"The First 13 Days of 1933" by Rob Imes

by Rob Imes

(an essay written circa 1997)

The year 1933 marked a turning point in American history, and the first month of that year found the country in the midst of that change, in mid-step from unsteady earth into the unknown. The economy was the most pressing issue of the time (Martin 253) and the influence of the Depression could be felt in every aspect of life, most dramatically in politics where new leadership emerged to replace the unresponsive policies of the previous one.

Although elected President in November, Franklin Roosevelt remained Governor of New York until January 1st, when Lieutenant Governor Herbert Lehman was obligated to serve in that office for at least the next two years (New York Times, 1/1/33, p.1). Roosevelt was now a man without a post, and declined Hoover’s offer to agree with him on the manner in which the nation’s economy should be handled, that it could wait until the inaugaration in March. Their correspondence on the matter was made public by Hoover, possibly intending to depict Roosevelt as lacking the proper sense of urgency about the nation’s economic plight (New Republic, 1/4/33, p.198). President Hoover, now a lame duck, went fishing in Florida while Roosevelt “passed his last day as Governor bidding farewell to his associates and clearing his desk for his successor” (New York Times, 1/1/33, p.3). Both men, then, were moving from one position to another, making way for the next man, making plans for their futures. Lehman’s inaugaration was held the following day and broadcast live on New York radio. And the day following that, John Patrick O’Brien was inaugarated as the 101st mayor of New York City (Time, 1/9/33, p.27), his speech also carried over the air.

A headline in The New York Times on January 2nd read “Jobless in State Placed at 1,750,000” (p.3). “If the same ratio holds throughout the country,” The Nation said concerning the same survey, “there are probably 17,500,000 jobless in the United States today, for more than 10 per cent of the wage-earners of the country are residents of New York” (1/11/33, p.30). Not everyone was suffering, of course. The Nation acknowledged the “seventy-five Americans in these days of famine who still had net incomes of more than $1,000,000 each last year, and that the fortunate four at the very top averaged more than $9,500,000 each.” Taking a sarcastic tone, the writer continued, “after a hard-hearted and rapacious government had finished taxing them, there remained only an average of $8,123,178 for each.” This demonstrated the unfairness of the policies of the previous Republican administrations, which favored less federal management of the economy. The Nation writer concluded, “Four persons with nearly ten millions a year, and more than ten million persons tramping the streets -- these are the fruits of “rugged individualism”!” (Anderson 10). This critique was echoed at the beginning of the magazine’s next issue, when “a three-year survey of social conditions in the United States,” composed of individuals “selected by that arch individualist, Herbert Hoover” concluded that “American individualism has failed, and...the committee sees the necessity of some sort of social planning” (1/11/33, p.29). In the previous issue, an article on American Socialism, argued that “the last election[‘s]...general trend was definitely in behalf of policies which would use the agencies of government for the social control of industry and finance” (Dewey 8). These were not the policies of Herbert Hoover or his Republican predecessors; Roosevelt, however, responded to the message of the electorate and implimented greater federal control when he eventually took office, a few months later. Consequently, the country was more than ready for the change that came from two very different approaches to government.

However, in January 1933, it was uncertain whether Roosevelt would be successful in reviving the economy. “We may suddenly come into port -- or hit a reef,” The New Republic opined in the January 4th issue. “The really important consideration is not to make the business cycle work,” the article continued, “but to abolish it by reconstructing our economic machinery.” The talk of the time was often apocalyptic, utopian, or melodramatic, such words reflecting a feeling of being on a precipice, venturing out into the unknown, where age-old assumptions might no longer be valid. In Harper’s that month, Aldous Huxley opined that “Our uncertainty is not only, or fundamentally, an uncertainty about economic ways and means. It is a profound and more universal bewilderment. We cannot decide what we are or what we want to become” (p. 211). The buzzword of the day was “technocracy,” a scientific way of running the world which would banish the need for politicians or soldiers. Through “quantitative analysis of social phenomena... it becomes possible to say with considerable definiteness what are the conditions whereby any arbitrary social condition may or may not be attained” (Harper’s, p.257). The New York Times listed a radio debate on “the pros and cons of ‘technocracy’” scheduled for Jan. 13th.

Not everyone who was doing well financially was free from suffering. The suicide rate was growing, “not always due to actual want,” an editorial explained, “but in some cases to apprehension that it is coming” (Harper’s, p.254). On January 9th, Time ran an obituary of “an oldtime tennis star” who died that week, “jumping from his fifth-floor Manhattan penthouse” (p. 38). Those who sought to profit from the sale of liquor during Prohibition also sometimes faced unpleasant ends, as was the case in another obituary on the same page. “Larry Fay, 44,” the death entry read, “Manhattan racketeer; of two bullets in his chest, one in his back; in his former speakeasy Casa Blanca, with three dimes in his pocket, in Manhattan.” The effects of the Depression are even felt here, as the obituary mentions that Larry was last seen with “a drunken doorman whose salary had just been cut from $100 to $60 a week.” The obituary concludes, “Fop, playboy, sinister character. ...was quick to turn an ambiguous penny at anything (liquor, milk, night clubs, etc.), was never convicted of a felony.” (The column next to these two entries, in what would be scandalous only fifteen years later, contains an advertisement for trips to the Soviet Union.)

