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Hoovervilles

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Hoovervilles

Hoovervilles were large homeless encampments, resulting from the Great Depression. The phenomenon of these shantytowns popping up outside of cities in the United States in the 1930s was one of the most visible symptoms of the Great Depression. Like many elements of the period, these settlements remained through the Hoover administration until World War II. Its significance can be seen in how Hoovervilles defined the bleak economic reality and the necessity for a radical change in the United States housing, labor, and economic sectors.

Hoovervilles, A man a cat and a cradle in a shantytown StudySmarterLife in a Manhattan Hooverville. Flickr (CC0).

Definition of Hoovervilles

Hoovervilles were defined by their context. In 1929, the United States economy collapsed into the Great Depression. As the economy soured, many no longer had the income to afford rent, mortgage, or taxes. As a result, lots of people lost their homes. With a massive newly created homeless population, these people needed somewhere to go. Those places became to be known as Hoovervilles.

Origin of the Term "Hooverville"

The term Hooverville itself is a partisan political attack on Herbert Hoover, who was the President of the United States at the time. The term was coined by the publicity director of the Democratic National Committee in 1930. Many felt that the government had to help those who lost work in the 1930s. However, President Hoover believed in self-reliance and cooperation as the way out. Although private philanthropy did increase in the 1930s, it was not enough the keep people out of homelessness and Hoover was blamed.

Hooverville was not the only term created to link President Hoover to the poor economic conditions of the Great Depression. Newspapers used to cover sleeping homeless people were termed "Hoover Blankets." An empty pocket turned inside out to show there was no money inside was called a "Hoover flag."

Hooverville Great Depression

During the Great Depression, the standard of living in the United States dropped significantly. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the communities of the Hoovervilles. Each of these communities was unique. Still, many elements of their living conditions were common to many Hoovervilles.

Populations of the Hoovervilles

Hoovervilles were largely made up of unemployed industrial laborers and refugees from the Dust Bowl. The vast majority of residents were single men but some families did live in Hoovervilles. Although there tended to be white majorities, many of the Hoovervilles were diverse and well-integrated, as the people had to work together to survive. A large amount of the white population were immigrants from European countries.

Structures that Made up Hoovervilles

The structures that made up the Hoovervilles were varied. Some resided in preexisting structures such as water mains. Others worked to build large structures from whatever they could acquire, such as lumber and tin. Most of the residents lived in insufficient structures made of cardboard boxes and other scraps which were destroyed by weather. Many of the crude dwellings had to constantly be rebuilt.

Health Conditions in Hoovervilles

Hoovervilles were often unsanitary, which resulted in health issues. Also, many people living close together allowed diseases to spread rapidly. The problem of Hoovervilles was so massive that it was difficult for public health agencies to have a significant impact on the camps.

Hoovervilles History

There were many notable Hoovervilles constructed across the United States in the 1930s. Hundreds dotted the map. Their populations ranged from hundreds to thousands of people. Some of the largest were in New York City, Washington, DC, Seattle, and St. Louis. They often appeared near sources of water such as lakes or rivers.

Hoovervilles A black and white photograph of the Hooverville in Washington DC StudySmarterWashington, DC Hooverville. Flickr (CC0).

Hooverville Washington, DC

The story of the Washington, DC Hooverville is an especially controversial one. It was set up by the Bonus Army, a group of the WWI veterans who marched to Washington to demand immediate payment of a WWI enlistment bonus they were owed. When the government stated that there was no money to pay the men, they set up a shantytown and refused to leave. Eventually, the issue grew violent and U.S. soldiers burned the shantytown to the ground.

Hooverville Seattle, Washington

The Hooverville established in Seattle, WA would twice be burned down by the local government until John F. Dore was elected as mayor in 1932. Beyond the main Hooverville, several others would crop up around the city. The situation stabilized as a diverse "Vigilance Committee," led by a man named Jess Jackson, oversaw 1200 residents at the camp's height. When the city of Seattle needed the land for shipping purposes at the onset of World War II, the Shack Elimination Committee was established under the Public Safety Committee. The main Hooverville in the city was then burned down by police on May 1st, 1941.

Hooverville New York City, New York

In New York City, Hoovervilles cropped up along the Hudson and East rivers. One of the largest in New York took over Central Park. A large construction project in the Park had been started but went unfinished due to the Great Depression. In 1930, people began moving into the park and setting up a Hooverville. Eventually, the area was cleared and the construction project resumed with money from Roosevelt's New Deal.

Hooverville St. Louis, Missouri

St. Louis hosted the largest of all of the Hoovervilles. Its population topped out at 5,000 residents who were known for giving positive names to neighborhoods that developed inside the camp and trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. The inhabitants relied on charities, scavenging, and daywork to survive. Churches and an unofficial mayor inside the Hooverville held things together until 1936. Much of the population eventually found work under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and left, including the Public Works Administration (PAW), a project dedicated to tearing down the structures that had been built in that very Hooverville.

Hoovervilles Significance

The New Deal programs of President Roosevelt put many of the laborers that made up the Hooverville population back to work. As their economic situation improved, they were able to leave for more traditional housing. Some public works projects under the New Deal even involved putting the men to work tearing down the old Hoovervilles. By the 1940s, the new Deal and then the United States entering World War II had significantly jumpstarted the economy to the point where Hoovervilles largely vanished. The Hoovervilles had found a new significance as a litmus test, as they faded away, so too did the Great Depression.

Hoovervilles - Key takeaways

  • Hooverville was a term for homeless camps which sprung up around the United States due to the Great Depression under Herbert Hoover's administration.
  • The name was a political attack on President Herbert Hoover, who received a lot of blame for the Great Depression.
  • As the economy improved due to the New Deal and WWII, Hoovervilles disappeared during the 1940s.
  • Some Hoovervilles were torn down as public works projects by the very men who had previously lived in them.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hoovervilles

Hoovervilles were shantytowns filled with homeless people as a result of the Great Depression.

Hoovervilles were all over the United States, usually in urban areas and near a body of water.

Poor records exist of most Hoovervilles but sickness, violence, and lack of resources were common in these places, often with deadly consequences. 

Because of the Great Depression, many were no longer able to afford rent, mortgages, or taxes and lost their homes. This is the context that created Hoovervilles on American cities.

Hoovervilles are a symbol of the bleak economic reality of the 1930s.

Final Hoovervilles Quiz

Question

What were Hoovervilles?

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Answer

Shantowns erected by the homeless and unemployed during the Great Depression 

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Question

Who coined the term "Hooverville"?

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Answer

The publicity director of the Democratic National Comittee

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Question

Why was the Seattle Hooverville destroyed?


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Answer

To make room for shipping 

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Why did the population of the St. Louis Hooverville dwindle?

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Answer

People found work under the New Deal 

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Question

Who set up the Hooverville in Washington, DC?

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Answer

WWI veterans 

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Who burned down the Washington, DC Hooverville?

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Answer

The US Army 

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Question

What were Hoovervilles normally located near?

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Answer

Sources of water 

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Question

The New Deal ended many Hooverviles 


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Answer

True 

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By when were most Hoovervilles gone?

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Answer

1940s 

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Question

Why were homeless shaty towns called "Hoovervilles"?

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Answer

Because many people blamed President Hoover for the bad economy

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What structures mostly made of Hoovervilles?


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Answer

Temporary housing made from cardboard and other scraps 

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Question

What were other terms that connected President Hoover with American poverty?

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Answer

 Newspapers used to cover sleeping homeless people were termed "Hoover Blankets". An empty pocket turned inside out to show there was no money inside was called a "Hoover Flag".

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