The lack of jobs created desperate carnivals of stunts and pleading. With the government refusing to address the crisis, Americans were left to their own considerable ingenuity. In New York City, a thirty-one-year-old mechanic asked a judge to let him break the law to work. Thomas Bell said he had been offered a job tending bar in a speakeasy, illegal in those days of Prohibition. “The missus and kids ain’t had a decent thing to eat in a week, only scraps of garbage,” Bell told the judge.
“I’m sorry for you,” said Judge Alfred C. Coxe, “but I cannot promise you immunity if you violate the law.”
In Los Angeles, a philanthropist named Louis Byrens mounted a “slave market” to auction off the services of jobless Angelenos. Bidders bought the services of a law student, a waitress, a truck driver, an electrician, a cook, a mason, a garage worker, and a stenographer for prices ranging from 331/3 cents to 50 cents an hour. But efforts like these were the exception; while eight workers were landing jobs at Byrens’s auction, hundreds of out-of-work men jammed the counter of the American Legion Employment Bureau in downtown Los Angeles, shouting and waving for attention when an occasional job opening was announced. The scene repeated itself daily: too many people scuffling and shouting in pursuit of too few jobs. Los Angeles, which was preparing to host the 1932 Olympic Summer Games, had—if the statewide rate was any guide—unemployment close to 28 percent.
One woman wrote the New York Times to suggest that homeowners should spruce up their houses to give decorators and tradespeople badly needed jobs. Another proposed that people who had steady jobs give their clothes away and buy new ones. In a similar vein, Hoover urged new-car buyers to place their orders early. “There is nothing that provides widespread employment more than automobile construction,” he said.
A Tudor sedan with Ford’s new V-8 engine cost about $450 in 1932. The nation’s per capita income was $400, and not a single state boasted a per capita income over $1,000. The per capita income of the District of Columbia, however, was $1,061, which perhaps accounted for the president’s difficulty in recognizing the hardship that gripped the nation.
Hoover’s willingness to ignore reality could be genuinely startling. In the fall of 1930, an apple surplus in the Pacific Northwest had prompted apple distributors to try a new marketing technique: they would offer apples by the box on credit to individuals who would sell them by hand, apple by apple, on city streets around the country. As if by magic, a desperate new profession bloomed. In New York alone, 6,000 men trudged to fruit distributors each morning, picked up boxes of apples on credit, and made for street corners with signs that advertised both their plight and their goods: “Unemployed. Apples 5¢.” At best, given a box of perfect apples, a man could pay the $1.75 they had cost him and take home $1.85 for the day. Then the International Apple Shippers Association, which had devised the program, raised the price per box to $2.25, reducing the potential profit by 50 cents. Some years later, Hoover wrote in the volume of his memoirs that dealt with the depression that the sudden appearance of the apple sellers had nothing to do with unemployment. Rather, it was the apple growers who used public sympathy for the unemployed to inflate their prices. “Many persons,” he contended, “left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.” He appears to have actually believed it.
Shoeshine boys—and men—appeared by the thousands with the same unnerving suddenness. So did door-to-door salesmen, with the result that the Fuller Brush Company was one of the few business models to improve during the depression.
The efforts of local governments to create jobs were equally haphazard. The suburban village of Larchmont, New York, in Westchester County, north of New York City, was accustomed to seeing businessmen board the commuter trains for city office jobs each morning. Now the crowds on the train platforms were sparse, and Larchmont put some of its unemployed to work clearing woods and vacant lots, burning brush, and sawing logs into cordwood. The outdoor work was considered healthy, and citizens with fireplaces could warm themselves with inexpensive firewood.
In nearby White Plains, the emergency work bureau arranged with local country clubs to have unemployed men work as caddies. At the exclusive Century Country Club, however, this arrangement lasted only as long as it took the club’s women golfers to realize that the elderly men and laborers carrying their golf clubs had no idea of the rules of the game. They talked at the tees and on the greens, tossed balls from the rough back onto the fairway, and didn’t know which clubs to offer. The women protested, and the system was suspended until the men had been properly trained in golf rules and etiquette. Golfers as a class were not ungenerous, however. St. Louis golfers donated so many of their out-of-fashion plus-four trousers, bloused at the knee, that the Citizens’ Committee Clothing Bureau appealed for donations of knee-high golf socks to complete the outfits.
