In the Economic Depression of the 1930s, many Oklahomans, including Norman citizens, had to come to grips with the economic reality that there was little money and fewer jobs. In 1932, some Americans saw hope in the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as President of the United States. In his first 100 days, he proposed to the United States Congress a series of programs that were meant to stimulate the economy and put people back to work. Those programs were the beginning of a storm of government funding that reached every city, every town, and every country side across America. For a small town the size of Norman, with a population of 9,603 citizens in 1930, community leaders did not wait for the government program to save the day; they organized and started programs they hoped would bring economic relief to the citizens, while they waited for the government’s economic response.
Along with growing economic uncertainty in Norman in the early 1930s, there was weak economic leadership in the city. After initial settlement in April of 1889, downtown businesses did organize to promote commerce, but it was not until 1933 that there was a concentrated effort to strengthen Norman’s economic future. It was in that year, that the Norman Chamber of Commerce was formally organized. The organization of the chamber was no doubt due to the economic downturn that many Norman businesses experienced. New Chamber of Commerce leadership believed that there needed to be local economic stimulus programs that encouraged people to buy goods, the hope being that more money would circulate and jobs would be created. The chamber devised several economic programs or events that preceded the influx of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs in the mid to late 1930s. One of the chamber’s programs was called, “Auction It Off.” Citizens were encouraged to bring household items or farm implements to an auction fair, where the sellers could realize some ready cash. The first auction drew a crowd of 300 people. The success encouraged planners to announce future auction dates. The merchants also planned monthly Dollar Days to offer buyers discounted merchandise, while the chamber encouraged farmer markets. With the Farmer’s Market, the thought was that the market could do two things; it could help sell farm produce, and it could bring farmers and town folks together for a common cause. There was evidently an economic, social and perhaps political divide between those who lived in the Cleveland County farming community, and those who lived in the City of Norman. It was the chamber’s plan to bring the two groups together for the economic betterment of both communities.
By the mid-1930s, Oklahoma farmers were suffering from over-production and low commodity prices. The farmers were financially doing well towards the end of WWI and into the beginning of the 1920s. But, America’s post-war agricultural needs were not as great as in the war years. Toward the end of the 1920s, there was a glut of agricultural products on the market, prices began to fall and the farmer realized little for his produce.
Without the same income, it was difficult for many in the farming community to pay their loans; it became a vicious cycle trying to make ends meet. As a result, many Cleveland County farmers joined farmer’s unions. The unions provided support, education on the best farming methods, and cooperatives that helped in lowering the prices of goods. The Chamber of Commerce also encouraged civic groups to organize so that they could coordinate their efforts to help the community’s needy. Over twenty-four civic organizations formed a federation; their mission was to evaluate the needs of the community and to devise programs to help.
In late 1933, the Roosevelt Administration launched the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The formal definition of the programs was “A New Deal agency established to eliminate cut-throat competition by bringing industry, labor, and government together to create codes of fair practices and set prices.” For Norman, the NRA was probably the most intrusive government program that the city had seen thus far. Although the program was not mandatory, the federal government used a tactic from WWI Liberty bond drive; it was a person’s patriotic duty to sign up for the NRA program, you were not patriotic if you did not participate. The social pressure was immense.
Washington NRA officials asked local Chamber of Commerce’s across the country to be the local engine for a successful program in their area. In Norman the chamber members visited every business to ask the owners to sign a pledge stating that they would hire more employees. When or if the business owner signed the pledge, they would get a government card called the Blue Eagle to put in the window of his/ her place of business; consumers were encouraged to only shop where there was a card in the window. The cards had the symbol of a blue eagle, which became the symbol of the NRA.
Blue Eagle cards were also designed for citizens to put in their automobiles or homes showing their sup- port for the NRA program. Newspapers ran ads in support of the program-- “Add a man. It is cheaper to add a man than to give unemployment relief.” By August 1933, president Roosevelt issued further instructions to the NRA. Businesses were now persuaded to shorten work hours and enforce a minimum wage. The idea of shorter work hours would enable more people an opportunity to work, therefore more wages and more spending power. Norman barbers were the first group in Norman to approve a code shortening hours of business. They agreed to limit working hours to a 52hr. week of a 70hr. week, and to set a minimum wage. The Chamber of Commerce asked those who were unemployed, both skilled and unskilled to register with the chamber office.
A citizens committee was appointed by the chamber to visit businesses in Norman to determine the “hold outs;” those who did not sign the pledge. Citizens formed a branch of a national organization called the Blue Eagle. Members of the organization looked for the Blue Eagle cards in store windows to make sure companies and businesses were in compliance with the NRA and the wishes of the Chamber of Commerce. The Blue Eagle organization was organized like a military group. They had generals, lieu- tenant generals, majors, and colonels. They went block to block canvassing the businesses. It is not clear what happened when they found a business out of compliance. By August 1933, the Norman Transcript reported that 50 citizens had received jobs from the NRA program and 68 companies had signed the pledge.
1933 was only the beginning of the difficult economic stretch for Norman and Cleveland County. The next article will highlight the effort of the Chamber of Commerce to up-lift citizens, to keep their spirits high, and to incubate the feeling of economic confidence.
508 N. Peters Avenue Norman, Oklahoma 73069 405-321-0156
Our programs are made possible in part by funding from the City of Norman, an Organizational Support Grant from the Norman Arts Council Hotel Tax Grant Program, and generous donations from visitors and community supporters. We are grateful for the support!