In October 1929, the United States stock market crashed. It signaled the beginning of a major economic crisis that would last for years and extend beyond the nation to affect the rest of the world. Throughout this time, called the Great Depression (1929–41), many people lost their savings, their jobs, and their homes.
When President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) took office the March before the crash, it seemed that the United States was enjoying a period of general prosperity. The economy was thriving. U.S. business was growing, manufactured goods and raw materials flowed from the United States to the rest of the world, and technology was developing at an impressive rate.
The economy, however, was not as strong as it appeared, and many things led to its collapse. Because most citizens were unaware of these factors, they blamed the new president for the onset of the Great Depression. Though Hoover worked to alleviate the nation's economic hardships, he was also against providing direct assistance to the unemployed. He believed such assistance would lower wages to a bare minimum and reward laziness. As a result, some Americans began to use his name to describe the miserable conditions in which they lived.
By 1931, thousands of people had become unemployed and homeless. Shantytowns began to appear throughout the country, mostly within the inner cities, where people built makeshift homes. They built their homes out of cardboard, tin, crates, scrap lumber, and other discarded materials. These communities were quickly dubbed “Hoovervilles.”
The residents of Hoovervilles often assembled simple governments of their own, electing a mayor, city council, and police chief. Tenement houses were bought and sold like other homes, though prices rarely exceeded $30. City health, fire, and law enforcement officials closely regulated many Hoovervilles. They often enacted requirements that tenements be above ground, have a certain number of windows, and be kept clear of debris and human waste.
People also used Hoover's name to label other aspects of the experiences of the poor. When a jobless man wrapped a newspaper around him for warmth, the paper was called a Hoover blanket. When a brokendown automobile was being towed away by mules, it was a Hoover wagon. A man would turn an empty pocket inside out and call it a Hoover flag. Jackrabbits were called Hoover hogs by people who could not afford pork products.
The nation did not begin to recover from the Great Depression until the mid-1930s under the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45). Full recovery came after the United States entered World War II in 1941. The war improved jobs and wages by creating a high demand for manufactured products. Most Hoovervilles disappeared by the onset of war in 1941, though a number lingered through the early 1950s.