Letters From the Great Depression: A Tour Through a Collection of Letters to an Atlanta Newspaperwoman
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 3, "Passing Glances." Find more from that issue here.
The Great Depression was an anxious visitor to the South, arriving early and staying late. Farm owner and tenant farmer, businessman and millhand, housewife and working woman watched helplessly as incomes dwindled and disappeared. In 1938, for example, the average annual cash income in one Georgia county was $38.
In the face of persistent unemployment and repeated crop failures, victims of the Depression besieged public personalities with individual requests for jobs and relief. Letters commenting on economic conditions and urgent pleas for help were addressed not only to public officials, but also to corporate executives, journalists and Hollywood stars. Hundreds of Southerners confided their problems to Mildred Seydell, an Atlanta newspaper columnist.
Seydell, a member of a prominent Georgia family, began contributing occasional articles to the Hearst-owned Atlanta Georgian in 1924. She later became editor of the food page, achieved some recognition as a Hearst representative at the Scopes “monkey” trial, and in 1930 published her only novel, Secret Fathers. Throughout the ’30s she wrote a daily advice column which commented on a variety of topics from manners to morals, entertainment to politics. She encouraged correspondence from her readers and occasionally printed excerpts from their letters in the Georgian. But in 1939 the Hearst corporation discontinued the Georgian, and Seydell moved on to other forms of writing. She eventually donated her papers to Emory University, and included in that collection is the correspondence she received from her readers as well as copies of her responses.
In all Seydell received more than one thousand requests for advice or assistance, most of which she was unable to answer. At times she passed readers’ needs on to welfare agencies, and on rare occasions she extended small loans to readers.
Seydell’s letters were primarily from Georgians, but some of the Georgian's 75,000 readers lived in Alabama, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina, and letters came from these states as well. Although black citizens were among her readers, most of Seydell’s correspondence came from whites. The majority of the letters were from women, and no requests for charity came from men. Both men and women asked Seydell to help them find jobs and both complained about working conditions. Excerpts from some of the letters convey the pathos and the despair as well as the courage of Depression America.
The city of Atlanta had enjoyed growth and prosperity during the late 1920s, and in the early months of the Depression the city’s residents hesitated to admit that the boom days were over. Some Atlantans, surveying commercial activity or pockets of wealth in the city, rejected the Depression as rumor, or misinterpreted the popularity of cheap entertainment. One woman wrote that the city’s substantial residential districts and its many autos offered an assurance of prosperity. In 1931 another Atlanta resident wrote Seydell,
People says it is hard time. And they are suffering for foods & clothing & Etc. But you can believe it or not, Last night at the Capitol & Georgia Theatre I watched the line of people which blocked the sidewalk trying to buy a 60-cent: ticket for the show. Also the ten cent store was so crowded with candy buyers you couldn't walk. Do you think there is any depression here if so please explain in your column. I think the biggest thing is talk.
Other Seydell readers believed that journalists and public officials were unduly optimistic about economic conditions. A banker recommended, “I have reached the conclusion that we should tell the FACTS to the people of Atlanta about the unemployed in our midst.” The letter, written early in 1931, went on to warn that the denials of crisis would not solve the problem.
Some readers suggested means of coping with hard times. A few women wrote that prayer was the only thing that saved them from despair. Readers warned against risky investments. A Jakin, Georgia, woman wrote, “I would suggest Postal Savings as we know this is safe. Old age is coming and we should provide for it by practicing thrift and economy.” (1930)
As early as 1931 a few readers of the Georgian sensed the need for strong leadership and a unified program to spur recovery. A veteran from Tennessee advised,
Rite now what is needed is Leadership and Co-operation or we will become a mob. First a Leader, behind that Leader, good hard Cash with the Proper Spirit behind it. The whole Country seems to be going around and round, getting no where.
Seydell also heard from a supporter of the “part-time work for all” movement.
We are told in the president’s message to Congress that income and employment were in December about 80% to 85% of what they were in 1928. Certainly if all of our workers were employed on an 80% normal time basis as is advocated by this writer the return to normalcy would not only be materially speeded up, but the need for charity due to [un}employment would be practically eliminated. (Atlanta, 1931).
Before it was commonly acknowledged that the nation was undergoing a depression, workers who lost their jobs in 1930 and ’31 blamed themselves for their misfortunes. One unemployed Atlantan confided,
I am a complete failure. I have failed in everything I have undertaken. I have loved and lost. I have studied for years and accomplished nothing. I have given to others and I am hopelessly in debt. There are times when I feel like giving up in despair — it seems I belong to the race of men who don’t fit in.... Yours truly, a nobody.
Unemployed workers complained to Seydell that they met coldness from friends and indifference from employers besieged with work applications. An unemployed woman wrote that people she had considered her friends had turned their backs on her misery.
Really some people do not seem to realize that times are as hard for people as they really are. One party told me a few days ago that she did not know whether times were as hard as people said they were or not. She has a good position and evidently has had no cut or does not realize or care about her fellow creature. (Atlanta, 1931).
