Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Spring/Section25/Lola Roberts

Vintage photobooth woman

Overview Edit

Lola Roberts was a wealthy homemaker and mother of two in the early 20th century. She was interviewed by Douglas Carter for the Federal Writers' Project on February 1, 1939.[1]

Background Edit

Early Life Edit

Lola Roberts was born in Georgia in the late 1890s and spent some of her childhood in North Carolina. Little is known about her parents, other than that her father was a captain in the Confederate Army and he made his living owning a profitable wholesale-grocery business. Roberts and her mother moved to Pennsylvania shortly after her father’s death, where they lived off of Roberts’ mother’s small inheritance and trust fund. They stayed in boarding houses and moved around frequently until settling in New Jersey, where Roberts would meet her husband.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange depicts the mother of a destitute family in California during the great depression.
Family Life Edit

Roberts' new husband did not like his mother-in-law and forbid her from living with the newly married couple, so her mother moved back to the South. In 1916, Mr. Roberts brought his new wife back to his home in upstate New York and spoiled her with expensive material possessions. Their daughter, Helen, was born one year later. Roberts and her mother wrote to each other frequently and occasionally visited each other in neutral locations, like Pennsylvania or New Jersey, but never in the Roberts’ home in New York. Helen and her grandmother were close, despite their infrequent encounters. Helen was never allowed to leave for college or get a job because Roberts “couldn’t bear for her to be away.” Roberts’ mother died in 1932 and her second daughter, Alice, was born a year later.

Mental Decline Edit

The business of Roberts' husband was severely damaged by the Wall Street Stock Market Crash of 1929 and its aftermath. The couple’s financial stress led Roberts to become gradually more anxious, and she suspected her husband was conducting a romantic affair. He proposed divorce, which was met with Roberts' nervous breakdown and a rejection of the proposal, leading her husband to move away and send monthly funds for Roberts' financial needs. Before Roberts could agree to the divorce, her husband shot himself after years of financial frustration. Roberts collected life insurance and other small sums of money and moved back to North Carolina with her daughters. Roberts' death date is unknown.

Mental Health during the Great Depression Edit

The Great Depression, a period of financial turmoil and poor economic performance after the 1929 Wall Street Stock Market Crash, led to economic distress in the United States and across the world, which caused negative mental health consequences. During this time there were increased rates of people visiting mental health professionals, anxiety, depression, and suicide.[2]

Prior to the stock market crash and the mental health decline of the United States, the 1920s was a period of changing consumer habits. As the US economy grew more productive, the average person could afford more material goods, and soon material goods held great importance to the individual.[3] The national ego was burst by financial crisis, as a society accustomed to assigning personal worth to its possessions was met with a lack of possessions. Affluent members of society were shocked by financial decline, but the hardest hit group was young men.

The suicide rate of young and middle-aged men spiked, because they were no longer able to fulfill the traditional role of American men: to financially serve and support those that depended on them. During a financial crisis many people struggle to find and keep jobs, which negatively impacts the sense of identity and responsibility the individual associates with their job.[4] Men of the Great Depression era were left to defer the role of breadwinner to anyone in the family that could make money, injuring their self-images and outlooks on life.[5]

Married Life during the Great Depression Edit

Wedding party for the marriage of Fred Horn and Rene Harper, April 1938 (8008288187)

When unemployment levels rose and jobs became scarce after the financial crisis, married women were specifically discriminated against in the job market. Long held tradition dictated that married women were wives and homemakers before they had any roles outside the household, so married women were quick to be fired or denied equal access to job opportunities. Several states passed laws, or work bans, prohibiting married women from working; this development was bolstered by a movement of unemployed, single women that felt they had more claim to a job.[6] Assuming that men were then the predominant part of the workforce during the early 20th century, the decline in GDP after the stock market crash led to a decline in the marriage eligibility of men[7]. Men were earning less, so it was harder to find the financing required to start a family, therefore marriage rates plummeted.

While divorce rates did not heighten in response to the stress of the financial crisis, divorce rates during the Great Depression and subsequent years were much higher for couples that married during times of better economic performance than for marriages formed during the Great Depression. This is due to the fact that sudden and extreme economic hardship brought new challenges that couples who had married before the Great Depression were not adapted to overcoming.The fragmentation of relationships was largely due to the declining stability of men as many could no longer support their families and businesses, resulting in more frequent displays of aggression[8]. Researchers speculate that the men that married during times of struggle were better suited for adapting to the shifts of the Great Depression, or they forged relationships that could better handle economic hardship and instability.

References Edit

  1. The Southern Historical Collection at the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. The Southern Historical Collection at the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. UNC University Libraries. Accessed February 25, 2020. https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/686/rec/1.
  2. Modrek, Sepideh, David Stuckler, Martin McKee, Mark Cullen, and Sanjay Basu. “A Review of Health Consequences of Recessions Internationally and a Synthesis of the US Response during the Great Recession.” Public Health Reviews 35, no. 1 (2013): 1–33.http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1464737051?accountid=14244.
  3. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, August 31, 2011. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-now/videos/rise-consumerism-1920s.
  4. “The Psychological Toll of Recession.” Psychology Today, October 20, 2011. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/distress-in-context/201110/the-psychological-toll-recession.
  5. Batchelor, Bob. “Psychological Impact of the Great Depression.” Encyclopedia.com, February 1, 2020. https://www.encyclopedia.com/economics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/psychological-impact-great-depression.
  6. Blakemore, Erin. “Why Many Married Women Were Banned From Working During the Great Depression.” History.com, July 21, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/great-depression-married-women-employment.
  7. Hill, Matthew J. “Love in the Time of the Depression: The Effect of Economic Conditions on Marriage in the Great Depression.” Journal of Economic History 75, no. 1 (March 2015): 163–89. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050715000066.
  8. Liker, Jeffrey K, and Glen H Elder. “Economic Hardship and Marital Relations in the 1930s.” American Sociological Association 48 (June 1983): 343–59. https://doi.org/https://www.jstor.org/stable/2095227.