Arizona revived gold prospecting as a job-creation tool. With dude ranch tourism dead in the depression, cowboys traded their ten-gallon hats and woolly chaps for working gear, loaded burros with picks, spades, and pup tents, and headed for the hills along with old-time prospectors hoping to find gold. California planned its own gold-mining revival. The mining committee of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce predicted jobs for 50,000 men once the mining process was refined to prevent hydraulic mine tailings from damaging farms. In the state of Washington, according to testimony before a House labor subcommittee, farmers and unemployed loggers had created jobs for themselves as firefighters by setting forest fires.
Hay fever sufferers in Illinois could thank the unemployment crisis for relief. Officials there deployed 8,000 men on highway roadsides to pull up ragweed as the August pollen season approached. Weed pullers in East St. Louis objected to the average $2 weekly they were being paid, and went on strike. In Missouri, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass company took back 650 employees it had laid off, gave them four hours’ work a week, and paid them in food and movie tickets. Miami, Florida, imposed a $1 tax on the city’s auto drivers in order to assist the unemployed, a measure expected to raise $100,000 a year. “All of it will go into the pockets of Miami’s six thousand unemployed,” said Mayor R. B. Gautier, failing to add that the money involved would amount to less than $1.40 per man per month.
A Needham, Massachusetts, woman divided her estate into garden plots so those without jobs could raise their own food. In Illinois, the International Harvester company marked off some of its property into half-acre “farms” for its unemployed. An appeal to New Yorkers to “adopt” needy families resulted in 550 adoptions, reducing the number of families on the rolls of the city’s Home Relief Bureau to 132,513. The Savannah, Georgia, welfare association asked fishermen who caught more fish than they could eat to donate the excess to feed people without jobs. A speaker at the garden meeting of the Women’s National Republican Club announced a plan to place baskets at Grand Central and Pennsylvania Stations in New York so that commuters with gardens could contribute vegetables and fruit to the city’s soup kitchens. Before his conviction for tax evasion the previous fall, gangster Al Capone had sponsored a soup kitchen in Chicago that fed 3,000 men a day. A jobless airplane mechanic who turned in a lost watch at the West 47th Street police station in New York was rewarded with a permanent place at the head of a charity food line. This was no small reward; the soup kitchen sponsored by William Randolph Hearst’s New York American at the north end of Times Square—one of eighty-two soup kitchens throughout the city—had a line that was regularly two blocks long, even though there was another Hearst-sponsored kitchen nearby, at the south end of the square.
Obviously, none of these sincere but paltry efforts stemmed the tide of unemployment or relieved the general suffering. The numbers of the jobless continued to rise. Almost 1.3 million Pennsylvanians were out of work in August 1932. St. Louis, with a population just over 800,000, had 125,000 on relief. Almost 200,000 New Yorkers lost jobs between January and October, putting the rolls of the jobless in the city at 985,034; one in seven city residents was on relief. On nationwide radio, nurse and social worker Lillian Wald pleaded for young women thinking of seeking their fortune in the city to stay home. Girls are “nearly starving here,” she said, blaming rosy scenarios in novels and movies for bringing a stream of hopeful young people to a city where a million of its own residents could not find work. Labor forecasters predicted that 13 million Americans would be out of work by winter.
Even those who had work had too little of it. With American industry operating at a fraction of its capacity—in 1932 U.S. Steel was producing 19.1 percent of the steel it was capable of making—many employees were working two days a week or less and were paid accordingly, as was the case in Birmingham, Alabama. Even at plants that were relatively busy, a share-the-work movement, conceived of by Hoover and business leaders that August, promised added deprivation to workers who were lucky enough to still have jobs. The plan, headed by Standard Oil of New Jersey president Walter C. Teagle, was supposed to create 1 million new jobs by cutting hours for those who were employed and giving those hours to workers who had been laid off. Sharing their jobs meant that workers shared poverty as well, all of them working and earning less, while employers were unaffected.
But some work was better than none—and none was more and more the case. One 1932 estimate placed the number of men, women, and children with no income whatsoever at 34 million, a figure amounting to almost 28 percent of the United States population.