“They paid us partly in groceries.”  -Elmer Sipple, Hawken faculty member

U.S. History: 1930s

After the onset of the Great Depression in the fall of 1929, unemployment in the U.S. soared during the early thirties. The hope and optimism characterized by the American Dream began to fade; many people headed west in hope of a better life. To add to the despair, the worst drought in US history led to the “dust bowl years,” a time when many families were forced to abandon their farms.

In the first few years of the Depression, the average family income was reduced by about 40%. By 1933, nearly 1/3 of the population in the US was unemployed. Schools were hit particularly hard, as taxes went unpaid and funding for textbooks, supplies, and teacher salaries was in short supply. The decade saw an economic shift toward more government regulations, and the fundamental changes in lifestyle brought on by the Depression in part caused a rise in radical politics.

Entertainment became more important than ever in the 1930s as a means of keeping spirits up. People came together to enjoy some of the simpler things in life: board games, spectator sports, radio shows, and movies. It was during this decade that the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted its first members: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Babe Ruth. People danced to the big bands of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman and delighted in the debut of Superman and Mickey Mouse comic strips. The 30s marked the designation of “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem; the publishing of the first Dick and Jane books; the discovery of the ninth planet, Pluto; and Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The era is sometimes referred to as the skyscraper decade, as the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center were all completed early in the decade. Another highlight of the times was the completion of the Hoover Dam (then called the Boulder Dam) in 1936.

As the Depression began to wane, a promising yet uncertain future was looming on the horizon. In 1939, just a few months after the New York World’s Fair opened with its slogan “Dawn of a New Day,” Germany attacked Poland, marking the start of World War II.

1930s Prices:
  • First-class stamp: $.02
  • Average home: $7,145 in 1930 and $3,800 in 1939
  • Gas: $.10 per gallon
  • Eggs: $.18 per dozen Prices:
Famous People:
  • Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo
  • W.C. Fields, Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers
  • Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
  • Dr. Seuss
  • Frank Lloyd Wright
Popular Movies:
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Gone With the Wind
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  • The Wizard of Oz
Government and Politics:
  • Franklin Roosevelt defeats Hoover in 1932 and begins to broadcast his “Fireside Chats,” influencing public opinion
  • Workers gained the right to unionize with the passing of The Wagner Act of 1935
  • The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was founded, improving working conditions for blue-collar workers.
  • 21st Amendment was passed in 1933, repealing Prohibition
  • The Social Security Act is signed into law in 1935
  • Wealth Tax Act begins
  • Emergency Relief Appropriation Act create millions of jobs
Popular Songs of the 1930s:
  • “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
  • “Anything Goes”
  • “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”
  • “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”
  • Scotch tape
  • The jet engine
  • Tea bags
  • Ballpoint pen
  • Nylon
  • Electron microscope

Hawken in the 1930s

Hawken was hardly immune to fallout from the Great Depression; in fact, financial concerns dominated the better part of the decade.  Enrollment diminished as students were lost to Park and other schools that were more affordable. Hawken attempted to ease the burden for remaining families facing overdue accounts by temporarily reducing tuition from $375 to $300 and transportation from $75 to $70, but the school’s commitment to small classes required a comparatively high tuition rate.  The Depression took a significant toll on faculty, whose salaries were reduced by half in March of 1933.
The 1930s also brought more changes in the school’s structure and leadership.  John Carney resigned abruptly in 1931 after fourteen years of service to Hawken to take a teaching position at the Riverdale School in New York. The tribute to him in the 1931 edition of The Red and Gray Book reads: “By the resignation of Mr. John J. Carney from the
Headmastership, the School loses an able administrator, the boys a true friend, and the faculty a skilled leader and a sympathetic co-worker.” With Carney’s departure, Charles Stephens assumed the role of head of the Upper School. Carl N. Holmes was chosen as Hawken’s next headmaster and would continue in that capacity for the next twenty-four years. Described by Hamilton Eames as “sensitively aware of the principle and ideals which animated the school,” Holmes was “determined that no depression, no economic catastrophe, would stifle this particular educational opportunity.”  

Board leadership underwent change in 1932 as well with the resignation of then president Joel Hayden, who left Hawken for Hudson Academy, now Western Reserve Academy. Hayden was replaced by R. Livingston  Ireland, described later as “the soul of generosity.” “Liv” would continue as board president for the next 32 years. Tom White joined the board that same year and oversaw the school’s finances – no small task given the times. One proposal to help remedy the bleak scenario was a potential merger with other schools – Park and the nursery school of Western Reserve University; however, concerns about differing standards and ideals kept the school leadership from going down that path.  Another financial strategy that was adopted seemed counterintuitive and risky: increasing scholarships to attract new full-pay students, who would improve enrollment figures and enrich the student body. It worked. In 1932-33, 33 of 75 students received scholarship assistance; by 1937, 39 out of 135 received scholarship assistance.

