The Great Depression escape
Seventy summers ago, the notion grew that maybe, just maybe, the Great Depression would not last forever. In the four months after the start of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency in March 1933, factory production almost doubled. Confidence in FDR's New Deal prompted an uptick in employment. Stock prices climbed, too, thanks to what brokers called "the Roosevelt market." That spring in Chicago, Will Rogers toured the amazing exhibits of a world's fair that was soon to open. "You can see the whole thing for 50 cents," the humorist told his readers, "and the way this Roosevelt is going, by then we will have the 50 cents."
Sure enough, by mid-summer millions of Americans had scraped up the change for a round of escapist gawking at the Windy City's Century of Progress Exposition, the first of several such spectacles across the country during the 1930s. People in that decade would turn to many Depression palliatives--radio, movies, hand-cranked phonograph players--but none more extravagant than the great fairs, which, according to historian Robert Rydell, "took the nation by storm."
The biggest news of that July had FDR embracing inflated money--a "bombshell" that caused Britain's prime minister to express "the most bitter resentment" against the new president. But what stirred supper-table talk across America was the Chicago fair--its art, its technology, and a midway that featured what Billboard called "nude shows to satiation."
In a fake cabaret on the fair's "Streets of Paris," dancer Sally Rand powdered herself completely white and descended a set of velvet steps, shielded only by her long blond hair and two ostrich-feather fans. Little girls as far away as New York were impressed. Skipping rope, they sang: "Sally Rand / has lost her fan / Give it back / you nasty man!"
Minus clothes, a cave couple got married amid the rearing and snorting of mechanical dinosaurs in "The World a Million Years Ago." The license to undress--"the rout of the Puritans," one observer hailed it--came when a court dismissed a visitor's indecent-exposure complaint. "Some people," the judge said, "would want to put pants on a horse."
Shrunken heads. Not every stare went to the naked. Grant Wood's new painting, American Gothic, drew almost as much attention as the dancer who boasted that "the Rand is faster than the eye." Other attractions included shrunken heads, George Washington's wooden teeth, Midget Village and its "60 Lilliputians," the Lake Michigan landing of 24 flying boats from Mussolini's Italy, and a man who swallowed and regurgitated a live mouse.
Promoters proudly declared the fair open to black visitors as well as whites. But most African-Americans who landed jobs wound up shining shoes or tending washrooms. Several worked as targets in the African Dip, a midway frolic in which a customer's well-thrown ball dropped a caged black man into a pool of water.
More uplifting was the fair's vision of life after the Depression. The "House of Tomorrow" included a dishwasher, air conditioning, and a garage with spaces for a car and an airplane.
Near Sally Rand's show stood Martin Couney's lifesaving exhibit, "All the World Loves a Baby." Since 1898, the pediatrician had pioneered the care of premature infants, raising several thousand in publicly displayed incubators at summer fairs. Tickets paid for nurses and equipment. In Chicago, most of the tiny babies grew enough to go home in three months.
America's recovery was not as swift. In mid-July, stocks fell 20 percent, the Roosevelt market's first big tumble. Not until 1939's buildup to war would the Depression start to fade. That year, dreamers at the New York World's Fair envisioned homes with room for two airplanes.
This is the seventh in a series of monthly reports marking the 70th anniversary of U.S.News & World Report.
This story appears in the July 28, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.