If symbolism can be read into such events, if one can turn a minor suicide into a metaphor for the times, then surely the death of Calvin Coolidge on January 6th begs for interpretive treatment. How ironic that a man who was Roosevelt’s antithesis, and whose policies perhaps produced the circumstances that created the Depression, died the very year that his opposite took power. Indeed, it would be a full twenty years before another Republican would return to the Presidency. “I shall never forget,” Roosevelt said, only a few months away from his inauguration, “his generous and friendly telegram to me in 1920 when he defeated me for Vice-President.” The Depression, and later memory of it, kept Republicans from obtaining the Presidency for decades; Roosevelt would be able to use the Republican Depression, if he was able to overcome it, to strengthen his party. One contrast that can be cited from the times between Republican values of unregulated corporate enterprise and the Democratic value of some federal oversight, an idea inherited from Roosevelt, appears in a January 9th article in Time regarding the surprising appearance, after 25 years, of fish in the Mahoning River. This was surprising, the item notes, because “chemicals discharged into the Mahoning by the steel mills that line its banks for miles & miles normally kill all living things (p. 60).” No mention of environmental concerns or regulations appears in the article, marking it as a relic of an earlier age.

No aspect of American life was free to ignore the economic hard times in January, 1933. The entertainment industry, for example, had to make changes to accomodate the lowered spending ability of consumers. “Magazines which had been selling for 25 cents and 20 cents were forced down to 10 cents,” Time reported on January 9th, “[and] even then lost circulation among readers who had to balance entertainment against food” (p.50). Some magazines went down to five-cents to stay competitive. Even the new medium of television, which appeared to be imminent in 1931, was now seen as “premature...[and might be] discarded as a toy [if] tested under economic fire in the depression” (New York Times, 1/1/33, p.5). The most popular radio programs were, not suprisingly given the bleak mood of the times, comedy programs. “Radio’s big programs used to be preponderantly musical but now, according to Variety’s survey, comedians hold the first six places,” Time reported (1/9/33, p. 62). The article concluded: “Only in Canada is important preference given to radio’s most serious offerings: the New York Philharmonic Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Company. In the U.S. popularity count, the only one of these to be listed is the Philharmonic.” The New Republic, regarding the same survey in its January 4th issue, added, “This must prove something, but on the whole we had better leave it to a Canadian to say just what.” While the survey results may suggest that American listening tastes were less sophisticated than their Canadian counterparts, it may also suggest a greater need among Americans for cheerfulness during hard times. That was another message sent by the public that Roosevelt satisfied, soon becoming a popular radio personality himself with his “fireside chats,” the first one broadcast on March 12, 1933. Of course, as stated previously, confidence in Roosevelt had not yet been fully established in January. The New Republic, noting the difficulties of the challenges he faced, observed, “I think... that before he has been many months in office that happy-hearted smile so conspicuous in his pictures and so charming to those with whom he come [sic] in contact will be less frequent and spontaneous” (T.R.B. 239)

Although Time’s January 2nd issue had Roosevelt on its cover as their “Man of the Year,” the letters-page within opened with a round of reader complaints. Beneath the heading “Roosevelt & Legs,” five readers protested the magazine’s coverage of the President-elect’s handicap in a previous issue (p.2). Two passages in particular were repeatedly quoted by the outraged readers, one referring to “his shriveled legs,” another when “President-elect Roosevelt hobbled out of the White House.” The descriptions were denounced as “highly disrespectful” and exhibiting “utter cruelty” and “bad taste.” One reader accused the magazine of using Roosevelt’s paralysis as “a basis for ridicule.” The President of the Carnegie Institute remarked that “All through the campaign there has seemed to be a controlling spirit of courtesy in all the newspapers of the country... to refrain from any reference to Governor Roosevelt’s lameness, and the word which you have used -- ‘hobbled’ -- will give pain to Governor Roosevelt and all his friends.” The magazine’s editor responded that “it is not with any intention of paining or ...discomfiting the President-elect that Time occasionally refers explicitly to his crippled legs,” but it did so to accurately reflect reality. The editorial concluded, “Time will continue to regard Mr. Roosevelt’s legs as mentionable -- unless a great majority of Time readers commands otherwise” (p. 2-3). And, keeping their word, a mention of the President’s paralysis appeared in the next issue, regarding the ramps being built at the White House (p.23). Perhaps one of the reasons, then, that Roosevelt’s condition was not more visible was because Americans of that era, looking for hope in a depression, and valuing tastefulness and respect toward public figures, wanted it that way.

The first thirteen days of January, 1933 are a portrait of a world in flux, fascinating in retrospect, for we already know the outcome for the future the thinkers of that era were desperately trying to forsee, to prevent, or to create. The names of larger-than-life figures dwell there, larger than our own era’s names, populated by Churchill, Chaplin, Hitler, Stalin, Einstein, Lawrence of Arabia, Hemingway, and others who helped shape, for good or bad, what came after. But the first thirteen days of January offered most of all, as Huxley suggested, a question-mark, and an opportunity for those with vision, for good or ill, to provide an answer.

Works Cited

Anderson, Paul Y. “Shoebuttons for Huckleberries.” The Nation. 4 Jan. 1933: 9-10.

Dewey, John. “The Future of Radical Political Action.” The Nation. 4 Jan. 1933: 8-9.

Martin, Edward S. “Our Tussle with Machines.” Harper’s Monthly. Jan. 1933: 253-256.

T. R. B. “Washington Notes.” The New Republic. 11 Jan. 1933: 239-240.

Copyright © 2007 by Rob Imes.