IF YOU THINK economic matters are rough this Christmas, it's a good thing you weren't around in 1932, when the nation's worst holiday season occurred.
The Depression that had begun in 1929 deepened, and by mid-December 1932, there was little reason for good cheer. Just about every economic index was a bummer. More than 11 million Americans, one-fourth of the labor force, were unemployed. And the nation's long-term solution was bleak: rigorous economies in government, such as the $700 million that President Herbert Hoover hoped to save by reorganization efforts. Short-term plans were no brighter and focused on work-sharing, that is, reducing the hours of the employed in order to hire more of the jobless.
Major cities were on the verge of bankruptcy, and banks were becoming as scarce as hen's teeth. Boise, Idaho, for example, was down to one. Philadelphia had a $20 million debt, with some of its bills over a year old. New York state's legislature convened in special session to extend financial relief to the nation's largest city. But it did it by cutting the salaries of Gotham's government workers.
Christmas Seal sales nationally were the lowest ever, and the number of individuals earning $1 million and over had been cut in half. Wall Street drifted, waiting for good news that never came, except at 23 Wall St., where J. P. Morgan and Company received 7,800 pounds of tea, just in time for Mr. Morgan's yuletide bestowal on friends.
Americans who had hoped for a glass of legal beer by Christmas time were frustrated by an enormous lobby of women equipped with such paraphernalia as a bottle of milk, a loaf of bread, a baby doll and baby shoes. All these, they argued, would be sacrificed if the country returned to booze in any form. Although the House passed a 3.2 percent beer bill on Dec. 21, the Senate adjourned for the holiday without taking any action.
And then there was the weather. Los Angeles recorded new lows in mid-December (42 degrees), as did San Francisco (27). It was 51 below zero in Deeth, Nev., and 40 below in Coalville, Utah. During the same period, Washington recorded its heaviest snowfall in 10 years, and New York City's high on Dec. 17 was only 21 degrees. The cold snap eased by Christmas Day, but not the concern over the number of homeless in the ensuing months of winter.
New York City distributed 185 tons of food to the needy on Christmas Eve; some in the long lines fainted from exhaustion. On the same day, President Hoover began his last Christmas vacation as the nation's leader. He went fishing off the Georgia-Florida coast. And in keeping with the spirit of hard times, he got no fish.
In fact, he didn't even get a nibble.