During the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted about a decade, shantytowns appeared across America as unemployed people were evicted from their homes. As the Depression worsened in the 1930s many looked to the federal government for assistance. When the government failed to provide relief, President Herbert Hoover was blamed for the intolerable economic and social conditions, so the shantytowns that cropped up became known as Hoovervilles. The highly unpopular Hoover was defeated in the 1932 presidential election by Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal recovery programs eventually helped lift the United States out of the Depression.
The Great Depression Sets In
The Great Depression was the most severe and enduring economic collapse of the 20th century, and included abrupt declines in the supply and demand of goods and services along with a meteoric rise in unemployment. 1933 is generally regarded as the worst year of the Depression: One-quarter of America’s workers—more than 15 million people—were out of work.
Multiple factors led to the Great Depression, including the U.S. stock market crash in October 1929 and the widespread failure of the American banking system, both of which helped destroy confidence in the nation’s economy.
Additionally, although the 1920s, also known as the Roaring Twenties, had been a decade of prosperity, income levels varied widely and numerous Americans lived beyond their means. Credit was extended to many so that they could enjoy the new inventions of the day, such as washing machines, refrigerators and automobiles.
As the optimism of the 1920s gave way to fear and desperation, Americans looked to the federal government for relief. However, the country’s 31st president, Republican Herbert Hoover, who took office in March 1929, believed that self-reliance and self-help, not government intervention, were the best means to meet citizens’ needs.
In his estimation, prosperity would return if people would simply help one another. And although private philanthropy increased during the early 1930s, the amounts given were not enough to make a significant impact. Many Americans in need believed the resolution to their problems lay in government assistance, but Hoover resisted such a response throughout his presidency.
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Hoovervilles Appear Nationwide
As the Depression worsened and millions of families lost their jobs and depleted their savings, they also lost their homes. Desperate for shelter, homeless citizens built shantytowns in and around cities across the nation. These camps came to be called Hoovervilles, after the president. Democratic National Committee publicity director and longtime newspaper reporter Charles Michelson is credited with coining the term, which first appeared in print in 1930.
Hooverville shanties were constructed of cardboard, tar paper, glass, lumber, tin and whatever other materials people could salvage. Unemployed masons used cast-off stone and bricks and in some cases built structures that stood 20 feet high.
Most shanties, however, were distinctly less ambitious: Cardboard-box homes did not last long, and most dwellings were in a constant state of being rebuilt. Some homes were not buildings at all, but deep holes dug in the ground with makeshift roofs laid over them to keep out inclement weather. Some of the homeless found shelter inside empty conduits and water mains.
Life in a Hooverville
No two Hoovervilles were quite alike, and the camps varied in population and size. Some were as small as a few hundred people while others, in bigger metropolitan areas such as Washington, D.C. and New York City, boasted thousands of inhabitants. St. Louis, Missouri, and Seattle, Washington, were home to two of the country’s largest and longest-standing Hoovervilles.
Whenever possible, Hoovervilles were built near rivers for the convenience of a water source. For example, in New York City, encampments sprang up along the Hudson and East rivers. Some Hoovervilles were dotted with vegetable gardens, and some individual shacks contained furniture a family had managed to carry away upon eviction from their former home.
However, Hoovervilles were typically grim and unsanitary. They posed health risks to their inhabitants as well as to those living nearby, but there was little that local governments or health agencies could do. Hooverville residents had nowhere else to go, and public sympathy, for the most part, was with them.
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Even when Hoovervilles were raided by order of parks departments or other authorities, the men who carried out the raids often expressed regret and guilt for their actions. More often than not, Hoovervilles were tolerated.
Most Hoovervilles operated in an informal, unorganized way, but the bigger ones would sometimes put forward spokespersons to serve as a liaison between the camp and the larger community. St. Louis’ Hooverville, built in 1930, had its own unofficial mayor, churches and social institutions. This Hooverville thrived because it was funded by private donations. It maintained itself as a free-standing community until 1936, when it was razed.
Although a common factor among Hooverville residents was unemployment, inhabitants took any work that became available, often laboring at such backbreaking, sporadic jobs as fruit picking or packing. Writer John Steinbeck featured a family who lived in a California Hooverville and sought farm work in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” published in 1939.
In addition to the term “Hooverville,” President Hoover’s name was used derisively in other ways during the Great Depression. For example, newspapers used to shield the homeless from the cold were called “Hoover blankets,” while empty pants pockets pulled inside out—demonstrating no coins in one’s pockets—were “Hoover flags.”
When soles wore out of shoes, the cardboard used to replace them was dubbed “Hoover leather,” and cars pulled by horses because gas was an unaffordable luxury were called “Hoover wagons.”
Tensions between destitute citizens and the Hoover administration climaxed in the spring of 1932 when thousands of World War I veterans and their families and friends set up a Hooverville on the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.
In June, many of the so-called Bonus Army marched to the Capitol to request early payment of the government bonuses they had been promised for their military service—money that would have alleviated the financial problems of many families.
The government refused to pay, citing Depression-era budgetary restrictions. When most of the veterans refused to leave their shacks, Hoover sent in U.S. Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur to evict the Bonus Army.
MacArthur’s troops set fire to the Hooverville and drove the group from the city with bayonets and tear gas. Hoover later claimed that MacArthur had used excessive force, but his words meant little to most of those affected.
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Hoover Out, Roosevelt In
Hoover also received criticism for signing, in June 1930, the controversial Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which imposed a high tariff on foreign goods in an effort to prevent them from competing with U.S.-made products on the domestic market. However, some countries retaliated by raising their tariffs, and international trade was hampered. Between 1929 and 1932, the value of world trade declined by more than half.
By 1932, Hoover was so unpopular that he had no realistic hope of being re-elected, and Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York won that year’s presidential election in November by a landslide.
Roosevelt’s recovery program, known as the New Deal, eventually reduced unemployment, regulated banking and helped turn the ailing economy around with public works projects and other economic programs. By the early 1940s, with the economy rebounding during World War II, many Hoovervilles had fewer residents and most were torn down.
Hoovervilles and Homelessness. University of Washington: The Great Depression in Washington State.
Hoovervilles in Seattle. City of Seattle.
Americans React to the Great Depression. Library of Congress.