but after one particularly bad Halloween in 1933—in which hundreds of teenage boys around the country flipped over cars, sawed-off telephone poles and engaged in other acts of vandalism—many communities began to organize Halloween events for children and teens to dissuade them from causing this type of destruction.
Parents used their creativity to put together haunted houses without spending a lot of money. “Hang old fur, strips of raw liver on walls, where one feels his way to dark steps,” advised a 1937 party pamphlet on how to create a “trail of terror.” “Weird moans and howls come from dark corners, damp sponges and hair nets hung from the ceiling touch his face… Doorways are blockaded so that guests must crawl through a long dark tunnel.”
3. Lining Up to See People Sitting on Poles
Another 1920s endurance challenge that continued into the Great Depression was flagpole-sitting—i.e., sitting atop a pole for as long as possible. The man who started the trend was a Hollywood stuntman named Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly. In the summer of 1930, as many as 20,000 people came out to see Kelly eat, sleep and shave atop a 225-foot flagpole in Atlantic City for 49 days.
That same summer, children across the country briefly took part in a tree-sitting challenge where they tried to stay in a tree for as long as they could—one youth in southern California reportedly lasted 1,320 hours. Like Kelly, these kids came up with systems to bring food and other supplies up to their perch. Pole-sitting largely petered out after that summer, but didn’t completely disappear: in 1933, Richard “Dixie” Blandy set a record of 77 days atop a flagpole at the Chicago World's Fair.
4. Gaping at Students Swallowing Goldfish
Dance marathons and flagpole-sitting may have started in the 1920s, but the Great Depression has one very weird contest all to its own: goldfish-swallowing. The contest started at Harvard University in 1939 when some students bet a freshman $10 that he couldn’t swallow a live fish. On March 3, the freshman fulfilled his end of the bet by chewing and swallowing a live goldfish in the dining hall in front of a group of students and a reporter.
LIFE magazine picked up the story, and soon students at other colleges began to test how many live goldfish they could swallow. In less than a month, the record jumped to 42 goldfish (swallowed by a member of the class of 1942); and by the end of April, the record was 101. The fad also inspired students to try swallowing other things: college students swallowed five baby white mice in Illinois, 139 live angle worms in Oregon, an entire issue of the New Yorker in Pennsylvania and pieces of phonograph records at Harvard and the University of Chicago. These other swallowing challenges never caught on, and the goldfish-swallowing fad faded soon after it began.
5. Seeing High-Tech Hollywood Movies
The Great Depression was a largely successful decade for Hollywood. Tickets on average cost under a quarter for the whole of the 1930s, down from 35 cents in 1929, so spending time in the cinema was an affordable form of escapism for many.
The era's films were revolutionary, too: Those were the years in which the film industry fully transitioned from “silent films” to “talkies.” Hollywood began investing in new soundstages and movie concepts that could make the most of new sound technology, and this ushered in big-budget musicals with original songs like 42nd Street (1933) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). It was also the decade when Walt Disney released the first-ever full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
People also bought tickets to comedies with the Marx brothers, screwball rom-coms starring heartthrobs like Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant or melodramas like A Star Is Born (1937). And before Hollywood started enforcing the Hays Code in the summer of 1934 to keep movies “clean,” movie-goers could see Marlene Dietrich kiss a woman in Morocco (1930) and Barbara Stanwyck sleep her way to the top in Baby Face (1933). Film attendance did dip with the onset of the Great Depression, but with movies like these, the percentage of people who went to the movies on an average weekly basis never dropped below 40 percent.
6. Building Soap Box Cars and Racing Them
Soap Box Derbys started in the 1930s as a competition for kids that didn’t require a lot of money. In 1933, a journalist named Myron Scott noticed some kids in Dayton, Ohio, were racing in soap box cars they’d made themselves. He took some pictures of them and started helping them organize bigger races. By the end of the summer that year, these races were drawing up to 40,000 spectators.
The next year, Scott got Chevrolet to sponsor the first All-American Soap Box Derby for boys (girls couldn’t compete until 1971). After holding local races in the Midwest, the 34 winners of those races came to Dayton to compete for the title. The next year, the title race moved to Akron, where it’s been ever since.
