Tennessee and the Great Depression: A Brief History

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Photo by Jeff Frazier for NSF

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the noble Duke Senior and his friends have been pushed out of their places, which took our Artistic Director’s imagination to the American Great Depression. Our country was beset with hard times in the 1930’s. So many people lost their homes, jobs and wealth. Others were challenged by greed and corruption. Frivolous comedies of the era, were designed to lift the general spirits, so we’ve set our “Forest of Arden” in an idyllic tent city outside of Nashville where peace and equality reign and everyone is a friend. The course of the play replaces despair with joy, idleness with song and dance, anger and frustration with love. 

The 1930’s were a time of resilience and progressive thinking for us. But it was also a time of great hardship and we believe it’s important to remember the past in order to look forward into the future. The following is a brief look at Tennessee and the Great Depression, an excerpt from our As You Like It Educator’s Guidebook.

Tennessee and the Great Depression: A Brief History
By Jillian Frame

What caused the Great Depression?
Considered the single-most devastating financial event in America’s entire history, the stock market crash of October 29, 1929 (also known as Black Tuesday) caused our country to go completely broke. World War I ended in 1918 and Americans celebrated throughout the next decade by purchasing lavish products like alcohol, household appliances, and newfangled contraption called an automobiles. Many people also poured their money into company stocks in an attempt to gain even more wealth. Much of the population adored the idea of the posh city life and moved away from the rural life. This, however, left very few people to maintain the farmland that supplied the country with livestock and crops needed for food and other necessities.

While the excessive life seemed like a good idea at the time, very few people realized, or
acknowledged,the fact that the stock market was becoming increasingly unstable. Americans continued spending money they did not have on products that were becoming more and more expensive to make. President Herbert Hoover went even so far as to tell the country to ignore these warning signs, spouting that the debt quickly engulfing the nation would pass within mere months. Once the stock market crashed, many Americans pointed fingers at Hoover and considered him as one of the primary causes of the disaster. He, in fact, grew so unpopular that the dilapidated, make-shift towns built by homeless populations were nicknamed “Hoovervilles” as a testament to his carelessness.

Tennessee, in particular,suffered from the agricultural neglect. While the end of WWI was,
indeed, a triumph, it also meant that goods like textiles, timber, and flour and mill products were no longer considered essential for immediate production. Prices dropped significantly. Farmers could no longer make enough money to maintain their land and equipment, therefore losing their livelihood. Additionally, the wave of factories, the allure of urban life, and the decrease in wages to the majority of the working class caused Tennessee to plummet further into poverty and disillusionment.

How did entertainment raise people’s spirits?
Battling starvation, poverty, a faulty government, and an uncertain future, the American
people needed a way to temporarily forget their troubles. Country music and the introduction of the blues from way down in Memphis infused the South and become a staple of its culture. The birth of jazz music provided people from all walks of life a chance to relax and become enveloped in beauty and joy that the Depression had indefinitely stolen. Film was also growing in popularity, especially with the 1927 phenomenon The Jazz Singer, the first film ever to use recorded audio dialogue, nicknaming it and all other films using the same technique thereafter as “talkies”. Charlie Chaplin even bent the weakened state of the economy to his advantage in his 1936 film Modern Times. In it, he mirrored the struggles factory workers faced, but in a comic light which provided audiences with the ability to laugh at their troubles, an escape no one realized they needed.

Charlie Chaplain  in Modern Times (1936)

Charlie Chaplain in Modern Times (1936)

How did the Tennessee get out of the Depression?
In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was running for president at the time, introduced a new set of laws which he promised would bring the country out of debt and misery. This set of laws was called the New Deal. Among the many laws that served to better the welfare of farmers, factory workers, and other poverty-stricken demographics, the following stood as several of the most notable acts of the New Deal:

Reforestation Relief Act: (established in 1933) provided jobs to 250,000 young men as a part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC worked in various ways, including roadway production and beautification,sanitation surveys, and museum development.

The Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA): (established in 1933) fulfilled its three
goals – “(1) to be effective, (2) to provide work for employable people on the relief rolls, and (3) to have a diverse variety of relief programs. FERA provided grants from the federal government to state governments for a variety of projects in fields such as agriculture, the arts, construction and education.” (Digital Public Library of America)

The Tennessee feraValley Authority Act: (established in 1933) increased Tennessee’s
economy and potential for regaining a higher standard of living exponentially by harnessing the power of local rivers. By building dams and electrical power plants, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) provided not only jobs to Tennesseans and environmental relief, but also a source for widespread electricity, expanding “to most of Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia. [ . . .] The dams also controlled floods [and] improved navigation [ . . . ] TVA developed fertilizers, taught farmers how to improve crop yields and helped replant forests, control forest fires, and improve habitat for wildlife and fish.” To this day, TVA still acts as the leading facilitator of electrical power to the majority of the Southeast. (Tennessee Valley Authority: http://www.tva.com/abouttva/history.htm)

The Glass-Steagall Act, formally entitled as the Banking Act of 1933: fine tuned the regulations and responsibilities of commercial banks and investment banks and acted as an emergency financial response and solution to the collapse of the 5,000 banks during the 1929 stock market crash.

Emergency Relief Appropriation Act: (established 1935) also provided thousands of jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which assisted in the building of national parks, recreational sites, schools, airports, and hospitals and through the Public Works Administration (PWA) which focused on the development and construction of public transit and roadways, including New York’s Triborough Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel Ironically, one the largest factors contributing to Tennessee’s climb out of the Great Depression was the arrival of World War II. Goods like wheat, cotton, and aluminum were highly sought after as supplies and Tennessee’s economy and standard of living began to flourish again. Due to the rehabilitating effects of the New Deal and the increase in agricultural, industrial, and electrical production in response to the demands of WWII, the South had finally regained its economic stability.

References and Resources

As You Like It will run through September 14th at Centennial Park in Nashville. More info here.

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