It was during this decade that the Board decided to drop grades 11 and 12. Spending scarce dollars to maintain these grades, when most boys left Hawken after ninth or tenth grade to attend boarding school, simply did not make good fiscal sense. In 1936, they decided to cut tenth grade as well. The strategy served not only to address immediate financial concerns but also was intended to distinguish Hawken from University School. This “something special” that Hawken had to offer resulted in an increase in marketing and advertising ( a relatively new concept for independent schools), an increase in enrollment, and a decrease in both scholarships and the deficit. But the school still wasn’t in the black.

As the Depression began to ease a bit in the mid-30s and enrollment strengthened, teacher salaries were gradually restored. In 1935, Holmes’ salary was $10,000; Smeed was paid $4000 and Sipple $2800. Given the economic climate in the U.S. during the Depression, Holmes was well-paid – no doubt as a result of Frances Bolton’s offer to subsidize Holmes’ salary in order to secure him as head. Holmes’ son Peter ’41 later shared that “as Hawken’s fortunes improved, Dad insisted that any salary increases awarded him be given to the faculty; I don’t think he accepted a salary increase until the early ‘40s.”

The need for distraction and levity during this financially wrought era brought new extra-curricular activity to campus, including the Hawken Circus, which ran from 1931-1933. In 1934 the circus was replaced by “A Day in Athens.”  The circus was brought back in 1935, only to be discontinued because an influential trustee deemed it “non-educational.” The decade also marked the first Father’s Day at Hawken (1931), where fathers joined their sons for chapel, lunch, and a father/son baseball game. Other firsts in the 1930s include the start of Hawken Day Camp, which provided additional revenue for the school, and the establishment of the Vikings and Cyclops in the lower grades.

In typical Hawken fashion, new academic features continued to be introduced as well; looking back to the thirties many years later, Liv Ireland recalls, “Hawken has always been a leader in carefully studied and worked-out innovations.”  In that decade, teachers experimented with an approach called “The Hawken Work Plan” - a method of instruction marked by “self-regulated study periods” that gave teachers freedom to differentiate and students the opportunity to accelerate or remediate. Faculty reviews of the trial period were mixed. Stephens commented that “there is much in the plan to cling to, which can be had without forsaking what was good in the old plan.” McCarthy was a bit more direct and less diplomatic; after briefly generalizing the good points, he recounted in significant detail the drawbacks of the plan before adding, “However, I refuse to be called reactionary, or too old to learn new tricks. I shall continue to look for good in this plan, and to give it a fair trial.” Also instituted was the first French table for grades 5 and 6, where no English was permitted. And perhaps most notably, the “Courtyard Chatter” section of the 1932 edition of The Red and Gray Book makes mention of a phenomenon called “Chapel Talks.” The section reads in part, “These talks were instigated by the faculty for the double purpose of improving the histrionic or oratorical abilities of the boys…and of banishing any stage-fright which they might have.” The writer then ended with a prophecy of sorts: “Altogether these were highly successful and will undoubtedly become another of the school’s customs if they can be kept up.”

It was also during the 1930s that Hawken began its first newspaper, The Lower School Chronicle, which was published “now and then.” The publication was prepared in Hawken’s own print shop, known as The Hawken School Press. Equipment included a hand press with several trays of moveable type. David Russell recalls, “One of my hobbies being printing, it was real fun for me and Mort Smeed to work with the kids.” Some of their products included the Christmas program, circus programs, and a book created by Mort Smeed’s sixth grade history class entitled “The Scarlett Hawk.” The Hawken Press also printed the initials of the boys on their hymn books that were used at morning and evening assemblies. The Red and Gray Book from 1931 reads, “The circulation of The Lower School Chronicle has increased from 100 copies of the first edition to approximately 215 copies of the 1931 issues. Of these, 91 subscribers receive their copy by mail. These are sent to readers in 29 different cities located in 10 different states. Two subscribers live abroad.”

The 1930s were thin years, but the school, its leadership, and its loyal supporters seemed more determined than ever to continue to build on its solid foundation. Hamilton Eames wrote that as this challenging decade unfolded, “The economic weather slowly began to clear; enrollments increased; confidence in the future grew more assured.” No doubt much of that confidence was instilled by Carl Holmes, who “led the school with sympathy, understanding, and warmth” in a way similar to that which was “first indicated by Mr. Hawken.” It should come as little surprise, then, that by decade’s end, enrollment had risen to beyond capacity, and plans for further expansion were underway.

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