Glamour Amidst Hardship…

We’ve gotten slightly behind on our Dress of the Week posts!  The life of a small non-profit can sometimes be overwhelming and things get forgotten in the shuffle!  However, our Visitor Services Associate, Tyler Dodson, has researched and written a great post about one of our favorite dresses from “Happily Ever After”…    

The Great Depression brings to mind black-and-white images of people in dire circumstances; families living in shanty towns, men waiting in bread lines, dust storms on the Great Plains, shoeless children sitting on porches.  In contrast to those images is Martha Stone Muse’s wedding dress from 1931, which may suggest a side to the era we don’t usually see or hear about.  While the nation faced some of the most severe economic troubles in its history, the people still had a life to live and try to enjoy.

It would be a mistake to think that depression era people simply gave up.  On the contrary, they fought for their livelihood, and they often banded together in their efforts.  This took the form of neighbors that would lend a hand with basic necessities or provide moral and emotional support.  On a larger scale, communities formed soup kitchens and orphanages to help those in the worst of circumstances.  Nationally organized and officially recognized labor unions gave workers some protection from unfair business practices.  And at the top level, President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were a federal initiative to bring the country out of the depression.  These efforts show that, despite the turbulence, Americans were still alive.

They were also still trying to make the best of that life.  Part of the New Deal was also aimed at bolstering the national identity through cultural enrichment; for instance, the Works Progress Administration operated a group of projects in the arts and letters known as Federal Project Number One.  A growing part of that cultural fabric during this time was sports, particularly baseball, which gave Americans a dynamic past time to get involved in.  These games were often nationally broadcasted on the radio alongside the news, music, and interest segments that people turned to for entertainment.  And in the entertainment industry, motion pictures continued to gain popularity.  This was the beginning of the “Golden Era” of Hollywood that lasted through the 1950s.

Jean Harlow, one of those Hollywood icons from the Thirties, might have even influenced Mrs. Muse on the day she picked out her wedding dress.  And like Mrs. Muse’s wedding, there were occasions that transcended the hard times of the era, when life was celebrated.  The marriage of two people was one such event where deep, powerful bonds and human emotion went beyond worldly matters.  Childbirth was similarly extraordinary.  It’s a primal feeling when another life is created, a connection fused by the love that went into making that life, spanning generations.  Even the death of a loved one could be an occasion to remember and celebrate the joyful times in life.  However brief it was – before the uncertainty and despair crept back in – these moments gave people in The Great Depression, and continue to give people, respite from their troubles.

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“Happily Ever After” is on display at the History Museum of Western Virginia through October 16, 2016.  Please come by and check out the 150 years’ worth of wedding inspiration we have on display!

Further Reading

Kennedy, David M.  Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

McElvaine, Robert S.  The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.

Terkel, Studs.  Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.  New York: The New Press, 1986.

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