Tag Archives: Great Depression

Darn it felt good to be a gangster.

Year of Fear

And it rhymes, too

Plain old George Kelly was doing quite well as a bootlegger and a bank robber until his wife Kathryn decided that they should pull off a string of kidnappings, make a boatload of money, and retire to Mexico.

Their first attempt ended poorly, when they kidnapped a gent whose family was unable to raise the ransom money (p.56). Oops. They decided to try again – but first, Kathryn decided that her husband’s image could stand a little improvement. So she bought him a machine gun and started spreading rumors about his prowess.

…she made her rounds of the local taverns and speakeasies, where she was constantly boasting about her husband, saying he could shoot walnuts off a fence line with his machine gun and write his name with it on the sides of barns (p. 46).

Basically, Machine Gun Kelly became Machine Gun Kelly because his wife wanted him to sound cooler. Sometimes history is awesome like that.

Anyway – their next target was millionaire Oklahoma oil tycoon Charles Urschel (no relation to the book’s author), whom they kidnapped from his swanky mansion on July 22, 1933 (p.75). Urschel was both the most cooperative and the sneakiest hostage ever – by the end of his stay with Kelly and his gang he had learned enough about the remote Texas farm where he was held hostage to lead the feds right to the door,  even though he was blindfolded the entire time.

Before long, he had enough details that he could draw the shack and the farm in his mind and identify and enumerate every animal that populated it. There were two chicken coops out back, a well with nasty, mineral-tasting water out front with a pulley that squeaked with a distinctive sound. There were four cows, three hogs, two pigs, a bull, and a mule (p. 87).

Kelly probably would have gotten away with the kidnapping if he had killed Urschel after collecting the ransom money (as his wife suggested) or if he had just chosen a stupider target. But he didn’t – so we get a months-long, multi-state investigation and pursuit that involves…

  • a bad dye job
  • one accidentally kidnapped sullen teenage girl
  • extremely embarrassing near-misses
  • Melvin Purvis (looking nothing like Christian Bale in Public Enemies, alas)
  • custom-built armored cars
  • deliberately mistaken identities
  • a brief cameo by Al Capone
  • missing codebooks
  • and tiny dogs.

Why don’t they teach this kind of stuff in high school history classes? It’s great!

The Year of Fear: Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt that Changed the Nation by Joe Urschel is a very fun and detailed book that’s available in print and book on CD.

– Amy E.



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The Tragedy of the Spoiled Victory Garden Canned Green Beans.*


United States Army

On this day in 1945 Germany signed an unconditional surrender at Allied headquarters in Reims, France, to take effect the following day. Thus ended the European conflict of World War II. Like so many other institutions, the South Side branch of Carnegie Library was deeply affected by the war, as evidenced by the war-time annual reports. The branch had the same Head Librarian during the Great Depression and all of World War II. The only thing I know about Ann Macpherson is that she was salty, sassy, an advocate for her customers and her community, found the loss of “her boys” devastating and rejoiced in the baby boom at the end of the war (and if I wrote half the stuff she wrote I’d be looking for another job).

It is easy to forget to how long and difficult the Great Depression was, but in 1939 things were finally turning around:

The atmosphere of renewed hope and vigor was as palpable as the bleak depression and finely-strung patient endurance of the past ten years. Not that prosperity had returned, but that a respite had been given.

And a little later:

In the shift from depression to wartime economy, South Side has sent over 6000 men into the armed forces; men are working to capacity; children have left school for jobs in droves; or have obtained work permits for after-school employment; and money is flowing freely.


USAAF 3rd Bomb Group photographer Jack Heyn reading at his bunk, Dobodura Airfield, Australian Papua, mid-1943 , Jack Heyn

In 1942, well into the bustling war-time economy, Ms. Macpherson writes:

It has not been easy for many of the unemployed, so prevalent on the South Side during the last ten years, to get in step again with war-time schedules. So many borrowers report exhaustion from the varying shifts, much overtime, unforeseen demands and the inexperience of their help, more recently women. The complain they find no time to do the tinkering around the house their wives expect.  They say they cannot concentrate on books they know are worthwhile, “By the time I read two newspapers and listen to the radio, it’s time for bed.” Yet many borrowers are reading the books of the war of the news-interest type, party of the labor literature, and an occasional academic discussion of the better world they hope to see.

