View Full Version : How Did Rich people Live in the 1930's?

07-02-2004, 09:01 AM
Most economists are of the opinion that middle-class life in the USA (today) is much better than the rich had 70 years ago. I have been watching a lot of old movies (TBS, AMC, etc.) and many of the films portray rich people in the decade of the 1930's. These people appeared to live in fine homes, have servants, chauffered automobiles, etc. They were also (compared to today) very formally dressed. As a middle-class American today, it seems to me that I have most of what the rich had then (of course, no servants)..but life today is much easier for everybody.
So, who had a better lifestyle-a rich person in the 1930's,or a middle-class person today?
Damn, I wish I could go around dressed in tophat and tails! :D

07-02-2004, 09:30 AM
Originally posted by ralph124c
Damn, I wish I could go around dressed in tophat and tails!
While it might be fun to go around dressed up like that in a short-term manner, those folks wore way too many clothes on a daily basis for me! I'm imagining (as a woman) 4 or 5 layers of clothing, a 90 degree day, and no air conditioning! No thanks!

There's also the notion that, since I've never been wealthy in this life, there's no reason I would have been in the '30s, either. It would have been work, work, work for me! Again, no thanks!

On a more personal note, I'll say that, if I had been born in, say, 1925, instead of 1961, I would have never lived into adult hood. Modern antibiotics have save my life several times!

07-02-2004, 10:50 AM
First off, those old movies were hardly documentaries. They were targeted at "shop girls" looking for a little fantasy and escapism.

Before the development of air conditioning and forced air heating, rich folk had a summer house at the beach and a winter house in Florida because their regular house was either too cold and drafty or too hot 6 months out of the year.

You needed a chauffeur because somebody had to be strong enough to steer a car without power steering, and perform the virtually daily maintenance it needed just to keep running.

You needed a full-time cook because everything had to be made from scratch, with whatever fruits and vegetables happened to be in season. You needed a maid because the best anyone had was a wringer-style washing machine and a primitive vacuum cleaner. You still had to hang up the laundry and beat the rugs.

I suppose if you were cartoon-character rich enough to have enough servants to wait on you 24/7, life could be pretty sweet. As long as you didn't get polio like Franklin Roosevelt, have a riding accident and wind up addicted to painkillers like Cole Porter, institutionalize your mentally handicapped child like Joe and Rose Kennedy, or die of cancer at age 49 like Edsel Ford.

Spectre of Pithecanthropus
07-02-2004, 11:07 AM
From appearances, it does seem that a certain sector of the middle class lived better than now. In movies of that time, a doctor, lawyer, or reasonably prosperous small businessman always seems to have a live-in maid, which doesn't seem to be true today. And judging from my own parents' households, there seems to be some truth in that. My paternal grandfather was a doctor and a professor in the USC School Of Medicine, and they usually had a live-in while my dad was growing up. It does sound sweet, but given the appliances of the time, I'm sure my grandmother still had plenty to do. The maid helped you, but didn't relieve you of all work.

07-02-2004, 11:13 AM
Well, my grandparents on my fathers side split their time between New York [the company had its main office in New York for merchandising] and a small town in western New York State. They also had a summer house on a nice small lake in western NY.

My father and his 2 brothers were born between 1923 and 1929. They had a govorness for the children, and my grandmother had a ladies maid. There was a live in couple in NY, and another couple in western NY that moved between the town and the lake homes. They had a man in western NY that cared for the yardswork in both the town and lake homes, and my grandfather drove for himself. He took the car to a garage for maintenance. If something went wrong or needed repair, he had workers come from the factory to do the repairs. About every 2 or 3 years they would take 3 months and go on vacations [I have seen footage from a japanese trip in about 1922, their honeymoon, a european trip in mid 20s, Paris and London and a trip to the southwest of the US in about 1935] I know my father was a ski bum before he joined the army in 1939 as I have memorabilia from different ski resorts of the time, and my grandmother favored a few resorts in the south. In 1935 my grandfather comissioned a 39' sailboat from John Alden which we finally sold in 1973, and at about the same time he bought property in Canada and built an additional vacation house there. He said it was easier to build a house there than keep renting - he favored fishing trips in canada, which is also why he ordered the sailboat.

Remembering pictures of them from the period, they didnt dress too different from anybody else, and lived at just above the normal standard of living that we have nowdays - only main difference is in the servants. FWIW, the house in town they had had 5 bedrooms, 3 full bathrooms, a half bath/wc, a formal living room, a family room, a library, a formal dining room and a sizable kitchen. Not inordinately large, nor inordinately small. At the time we had several hundred mills and factories up and down the east coast, and investment portfolio worth an obscene amount that didnt vanish on black monday.