7. Binging on the Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous
One of the time-honored traditions in American history is reading about the torrid lives of celebrities. For Depression-era Americans, this meant reading about “Cafe Society.” After Prohibition ended in 1933, former speakeasies in cities like New York turned themselves into chic restaurants and nightclubs filled with movie stars, musicians, rich people who hadn’t lost all their money yet, hangers-on who were trying to stay relevant and plenty of gossip columnists to record what all these people did there.
The ultra-wealthy Vanderbilts were an excellent source of Cafe Society drama. Photographers followed bachelor Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Jr. to nightclubs to snap photos of him romancing a series of glamorous women. Meanwhile, gossip columnists wrung their hands over the supposedly decadent lifestyle of his younger half-sister, Gloria “Mimi” Baker, who was already visiting nightclubs and gambling casinos when she was 15. Family dramas outside of the club scene also made the news: in 1934, newspaper readers gawked at the sensational custody trial over 10-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt.
Newspapers dubbed Gloria “the poor little rich girl,” a moniker they also used to describe young Cafe Society members Brenda Frazier and Barbara Hutton. In 1938, the 17-year-old Frazier was known as the “No. 1 Glamor Girl” and appeared on the cover of LIFE ahead of her debutante ball. Readers also followed the troubled love life of Hutton, heiress to $45 million dollars of the Woolworth fortune, who married and divorced two European royals between 1933 and 1937. Her response to a 1939 protest by Woolworth clerks suggests she never quite realized the depth of her privilege as a Depression-era millionaire: “Why do they hate me?” she reportedly asked. “There are other girls as rich, richer, almost as rich.”
8. Creating Real Estate Empires in Monopoly
The fact that a board game called Monopoly became popular during the Great Depression is ironic in itself, but it’s even more ironic given the game’s backstory. The game’s inventor, Elizabeth J. Magie, first patented it in 1904 as the Landlord’s Game to teach players about the evils of capitalism. And for a few decades, it did.
But then in the 1930s, another man began selling a board game based on her idea. In 1935, he sold it to the struggling Parker Brothers company, which then began selling it as Monopoly. The game was a huge success among Great Depression families because it was a relatively cheap form of entertainment that they could use over and over (in addition, it may have served as a form of wish fulfillment for those who knew they’d never join Cafe Society). But it also erased Magie’s role as the game’s originator. So even though Parker Brothers earned enough from Monopoly to save itself from bankruptcy, Magie only ever made $500 off of the Landlord’s Game.
9. Reading the Comics and Complaining About How Political They Were
Every Sunday, kids around the country grabbed the funny pages to read about the adventures of Dick Tracy the detective, Flash Gordon the Yale polo player and Little Orphan Annie, the plucky young girl with surprisingly pro-business, anti-labor views. In one 1933 comic, Annie cheerfully exclaimed: “Leapin’ Lizards! Who says business is bad?” If ever Annie needed help on an adventure, she was saved by “Daddy” Warbucks, a benevolent millionaire whose name literally indicated he was a war profiteer.
Annie’s politics reflected those of her creator, cartoonist Harold Gray. The popular comic had made Gray incredibly rich since he started it in 1924 so by 1934 he was earning a cozy $100,000 a year (nearly $2 million in 2019 dollars). Enraged by the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in ‘32, Gray used his strip to rail against unions and the New Deal. The comic was popular among children because of little Annie’s big adventures, but not all adults were fans of her politics. In 1935, The New Republic denounced Annie as “fascism in the funnies.”
10. Tuning in to Hit Radio Shows About Masked Avengers
Radio was an important source of news and entertainment during the Great Depression. Over the decade, the number of American households with radios grew from roughly 40 to 83 percent.
Every week, Americans tuned in to follow the masked vigilantes in The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet or laugh along with comedians like Gracie Allen and George Burns. One of the most popular sitcoms was the objectively racist Amos ‘n’ Andy, which introduced blackface minstrelsy tropes to the radio. Kids in particular listened to Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie—two shows inspired by the popular comics—and mailed in Quaker Oats box tops or Ovaltine seals to join each show’s secret club.
Americans also tuned in to hear about current events, the latest baseball scores or juicy Hollywood gossip. In 1933, FDR revolutionized the way presidents communicated with Americans by talking directly to them through the radio. During his “fireside chats,” as they became known, he talked about issues like the banking crisis, the New Deal and the Dust Bowl.