Can you imagine saying you don’t have time for books because you are busy reading two newspapers a day? And when they did have time to read, what did they read?

Books about the war are read with avidity by the younger boys, and normally by older men. Women refuse them absolutely, except where they describe army life or the countries where their men are fighting. War cartoon books lead in popularity. So far the discharged solders in the community seem not to have been overseas; their reading is general, although both they and their families are interested in psychology- not in rehabilitation books.  With the birthrate again on the upswing, books in child care are in demand. (1944)

Soldiers were coming home educated!

Reports of camp and overseas reading have been astounding; psychology in general, but especially Freud, seems to have been given a thorough going over; in fiction, the general fear seems to be that he will be given something namby-pamby, and great as is his appreciation of Pocket Books, he is glad to get away from them; apparently there are too many missing pages at the beginning and the end of the well-thumbed classics. Some are definitely checking war books with their own experiences, some are reading on some certain country- one at least to understand England because he married an English girl out in Australia. There is also a GI crop of babies planned for, and books for expectant mothers are in demand- by the husband. (1945)


African-American US Navy Steward’s Mate 2nd Class James Lee Frazer reading the Bible aboard a ship, 9 Jan 1945, United States National Archives

And, of course, the library is always about the questions, the questions, the questions:

The reference work has been as erratic as usual…Most exciting, of course, the chap who wants a contour map as he is to help bomb Pittsburgh or the young doctor back from Casablanca who kept a taxi waiting while the library located his new assignment in Virginia, to which even the recruiting office had been unable to direct him. He stopped in weeks later to report he had made plane connections and been in charge of a small hospital of his own and the next step was the Pacific in the “most coveted position of the Marine Corps.” (1942)

The war was changing our library customers in big and little ways. One thing Ms. Macpherson noted was changes in immigration:

From the time the branch was opened, work with foreigners was the theme of annual reports. The foreigner of those days no longer exists; the foreigner of today is less picturesque, he is almost non-existent in the sense of a helpless immigrant in a strange land…(1943)

But it’s still Pittsburgh. It wouldn’t be home if someone wasn’t starting something:

Recurrent tides of Polish and Lithuanian patriotism may send a few young people to read foreign books, but the young people are little interested in the nationalism which is a hindrance to the Americanism. The children are pretty weary of the old-world quarrels which are brought into the neighborhood and fostered by the nationalistic clergy and foreign-language newspapers. (1943)


American sailor reading in his bunk aboard USS Capelin, August 1943, United States National Archives

1945 ended on a high note for the branch, particularly in regards to the returning soldiers:

His experiences have given him in general the following attitudes: he “never wants to see a gun again”; he is “all confused”; he has a profound respect for education; he needs little orientation in intercultural appreciation–as one quotes, “in the army all blood is type O”; he is very modest, and is sure the “heroes” did not return; he thinks his own little niche in world geography, i.e., the South Side, is “pretty swell”; he wants a better job than he had when he went away; he feels pretty rich, if he has been overseas several years with no place to spend his money; he has not faith that there will not be “another war in twenty or thirty years” and sometimes thinks “America is too soft-hearted and should finish the job”; he is already disillusioned about the peace; he is Anglophobe or Anglophile; Russophobe or Russophile in about the same ratio as before the war.

All in all, at the present moment, he is rejoicing in his sanity, his physical stamina, and his retained or regained sense of humor; he realizes the meaning of radar and the atomic bomb; and if he is inclined to be materialistic, he at least still has tremendous zest for living.

And finally, proof that the library has always been and always will be a civilizing force:

When re-registering the servicemen, it is interesting to have them present the old library card with a flourish and remark it has never left their wallet since they left home, while one lad when asked if he had his old card, said, “Until it was taken from me in a German prison camp.” The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh  library cards have traveled over all the war zones, and renewing the card seems to be part of the rite of returning to civilian life.


Happy VE Day! (Tomorrow!)


*Where did I find the title of this post? It comes from one inexplicable sentence written in 1943: “The tragedy of the spoiled Victory Garden canned green beans was not averted by the library books, but the danger of food poisoning was.” No story, no follow-up…


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Dust Bowl in Pittsburgh, May 11, 1934

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to have a half-decent American history teacher should know about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. But did you ever learn the full extent of those dusters?