07-02-2004, 11:31 AM
You needed a chauffeur because somebody had to be strong enough to steer a car without power steering

Oh puh-lease. I was driving a car without power steering until less than six months ago, and I ain't no muscle man.

07-02-2004, 12:12 PM
You needed a chauffeur because somebody had to be strong enough to steer a car without power steering

Oh puh-lease. I was driving a car without power steering until less than six months ago, and I ain't no muscle man.

07-02-2004, 01:35 PM
Oh puh-lease. I was driving a car without power steering until less than six months ago, and I ain't no muscle man.

The V-8 Cadillacs of the 1930s typically had a curb weight of more than 4,500 lbs. and the loaded weight of a V-16 could reach 6,000 lbs.

Duesenbergs were even heavier.


07-02-2004, 01:45 PM
Oh puh-lease. I was driving a car without power steering until less than six months ago, and I ain't no muscle man.

Oh puh-lease, automotive technology has increased just a teensy lil' bit from the 1930s. I've driven my father's 1939 truck, and would never in a million years want to try parallel parking it or getting it into and out of small places. Between double-clutching and no power steering, it's a workout to drive the thing.

07-02-2004, 02:52 PM
You are quite right to point out how hard cars of the 1930's were to steer! The interesting thing is, the same power steering system used today (with minor modifications) was patented in 1927 by a Waltham, MA, inventor. Yet, power recirculating-ball hydraulic steering first appeared on the 1954 OLDSMOBILE! Amazing how such a useful invention took such a long time to find acceptance!
For those of you interested..when did automatic transmissions become common? My mother says that my grandfather's 1936 Packard seadn had something called "fluid drive"..I gather it was a semi-automayic transmission (it had no clutch, and it shifted when how backed off the gas pedal).

07-02-2004, 04:20 PM
For those of you interested..when did automatic transmissions become common?

The first automatic transmission was the Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic in 1940.

Bosda Di'Chi of Tricor
07-02-2004, 05:43 PM
Note: during the Great Depression (the 1930s), many or most of America's wealthy livred in Europe, where the Depression was shorter & milder than here.

The Red Scare paranoia of the 20s fostered a fear of possible Communist revolution in the States during this era, & many wealthy families went to Europe.
France was popular, especially the south of France.

07-03-2004, 12:01 AM
While it might be fun to go around dressed up like that in a short-term manner, those folks wore way too many clothes on a daily basis for me! I'm imagining (as a woman) 4 or 5 layers of clothing, a 90 degree day, and no air conditioning! No thanks!
In the 1930s women were hardly wearing "4 or 5 layers of clothing." Undergarments were a bit more modest than today's, but you still only wore your stockings, undies (inluding slip) and overdress.
Thirty years prior, well, then you'd have a point, what with the chemise and the corset and the corset cover and the petticoats and all. But by the '30s? No. There was a whole "Look at us, we're practically naked!" thing during the '20s, after all.

And I've done the lack-of-air-conditioning thing. It's hardly deadly. Uncomfortable, yes, but if you really wanted to you could have a cold drink or take a dunk at the pool. There were ice delivery systems in place, and public swimming was perfectly acceptable for both genders (and once again, the swimwear was much less modest than you might assume; those woolen full-body-coverage items were from the turn of the century, and in the '30s one might have seen bathing beauties dressed something like this (http://www.revampvintage.com/ivy.html)).

I will freely admit to having NO CLUE WHATSOEVER how people managed to live in Texas in the nineteenth century, when women wore corsets and everyone's clothes were confining and layered - but by the '30s I would have no trouble at all.

07-03-2004, 08:48 AM
racinchikki, you're right; I was overstating the state of dress for the '30s. Still, what I wear on an ordinary hot day here would have been scandalous at the time (a pair of panties and a cotton sundress with a tank top under it). I've done the no-airconditioning thing before, too. And you're right, it's hardly deadly, but still as uncomfortable as hell. Especially with stockings on (shudder). But the basic fact remains that I'd rather be middle class with my modern conveniences, modern medicine and more liberal way of thinking (in the '30s, someone like my 17-year-old daughter would have been institutionalized for life, for "mental defects" or something like that), than rich in the '30s.

07-03-2004, 09:39 AM
I think even being super rich in the 1930's would have sucked just because of the time period. We really have built up a whole segment of modern conveniences that make up for not having servants. We've mentioned AC, but there's also the vacuum cleaner, making fully carpeted floors more sensible, and better insulation, and more of a sense of space within the house.

I've seen some former rich folks places from the 1930's and the rooms are too small, they're drafty, and the floors are cold. I would take a modern apartment over those any day.

And what's the point of being rich if not to have bikini clad house bunnies? I'm seriously thinking that a young man of average attractiveness who is middle class today could get way more than the average rich guy in the 1930's. Not that rich guys in the 30's didn't get any, I just think I could give them a run for their money today without even being rich.

