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Shantytowns and Hoovervilles

Herbert Hoover

Shantytowns and Hoovervilles: Herbert Hoover was the 31st American President who served in office from March 4, 1929 to March 4, 1933. One of the important events during his presidency was the emergence of the Shanty Town during the Great Depression.

Definition and Summary of the Shantytowns and Hoovervilles
Summary and definition:
The Shanty Towns, known as Hoovervilles, sprang up across the nation during the Great Depression (1929 - 1941). They were built by unemployed impoverished Americans that had been made homeless and had nowhere else to live.

By 1932, between one and two million American people were homeless. The Hoovervilles varied in size from just a few shacks clustered together to communities of over 1000 rickety shacks covering acres of unused or public lands. The makeshift shacks were constructed from unwanted materials and lacked basic amenities such as adequate sanitation and clean drinking water. All the Hoovervilles were 'eradicated' at the end of the Great Depression in 1941.

What were the Hoovervilles (Shanty Town) of the Great Depression? Hoovervilles were the nickname given to a Shanty Town during the Great Depression and consisted of camps of makeshift shacks or tents set up on unused or public lands.

Who lived in a Hooverville or Shanty Town? The people who lived in a Hooverville or Shanty Town were men, women and children, black and white, from all walks of life, who had been evicted from their homes and made homeless due to unemployment in the Great Depression.

Why was the Shanty Town called a Hooverville? The Shanty Town was given the sarcastic nickname 'Hooverville' after President Herbert Hoover who Americans blamed for the Great Depression

Facts about Shantytowns and Hoovervilles
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Shantytowns and Hoovervilles.

The Shanty Town was not new to America. Anyone who has seen the famous old Civil War movie ' Gone with the Wind' might remember the Shanty Town on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia that was occupied by freed slaves and poor whites.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s there was Mass Unemployment in America. Twelve million Americans, about 25% of the normal labor force, were out of work and many suffered poverty, deprivation and homelessness. Hoovervilles, or shantytowns, became a common sight. 

The nickname 'Hooverville' was given to the shanty towns that sprang up across the nation during the Great Depression. The name was a reference to Herbert Hoover who was the President of the United States during the at the start of the Depression and widely blamed for it.

Where were Hoovervilles situated? The answer to this question is practically anywhere. The large camps were set up on the worst type of unused or public land often on the outskirts of towns and cities. Many were established near rivers, as the above picture shows, or ponds - it helped to have access to some water. Small camps and sites in towns sprang up in any available space.

How many Hoovervilles or Shantytowns were there? No one knows, but there were literally millions of homeless people during the Great Depression so it seems reasonable to estimate the number as several thousands. Some have estimated that 500 Hoovervilles sprang up in 1929 and increased in number to over 6000 in the 1930s.

What were the rickety shacks in Hoovervilles and Shantytowns built with? Absolutely anything that would provide shelter. Odd pieces of wood, stones, loose boards, crates, cardboard, scraps of other materials, old bricks and parts of boxes,

Reasons for Homelessness: Homeowners lost their houses when they could not pay mortgages or pay taxes. People who rented their homes fell behind with the rent and were evicted by bailiffs.

How many people lived in the Hoovervilles in the 1930s? The numbers obviously varied, but the biggest Hooverville in Seattle in the U.S. state of Washington served as the home to 1200 people. The shanty town was so big that people established their own community government and elected a 'mayor' as their leader to settle any disputes. The Seattle Hooverville covered nine acres of land on the tidal flats adjacent to the Port of Seattle. Seattle was also the location of seven other shantytowns.

Hoovervilles were racially integrated. Black and white Americans and immigrants from all over the world shared the camp sites. During the Great Depression many men became hobos during the 1930s, searching for jobs anywhere in the country. The easiest way to travel across the country was by train and Shantytowns, nicknamed 'Hobo Jungles' sprang up by most city railroad stations.

As the Great Depression deepened people protested and launched hunger marches. WW1 veterans formed what was called the Bonus Army and 40,000 people descended on Washington D.C. and set up makeshift camps on areas such as the Anacostia Flats. 

Homeless people were forced to live in absolute poverty in the Hoovervilles or shantytowns in the 1930s.

  • The Floors of the shacks were often made of dirt, clay or mud
  • Access to safe drinking water was limited and only available from ponds and rivers
  • The sanitation facilities were totally inadequate - latrines were dug in ditches
  • Tents and makeshift shacks provided inadequate shelter during inclement weather conditions
People who lived in Hoovervilles did not have access to medical facilities and the living conditions in the shanty towns bred sickness and disease. In cities people lived wherever they could find shelter under bridges, on subways and in public parks. Americans in rural areas made homes in caves. During the winter months people even asked to sleep in jail cells.

Inhabitants living in the primitive conditions of the shantytowns were subject to many health problems. Inadequate sanitation, lack of clean drinking water and poor nutrition lead to a variety of diseases and illnesses such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, diarrhea, rickets, influenza, pneumonia and skin diseases.

The state described as 'absolute poverty' has been described as "a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information". The inhabitants of the Hoovervilles and shantytowns in the 1930s were deprived of many of these basic needs - for additional facts refer to Poverty in the Great Depression

New York City saw the emergence of many Hoovervilles during the 1930s:

  • Homeless people set up camp at an empty reservoir - now the Great Lawn at Central Park. It was called "Hoover Valley" and the shacks were referred to as "Depression Street". It was demolished in April 1933 when work on the reservoir landfill resumed
  • Other shantytowns in New York were given their own names:
    • "Hardlucksville" was at the end of 10th Street on the East River
    • “Camp Thomas Paine” was set up along the Hudson in Riverside Park
  • Red Hook, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York City also had its own shantytown

During the Great Depression of the 1930s author John Steinbeck wrote "The Grapes of Wrath" about the lives of the people living in the Prairies states and the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl. In his famous novel  the Joad family briefly settles into a Hooverville in California. In "The Grapes of Wrath" the camp is described as filthy, filled with hopeless, despairing residents. There was no work, people were starving and the local police repeatedly burned down the camp.

Many authorities frequently tolerated the shantytowns out of sheer necessity. Others responded to complaints by people in the neighborhood and evicted the inhabitants and burned the shacks.

The Great Depression drew to an end with the outbreak of WW2 and municipal programs aimed at "eradicating" shantytowns destroyed all the Hoovervilles.

US American History
1929-1945: Depression & WW2

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