St. Louis in the Great Depression

NHPRC logoThe Picturing 1930s St. Louis: Sievers Studio Collection Project is made possible by an NHPRC grant from the National Archives. 

When the stock market crashed in 1929, St. Louis was among the largest cities in the country. With a population of more than 820,000 people, it ranked seventh overall, right between Cleveland and Baltimore. As a result, the early years of the Great Depression hit St. Louis hard.

Black-and-white photo showing men lined up on Market Street, waiting for food and workMen lined up outside of the Volunteers of America building at 1604 Market Street, waiting for food and work, July 1932. Photo by Isaac Sievers. Missouri History Museum.

In 1931, when the national unemployment figures were at 15.9 percent, St. Louis hit 24 percent—that’s almost 200,000 people. When national unemployment rates peaked at 24.9 percent in the spring of 1933, St. Louis had more than 30 percent unemployment—ever the overachievers! If not for the relative success of the women’s garment industry and the return of brewing post-Prohibition, the situation in the Gateway City might have been even worse.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal pushed the federal government to take an active role in getting the country back on its feet, but what did out-of-luck St. Louisans do for the long years before that? The Sievers Studio Collection provides snapshots of how our community was affected and who stepped up to help.

St. Louis’s Hooverville

Most St. Louisans were either directly affected or knew a family that had been hit hard by the country’s economic downturn. Many people stood in long lines to get temporary work, relief, or a hot meal.

All over the country, communities of the newly homeless formed Hoovervilles on public or unoccupied land. Named in “honor” of President Herbert Hoover, whom many blamed for the disaster, Hoovervilles were filled with families living in temporary shelters made of scrap wood, packing crates, and other found materials.

Black-and-white photo of St. Louis's HoovervilleHooverville houses on the St. Louis riverfront, October 1934. Photo by Isaac Sievers. Missouri History Museum.

St. Louis’s Hooverville, home to over 5,000 people, was located on a mile-long stretch of land beside the Mississippi River, south of the Municipal (now MacArthur) Bridge. Within it were more than 600 shacks and 4 churches. It even had its own mayor and a suburb called Hoover Heights.

Charitable Efforts

In order to get St. Louis back on its feet, the city and its citizens contributed as many resources as they could. Between 1930 and 1932, the municipal government allocated $1.48 million of its operating revenue for relief. Voters even approved a $4.6 million dollar relief bond issue in November 1932. Local charitable organizations also kicked in to help. The Salvation Army, St. Vincent DePaul Society, and Provident Association contributed $2 million.

Black-and-white photo of group outside of the Salvation ArmyGroup outside of the Salvation Army in Wellston, Missouri, October 1932. Photo by Isaac Sievers. Missouri History Museum.

One charitable organization that was the subject of several Sievers Studio shots was formed directly in response to the crisis. The Welcome Inn appeared in 1930 as an organization of volunteer charity workers headed by Katherine Franciscus. Its official location was listed as “Under Free Bridge, Fourth and Chouteau.” From that modest spot it distributed food baskets and donations from various businesses and individuals to Hooverville’s residents. The Welcome Inn fed up to 4,000 people each day and provided jobs for some in exchange for produce. By 1935 the Welcome Inn was a substantial organization with many sponsors and chairmen hailing from St. Louis’s business and social elite. Its multiple committees addressed the diverse needs of the city’s homeless population, including food distribution, clothing, coal, shoes, and children’s toys. 

Black-and-white photo of Helen Kane at Welcome Inn auctionSinger Helen Kane (the inspiration for the cartoon character Betty Boop) appeared at a Welcome Inn auction in March 1932. The Welcome Inn secured such celebrities for its fundraising efforts through its connections to St. Louis's elite. Photo by Isaac Sievers. Missouri History Museum.

Thanks to the Sievers Studio, we can move beyond reading statistics to see for ourselves how hard times were in St. Louis during the Depression. We can also see how our predecessors banded together to help each other out, demonstrating the same resilient spirit we all know and take pride in today.

—Amanda Claunch, Archivist, Photographs and Prints

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