07-03-2004, 10:27 AM
I think it's really only fairly recently that having household help went out of vogue. I mean I can recall when I was a kid in the late 60s, and almost everyone I knew had some household help - not servants, but a laundress or a cleaning lady or a nanny or a gardener. Those who didn't have hired help had live-in Grannies. We were barely middle class and we did.

My husband's family had a Brady Bunch style "Alice" named Margaret, who was "inherited" from his paternal grandparents - they hired Margaret in the 30s. His family was wealthier than many during the Depression (bunch of lawyers and judges) and they had their regular year-round residence in Illinois plus a winter home, first in Florida, then later in Arizona. In addition to Margaret, who did housecleaning, cooking and nannying, they had a gardener twice a month and a laundress once a week. They traveled frequently, shopped at Marshall Field's, and did charity work.

The clothes were not dreadfully modest, but they were made a good deal differently - no synthetic fabrics, no tumble dryers, so almost everything had to be line-dried and then ironed. They had a vacuum cleaner, but it wasn't anything like you'd see today - it looked more like an octopus and it weighed a ton. (Actually, now that I think of it, the vacuum may be from the 40s.)

And finally, my father-in-law recently related to me the story of his first car, purchased in 1931. There were two models, he said, the Standard and the Deluxe. The Deluxe had a radio and running boards. He said the one thing that strikes him as progress since then is that back in the 30s, you could COUNT on blowing at least one tire on any trip longer than 100 miles or so. He remembers that anyone going on a long trip would just automatically purchase two extra tires before leaving.

07-03-2004, 10:48 AM
My maternal grandparents purchased a rather large house in 1931-my grandfather bought it from a stockbroker who had gone bust. By today's standards, the house was quite large..it had two stories, and 5 bedrooms..but only one bath. I can remember visiting it as a kid..I was always intrigued by the dining room..it had a floor switch, connected to an electric bell in the kitchen..so that the master of the house could signal the maid in the kitchen (to begin serving dinner). The house had a built-in garage (it was built in 1923)-this is a clue that the original owners were quite wealthy.
Servants were quite common in the 1930's..whereas today,only the very rich have them.
As I say, I'd like to have a driver..and a butler. Someone who willmix drinks and pass me the newspaper!

Paul in Qatar
07-03-2004, 11:19 AM
If only for medical reasons, I would prefer to be middle-class now than rich then. Whenever I am in the States my family gets together for dinner. My dad would have died twenty years before he did due to his heart, my mom would be blind to glaucoma, my older brother would have never made it past his first year due to birth defects. Joe is a diabetic.

No doubt, the good old days are now.

07-03-2004, 11:29 AM
Once clue would be to take a drive to the part of town that was considered new and upscale in the 1920s and 1930s. Shaker Heights, Ohio; Buffalo's Nye Park, Central Park and Snyder neighborhoods; South Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, or Park Hill in Denver to give a few examples. You'll find some pretty large houses, and a few over-the-top monster homes. Cleveland has some extremely wealthy suburbs, first developed in the 1920s -- Waite Hill, Kirtland Hills, Pepper Pike, Moreland Hills -- where houses are usually on lots of 10 to 100 acres.

Now, drive to a newly developing area that's considered over-the-top. Homes there are, on an average, much larger than the 1920s upscale areas, but there are fewer castles, if any. Many of the outrageously-sized houses from the 1920s, typically over 20,000 square feet, have either been town down or reduced in size; they are just impossible to maintain noways given the lack of domestic labor available, labor costs, utility expenses, and property taxes. Even today's millionares would find it costly to heat a drafty, 1920s-era robber baron mansion.

Right now, I rent a house that was considered a move-up home when it was built in the late 1940s. Three bedrooms, one bathroom, small bedrooms and a tiny bathroom,, chopped-up floor plan, and only one or two electrical outlets in every room. Big back yard, though.

07-03-2004, 12:55 PM
Damn, I wish I could go around dressed in tophat and tails! :D

You can try it for a night, not for the faint of wallet.


Or live it part time


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Sam Stone
07-03-2004, 03:48 PM
As far as controlling heat, don't forget one aspect of architecture that was very popular then, and which has faded away with the advent of better insulation and air conditioning - the sun porch. In fact, according to some social theorists the culture changed with the advent of air conditioning, because people used to go outside on their porches, which would cause them to become closer to their neighbords. Now people shut themselves inside their houses, which erodes the sense of community somewhat.

I actually lived for a long time in much the same way people in the 30's would have - my grandparents were poor farmers, and I lived with them for long stretches of time (every summer until I was 18, and I lived there and went to school for a couple of years when I was younger). We did not have running water, or indoor toilers. Our house was built in the late 1800's, and was largely unchanged from then. We had an outhouse, and a hand pump in the house connected to the well (luxury!), and a giant cast-iron wood burning stove in the center of the house. The stove was used to cook supper, and the heat from the stove would warm up the house while we got ready for bed. In the winter, we'd pile what felt like 20 pounds of blankets on top of us, because by morning the house would be ice cold. Midnight bathroom runs were a real adventure.

