The Great Depression: Iowa City

Iowa City Reflects on the 85th Anniversary of the Great Depression

IOWA CITY, Iowa — During the Great Depression, Harold Hands used to accept chickens in lieu of money at Hands Jewelers because it was all some people had to offer.

Now, on the 85 anniversary of the Great Depression, Bill Nusser, the current owner of Hands Jewelers, said it was his grandfather Harold’s generosity and business smarts that allowed the store to survive through the toughest economic period America has ever faced.

Nusser said it was always a point of pride for his grandfather that he always met payroll and never had to lay anyone off.

“But I also think there was a lot of goodwill acts going on,” he said. “People would work for less than they were normally paid or not report hours. Everyone was willing to give whatever they had to give to keep everyone alive.”

The Great Depression began on October 29, 1929, a day commonly known as Black Tuesday, when the New York stock exchange began a 16 day slide, plunging the U.S and world into a decade long depression.

Iowa City was not immune to this. Colin Gordon, University of Iowa History Professor, said the Midwest was actually already in a depression before 1929 due to low farm prices, and the stock market crash only worsened the situation.

“After Black Tuesday you add the credit crisis which removed the ability to use further debt to maintain [the farm economy],” he said. “Then a couple years later you start to get dust storms and drought, particularity west of here, which really savaged production.

At its peak, around 25 percent of America was out of work. However, depending on the town, Gordon said this number could vary anywhere from 5 percent to 75 percent. Iowa City’s unemployment rate, Gordon said, would probably have been less than 10 percent, due in part to the local economy didn’t rely on private industry, but the university to sustain itself.

During the 1930’s in an attempt to stem rising unemployment, public projects and institutions such as the University of Iowa received millions of dollars from the federal government, giving employees at the university fairly steady paychecks.

“It was a nice little town, and of course the kids with the dads on the faculty always had more money than the kids who didn’t, but it didn’t bother us,” Dorothy Smith, 96 year old Iowa City resident said. “Those guys were probably getting six and seven thousand a year. My own father probably got 2,000.”

Smith was 11 years old when Black Tuesday occurred, and has strong memories of her childhood growing up in Depression-era Iowa City. Her father was a real estate agent, so Smith said things did get tough at times when people stopped buying houses, but when that happened they simply did what they had to do.

They bought wool from the Amanas and sewed their own clothing, passing them down when they got too small. They ate in season food and never used credit, staying true to the family’s philosophy: “If you can’t pay for it you can’t get it.”

Despite the hardships however, Smith said she has fond memories of hopscotch, jacks, and roller-skating with her friends. In the evening her father would read the paper and listen to the Cubs play on the radio. 10 cents bought a loaf of bread, a Hawkeye football game cost a quarter, and if you went to the Englert before 5:30 you could get in for 30 cents.

Although the university cushioned the town’s economy, many Iowa City families still struggled to survive, so it might seem odd that a jewelry store and a theater were able to keep operating.

Yet Kathrine Keller, granddaughter of Nate Chapman who operated the Englert during the 1930’s, said even throughout the Depression the Englert theater remained a popular venue. In a way, Keller said, theater almost became more important during this time, because it allowed struggling people an escape from the reality of their own lives in a way which books or radio couldn’t.

Englert Development Director Katie Roach said another aspect which allowed the theater to keep running was how differently theaters operated back then. For a few cents, she said, a person could come into the theater, sit all day and not be kicked out. They could chat with friends, munch on the newly introduced popcorn, and watch the constantly looping movies, as well as newsreels which played between every showing. The theater was also one of the first buildings in Iowa City to get air conditioning, a clear bonus during those scorching Dustbowl summers.

Hands’ goods were also quite different in the 1930’s then today as well, Nusser said, as their main business during the Depression was watch repair.

“Everyone depended on watches,” he said. “Time was a big deal and clocks were treated almost as a piece of furniture.”

Nusser said even destitute farmers, which made up the majority of their business, had watches which had been in their family for generations, and which they needed to be repaired.

Eventually Nusser said Hands expanded to include glassware, china and silver repair. Perhaps seemingly even more backwards, this expansion he said, also helped the store through the Depression as these items were more affordable and required for everyday life than they are now.

Like many things that must get worse before they can get better, the Depression did eventually end in the mid 1940’s, but only when the start of World War II reemployed millions of young men and kick-started the global economy.

Caught between the struggling Midwest farm economy and the prosperity and economic shelter of the university, Iowa City was in a unique situation during the Great Depression, and while statistically better off than most of the country, Iowa City residents and businesses still faced their share of hardships, but also showed the strength and ingenuity needed to get through the hard times.

“We always had a good world in Iowa City,” said Smith. “We never felt poor. It was the Great Depression, but we didn’t talk about it, we just lived it.”