Homelessness was present before the Great Depression, and hobos and tramps were common sights before 1929. Most large cities built municipal lodging houses for them, but the depression exponentially increased demand. The homeless clustered in shanty towns close to free soup kitchens. These settlements were often formed on empty land and generally consisted of tents and small shacks. Authorities did not officially recognize these Hoovervilles and occasionally removed the occupants for trespassing on private lands, but they were frequently tolerated or ignored out of necessity. The New Deal enacted special relief programs aimed at the homeless under the Federal Transient Service (FTS), which operated from 1933–35.
Some of the men who were forced to live in these conditions possessed construction skills and were able to build their houses out of stone. Most people, however, resorted to building their residences out of wood from crates, cardboard, scraps of metal, or whatever materials were available to them. They usually had a small stove, bedding and a couple of simple cooking implements.
Most of these unemployed residents of the Hoovervilles used public charities or begged for food from those who had housing during this era. They blamed President Hoover for this, and named the town after him. Democrats coined other terms, such as "Hoover blanket" (old newspaper used as blanketing) and "Hoover flag" (an empty pocket turned inside out). "Hoover leather" was cardboard used to line a shoe when the sole wore through. A "Hoover wagon" was an automobile with horses hitched to it because the owner could not afford fuel; in Canada, these were known as Bennett buggies, after the Prime Minister at the time.
After 1940 the economy recovered, unemployment fell, and shanty eradication programs destroyed all the Hoovervilles.
There were hundreds of Hoovervilles across the U.S. during the 1930s (dozens in Washington State alone). By 1932 millions of people were living outside their homes and hundreds of thousands were living on the streets.
St. Louis in 1930 had the largest Hooverville in America. It consisted of four distinct sectors. St. Louis's racially integrated Hooverville depended upon private philanthropy, had an unofficial mayor, created its own churches and other social institutions, and remained a viable community until 1936, when the federal Works Progress Administration allocated slum clearance funds for the area.
In popular culture
Hoovervilles have often features in the popular culture, and still appear in editorial cartoons. Movies like My Man Godfrey (1936) and Sullivan's Travels (1941) sometimes sentimentalized Hooverville life.
Man's Castle, a 1933 film directed by Frank Borzage, focuses on a number of down-and-out characters living in New York City Hooverville; the main characters (played by Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young) are lovers who cohabitate in a shanty outfitted with a skylight.
In Sullivan's Travels, a 1941 comedy film written and directed by Preston Sturges, John L. Sullivan, a wanderlust movie director, played by Joel McCrea, visits a Hooverville and accidentally becomes a genuine tramp.
The musical Annie, has a song called "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover," which takes place in a Hooverville beneath the 59th Street Bridge. In the song, the chorus sings of the hardships they now suffer because of the Great Depression and their contempt for the former president.
In 1987, the Liverpool group The Christians had a British hit with the song "Hooverville (And They Promised Us The World)".ll
The 2005 version of King Kong, directed by Peter Jackson, depicts the Hooverville in New York's Central Park at the beginning of the film.
The 2005 movie Cinderella Man also referenced the Central Park encampment.
In the novel Bud, Not Buddy, set during the Great Depression, an early scene involves the police dismantling a Hooverville. Bud calls it "Hooperville".
In Nelson Algren's A Walk on the Wild Side (novel), the main character Dove Linkhorn is described as descending from "Forest solitaries spare and swart, left landless as ever in sandland and Hooverville now the time of the forests have passed."
In John Steinbeck's famous novel The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family briefly settles into a Hooverville in California.
In Harry Turtledove's "Timeline-191" series of books, the equivalent of Hoovervilles in the United States and Confederate States are called Blackfordburghs and Mitcheltowns, respectively, after fictional Presidents Hosea Blackford of the US and Burton Mitchel of the CS.
Hoovervilles are part of James Lincoln Collier's 2000 novel The Worst of Times: A Story of the Great Depression.