U.S. History/1930s Culture


I have a lot of questions, sorry. I'm trying to be as historically accurate as possible in a personal project of mine (it's not for school but I can't find any other history sections here). I've tried Google searches but articles didn't really tell me what I was looking for. These questions are all concerning the early 1930s (before 1935), in a large urban setting (if that helps).

What was high school like? Were only the rich expected to go to university?

How did dating work between teenagers (although I'm well aware there was not exactly a separate teen culture then)?

Did teenagers frequent establishments like speakeasies? Did they drink or engage in pre-martial intercourse?

How prevalent was segregation between people of color and whites?

How did married women earn money, if at all?

How did well-off people earn their money (before Crash of 1929, besides the stock market)?

Was train hopping possible? Was it popular?

Were weddings much different from today?

Boy you pulled out all the topics here haven't you?  I will do my best with those I have knowledge of:

1.  High school offered the basic courses we see today (English, History, Geography, Math, Science, PE, woodshop, metal shop, band, and home economics for girls.)  Creative courses or specialized courses were virtually non-existent.  Classes like creative writing, interpretative writing, modern dance, ethnic studies, were unheard of.  The emphasis was on rote learning (learning by memory) and individual thinking or creative problem solving was discouraged.  University attendance was primarily a white student experience.  There were a few black universities but virtually all university students were white, Asian, or Middle-Eastern.  Black and Hispanic students were extremely rare.  As with today, university studies were expensive so it eliminated students from very poor backgrounds and financial aid (Pell grants and the like)were unheard of at the time.

2.  Dating was not greatly different from today.  Often times a first date would involve a chaperone who would accompany the girl to prevent any monkey business taking place.  But the mechanics of dating probably hasn't changed a great deal in the last two hundred years.

3.  Some teenagers did flock to speakeasies in the 1920s (they didn't exist after 1933 because alcohol sales were then legal with the passage of the 21st Amendment.)  But for many younger drinkers alcohol was standard fare on dates even though attendance at a speakeasy carried with it the risk of arrest and fines.  Prior to 1960--when the first oral contraceptive pill was introduced in America [Enovid-E] premarital sexual relations carried with it a huge risk of pregnancy.  And remember that prior to 1973 (Roe v. Wade) abortions were illegal in the United States so for girls the risk of unprotected sexual activity was very high, and remember in the 1920s and 1930s child birth out of wedlock did not have the social apathy that it has today.  A girl that got pregnant out of wedlock brought shame to her family for generations--especially in smaller towns where gossip was rampant.  So the number of girls engaging in pre-marital sexual was a fraction of what would be commonly seen today.  Girls that were "wild" or "bad girls" were generally allowing no more than kissing and petting.  In fact in the 1920s college "petting parties" were common on many college campuses where couples went there exclusively to 'feel one another up."  But actual sex was generally delayed until marriage.

4.  Segregation in the 1920s and 1930s was prevalent.  EVERYWHERE in the South and in MOST areas of the North blacks and whites used separate facilities.  This was known as the Jim Crow Era.  Most historians place the start of the Jim Crow Era in the late 1890s and extend it until the early 1970s following the assassination of Martin Luther King when laws became more common outlawing segregation.

5.  Most women that worked outside the home in the 1920s and 1930s worked as assistants, secretaries, telephone operators, nurses, teachers, or child/elderly care.  Virtually NONE owned or operated their own business, virtually NONE were corporate leaders or upper-management individuals.  

6.  In the 1920s most wealthy Americans made their wealth in business.  The 1920s was a very lucrative time for business owners in America.  New technology offered great amounts of wealth such as RCA, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, radio manufacturing, and related industries.  Also many acquired wealth through real estate booms in the south west and south east...especially Florida.

7.  If by "training hopping" you mean "riding the rails" in which unemployed or poor travelers illegally climbed on board an open box car and traveled without paying a fare, then YES this was done especially during the 1930s when the Great Depression forced migrant workers to find employment in distant cities.  Of course these individuals, if caught, went to jail, since it was illegal AND dangerous. More than one would-be traveler lost their leg or legs when they slipped and fell beneath the wheels of a fifty-ton boxcar.  But it was a common means of getting from Dallas to Houston without paying the standard travel fare.

8.  Probably the only difference between weddings then and today was the humble, and relatively inexpensive ceremonies held in the times past.  It won't really be until the 1960s and 1970s that over-the-top, outlandishly expensive weddings began to take place.  Wedding planners were unheard of in the early part of the 20th century and lavish gowns, expensive meals, and limitless champagne were reserved for the daughters of Mafia kingpins and senators children.

Hope these points help you out.


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Steve Anderson, MA


Any area of American History, EXCEPT military history or economic history, these are not strong points of mine. Areas of particular expertise include the assassination of John F. Kennedy, 19th century women's history, 1950s-1960s popular culture, 1920s, Colonial America, Jacksonian Era, migration west, immigration, ethnic history, presidential decisions, treaties, tariffs, causes and results of wars, and entertainment history since World War II (television, movies, and music.)


Twenty-five years of teaching Advanced Placement American History, Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in American History, thirty post-graduate hours in American History

Member of Phi Alpha Theta--The History Honor Society (November 2001), California Teacher's Association

American History Teaching Credential, Recognized by the University of Chicago as an Outstanding Educator

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