The United States of America witnessed one of the greatest economic depressions in history through the years of 1929-1939. Its effects lingered long after. University students no longer led the frivolous lives they may have years earlier, nor did their studies seem as important in a time when work was an absolute necessity. For some, pressured by family, peers and the society in which they lived, education became secondary in a failing job market. As the economy crashed, so did the hearts of Americans across the country.
The University of Illinois felt the effects of the depression immensely. Roger Ebert, in his work An Illini Century: One Hundred Years of Campus Life, writes "...by 1933 even the familiar chimes of Altgeld Hall were stilled. It was no longer possible to pay the chime player's salary."
Students, however, not only still found time to devote to their studies, but also to distract them from the economic crisis surrounding them. Although some speculated that school spirit was dying, like today, students still took part in university activities such as Homecoming football games, fraternity events and the ever-popular pajama race. Dating was still a concern of many undergraduate students new to college life. The arts flourished during a time that needed them. Parades still marched down the streets of Champaign-Urbana. As can be seen in the photos in this exhibit, the campus remained bright amidst the gloom that consumed the nation at the time.
Included in the Student Life and Culture Archives’ holdings are materials donated by University of Illinois alumni which illustrate campus life curing the Great Depression. A sample of the gifts from Ellsworth Hazzard, an all around athlete and student, and Mildred Chapin, a student devoted to the arts who would later go on to become a university professor of economics, are included in this exhibit. No materials show the will of students to remain zealous in such downtrodden times like Hazzard’s winning score-marked baseball or Mildred’s photo of herself in theater costume as Shakespeare's Puck. One can picture the teammates celebrating their win as they sign the ball. Mildred looks as if she’s beaming after an impressive performance.
Economic downturn aside, student life during the depression was not all that different from today’s hustle and bustle around campus. The walls of Altgeld Hall stood in shining daylight day after day. University faculty and staff like Albert Lee and Fred H. Turner helped students receive the best experience while studying at the university. Though times were tough, students endured and, as the university’s motto suggests, learning and labor were at the forefront of daily life, standing there to this day.