Behind The Scenes: Two New Deals
NON-BORING HISTORY Exploring The Great Depression, FDR's New Deal, and US History Through One Small Town
How Long Is This Post? About 6, 000 words, 30 minutes. I didn’t mean it to be so long, but . . Historian.😬
Dear Nonnie Friend,
I hope you enjoyed my interview with Dr. Richard Walker of the Living New Deal. But if your week was as crazy as mine, and this post passed you by, no worries. As a Nonnie, a paid subscriber, you can read any of my posts at your convenience, and as you're inclined: No tests, no requirements. It's all on the Non-Boring History website.
I have saved a great New Deal story just for you, and I also write today about one big reason we're all teaching history badly in the States, and why that matters a lot. But first . . .
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A New Deal for Carbon Hill
UK readers, please note: A US city can be as small as a village. That’s the case here.
In September, 1937, Carbon Hill, Alabama, entered a beauty contest. Civic leaders nominated their hardscrabble town in a coal mining district in hilly northern Alabama for a State “City of Progress” award.
In their letter, leaders boasted of how their city had been transformed in the last few years.
Six years earlier, most roads in Carbon Hill were still unpaved dirt, with no gutters, or sidewalks. As middle-class people began to install indoor flushing toilets (although most people in town, being poor, still relied on outdoor privies), the city had no sewers to collect the waste, or sewage plants to process it. So fancy loos drained into ditches on the sides of the hilly dirt streets, the letter explained, “which caused a very offensive odor.”
I’ll bet it did, and I’ll also bet the problem was biggest in the middle-class part of town, where the only owners of flushing loos lived.
The mostly poverty-stricken population also had to deal with poop. They suffered diarrhea, dysentery, and even typhoid (this last disease was only contained by vaccinations). They were also tormented by mosquitoes, spreading malaria through a sick and poorly-fed community, and reducing resistance to other diseases.
And then the Great Depression hit. By 1931, city bigwigs wrote, Carbon Hill was “on absolute economic bottom.”
Local coal mines shut down in the Depression, they wrote, destroying 75% of the city’s economy. Both of the town’s banks closed, taking middle-class savings with them (Before FDR, the federal government did not insure bank deposits.) The value of Carbon Hill houses and land had crashed, and so had the city’s tax income. Notice the letter-writers’ revealing middle-class concern for property.
And as for Carbon Hill's working-class people? They were in dire straits. The rapid growth of the US economy, thanks to their efforts, had turned into a dramatic crash that wasn't their fault at all. And they had been paid far too little to save for a rainy day: They hadn’t savings to lose.
From a total population of 2,519, four hundred of Carbon Hill’s people were on local relief, inadequate aid to the unemployed, because, before FDR, there was no national unemployment insurance. Local government in 1931 employed these people in city public works projects as best it could, but, the letter implied, this hadn’t been enough to support unemployed men and their families.
Hanging in the air of Carbon Hill in 1931, along with the mosquitoes, was this question: How long could this town and its people go on without outside help? This was a question repeated in small towns and large cities across America in the early 1930s.
This story threatened to end in rebellion. But it didn't. And curiously, Carbon Hill, like much of America, not only survived the Thirties, but emerged cleaned up. Why this should matter to anyone else, and especially today, is the bottom line of today’s story. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal transformed the United States, from Washington DC to the smallest towns. Sure, FDR's massive public works programs didn’t end the Great Depression. World War II did that. But most Americans were more than happy that the federal government provided work building infrastructure, and for the products of that work: A nation mired in fear and misery was deeply relieved to see light at the end of the tunnel.
Today, most Americans “remember” the New Deal only as that thing that Franklin Roosevelt did a long time ago. At best, we think of Social Security, Roosevelt’s signature accomplishment, which is still with us, despite decades of its opponents chipping away at it, because it’s so darned popular. (Brit readers? NHS, same thing.)
At worst, most Americans who hear “New Deal” shudder to recall being forced at school to memorize a bunch of “alphabet agencies” (CCC, WPA, PWA, etc.) Otherwise, they consider the New Deal, like FDR, dead and gone. In fact, that pretty much sums up America’s relationship with history: Back then. The olden days. Done.
This is not how historians think. So let me show why all this matters, by doing what historians do best, telling stories.
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