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Special Collections — Great Depression Resources

This guide describes a variety of materials from the CUA archives and rare books library pertaining to Catholic responses to the Great Depression (ca. 1929-1941).


This guide describes a variety of materials held by Catholic University's Special Collections, namely:

  • the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, and
  • the Rare Books Collection.

The guide is meant to highlight not only materials that deal expressly with the economic crisis of the Great Depression, but also those that reflect the history and culture of the 1930s more generally.

Following the stock market crash of October 1929, the United States plummeted into an economic depression from which it would not fully recover until the onset of World War II. The Great Depression rippled around the world, devastating economies throughout the decade of the 1930s. In 1933, unemployment peaked in the US and Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the office of the president. Although economists generally agree that WWII was the decisive factor in lowering unemployment, FDR’s series of New Deal programs is widely credited with stimulating economic recovery in the years leading up to the war. The Archives holds the personal papers of several men who were known for their advocacy of the New Deal, including Patrick Henry Callahan, John O’Grady, Francis Joseph Haas, and last but not least John A. Ryan—nicknamed “Right Reverend New Dealer.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Archives’ Social Justice Collection is made up of issues of the national weekly publication of the National Union for Social Justice (N.U.S.J.): the political vehicle of controversial radio priest Charles Coughlin, who was a vocal and influential critic of the New Deal. Those interested in the role that Catholics played in FDR’s 1936 re-election should also check out the American Catholic History Classroom site, Catholics and Politics: Charles Coughlin, John Ryan, and the 1936 Presidential Campaign. Created by Dr. Maria Mazzenga, Curator of the American Catholic History Research Center, the site features digital documents, photos, and teaching resources.

In the popular imagination, Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph Migrant Mother along with John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath might be two of the most enduring cultural representations of the Great Depression. But these depictions of rural poverty belie the opulence of another contemporary artform. The Golden Age of Hollywood took off in the 1930s with the end of the silent era, the advent of color film, and the emergence of genres like musicals, gangster films, westerns, and screwball comedies. Think The Public Enemy (1931), Modern Times (1936), Snow White (1937), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Stagecoach (1939). In 1933, the church hierarchy founded the Legion of Decency in response to growing concerns about the portrayal of crime (i.e., the glorification of gangsters) and sexuality, among other things, in the movies. The Legion was ultimately subsumed into the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Communications Department/Office of Film and Broadcasting (OFB), for which the Archives serves as the official repository. The OFB records include about 150 boxes worth of film reviews and ratings for movies released from the 1930s onward. In addition to the OFB, the Motion Picture Department of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae (IFCA) also began rating movies for schools and general audiences; of particular interest are the radio addresses given during the early 1930s by Motion Picture Department chair Rita McGoldrick.

Meanwhile, the 1930s witnessed a number of important developments at The Catholic University of America (CUA). Founded in 1889, the university celebrated its golden jubilee (or, 50th anniversary) in 1939. And on New Year’s Day 1936, the CatholicU Cardinals narrowly defeated Ole Miss 20-19 in the Orange Bowl championship. The Archives holds materials related to these and other major events at the university; see The Catholic University of America Photograph Collection as well as the student newspaper (The Tower) and yearbook (The Cardinal).

Caption: Aerial photograph of the CUA campus ca. 1930.