For 10 years beginning in 1929, most of the world experienced the largest economic depression in history. The Great Depression devastated national economies, threw millions out of work, and contributed to the outbreak of World War II. In Seattle and King County, the Depression resulted in tens of thousands unemployed and underemployed, the reemergence of organized labor, and a redefinition of state politics. The most enduring symbols of the hard times were the shanty towns called Hoovervilles, thrown up by the homeless. Recovery programs under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) produced an array of public works projects from parks to dams to public housing. The hard times ended with the rapid growth in employment and government spending for World War II.
Days of Crisis
In 1929, just after Republican President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) took office, the U.S. economy contracted, after eight years of unprecedented growth. There followed on October 29, Black Friday, when the Stock Market took a nosedive. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 40 percent of value in eight weeks. Economists and historians cite many causes of this Depression, and all agreed it was the most serious economic calamity yet experienced.
The Hoover Administration took the position that government should not interfere with capitalism, but President Hoover and the Congress did pass protective tariffs on imported goods. This action might have supported domestic industries, but it also served to export the depression to Europe, which in the years since World War I had become heavily reliant on U.S. markets for its goods.
Hard Times at Home
It would take about a year for the full effect of The Depression to hit Seattle and King County. Virtually every sector of the economy was hit. Exports through the Port of Seattle dropped, leaving maritime and dock workers unemployed. Construction, which had boomed in the 1920s, slowed dramatically. Wood products industries reduced production. Manufacturers lost orders and lay off workers or cut back their hours. Coal mining, which had been a foundation of the Puget Sound economy for decades, ended.
Probably the first political group to take action in the hard times after the stock market crash was the Communist Party. They demonstrated against the capitalist system on Armistice Day, November 11, 1929. Mayor Frank Edwards adopted a hard line and ordered 31 people arrested. Nationally, the Communists organized the National Unemployed Council, which had a local affiliate.
This group demonstrated on February 26, 1930 and Edwards ordered more arrests. All the charges were thrown out and Communists continued to hold street meetings. They focused their rhetoric on unemployed seasonal workers the Pioneer Square area. Edwards declared, "There will be no bolshevist or soviet uprisings or demonstrations in Seattle while I am mayor" (Berner, 292). Edwards's pronouncement was typical of responses of conservatives to any proposals for political and economic reform.
In June 1930, massive reductions at lumber mills began, followed by reductions in other industries, particularly the seasonal sectors such as fishing, flour milling, ship building, and coal mining. Those businesses that avoided layoffs maintained wages, but cut back the number of hours worked. Workers shared jobs. By the fall of 1930, volunteerism and local charities were at their limits serving free meals to long lines of jobless men.
There are no reliable statistics, but the best estimates hold that Seattle had 11 percent unemployed in April 1930, rising to 26.5 percent in January 1935 (Berner, 302). Statistics did not account for employees who worked, but experienced drastically reduced wages and could not consume goods and services as they had before. Conservatives believed that relief was the responsibility of charities and local government. But these resources were quickly overtaxed. The unemployed