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A New Deal

Today’s post continues our “Intern Month” theme and is written by Laura Beth Jackson of Mississippi State University.

I have a sweet tooth.  I’ll admit it.  I’d choose sweets over “real” food any day. So, I was delighted—and surprised—to find so many bakeries around D.C.  And they are crowded!

Holmes Bakery truck, Ford Motor Co. (between 1910 and 1935)

In contrast, last summer I visited my uncle’s donut shop, and the heavy air and empty shelves nearly broke my heart.  The display case once held all sorts of goodies like crullers, twists, and Danishes, but now it was nearly bare, with the exception of some lonely glazed donuts in a corner.  With no other donut shop as competition, I can only guess that this family-owned operation, like other bakeries, had been wounded by changing retail patterns and large grocery store chains.

National Recovery Administration

This summer, my mission at the Library of Congress was to make a guide to the vast amounts of material the Library holds on the National Recovery Administration (NRA).  The NRA was signed into law through the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 and was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in response to the Great Depression.  Before it was declared unconstitutional in May of 1935, it attempted to create “fair competition” by bringing together labor, industry, and government to set standards and prices.  The subsequent publication of the Codes of Fair Competition covered a multitude of industries – how they operated and their economic standing.

You may be wondering, how does a dessert fetish tie in with the National Recovery Administration?

The Baking Industry

The Baking Industry (number 445) is just one example of a Code.  In 1929 this industry raked in just under $1.3 billion.  By 1933, it had dropped to just $885 million with 40,000 employees laid off.  Of course, the decline in revenue was due mostly to the Great Depression, but increased competition for the limited customers was a factor as well.  What is interesting is how the industry was divided.  Between 1929 and 1933, the number of bakery shops dropped from 30,000 to 25,000.  Of those 25,000, 15,000 were handcraft shops while the remaining 10,000 were mechanical shops.  However, there was a big difference in employee numbers.  Handcraft shops employed about 37,500 people while mechanical shops employed over 112,000.

The increased efficiencies in baking machinery and other new technologies changed the industry.  First, mechanical ovens and other new equipment meant that mechanical shops absorbed much of the bread making business.  Second, sliced bread in the grocery store had a longer shelf life, limiting the small bakery to rolls, sweets, and specialty items. Additionally, the installation of industrial ovens in chain stores furthered their ability to mass produce cheaply and grocery stores became increasingly self-sufficient.

Interesting note: Under the NRA Codes for the Baking Industry, Southern States were permitted an hourly minimum wage five cents below the national level.  Home-baking was more of a competitive factor in the South, making commercial consumption lower.

While new-fangled baking machinery does not render the art of baking foolproof, it can change the quality (I like to think that most people would prefer a homemade anything to something mass-produced).  Nowadays, the popularity of home baking has increased, but so has the popularity of retail giants like Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club.  Standalone bakeries may struggle in some regions, but I love that both D.C. and I have maintained our appreciation for quality treats.

One Comment

  1. Jessica H
    August 12, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Wonderful article, Laura Beth! Very well-written, precise, and so true. Being raised in a home where I didn’t know you could make desserts or even mac ‘n’ cheese out of a box, I obviously have a great appreciation for home-baked goods as opposed to mass-produced things. I’m so proud of all you’ve been doing this summer! :)

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