In the 19th Century, trains were the dominant way of traveling long distances and wagons and horses were good for short trips. In the 20th Century, automobiles and trucks became the most dominant mode of transportation. So, when the Depression hit, people with little money found new ways of getting around.
“Hitching a ride” in a car or truck gained in popularity. Riding the rails was an established practice, but it was dangerous and illegal. Hitchhiking was legal and slightly safer, even if it was more uncertain. In later years, hitching developed into an entire subculture.
Delbert Apetz remembers how he and some friends learned how unpredictable it could be when you stick out your thumb to ask for a ride. Three friends were trying to get back to York from a CCC Camp over 100 miles away. They found out that most motorists don’t feel safe picking up three young men, but would pick up two. They found out you could never predict whether or not the driver was drunk or how far he was going. And they couldn’t predict when they’d get back home.
Actually, hitchhiking had been known from the earliest days of the automobile. In 1921, a man named J. K. Christian got into the Chicago Adventurer’s Club by hitching 3,023 miles in 27 days – a lot of miles in a short time given the small number of cars and sorry state of roads at the time.
When the Depression hit, the numbers of hitchhikers exploded. The New Deal even responded by setting up a Transient Bureau between 1933 and 1936 to run 300 centers around the country to help hitchhikers and hoboes. By 1937, one writer estimated that at least one man in 10 had hitchhiked once in his life.
But a backlash followed. By the end of the decade, there were stories in the press about how motorists would pick up hitchers – an act of friendship – and then have their kindness betrayed by criminal acts. A number of laws were introduced to “protect motorists.” In fact, most of these laws were sponsored by transportation companies that were losing money when hitchers got free rides.
Hitchhiking even got the attention of Hollywood. Films like “Sullivan’s Travels” and “The Grapes Wrath” featured characters who had to hitch to get around. But perhaps the 1934 masterpiece “It Happened One Night” did more than any other movie to popularize the practice. In the film, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are trying to travel up the East Coast without being detected, so they decide to hitch a ride. Gable demonstrates what he considers his best thumbing techniques – all to no avail as car after car rushes by. Then Colbert says she’ll show him how it’s done. She steps to the side of the road and hikes up her skirt to adjust her stocking. The next vehicle passing by screeches to a stop.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.