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A Child’s Life in the 1930s Compared to Today

Posted on September 28, 2021

The life of a child in the 1930s was very different than a child’s life today. With the Great Depression, children and their families were greatly impacted—millions lived in poverty and had very little to eat, let alone money to spare for entertainment. Read more to compare and contrast how Annie may have lived in the 1930s, versus how you live today.

Courtesy: New York Public Library


1930s: School was considered a luxury for low- and middle-income children. Schools were overpopulated, underfunded, and an estimated 20,000 schools in America closed. Transportation was an issue—there were no buses or cars so children had to walk often long distances. Racism was so prevalent that many schools were segregated. Roosevelt’s New Deal promised for greater access to education, but failed on many accounts. During the Depression, many children took jobs to support the family rather than attend school.
Fun fact: In 1937, Chicago schools used the radio for instruction during the polio outbreak! This was the first time technology was used for virtual education.

Today: Children today are required to attend school from kindergarten through 12th grade and have many options—from home and online education, to public, charter, and private school options. Students in Minnesota generally have access to transportation and segregation has been outlawed nationally since 1964.

Round Base Rotary Dial Monophone


1930s: The radio, newspaper, telephone, and mail were all various forms of communication used in the 1930s. In 1934, the first handset telephone was used by independent phone companies. Its official name was the round base rotary dial monophone.

Today: Between the internet, email, smartphones, video and chat phone apps, children have a vast array of methods of communication and sourcing information.


1930s: With record unemployment, children competed for jobs with their elders to help contribute to their family’s income, often forgoing school. Children of the 1930s were at least protected under child labor reform measures of the 1920s, which limited their workday to eight hours and provided guidelines for employment of minors. Many children were self-employed, collecting junk to sell or doing odd jobs for neighbors.

Today: In Minnesota, no one younger than 14 may be employed. However, there are certain exceptions, including newspaper carrier, actor, and model. Minors younger than 16 cannot use power-driven lawn equipment, such as lawn mowers, weed whips, or hedge trimmers. Chores commonly done around the home are exempt from child labor laws.

Courtesy New York Public Library


1930s: The greatest form of entertainment for most children was their own imagination! Kids used whatever was laying around to create their own games and toys. Girls made rag dolls and kids played school yard games like tag and jump rope. Most kids had a ball and stick to play baseball or kickball and may have had a bicycle or wooden sled. A lot of families had a radio so kids could listen to children’s programs like “Little Orphan Annie!” The most popular books then were Nancy Drew Mysteries, Mary Poppins, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Today: Today’s kids have the world at their fingertips with technology. Podcasts have replaced the old radio shows for kids and online gaming has taken the lead over board games. Today’s most popular book series include Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (catch it later this season!), and books now feature children of color (there were no children of color in books in the ’30s).

Courtesy Santa Rosa History


1930s: Children could only attend a movie theatre to see films. The “talkies,” or movies with sound, debuted in the late 1920s and ushered in the golden age of Hollywood. In 1939, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind were released and the Mickey Mouse Club was shown on the weekends.

Today: Children today have many options to watch movies—from attending movie theatres that serve dinner to streaming movies at home. Many films are created with computer-generated imagery (CGI) and advanced animation technology, which did not exist then. While Marvel Comics started in 1939, the more recent Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the most successful film franchise of all time.

Crown Street Children, circa 1930. © Mary Evans Picture Library


1930s: Disadvantaged families couldn’t afford much for their children, so most of their clothes were cast offs and children often went barefoot. Most middle-income boys wore t-shirts with overalls and girls wore blouses and plain dresses. Both would have one pair of shoes and an outfit for special occasions. If you were a child from a higher-income family, you were pampered from head to toe.

Today: Mostly, today’s American children wear clothing that reflects their personal style, and a wealth of options from big box stores and online shopping outlets with a range of prices. There are also more opportunities than in the 1930s for disadvantaged families to have access to financial assistance to ensure children are clothed and fed.

A Family and Their Radio, 1930s


1930s: The radio program “Your Hit Parade” debuted in 1935 which showcased the most popular songs of the week. Jazz music evolved into different styles with Swing and Big Band becoming prominent throughout the 1930s. Broadway creators moved to Hollywood and adapted their stage shows for a wider audience on the silver screen.

Today: Children today don’t need a radio to hear music—they can stream whatever music they wish to listen to and even create their own music on apps on smart devices, computers, and virtual assistant technology (for example, ask Alexa to play songs from Annie!).

Photo: N. C. Wyeth


1930s: Food was scarce for a lot of families and many children suffered from malnutrition. If you were lucky to live on a farm not ravaged by the Dust Bowl, you might have grown a variety of crops and raised small amounts of livestock. During the Depression, casseroles and meals like creamed chipped beef on toast, chili, macaroni and cheese, and creamed chicken on biscuits were popular. Jell-o was a cheap protein source and found its way into many cookbooks during the Depression. McDonald’s did not exist until the 1940s.

Today: Today’s farms have largely become monocultures (growing one specific crop or raising one type of livestock), and most are owned by corporations, rather than families. These monoculture farming methods are a large contributor to global warming. However, food today is more readily available through large and small grocery stores. While processed foods were available, but limited, in the 1930s, 60% of what we eat today is made up of highly processed foods. Popular options for kids today are pizza, cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets.