Camera Rolls: 314:59-61
Sound Rolls: 314:31
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Putnam Livermore , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on July 14, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
OK, take one.
OK, I'd like you to begin by just, putting us back in the time period. It was 1934 and it was a depression. What do you remember as a twelve year old at that time, about the Depression, how it affected you and your family?
Well, I remember, very well, my father coming home being very worried, having lost heavily in the Depression. Loans that were due, our farm being, in danger of being lost, that we'd known in the family, and that he was a very worried man.
Did he talk about it at home, or was it just something that you observed?
No, his mood changed, though. You could see he had a heavy burden, and he didn't talk about it much, no. He did talk about the fact that he wanted to do his part to break the Depression, you know. He was a progressive Republican.
I'm just gonna stop you for one moment, and ask you, when you're referring to 'he' in this case, can you refer to him as your father?
Yeah, sure, sure. Yeah.
OK, so you started to say that your father—
My, my father was what you'd call a progressive, what I would call a progressive Republican in the then-current and historically true tradition of progressive Republicans in California. Hiram Johnson, Jim Rolph was the governor after Hiram Johnson, and then he died. My father knew Hoover, and had a different view of Hoover than, than you usually think of now, you think of the 'Hoover-Depression' I remember my father saying that Hoover wanted us to get out and make jobs, and break the Depression. And so he did that, he tried to do his best, at cost to himself, because things were very tough.
What did, what was your father's occupation, and how did he help to, what did he do to try [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
Well, he was, he was an engineer. He had a machine company, and he was in the gravel business, and also ran a, was interested in all types of heavy machinery, as I said. And of course, in the Depression, that was very tough, you couldn't make the sales.
Do you remember, did people, was there any concern, any fear, that things were not gonna get better? Was there a lack of confidence, or did, was the feeling that things, you know, you'd just have to wait it out, and things would get better?
I think my dad was ultimately an optimist, so he thought things would get better. At the start, in 1934, I think his view was toward then, that. As we went on, over the years, of course it got discouraging, you know, because it went on '35, '36, '37. Then in '38 there was what some people call the Roosevelt Recession, before we got into World War II. So, it was a, but in '34 he was definitely still an optimist, and thinking we'd break the Depression. He thought then that the depressions and recessions were cyclical, you know, that they're boom and bust, this was the way it'd been going back however far you could think, and each time the country would come up higher than before, so I think the people like my dad thought this was part of the business cycle. He referred to it, in fact my grandfather, euphemistically, was referred to having been 'hit by the cycle' once back in 1890, and that meant the business cycle.
Was your family, would you have considered it a middle class...?
My dad, I remember dad saying, In the United States there is no upper class. He said, We're middle class, remember that. No royalty in the United States. I saw, I've seen polls to that effect too, of people don't look on themselves, or didn't then look on themselves as upper class.
Now I know that you said that your family, that your family did experience hard times, was there ever any danger that you felt or they felt of slipping from the middle class into poverty, or was it...?
I was just twelve years old, I don't think I ever thought we'd starve to death, I must say. We had this farm, family farm, and I do remember worrying that we'd lose that. In fact, we had a partner that lived up there, because we only went up there in the summers, and it was a working farm, we kids all worked up there, picking pears and walnuts, and that helped us keep it. He'd had to tell the, our partner that he couldn't pay him anymore to stay there, so he'd have to either live off the land, or leave. So he could have water, and vegetables, he could hunt, and he chose to stay there. He got through it a couple years, and then dad could pay him again. So, that did worry us, but I don't remember, 'cause I had such confidence in dad, that we'd ever not be able to eat.
Let's put us into the election, then, in '34. Governor Merriam, Rolph had died, Governor Merriam was running as a Republican, and I think, people, probably like your family, were quite surprised at this, kind of, this, -what, Socialist-turned-Democrat?- Sinclair, who was running in the [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] campaign. Do you remember what your family, what you read, or what you, you know, what was discussed [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
I do, quite vividly, that there were cartoons in the paper, caricatures of Sinclair, he was referred to as a utopian, Sin-'liar', you know, liar was always emphasized in the cartoons. He had a program, one of those that were going on at that time, which was, I don't remember exactly which one was going on in '34, but there was a dollars every Thursday program, and a Ham and Eggs program, and there was a, 'technocracy' was coming in. It seemed very scary to a kid, you know, 'cause I was told that even then, there was a wave of people coming into California, and they would be voting for these programs that would maybe bankrupt the state, so that on top of being in a Depression, we'd have an insolvent government. You know, I don't know as I thought of those words, but it really, that was what was portrayed. And on the other hand, we all, were, as I said, we were progressive Republicans, for Hiram Johnson, and the many, many reforms that had gone through. We were worried about Merriam, because, coming right after Jimmy Rolph, of course, 'Sunny Jim', former mayor of San Francisco, he wore a carnation in his button-hole and he had a jaunty mustache, and he was a, I guess they'd call him now a 'charismatic', and suddenly Merriam, who succeeded as Lieutenant-Governor on his death, was sort of a dour person.
I remember my dad saying, "Gee, I don't know whether Merriam can make it."
OK, could we stop for a second?
Speeding. OK, take two.
What was the concern about Merriam, and being not, the kind of candidate he was maybe being too conservative?
Well, he was, he was stiff, sort of dour—
I'm going to ask you, when you say, instead of using 'he', if it's possible to use 'Merriam.'
Yeah. Well, Merriam was, I remember how he looked very clearly, contrasted to Sunny Jim Rolph with the carnation, he was very dour, you know. He wasn't a dramatic speaker. He was also very conservative, whereas both Hiram Johnson and, and Sunny Jim Rolph, not quite so much as Johnson, were progressive Republicans, which my dad and mother were.
Did, was there a fear that, the Republicans had been in office for forty years in California, but, actually, you could lose in this election?
Oh yes, absolutely, I think the, you know, politics change, the pendulum swings, people get tired of the incumbent party. I don't think I knew of those concepts of that time, but I do now, and I'm sure everybody was worried about this.
You, do you remember your parents at all talking about they were concerned that Merriam couldn't, wouldn't be able to win?
Oh yes, they were very worried.
Can you tell me about that?
Yes, they, they worked, I remember saying we had to get out and work-
Again, could you say 'my parents', or 'my father'?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
** dad and mother, were talking about getting out and working. They were worried that,
** because, Sinclair was radical, very, very radical, and Merriam was more conservative than the progressive Republican governors before, and was sort of a dour-looking person, and
** there'd been an immigration to California, that the electorate would change. Again, I didn't know this when I was a kid, but I know that they were worried that the turnout of the vote, the Democrats would be motivated to get out the vote and the Republicans wouldn't care because they didn't like Merriam.
—what it meant to be a progressive Republican.
This is not from recollection, but from knowledge of the history of the state. 'Progressive Republican' was sort of like a Teddy Roosevelt Republican in California, or I guess, LaFollette in Wisconsin. The parties and the leaders were [coughs]- excuse me, maybe you better cut that, I guess—
We're still rolling. I'm gonna have you slide forward just a little bit, there you go [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .
Roosevelt and LaFollette and Hiram Johnson brought about real progressive reforms. Conservation in California, and Hiram Johnson brought in the referendum initiative. Workers comp, it was called the workman's comp, then; the railroad commission, which was like the public utilities commission. He helped break the power of the Southern Pacific Railroad over the legislature, he broke the power of the political parties, took away the right to endorse. So, they were doing things that set the model for the country, of political reform, and my parents were for these things. They were very much for Hiram Johnson.
Was the campaign, the governor's campaign, was it directed 'against Sinclair', or was it more 'for Merriam'?
Well, I guess my dad and mother tried to be for Merriam and tell his good points, but basically, people were scared of 'Sinc-liar', as they called him, and the whole thrust was to scare people about him, that he was a danger to the state, and the state could go bankrupt.
Do you remember any other points, I mean, were they afraid, were people afraid this his ideas were against the church, against, you know, religion?
I don't remember anything like that, I remember the economic impact, that he was for these unproven schemes, these wild schemes, that were not just progressive like the progressive Republicans, who believed in this economic system that we had, but they were untried, and everybody would get a big payment, I remember that, and people say, Where's it gonna be paid from?
And, and you don't remember anything about, that it [the Sinclair campaign] would be destructive to the family, or [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
No, I don't remember anything like that about the church, or the family.
Sinclair had been a Socialist. Was that a concern of people at that time?
Yes, I remember that, that he was called a Socialist. You know, from time to time in history people are called Communist, whatever that means, it's not a Russian Communist or a member of the Party, but they'd say he's a Socialist, a radical, a Communist, using the terms sort of loosely.
Yeah. And then what was the implication for California, then, or even the rest of the country? Did people feel that it was, you know, that what happened to California could then be extended nationally, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
I don't remember anything like that. I think this was, our focus was strictly in California, except that-
I'm sorry, let's stop. [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Yeah.
Were people afraid of hobos— [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . Ready or not.
Are, were people afraid of hobos at that time? Was it like the, that, you know, the transients, was it like it was now, or do you remember anything like that?
Well, to me, a hobo is different. There are people, they're called 'knights of the road', and they, they are very proud of their community, you know. They work, and have a very colorful life, so I think it's not hobos so much, but people who would be coming in here and taking advantage of the progressive system and being a tremendous economic drain that wouldn't work. That's the way they were pictured, anyway. Of course, they later turned out, some of these migration waves were, turned out to be very fine citizens and people who were just very unfortunate in other states. But that was what was portrayed, that these unemployed were gonna pour in. Then you'd also have these welfare plans, and that the state would literally go under, right in the middle of the Depression.
And so then the feeling that when Sinclair was running, that he would draw these people in?
Yes, he, I think he said that, you know, he actually said that these programs would bring people in.
That was my recollection, anyway.
Let's stop by the San Francisco general strike, for a moment. What do you recall, was that a, was that something that you remember in terms of reading about it, or seeing that, do you remember streetcars and things being shut down, or do you have a sense of...?
No, I don't remember the streetcars being shut down, but I do remember that the city was shut down, the whole city. There was a general strike, there was violence on both sides, with Harry Bridges and Sam Kagel, whom I later got to know, in law school, actually. I think some people were killed, and the employers all got together to form an employer's committee to negotiate with the unions, and it was very scary to a young child.
What was scary about it? Did you feel like things were kinda coming apart, or that there was gonna be violence in the streets?
It was an unknown. I'd never known anything like this. My dad came home, and he, his business, which I'd visited, and I'd always thought was a model place, everybody seemed happy and prosperous, was being unionized for the first time, somewhere around in there. Maybe it was a little later, but this was the start of it, that they wanted to unionize all the buildings. It's easy now to look back because, the Wagner Act and the right to organize, but at first it was a shock, the unions, employees against employers. My dad, I remember, was very upset about this. He just had never seen anything like this, although as far as I knew, to me, anyway, he was a model of a good businessman. In fact, I remember his saying once, he believed that all the employees should have shares of stock in the company. He was working towards that—like an Aesop nowadays.
So they were afraid things had gotten out of hand, in a way?
Yes, and these were scary things, you know. 'Sinc-liar', as they called him, with these unknown plans, uncertain financially backed [sic], the general strike, people being killed in San Francisco, which was a, you know, a harmonious city, mostly, although we've had our problems, like every city. Different groups fighting for jobs as they came in here, but basically, it was, to me as a kid it was a peaceful city, then suddenly you have this scary election, and a Depression, might lose the farm, a dad worried, the general strike, you know. It was a very, very scary time to a tiny little fella. I wasn't so tiny, actually.
And what did, so what did you think was going to happen in the future, did you [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] make sense?
Well, in the case of dad—my mother was from Texas, so the combination of being half-Texan and Californian, that's a pretty optimistic combination. I think we always were told, we'll get through this, you know. You've gotta work, and it's a great state, a great country, and we will get through it.
OK, and was that part of what motivated your parents, who maybe didn't like Merriam so much, to go out and work for him, because you felt that that would stabilize things?
Well, I think it was not so much pro-Merriam, they were disappointed in him, and he was, as I recall, sort of a stuffed shirt to them, pardon the phrase, and very conservative, and not. not as innovative as the governors had been before. But I think it was, it was a worry to a kid, it was transmitted to us. I don't think that completely answers your question, did I?
No, but it's fine to answer it the way you felt at the time. Did—
Would you go, could you give me the question once more?
Oh, OK. The question was, did all of this, kind of, uncertainty, and the scariness of the time, contribute toward your parents feeling that, even though they didn't necessarily like Merriam as a candidate, that they really had, that they have to, that Merriam still would stabilize, as a Republican would come in and kinda bring things back to normal, or—I just was wondering if that—
No, we should change film.
OK, all right.
'Cause we're gonna run out in the middle of the next—
—and, and tell me as if you didn't tell me before [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .
What were your parents worried about, if Sinclair won?
Well, they were worried that there'd be an untried—
I'm sorry, can we wait, please? Let's cut.
OK. Great. Tell me what you remember your parents' concern about what would happen if Sinclair won the election.
my parents were concerned that the plans that he espoused would bankrupt the state. Money wouldn't be worth anything,
** that the progressive Republican years would be replaced by a completely untried program, that these pensions would be put in, and that they would attract people who were already coming out, attracted to California's wonderful climate already, and that particularly at the time of the Depression when everything was so tough, we just would go under.
And there really was a fear that it could, the state could go bankrupt, the government?
Yes, yes it was, I remember. There were these plans they talked about, 'thirty dollars every Thursday', Ham and Eggs, technocracy, all these scary plans that no one, were untried and untested. Whereas, up to then you had steady reforms going in in California, and the economic base had been pretty steady, except for the Depression, of course.
And then you're saying that, as a young kid, that between what you heard and what you read, it was very scary to you?
Yes, I was scared, yes, because dad was having trouble, he'd come home looking worried, we'd hear of family friends having trouble, going broke. We were worried whether we could keep the farm, there were a lot of these things I heard about, so you did think about the future, and everybody was just getting by.
Great, and you said that Sinclair was scary to you as well?
I remember reading in the paper, seeing the 'utopian Sinc-liar', and they always underlined the 'liar', and there were cartoons of people pouring over the Sierra into California, and the combination of that, plus the unsettled times, the Depression, the general strike in San Francisco, produced a pretty scary time around that election.
OK, great. And again, the one other question I want to ask you is, about people, your parents and other people, feeling that you really had to get out and support Merriam and the Republicans because they were concerned that Merriam may not be able to win against Sinclair?
That's right, it wasn't, he didn't produce the enthusiasm-
You, you said he, could you say Merriam?
Yeah. Merriam didn't produce the enthusiasm that Hiram Johnson had, or Sunny Jim Roth, who everybody loved, who was a good governor, and a good mayor of San Francisco. He was very conservative—
—sort of formal, and everybody was—
I'm sorry, let's just start from, again, that 'he was very conservative', because of the big bang—
OK, you can, you can continue with the question.
Yeah. A bus now [laughs].
That, that he—
Merriam was very conservative, sort of a stuffy contrast to Sunny Jim Rolph and the spectacular Hiram Johnson, who'd been governor, and later a senator, so that my dad and mother were very worried that he wouldn't make it. It was an unknown. There seemed to be a lot of support down south, you know, we're up here, of course, Northern California, we were very worried about what was happening down in the south, there seemed to be a lot of support. Sinclair won the Democratic primary, so he wasn't just some third-party person, he did win the Democratic primary heavily. So it was a big worry, and everybody said, Gee, you know, we've, whether you like, think Merriam is a charismatic person, that was the word used there, I guess. But that was the idea, you've gotta get out and work and raise money for him, or, you know, we will be in trouble if we get this scary guy, this Socialist, 'utopian Sinc-liar' elected.
Great. Good answer.
Good, let me just, one last question and later in the decade—wait, just, turn the camera off for a second?
I just want to know whether you—
—why was this a significant case, and whether you remember anything.
Yeah, well, I wouldn't remember anything at the time, but I do later, of course.
OK, what do you remember about it?
At the time I didn't remember, I wouldn't have remembered that, 'cause that was, I would have been maybe sixteen or something of that sort, although I might have known the Supreme Court had passed that, but of course that was the case when California passed the law, you had to have fifty dollars on your person to come into the state of California, which was like an interstate vagrancy law, and the United States Supreme Court said, in a very short decision, said that one of the privileges and immunities of citizenship in the United States was to move freely between the states, so they threw that out.
Do you remember at all later on in the decade, whether there were more migrants, but were more, was it visible to you that there were more migrants coming in, that there were more homeless people entering the state?
It wasn't anything like after World War II, when a million people came in every year, every three years right after the War. But there was some indication, you know, you'd see newspaper stories, there's , particularly down around Monterey and Salinas, there were immigrations.
And were, was there a concern, again, was this something that your parents or you read, that people, or you read in the newspaper or heard, that people were concerned about it. Or was it just accepted that, you know, people keep coming to California?
Sure, no, I don't think there was so much concern. You know people, we were very sorry for the people that then and later were in the Dust Bowl, they were unfortunate people, we had a big state, and I don't think people were that much worried about it. It was just when Sinclair and the pension and the ham and eggs and all that, all together, and his scary kind of a philosophy. We were Republicans too, so, you know, we were, we wanted, we thought we had a good series of governments, governors, and that was part of it, but no, I wouldn't say that there was at that time any great scare. There were a lot of people coming in from the Dust Bowl, now that was, when was that?
Yeah. Well, I think that there was some concern, but not to the extent that, of the fear that was present in the Upton Sinclair election.
OK, good. Did people ever get tired of the poverty and the migration? I mean, was there a, was there always public sympathy for the situation that the people were in, in the country? Or was there a time that you remember, at all?
I don't remember too much. I think that, particularly in the lettuce fields down around Monterey, there was real concern there. But I was pretty young, at the time.
That's fine, OK. Yeah, good, OK. Great, well—