From the NOAA Photo Library, www.photolib.noaa.gov/htmls/wea01416.htm and www.photolib.noaa.gov/htmls/wea01415.htm

Garden City, Kansas before and during a dust storm. Use the streetlights at the bottom right to compare the photographs. Yes, I know it's not Pittsburgh, but it's still impressive.

I first learned about a monster dust storm that stretched from the Midwest to New York City and beyond (no, I’m not kidding) while listening to American-Made: the Enduring Legacy of the WPA by Nick Taylor. It’s an excellent book, but as it’s more a history of the WPA than of the Dust Bowl, the storm was only mentioned in passing. So of course, like any good inquisitive librarian, I had to learn more.

I found another audio book (shameless plug: audio books are great for commuters like me) called The Worst Hard Time: the Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan and was instantly hooked. When I came to the section about that massive storm, I ran to our stacks and found our print copy of the book so I could reread the section and post about it here.

Carrying three tons of dust for every American alive, the formation moved over the Midwest. It covered Chicago at night, dumping an estimated six thousand tons, the dust slinking down walls as if every home and every office had sprung a leak. By morning, the dust fell like snow over Boston and Scranton, and then New York slipped under partial darkness. Now the storm was measured at 1,800 miles wide, a great rectangle of dust from the Great Plains to the Atlantic, weighing 350 million tons. In Manhattan, the streetlights came on at midday and cars used their headlights to drive.

Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

There’s more to his description, but you’ll have to check it out and read it yourself.

Egan goes on to describe how the storm made the front page of the New York Times on May 12, 1934 – so of course I had to visit the microfilm department. You can click the image to see a larger version.

NYT article

This is a scan of a photocopy from a microfilm reader, so bear with me.

Now we’ll get to the Pittsburgh connection. I showed this article to my colleague who had recently discovered  a collection of weather observation journals in our closed stacks. We realized that since the journals covered the 1850s to 1940s, we could probably find some local information about this historic duster. So I dug out the volume from 1934 and found this. Once again, you can click for a larger image.

Pittsburgh observation 1

There is a charming picture of a dog on the back of the newspaper clipping.

Pittsburgh observation 2

The letter is from May 11, 1934.

If you read the letter closely, you’ll see that the storm was no big deal here in Pittsburgh, since “local smoke and haze are of common occurance.” This was our city’s smoky heyday, after all. Our lack of concern was even noted by other newspapers, like the Southeast Missourian of May 14, 1934 – check out this little article from the Google News Archive. Amazing!

– Amy

If you’d like to learn more about the Dust Bowl (or just admire some photographs of cow skeletons), here are some good places to start.





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“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

A forerunner of the current “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” this Depression era sing-songy phrase describes the way many folks are learning to manage their money during the current recession. Television, cable, clothes dryer, car — things that used to seem essential are open to redefinition as luxuries.


Repository: The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Archives.

You already know that the library helps fill gaps caused by a reduced family budget: borrow rather than rent films; check books out instead of buying them. CLP also provides important services. At Main we host literacy classes of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. Our library workers teach beginning computer skills, assist with job searches in our Job & Career Education Center, and provide homework help to children, teen, college, and adult learners. Some of these services take the form of scheduled programs, but everyday we work with library patrons individually, helping not only answer questions, but sometimes, and more importantly, formulating questions.

Our library is busier than ever. More people need more help. It’s a pattern libraries have seen before. The following paragraph from another urban library’s Web site could describe any Depression-era city library.

The Depression pummeled The Seattle Public Library. Jobless men seeking refuge crowded into the Central Library. Those looking for work or diversion snapped up library books at unprecedented levels, sending circulation past 4 million for the first time in 1932. Yet, at the same time, Library budgets shrunk precipitously, forcing layoffs of employees and termination of programs. The Library was caught in a painful double bind seen during tough economic times – soaring demands and evaporating resources.

Our library’s story mirrors the plight of libraries during the Great Depression. Governor Rendell’s proposed 2009-2010 budget cuts 5.1% from state support for library services. This includes a 2.3% cut to local libraries, as well as significant cuts to such services as shared databases (POWER Library), interlibrary loan, and Ask Here PA, the state’s virtual reference service.

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

Use the library. Wear out our books. But don’t do without us. You can help raise awareness of your library’s vital community role. We need your help to restore funding for public libraries to 2008-2009 levels. Please visit CLP’s Advocacy Web page  to learn how you can help.

Thank you!


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