How did American popular culture change in the 1930s?

Background Information

  1. Despite the Great Depression ‘s devastating impact on many Americans, the 1930s witnessed the emergence of many influential cultural trends. Literature, arts, music, and cinema of the period became vehicles for establishing and promoting what would be presented as truly American traditions and values.
  2. Many New Deal programs were established to support artists, writers, musicians, and theatre professionals. Projects funded through these programs were often seen as serving an important mission of bringing culture and arts to the masses.
  3. The 1930s came to be known as the “golden age” of Hollywood. Many popular low-budget and epic expensive movies that reached the status of classic were produced during the period.
  4. The Motion Picture (or Hollywood) Production Code of 1930 forbade certain subjects from being addressed or portrayed in film.
  5. The 1930s were also a very important and productive decade for American literature.

How did American popular culture change in the 1930s?, figure 1

1930s Popular Culture ran up against the Great Depression. At times they clashed, at times they drew upon each other. American art in this period was increasingly influenced by working-class perspectives, and art in many cases became an escape from the problems of the Depression. Government funding played a role in this, as the WPA (see below) used some New Deal money to pay for art.

Literature, Comics, Movies, Radio and the Arts


The Great Depression produced some of the greatest works in American literature. Writers focused on blunt and direct representation of American life and offered social criticism, coming often from the perspective of leftist political views. John Steinbeck (1902–1968) became the quintessential author of the era. He often wrote about poor, working-class people and their struggle to lead a decent and honest life. The Grapes of Wrath, considered his masterpiece. Other popular novels include Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men,_ Cannery Row_, and East of Eden. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.


The 1930s also witnessed the development of popular literary genres. Pulp fiction magazines began to feature distinctive, gritty, adventure heroes that combined elements of hard-boiled detective fiction and the fantastic adventures of the earlier pulp novels. Two particularly noteworthy characters introduced were Doc Savage and The Shadow, who would later influence the creation of characters such as Superman and Batman. Near the end of the decade, two of the world’s most iconic superheroes and recognizable fictional characters, Superman and Batman, were introduced in comic books.

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Both Batman and Superman were comic heroes born out of the 1930s Comic boom. They remain some of the most recognisable comic figures in the world.


A trip to the cinema was one of the most popular leisure activities of the 1930s. The 60 million people who went each week often wanted to escape the trouble of the Depression. Comedies starring Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, Walt Disney cartoons and horror films such as Dracula were very popular.

Adaptations of classic and best-selling literary works were popular. Among them are such classics of American cinema as King Kong (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gone With the Wind (1939), and Grapes of Wrath (1940).

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Chaplin was the 1930s equivalent of a viral star. His first movie became wildly popular, and everything he did after would see queues out of the theatres. His silent, slapstick movies are still today regarded as masterpieces.

Radio and Music

By 1930, new forms and styles developed and swing emerged as a dominant form in American music. Swing music developed with corresponding swing dance. The pioneer of jazz music, Louis Armstrong, continued to inspire both mass audiences and fellow musicians. Gramophones and vinyl became a popular way to listen to recorded music.

The 1930s was the era of the immense popularity of radio. Those Americans who did not own a radio could still access one in their communities through friends or neighbours. Popular content spanned from comedy, with Bob Hope being one of the biggest comedic radio personalities of the time, and music, theatre, and soap operas, to news and political content.

The Arts

Many of the works created under WPA belonged to Social Realism–an international art movement that depicted the everyday life of ordinary people, most notably, the working class and the poor. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) provided work for unemployed artists of all kinds. Actors were hired to put on free shows, artists to paint displays for schools etc. – and all of this was paid for by the government. However, some people believed the WPA was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

  1. 1931: The world’s tallest building (at least until 1966) is built in New York: The Empire State Building.
  2. 1932: The First Mickey Mouse colour cartoon.
  3. 1933: Roosevelt ends Prohibition with the 21st Amendment, often known as the Beer Act.
  4. 1934: The Masters Golf Tournament is held for the first time in August, Georgia (U.S. State).
  5. 1935: The rumba becomes a dance craze.
  6. 1935: Monopoly is invented!
  7. 1936: The bass guitar in invented in Seattle.
  8. 1937: Disney releases Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
  9. 1938: Superman features in his first comic.
  10. 1939: Knock-knock jokes, rollerskating, and Chinese Checkers all become popular for the first time in America.
  11. 1939: The Wizard of Oz is released in cinemas, featuring the new star Judy Garland.

How did American popular culture change in the 1930s?, figure 1

Some of the most famous movies of all time come from the 1930s, including the Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Define the following terms:

Judy Garland
Mickey Mouse
The New Deal
Golden Age of Hollywood
John Steinbeck