Depressing news- income inequality in America isn’t new.
Frigid winters during the Great Depression could be particularly cruel as the chasm between the toasty haves and the chilly have not’s grew wider.
Decked out in their luxurious Russian Lynx or Persian lamb fur coats, harsh winter was no problem at all for the well-to-do; struggling to pay for the winter coal delivery was a problem for many.
As income inequality becomes the defining issue in this country today, the stark division seen in Depression era advertising seems oddly familiar.
While hardship, hunger and human despair was haunting much of the country in 1930, the fortunate 1% were apparently living life large.
As banks were failing, home evictions rising, and breadlines at soup kitchens lengthening, winter meant only one thing to those with deep pockets – a winter vacation.
How the Wealthy Weathered Winter
Although it was the height of the Depression it was also, we learn in a December 1930 ad, “the height of the winter sports season” where Lake Placid attracted an elite selection of ski bunny swells.
Arriving at the plush resort in the Adirondack Mountains of N.Y. in their snazzy Studebaker Eights announced to the world they had arrived.
Clearly these play-bound fat cats schussing down the slopes as the economy spiraled downward, were part of the elite. That this ad ran in “Good Housekeeping” alongside helpful articles suggesting “budget saving meal tips” seems mind-boggling.
While everything was falling – industrial output, unemployment, wages, prices and human spirits, the rich need only worry about accidentally falling during a ski run.
“Flashing down the snow buttressed highways from Au Sable Forks toward Lake Placid, ride mainly those of means and discernment,” the ad explains as if it needed explaining, to those counting their every penny.
At a time when men re-sharpened and reused old razor blades and used 25 watt light bulbs to save electricity, few but those of means could afford a new car. When a Ford costing $495 was a pipe dream, a basic Studebaker starting at $1,395 was unthinkable.
“Even if you have your own chauffeur,” this Chrysler Imperial ad informs us, “you will want to do the driving.”
As rampant unemployment and poverty became more and more common, the wealthy lived in a world that remained insular, arrogant, and out of touch.
The folks in these advertisements, these owners of fine country homes, town houses and yachts, seem oblivious to the crumbling economy around them.
But then again so did their President.
In his December 2, 1930 message to Congress an optimistic but delusional President Herbert Hoover said “…that the fundamental strength of the economy is unimpaired.”
That December as the International Apple Shippers Association faced with a surplus of apples decided to sell them on credit to jobless men for resale at 5 cents each, the wealthy began packing their Louis Vuitton steamer trunks for their winter cruises.
Goodbye to All That
For those less sports-inclined, a winter cruise was a brilliant escape from harsh winter.
“Say Goodbye to All That,” cheers on the headline in this 1930 ad for French Line Cruises.
A sumptuous liner with its spacious salons and charming staterooms where nothing is lacking, would take you far away from wretchedness and misery and all that!
“Rackets and riveters cross town traffic and subways brownstone fronts with basement entrances conferences and conventions aren’t you fed up with them all?” the reader of the ad is asked.
Brother Can You Spare a Dime?
Who needed to be reminded of desperate men in threadbare suits selling apples on the street corner, hoboes and Hoovervilles?
“Now is the time when executives come back from lunch wondering why nothing tastes good anymore. Now is the time also when smart people give themselves a taste of good salt air and few weeks abroad,” tempts the French Line advertisement.
Assuming the reader of this ad which appeared in “Fortune” magazine has a chauffeur the copy goes on to say:
Seymour they say, ‘get out the trunks. We’re off on the vast deep’.. And presto! The moment they set foot on deck they’re in France!
Ask your travel agent about voyaging on France afloat…and as the skyline vanishes from view wave your hand sniff in the salt breeze and say Goodbye to all that!
Little White Lies
A secure job. a warm home, and food on the table; many during the Depression had already said goodbye to all that.
For members of the well-heeled class everything was aces!
Especially if you listened to one of their own, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon the banker, businessman, industrialist, and member of the prestigious and wealthy Mellon family.
In the same year these ads ran, Mellon responded to the dire economic times commenting: ”I see nothing in the present situation that is either menacing or warrants pessimism. During the winter months there may be some slackness or unemployment, but hardly more than at this season each year.”
That dynamic duo of Wall Street and Washington was personified by Andrew Mellon.
Regarded in the roaring 20s as the greatest Secretary of the Treasury since Alexander Hamilton, only one year after the crash he was mocked by middle-class children chanting:
Mellon pulled the whistle
Hoover rang the bell
Wall Street gave the signal
And the country went to hell
File This Under Let Them Eat Cake Department- The disconnect today between the have and have nots was brought into sharp relief when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross commented he didn’t understand why unpaid government workers are going to homeless shelters and food banks rather than taking out loans to pay their bills.
Copyright (©) 2019 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved
Insightful and nicely-written article–thank you. Ironically, one of my homeless friends has the last name Mellon–
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Very well-written piece. Income inequality is indeed a problem for the ages but stats show that it is getting worse and worse. The whole economic system is set up so that you make money by owning money and you have to pay up to be poor. I wrote an article recently about whether there’s a link between income inequality (measured using gini coefficient) and happiness (using cantril ladder). Even if the link doesn’t hold up, there is no doubt in my mind that less income inequality means better quality of life for the majority. Great article! https://adambolandblog.com/2018/04/05/is-there-a-relationship-between-income-inequality-and-happiness-on-a-national-scale/