An Atlanta man moralized, “We have all been hit by the lull in business more or less. I for one [was] hit and hit hard, but I kept a stiff upper lip as it were, got out and got another job.” (1931). He recommended the same course of action for other persons out of work.
A large number of unemployed persons who confided in Seydell had grown bitter and desperate. In Atlanta, one woman warned, “If work cannot be gotten soon, thousands will have to be obliterated in some way.” Another job seeker charged, “Numbers of employers are taking advantage of the general depression and are cutting salaries when there is not cause for it.”
After two years of the Depression, Atlanta’s citizens grew more fevered in their pronouncements of crisis. In December of 1932 Seydell received a letter stating, “The oppressed are crying day and night pleading in their heart for a leader one to champion their cause.” In that same year, another Atlantan warned,
A day of reckoning is coming — a glorious day when those who produce all the wealth of the world will not be forced to walk the streets from time to time in pinching hunger and sore distress. With every new recruit to the unemployed army the chain of Capitalism is weakened — some great day . . . the present system will fall, like Lucifer, never to rise again.
There are here in Atlanta thousands of able bodied men who have produced untold wealth walking the streets trying hard to find some means of making an honest living in this land of the free and home of the brave. O for a Lenin or a Trotsky!
While the needs of the unemployed were the most pressing, anger and despair were also voiced by persons who remained employed. Many workers were frustrated by their failure to advance to higher paid or more responsible positions. A female clerical worker complained,
I’m now 22 years of age, began working at 19 after finishing High School at the age of 18. I feel like my four years have just been wasted, as my life in the business world has been a failure as far as I’m able to judge. For since I began to work, it has been nothing to my mind, but just simple jobs, that required no preparation at all and held no future. (Atlanta, 1931).
Discontent was particularly prevalent among mill and factory hands in Atlanta and the surrounding towns, partly because the memory of strikes or shutdowns of the past haunted the present. A woman, whose husband had traveled a hundred miles before finding work, wrote Seydell,
Almost a year ago our mill struck, it was shut down & we were without funds, and at times even the necessary meal. There were two babies, to make matters worse, who needed milk, clothes, and at this trying time one needed a doctor’s care. (Thomaston, Georgia, 1935).
Another woman remembered, “Owing to a strike in our mill something over a year ago this community was almost at war. Then a three months stop last Summer. Our church was almost helpless.’’(Commerce, Georgia, 1936). A wife and mother of mill workers complained that the mood in the mills was always “blue” because of the many collections which were taken for fellow workers who had met with disaster.
Young people had hopes of breaking away from the factory, but their dreams were apt to end in bitter frustration:
I am born when the great war was and matured in a great depression with so elementary an education that I know about things a very little, there is only left for me to wonder about the world and mostly its people in a detached and futile sort of way....I work in a factory doing dull and uninteresting work for fourteen dollars a week. There are many of us young and futile, in factories here in Atlanta and elsewhere and we are the only people unmentioned in events. (1931).
Early marriage was a fact of life in Southern society which saddled men and women still in their teens with parental responsibilities and thus tightened the hold of factory and mill on their energies. A teenage father, disappointed in his job and his marriage, wrote, “I cannot quit but I cannot go on.’’(Griffin, Georgia, 1931). Three years later he was holding the same job, a position his father had occupied before him. Then 21 years old, he had given up earlier hopes of escaping the mill and confessed to Seydell,
I work in the mill because when I married I threw away my chance of ever being anything. . . .1 work in a mill, I guess you’d say a lowly common working boy, but my life once meant as much to me as yours do to you.
A young woman related a similar tale of how marriage had destroyed her opportunity for a bright future:
I am just seething within like a volcano, sending forth a rumbling sound ere it goes into eruption. I am bursting with red hot revolt, I want to snatch things up and tear them into shreds. Throw things out the window and say the meanest things to those around me.
I am just another factory girl cramped, bound down, held within an iron cage of my own making — futility beating a pair of helpless wings against the iron bars, for freedom. I am just a factory girl, working the long hours of the night that others spend in refreshing sleep, earning barely enough to keep me alive, and hating every minute of my existence. I have just said that the prison that holds me is of my own making and that is really true. A few years ago I had the wonderful opportunity — that most girls consider the turning point of their lives — that of receiving as fine an education as can be given to any wealthy man’s child. But I cast it aside, for matrimony. Just a fifteen year old child — I ran away from school. Too late I realized my mistake. Then I tried to play square and live up to my contract — but somewhere in my makeup there’s a weak spot. Anyhow I gave it up. During the four years of this nightmare I call it — I gave birth to two beautiful children. They in themselves have been some recompense for this terrible mistake. Though it only drew the cord that binds me a little tighter. . . .I’ve tried hard not to think of the past and hope and build for a brighter future, but I am no nearer a solution to my problem than at any other time.
