Michelle Tillman                                                                                            

October 9, 2009

History 579


The Greatest Generation Grows Up: American Childhood in the 1930s  by Kriste Lindenmeyer



            Utilizing Tom Brokaw's title of The Greatest Generation, Lindenmeyer examines how the generation responsible for the victory of World War II managed to survive the hardships of the Great Depression. Lindenmeyer reviews the importance of cultural and legal structures that shaped childhood in the 1930s (3). She shows how childhood institutions – school, work, play – evolved during the economic crisis by drawing on memoirs, letters, oral histories, and demographic statistics. Chapters one through seven are broken into sections covering special topics; the final chapter presents the author's conclusion.

            Her opening chapter on families analyzes how the economic crisis challenged the ideal American household and how the numerous federal programs helped families in need. Lindenmeyer supports her main point – that “a new definition of modern American childhood... became embedded in law, public policy, and culture by the end of the decade” – with statistics and narrative interpretation of the numbers (15).  She builds her argument to show how the policies of the federal government promoted the nuclear family as an ideal to be attained even in the face of the crippling economic crisis.

            Chapter two, Work, If you Could Find It, looks at adolescent employment in agriculture, street trade, and industrial labor as well as the government's stance on child labor. Lindenmeyer notes that the public criticized “the employment of adolescents as a practice that took wage work away from unemployed adults” (49). This attitude in combination with the dangers in the fields, on the streets, and in the factories encouraged the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

            The third chapter examines young wanderers. Life on the road or, more specifically, riding the rails proved both dangerous and adventurous for many youths who had no other prospects. Lindenmeyer attempts to counter the romanticized image of these gypsies, tramps, and transients to show the depravations they suffered and the loneliness and even hopelessness of life on the road..

            Chapter four, The Importance of Being Educated, explores the educational reforms that the Great Depression precipitated.  Through statistics and personal narratives, Lindenmeyer shows why the school campus became so important during the 1930s.  As a place to keep children safe and off the job market and as a venue to promote public health, schools received funding from the federal government at a time when state and local governments could no longer support the community's educational needs.

            In her most extensive chapter, Lindenmeyer examines popular culture. The economic crisis altered and originated many forms of popular culture. The radio was a cheap form of entertainment; the various shows promoted American values and consumerism.  Self-censored movie companies produced child friendly entertainment – young Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney became standout performers – and the “films reflected the virtues of idyllic childhood and family life” (178). Literature and comic books endorsed self-sufficiency and optimism. Similarly, swing music and dance contests promised rewards and opportunities for socialization.

            Chapter six reviews the New Deal policies that directly aided children and their families. “Washington,” Lindenmeyer concludes, “needed to offer a helping hand to America's youngest citizens so that they could carry on the country's heritage of democracy, freedom and opportunity.” (209). She analyzes the contributions of several federal programs to childhood. The Civilian Conservation Corps provided vocational and some academic skills for young men ages 18-23 and shifted money to families. The National Youth Administration, which accepted both boys and girls of high school age, emphasized education (217). The Works Progress Administration committed money to educators. The Civil Works Administration built schools. All these programs’ primary goal was to create employment opportunities for men. (229).

            Lindenmeyer's conclusion, briefly summarizes the Great Depression's affects on the youth of the 1930s. “Their experiences in the 1930s,” she declares, “helped seal a belief in a model of modern American childhood that they believed could be possible for all Americans during 'normal' times” (245). As parents, the children of the Depression, would attempt to protect their children and grandchildren from the hardship and uncertainty they faced.