Researching NYC in the early 1930s

The book I’m working on is set in New York City in the 1930s. It’s the biggest, most ambitious book I’ve ever undertaken because I’m trying to write a snapshot of the city in the early thirties. Not just rich white people but everyone: American-born, immigrant, black, white, Chinese, gay, straight, servants, bosses, employed, unemployed.

It’s an impossible goal. No one book can capture everything. Or even come close but I like having crazy, unattainable writing goals.

And as you can imagine the research is immense.

So far one of the hardest parts has been finding letters and diaries by people, black or white, who weren’t reasonably well-off. There are letters for earlier periods but by the 1930s people weren’t writing as much.

The reasons are varied. Those who had jobs worked such insane hours for such low pay that there was little time. Those who had access to a phone—and there’d usually be one per boarding house, for example—would call home once a month or so instead of writing because that would work out cheaper than using paper and pen and buying a stamp. But many didn’t have jobs. They could hardly afford food, let alone paper.

Though there is collection of letters that were written to Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

    Selma, Alabama
    Sept, 1935

    Dear Mr. President,
    Please, please, dont let our checks be stop they say that they have close up. We can’t even get by now, what shall we do.
    Please when they open Work for the Women let us have a fire. our legs are acking now where they work us all the cold Winter And we did not have a fire. Please send us some more good meat. for we Cant get any it is so high. School is open We haven’t got any clotheing for our children and our self. Some got dresses and some did not. What shall we do. it is getting cold And we havent got no Coal + no wood we just can get a little food. Please see about us and when you send Any cover to Any thing We hope all Will get Some, Some get and the other dont, some get a raise And some get a cut. We thank you for All your are doing. Thank you.
    The Colored

    Burlington, Iowa
    Nov. 4-36
    President + Mrs. Roosevelt
    Congratulating you first on your success in staying in the “White House” for which I am well pleased.
    I want to write just briefly about my work in the campaign.
    First let me say most everyone takes for granted “Coloured”1 voters are Republican. We owe that party a debt.
    I worked day and night proving to the U.S.A. voters that phrase is not true. I think this election will convince all, because the Negro of today are more educated. Of course when there are more in one locality it is easier for them to prove their ability to fill worth while positions.
    I wasn’t working in this campaign to fill an office. I was working for the betterment of this community in which I live, and the men I worked so hard for I feel are real men that will back me up and show a few of my race folks here a little consideration.
    I struggle here trying to educate my boy (19 yrs.) and girl (17yrs.) and trying to keep this locailty a haven for them so to speak.
    I worked without pay so as to prove to the people here I wasn’t working for a personal cause.
    I’m not on relief. My husband is a Railroad chef, I worked at odd jobs since where I live my vocation isn’t patronized very much. Would like to obtain Ia. licinse but do not feel I can afford spending that much right now right on the verge of winter.
    Hope that sometime during your future talks over the radio you will mention what the value of the coloured votes has been to you if you think they are worth it.
    Trust that this letter will reach your hands.
    Happiness and Success to Both of You.
    Mrs. I. H.

Both letters are from Down & Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man edited by Robert S. McElvaine. It’s a treasure trove. As you no doubt noticed, neither letter is from New York City. So far, I’ve not found equivalent letters from black New Yorkers. But I’m still looking. Any tips from you, my faithful readers, would be most welcome.

I have however found a wonderful book by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, Or Does It Explode? Black Harlem in the Great Depression which very succinctly spells out just how disproportionately black Americans were affected by the Great Depression. They were already being paid less than white workers, but pretty soon they were lucky to be paid at all, as they were usually the first to be laid off or as the saying went “first fired, last hired.” In 1931 the black male unemployment rate in Manhattan was 25.4%. For white men it was 19.4. Black women had an unemployment rate of 28.5%; white women 11.2%. (And Manhattan had one of the lower unemployment rates—in Chicago in the same year: black men 60.2%, white men 32.4%, black women 75.0%, white women 17.4%.) A large part of the reason there were so many unemployed black women was that white women could no longer afford help at home. Also there were far more white women who stayed at home and did not seek work at all.

As I work on this book I keep getting Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” stuck in my head:2

    Them that’s got shall have
    them that’s not shall lose

It’s a beautiful song but so very sad.

  1. The “u” in “coloured” is original to the letter. Not this Australian introducing an error. []
  2. Technically I shouldn’t be listening to it. Was written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog in 1939 and not recorded till 1941. []


  1. Rebecca on #

    I don’t think I can even convey how much I’m looking forward to this book already.

  2. veejane on #

    FWIW, they’re not all written letters, but the Library of Congress has some great recordings collections from the middle of the Depression — WPA, Federal Writers’ Project, and several other employment initiatives designed to also capture US history as it was lived rather than as chronicled from on high. Have you had the chance to noodle through the “Hard Times in the City” exhibit? It’s here:

    There are 417 entries from New York City! (Not all of them necessarily online.)

  3. cristina on #

    “I like having crazy, unattainable writing goals”.

    Awesome! Go Justine! *puts face paint, waves pom poms*
    I totally agree with Rebecca, I want this book!


  4. marty on #

    There might be something in Gangs of New York you could use. I don’t mean the movie, I’m referring to Herbert Asbury’s book, written in 1928. Although the majority of the book covered earlier history in New York, there are some references to “current day” criminal activities that may be interesting (criminals in Asbury’s day were still claiming some form of descent from the legendary gangs of the 1800s). Of course, have fun finding the book, although I think it was reprinted due to the movie.

  5. Sara Ryan on #

    This isn’t a source per se, but it’s an interesting historical detail: I recently bought a group photo of the 1923 annual meeting of the National Association of Chiropodists, which took place in NYC. (TIME wrote about it in a short but hilarious article:,9171,716397,00.html — in it we find, among other things, that “New York City is credited with having the smallest and poorest-shaped feet in the country.”)

    Anyway, judging from the group photo, the association’s membership included white women, black women, and black men as well as white men, and I’d bet this was still true in the 1930s. Not sure why chiropody would have been more progressive than other branches of medicine, but apparently it was.

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