I still remember when my grandmother got her electric wringer washer. It was a big, big deal to her. Until then, washing was an amazing chore. Hand-scrubbing each piece of clothing on a washboard. Wringing them by hand, or with a crank-operated mechanical wringer. Then you'd have to take them out and hang them on a line, and then take them down later.

When I first got old enough to work the farm seriously, I used to drive an old Case tractor that dated from the 1930's. So I know a bit what that part of it was like. It had a hand crank on the front which could break your arm if you weren't careful. It had a hard metal seat on a spring for shock absorption. Riding that thing was loud, hot, and very, very dirty. At the end of a cultivation day, you'd be just black from head to toe.

Which brings me to bathing. Preparing for a bath consumed at least an hour. We would heat pots and kettles on the stove, and pour them into our tin bathtub. It takes a LOT of kettles to get a reasonable amount of hot water. And then we would share all the bathwater, because it would be far to much work, and waste far too much water, for each bather to get his own fresh tub. And of course, just to heat the kettles meant hauling wood, stoking the stove, getting the fire going, etc.

The people who have really been helped by technology in the past 70 years are not the rich. They had servants. The people who really did better were the poor, the lower middle class, and women. Women, especially. I am still amazed at how much work my grandmother had to do back then to keep the household going. From keeping her own garden, to making clothes and constantly repairing them, to having to can food for the winter, she was BUSY. All the time. When we woke up in the morning, she had already been up for an hour making breakfast and preparing clothes and such for the day (and we were up at 5:30 or 6). At night, when the men could relax and chat, she would be mending clothes, cleaning, washing, getting baths ready, you name it.

The poor and middle class today live like the rich did then, because we have technology to replace all the servants, and mass production to replace the expensive, handmade things the rich had then. But the rich in the 1930's lived fine lives. Medical and dental care lacked, but in terms of living quality it wasn't so bad. They had electricity, and radio, and nice cars, and warm homes.

Sam Stone
07-03-2004, 03:50 PM
"Toilers"? I meant indoor toilets.

07-04-2004, 04:48 PM
My mother (born in 1929) thought her aunt and uncle were rich because they had butter. It's all relative.

07-05-2004, 02:17 AM
It's a tough comparison. Even those we call poor now often enough have cars and televisions.

But little security.

My mother was raised as a New York City rich kid (Grandfather was an inventive engineer who made a bundle, and then blew it in the '50s and '60s). Their house in Brooklyn was plenty big, but nothing compared to the mansions I see today. They had an upstairs maid, a cook/chief housekeeper (and then housekeeper when the upstairs maid became history) and a chauffeur/butler. All that household staff would seem intrusive to me now.

She went to a private school, they had a summer place (and moving for the season would seem like a huge PITA to me) and took long vacations every year (they spent August of 1939 in Germany).

It might make a better comparison to contrast the lives of the wealthy from the 1960s or 1970s to that of the middle class of today. The house I grew up in had a servant buzzer underneath the carpet in the dining room (not that we had any servants) and, like all the other houses in the neighborhood, had a servant's quarters built onto the garage (not what is commonly called a garage apartment).

07-05-2004, 02:52 PM
I agree that life is more comfortable, if less elegant, now than it was in the 1930s. What I really regret, though, especially as an apartment-dweller, is the increased noise. Now *everybody* has a TV and a stereo, often in every room, and definitely has a telephone in every room. I am a quiet, quiet person and my neighbors drive me nuts. My parents lived in dormitories and apartments in the 1960s and 1970s and say they never had the noise problems I do (a motorized treadmill in the room below my bedroom! That she uses at 6 a.m.!)

Vacations were so long because it took so darned long to *get* anywhere.

07-06-2004, 12:10 AM
Sorry for the double posts, though they are several hours apart. I thought of something else: remember life before the "information superhighway"? Remember life before cable TV? Before really big bookstores (when Waldenbooks was the best bet)? I'm dating myself by not thinking of even more information-deprived times, but my point is that a modern consumer would have gone stark-raving mad over how difficult it was to look anything up. I think that the increased availability of information today trumps a lot of the advantages that a rich person enjoyed in the 1930s.

07-06-2004, 01:56 AM
As I understand, domestic help was a lot cheaper "back then" than it is today. In the 30s, jobs were somewhat scarce, especially for women, and more especially for women of color. Once factory positions became more widely available, domestics bgan demanding more than their usual pittance. Households had to compete, wage-wise, with the factories, and most couldn't afford to pay that much.