What should I read/watch for information about the 1930s United States? [closed]

I'm currently writing a Trail of Cthulhu campaign, in which Investigators travel across the United States in the 1930s. To get inspiration for the scenarios, I read books and watch movies about particular locations.

For this campaign, I'm particularly interested in the following places: Savannah, New Orleans, Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, Las Vegas/The Hoover Dam and San Francisco. I've got some source material on the first two, but I need stuff for the final four, especially San Francisco.

Alternatively, if you have a good alternative location, tell me it. For example, if Memphis is particularly interesting in the 1930s, give me some source material on that.

Most of all, I want material with interesting things I can use in scenarios. For example, I'm currently reading a book about jazz in New Orleans ("Hear Me Talking To Ya". Similarly, there's an excellent documentary series, Jazz, by Ken Burns. That's a scenario right there: I can write it around jazz clubs and musicians.

So far, I've read Flannery O'Connor (for Savannah), William Faulkner (for Mississippi), the jazz book mentioned above and a bit of John Steinbeck. What else can I read and watch?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by SevenSidedDie♦, LitheOhm, Wibbs, Oblivious Sage, doppelgreenerJan 3 '14 at 11:08

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

I'm conflicted by this question. Can you maybe rephrase it so its asking for more game specific stuff? And then make it CW? This is fairly far from Q&A and more opinion, so at the least it needs to be CW. – anon186 Oct 11 '10 at 22:33
What I want isn't game-specific: it's about the setting. I tend to think it's Q&A - I would accept an answer that gave me good sources of information on a couple of locations - but I'm new here and I could be wrong. – Graham Oct 12 '10 at 5:02
Given the focus on setting this is a list question and does belong as a cw. – anon186 Oct 12 '10 at 13:52
I've started a meta discussion about this question here. – C. Ross Oct 12 '10 at 14:03

7 Answers

I have played a Pulp campaign set in San Francisco in 1932 (plus assorted travel to Peru etc.) - even if it wasn't CoC based, I am familiar with CoC and used some background stuff from it, too - especially the New Orleans guidebook.

If you want to include some Voodoo stuff I suggest "Tell My Horse : Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica" by Zelda Hurston (written in the late '30s, so perfect for style too). And Haiti could be a memorable place to visit for your players.

You can try to find historical (or at least close) maps in the Perry-Castaneda collection Another nice touch is trying to locate old collections of National Geographics online. I bought the whole 1930 year on eBay, for example, for period stuff.

Just discovered a great Historical Atlas of USA

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Why not aim at Carnivàle? As a bonus, there's a subtext you may be interested to weave into your play :)

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That's interesting: I didn't know that was a 1930s setting. Thank you very much. – Graham Oct 12 '10 at 13:47
Glad I read before answering, that's what I was coming to bat with. – CatLord Jan 2 '14 at 2:59

I've used this nice little online resource over at The Dirty 30s! for my Hollow Earth Expedition game. Has a basic timeline, covers popular slang and fashion, gangsters, nazis, and commies, everything you would want. :)

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Thank you, that's a good resource. I'm really looking for deep background on locations, so the Big Apple page is closest. – Graham Oct 12 '10 at 5:09

Regarding Las Vegas, head over to the Wikipedia page for its history. I went there because I immediately recognized, based on reading your setting, that Vegas wouldn't be at that time what we think of now -- most of the big casino development happened after the Cuba embargo, as Havana had (at that time) been what we currently think of Vegas being today.

Some interesting notes:

• Depending on when in the 30s you're talking, Hoover Dam would have been called Boulder Dam. It was not completed until 1935.
• During the 30s, Las Vegas had an estimated population of only 25,000. It received its first traffic light in 1931, and issued its first casino license that year as well.
• Most of the streets would have been unpaved, again depending on when in the 30s you're talking.
• A great potential side plot would be the smuggling between Boulder City and Las Vegas, as the Boulder Dam workers were not supposed to go to LV. (Indeed, Boulder City was erected as a federally-controlled city because the workers were initially living in LV.)
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For 1930 and Cthulhu related stuff, I can recommend: Lovecraft is Missing.

For 1920's material, I can recommend Lackadaisy Cats for its fantastic look at prohibition (Caution, TVtropes link). The infrastructure of prohibition is just fantastic for Cthulhu, as cults have similiar outward objectives. Considering that prohibition was repealed in 1933, cults may have moved into speakeasys. Either way, a valuable reference.

"Oh brother where art thou" is also a great reference and anything listed on The Great Depression (TvTropes again) page is well worthwhile. Depending on when in the 1930's you're talking, it will be littered with more or less rotting debris from the roaring twenties. For the right feel, Grim Fandango nails it spot on in the underwater chapter.

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Thanks. "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" is a good reference and I like the Steinbeck suggestions on that TV Tropes page. I may have to steel myself to read Of Mice And Men. – Graham Oct 12 '10 at 5:16
I'm so terribly sorry. But yeah, you really should read it. Lakadasiy cats is a great way to get the tropes into your imagination, actually: these are the memories of what they had and lost. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Oct 12 '10 at 6:24
+1 for Lackadaisy Cats. – CatLord Jan 2 '14 at 2:58

Not directly associated with the places you’re interested in, but Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is required reading for most American high school students for a number of reasons, such as

• It’s widely regarded as the description of the plight of poor farmers during the Great Depression. For a lot of farmers, the “Roaring 20’s” weren’t all that great and the Great Depression came early. Huge numbers of desperate people went west, though without much hope, towards California where there might be something. Grapes of Wrath captures this sort of hopeless desperation very well.

• It’s widely regarded as phenomenal writing.

• Basically none of those students would ever read such a massive and often-boring tome if they weren’t required to do so. :)

In short, I don’t really recommend reading the Grapes of Wrath as preparation; it’s a long book. But if you’ve already read it, refreshing your memory of it (possibly appreciating what it does have rather than just hating its size, if like many that’s what you did the first time) might be useful. Even just a cliffnotes version and perhaps some quotes might be useful for understanding what a lot of people were going through at the time.

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In addition to all the other fine answers above, I might go as far as the movies Road to Perdition and Public Enemies or the show Boardwalk Empire if you need underworldly sources.

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