The Year Was 1938

New England hurricane. Chicken house between Worcester and Amherst, State/Province: Massachusetts, 1938The year was 1938 and many countries were still engulfed in the Great Depression. Rumblings of World War II were heard as Hitler and the Nazis grew in power. In Germany, laws were passed disenfranchising the Jewish population and in October an estimated 15,000 Jewish people, originally from Poland, were sent to the Polish border. Enraged by his parents’ deportation, a seventeen-year-old assassinated the Third Secretary of the German Embassy in Paris. This gave the Nazis the excuse they needed and on the night of 9 November, Nazis stormed through cities burning synagogues and breaking windows in Jewish homes and businesses. 30,000 Jewish men were imprisoned in concentration camps. The sounds of breaking glass gave the infamous night its name–Kristallnacht.

On 21 September, disaster struck New York and New England in the form of a category three hurricane nicknamed the Long Island Express. Only one weather forecaster saw it coming and he was overruled by others in the Weather Bureau who believed it would turn back out to sea before posing a threat. At 3:30 p.m. just before an astronomical high tide, the storm struck Long Island with fourteen to eighteen foot tides and moved across to New England, hitting Rhode Island particularly hard. In the end, it was estimated that the storm was responsible for 700 deaths and another more than 700 injured. It destroyed 4,500 homes and farms and damaged another 15,000. Cars, electrical and telephone lines, livestock, produce, boats, and shoreline commerce were also devastated. 

On what is referred to as “Black Sunday” the seas also claimed five lives in Australia that year. It seemed to be just a day at the shore, three waves in quick succession flooded the beach. As the water receded beachgoers were pulled out to sea and three hundred people had to be rescued.

Another disaster that year was of the fictional variety, but it brought panic nonetheless, as mass hysteria gripped thousands of radio listeners when the Mercury Theater broadcasted its dramatization of the H.G. Wells science fiction work, War of the Worlds. 

In other entertainment news that year, Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics, and a wily rabbit named Bugs Bunny debuted in the cartoon “Porky’s Hare Hunt.”

A Depression-weary America embraced an unlikely hero in the form of a long-shot racing horse named Seabiscuit. His story and that of his owner, trainer, and the jockeys who rode him to victory has been immortalized in books and movies.

Movies from 1938 include The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn; Boys Town; and one of Juliana’s favorites, Bringing Up Baby, with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Favorite tunes of the year included A-Tisket, A Tasket, Jeepers Creepers, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, and Whistle While You Work, which had been introduced the previous year in the Disney classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

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Image from the Library of Congress Photo Collection at Ancestry: New England hurricane. Chicken house between Worcester and Amherst, State/Province: Massachusetts, 1938. 

10 thoughts on “The Year Was 1938

  1. I have enjoyed all your articles. I have even saved them. I had a hard drive failure and lost all of my genealogy information on my 2nd hard drive. I also lost all of your articles. I hope it is possible, could you e-mail all the articles. Even zip them to compact the size.

    Keith Barnwell

  2. I had a cousin who died in that storm. A tree got him. Apparently he went out during the eye of the storm and then it came back with all it’s ferocity. This was up in Northern MA.

  3. I was 10 years old. My family had a bungalow in Long Beach, Long Island, NY. It was not damaged but the Bay came within 20 feet of the back of the house and the Ocean came within 10 feet of the front. Our friends and neighbors had some big problems!!!

    I heard the Orson Wells broadcast with one of my older sisters. We were not in the least upset, only enjoyed the science fiction, because somehow my sister (age 22) knew it was indeed fiction.

    I read that first Action Comics and also saw that first Bugs Bunny. Seabiscuit meant nothing to me although I did hear that word over and over again on the RADIO.

    I do not remember seeing those movies but I still remember with deep sentimentality those tunes.

  4. Oh, the memories the article rekindled in me. I remember my cousin coming to school and telling about the “War of the Worlds” and how scared she was. We didn’t have a radio at the time, so I didn’t hear it. In 1955-56 I was doing post-graduate work at the Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet in Mainz, (then) West Germany, and, as a Fulbright Scholarship recipient, I was taken through the zone by night on a military train to Berlin, and, while the 200 of us were there, we saw the huge synagogue, where such a toll had been taken on the night mentioned in the article. The songs brought back memories. I knew about Seabiscuit as we always took a daily newspaper although we’d been through some terrible years here in the Midwest. I had Rickets as a result of not enough of the right kind of food. I would really dislike going through another comparable time to the “Dirty Thirties.” Everyone in our farming community went through the same miseries, but I’m convinced it was easier to endure than it would be for the young people of today. We were quite self-sufficient on the farm, but the weather was so terrible and the crash of the stock market had brought our economy to its very knees.

    It was the “worst of times,” but it was also the “best of times,” for we were survivors.

  5. When I was in my early teens in the 1970’s we moved to a town named Hubbardston,Mass. in the middle of the state and the only thing that I saw of the hurricane of”38 was a tree that had been blown down by that storm. It was still alive but it kind of laid on the ground and my brothers and sisters would climb on it for hours.

  6. I feel many of your customers would be better served if your articles could be a little more ‘international’ rather than being so narrowly focussed on the USA as is at present. This will certainly make it interesting to many more people such as myself, who does not reside in the USA.

  7. You forgot to mention in your article that I was born that year, in my grandmother’s house.

  8. I am reading this in the archives whose index says that it is the year 1838. You might want to correct that. Another thing I noticed is that the year 1834 seems to be missing.

  9. I enjoyed this very much, however when you enter 1838 it give you the year 1938.
    Thank you,
    Joanne Amos

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