Between 1930 and its closing in 1939, the Georgian's circulation expanded by nearly 15,000. The growth of the Georgian apparently included a geographic widening as more and more of Mildred Seydell’s correspondents after 1935 were from outside the Atlanta area. Whether farm conditions or the paper’s growth was the primary factor, Seydell received requests for assistance from farm women after 1935 and not before. Farm wives complained that loneliness compounded the misery of rural poverty. A woman from Bowman, Georgia, wrote,
I am just a farm woman living far out in isolated place and must make my own pleasure and diversion, because for long while have been practically an invalid. From so much illness and depression we lost our nice farm home and now living away from old home and friends. . . .I feel I cannot live long unless I have more nourishment to give me strength.
The following year, apparently having moved again, the same woman reported that she had spent most of the year in bed and that her husband had also been ill. Her health had deteriorated to the point that she had difficulty controlling a pencil, and consequently her letter is difficult to read. She besought Seydell,
If some kind person would only lend me some money to buy [a cow] we could use her until fall & then if we cannot pay the money we could sell the cow and repay the lender. . . I am most desperate for if I don’t get nourishing food I fear I cannot live. I have tried to get some Gov. relief, but there is no fund available in this County for the sick & we are not eligable for the old age pension being in our late fifties. (Carnesville, 1938).
In an unusual gesture, Seydell loaned the couple $35 for the purchase of a cow and their health gradually improved. They were eager to repay the loan, but tenant farming was a losing proposition. Some months later the grateful woman wrote,
Now dear Mrs. Seydell I hate to write you this, but must. I am worried because I see no way of paying you soon. My husband has little crop — he pays landlord half, boll weevil infestation was heavy, then very dry, last but not least the deplorable low price, he will get 3 1/2 bales of cotton, the fertilizer people will get his part, leaving us practically nothing.
In 1939 they were able to pay $5 against the loan, but their hardships continued:
It’s been a bad cotton year here (our only crop). Husband had nice prospects early in the spring until the “wilt” attacted his little crop. And it began to die, just like was burned. The gov. allowed him only five acres, so much of it died his crop was very short.
From his proceeds the farmer had to pay for the use of a mule and the fertilizer, again leaving him almost no cash income.
Despite New Deal programs intended to improve rural life, there were farm families for whom the regulations of public assistance seemed only to make survival more difficult. In desperation a young mother wrote.
I’ve just met with a problem I cannot solve alone. I am a Mother of six children the oldest is only 11 years old the youngest 18 months and Im expecting another in March. We couldn't get any crop for 1936 because we could neither furnish ourselves or had any stock. So here we are having made out on a little work once in a while all summer. And then in Aug I had to have a serious operation and now I’m not able to feed & clothe our six children as my husband couldnt find anything at all to do was compelled to get on relief job at $1.28 a day 16 days a month. Well you take 8 meals 3 times a day out of $1.28 and what will you have left is 24 meals and what kind of meals do you have? We have to buy everything we eat. We have nothing except what we buy. Our bedclothes are threadbare our clothes the same. No shoes and no money to buy yet the relief say they cant help us as he is working. Can he work naked. Can he sleep cold. I dont know of any one at all that can help me and I know we cant go on like this.
We have four children in school and they cant go on unless thay have some warm clothes when cold weather sets in... .Do you know of any people in Atlanta that have any used clothes they would give in exchange for piecing quilts or quilting. Id be glad to do anything I can in exchange for clothes to keep our children in school.
I hate to be like this but can a person that is willing to work for a living and that honest and disable to help themselves sit idle and see their small children suffer day after day without enough food or clothes to keep their bodies warm when there are thousands of people with plenty to give if they knew your need.
How it hurts to know that you are almost starving in the land of plenty. (Commerce, Georgia, 1936).
Seydell passed this woman’s request on to an Atlanta charity which sent her a parcel of clothing.
A consistent theme in the letters which Seydell received from rural and urban areas is the shame of dependence, the need for the dignity of labor. Following the earlier expressions of helplessness, of fear that limited work options meant being “held within an iron cage,” and the even more desperate appeals for food and shelter, there was ultimately anger at being made objects of charity.
In 1930 an unemployed Atlanta widow expressed her resentment against welfare agencies:
What is the great idea of these so called charitable organizations — who — instead of getting work of some kind, for self respecting people, send around sporty painted up young ladies, in fine cars, to give a stale handout; which if eaten today, would find the unfortunate cold and hungry tomorrow?
An Atlanta worker wrote Seydell in 1932 that “Charity is noble and necessary but we don’t all want to be charity patients. What we want is a fighting chance, a square deal.” Similarly, a member of the Georgia House of Representatives advised Seydell, “My mind tells me that it is not Charity people (the majority) are wishing - it’s self-respect and that self-respect only is gained by the toil of our own hands.”(1933). And an Atlanta man praised the intentions of President Roosevelt, but the letter writer added, “He [Roosevelt] would not sell his manhood for a FERA loaf of bread.”
Julia Kirk Blackwelder
Julia Kirk Blackwelder indexed the Seydell Collection while employed by the Emory University Library from 1973 to 1975. She is the author of a number of articles on Southern society, is studying women in Southern cities during the Depression, and currently teaches history and American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. (1978)