Looking back for clues to our future

WILEY HALL

November 28, 1991|By WILEY HALL

Sixty years ago today, Baltimore City College beat Polytechnic Institute, 2-0, in a charity football game attended by over 15,000 people.

A movie called "The Champ," starring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper, played at the Stanley Theater on Howard Street.

A Baltimore man wrote The Sun complaining that women were becoming too flirtatious.

"What's wrong with women nowadays?" he cried in a letter to the editor. "They smoke our cigarettes, drink our booze, and take our jobs. Are they hard up? Can't they meet any decent young men by any other means than picking us up on the street? Are there left any old-fashioned girls who do not flirt?"

A Dundalk man suggested in another letter that the federal government establish an agency of clairvoyants who would make astrological forecasts of newborns, so that education funding could be focused on those children with the brightest futures. This was his way of cutting government spending on education.

Herbert Hoover was president of the United States. Albert C. Ritchie was governor of Maryland. Howard W. Jackson was mayor of Baltimore.

On November 28, 1931, we were two years, one month, and four days into the Great Depression (dating from the stock market crash of 1929) and people seemed to be living their lives as best they could, not unlike people today. They spoke of the "depression" in small letters back then, and they seemed matter-of-fact about it, as if massive unemployment and economic disaster were an inescapable reality, like the weather, that had to be endured and, if possible, outlasted.

I've been going through old papers of The Sun and the Evening Sun these past couple of days, trying to get some sense of what things were like back then.

I was seeking an answer, through history, to one of the burning questions of today: are we in the midst of an economic recession or a depression?

The joke, "if you're employed, it's a recession, if you're unemployed, it's a depression" isn't really much of an answer, is it?

What if you're employed now but worried about the future? Or what if you're employed but struggling to make ends meet? Or personally comfortable but tormented by the plight of the less fortunate?

Is the difference between the two a matter of degree -- something that can be quantified -- or a question of perspective? Will historians someday declare that on Thanksgiving Day, 1991, America was a year and three months (starting approximately with the beginning of the Persian Gulf crisis) into the second Great Depression of its history?

Economists aren't so sure.

You might wonder why any of this matters.

I guess it matters because I am worried about the future. Is the economy really on the upswing as the president insists, or will the bottom fall out?

In 1992, will we be singing, "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" or "Happy Days Are Here Again!"?

Is there any way to tell? Could the people of 1931 have guessed what was in store for them on Thanksgiving Day?

The weather was overcast and cold in the last week of November, 1931, with temperatures in the low 40s.

Headlines were devoted to an ongoing crises in Manchuria, where Japanese troops were pushing toward a town called Chinchow, Chinese troops were preparing for battle, and the U.S. State Department and the League of Nations were pleading for peace.

In London, Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi attended a party at the home of Lady Astor and reportedly "lowered his eyes in shame" when he saw how society women were dressed.

Police were investigating a gangland slaying in Chicago while police in Detroit logged tear gas canisters at "an army of unemployed people" who were marching on City Hall. Police broke up a similar hunger march in Washington that allegedly was led by communists.

Congressional committees were investigating a stock market scandal among congressmen and allegations of corruption involving oil company executives.

In Chicago, railroad owners gave their employees an ultimatum: take a 10 percent cut in pay or face layoffs.

Congress also was debating whether to raise taxes and President Hoover was said to be preparing a speech declaring that the economic crisis was all but over. Wall Street analysts saw signs of "spotty improvement" in the market, but were optimistic about prospects for 1932.

In Baltimore, a Negro accused of trying to rape a white woman on the Eastern Shore was transferred to City Jail to protect him from a lynch mob. A former railroad executive committed suicide in a West Baltimore funeral home. And a 3-year-old watched while an unemployed paper cutter shot his sleeping wife and then himself.

The paper ran help wanted ads for "well-spoken, fast-thinking" salesmen and chambermaids. An ad for Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound promised relief for "irritable, grouchy wives."

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