Life at Yale During the Great Depression

Manuscripts & Archives

Manuscripts & Archives

Construction of Sterling Memorial Library was completed in 1930. The library was a powerful symbol of Yale's relative wealth during the national economic crisis. View full image

While Yale was completing its great building program and experiencing a combination of luxury and moderate loss of income, the city of New Haven was in desperate straits. In 1933, Mayor John W. Murphy and president of the board of aldermen Vincent Scully (father of Vincent Scully Jr. ’40, ’49PhD, now Sterling Professor emeritus of the history of art) delivered a plea. “It is conceivable,” they said in a memo for a meeting with a committee of Yale’s governing board, the Corporation, “that in the course of time Yale might purchase and place on the [tax-]exempt list all the land in New Haven, in which event there would be no other taxpayer and the University would either assume the entire cost of municipal services or dispense therewith.” They conceded that New Haven could not tax Yale, but asked the university to contribute to municipal services from which it benefited and to remove no more property from the taxpaying list.


Yale’s response was an unqualified no, saccharined with the usual list of benefits Yale brought to the city: employment for New Haven residents, taxes on its investment real estate, purchases by students, faculty, and Yale itself; sports events, visiting speakers, concerts, museums. One list noted that in the Peabody Museum, New Haveners could look at the dried skeleton of a 15-foot giant squid. The university also pointed out that over 570 Yale students were New Haven residents and they received thousands of dollars in financial aid.

In response, Mayor Murphy suggested that Yale should eliminate the aid and give the money directly to the city, so as to relieve the tax burden on all citizens, not just the tuition burden on those selected by Yale. The Corporation replied:

Yale was not chartered to contribute money to help the City of New Haven to fulfill the various governmental duties and obligations imposed upon it, such as police and fire protection, care of poor persons, public schools, etc., etc. The contrary has existed from the beginning, and none of the gifts to Yale has been made for these purposes. Any such change of policy as is now suggested would be a plain perversion of the charter of Yale and of the terms of its gifts. Such a perversion of the present system, and as a necessary consequence, would prevent future development of Yale University as now administered, controlled, and financed.

The city persisted throughout the 1930s in asking for help, but the university held fast to a negative, legalistic position architecturally symbolized by the moats, turrets, high walls, and inner courtyards of the grand new buildings. Not until the 1980s, when Connecticut began providing subsidies to cities with tax-exempt properties, would the tax question lose some of its bite. (In early 2009, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Yale president Richard C. Levin ’74PhD reenacted the scene of 1933, but in their contemporary version, Levin agreed to increase Yale's voluntary annual payment to New Haven from $5 million to, in 2010, $7.5 million.)

The Depression made Yale’s poor labor relations worse. A 1938 article, entitled “Yale Needs the CIO,” in the Nation noted that the maids who cleaned students’ rooms worked five hours a day for seven days a week and earned 25 cents an hour, or $8.75 for the week. A worker in the Divinity School refectory (dining hall) started work at 7:30 a.m. and finished at 6:45 p.m.; she earned $12 a week. Night watchmen worked ten hours a night for 13 nights out of every 14—an average of 65 hours a week—and earned $25. Thomas W. Farnam, Yale’s associate treasurer and the man in charge of labor policy since 1921, was quoted as saying that the seven-day week was good for employees, because “it kept them occupied and out of trouble.”

The article drew national attention to Yale. It also inspired three students to form the Student Committee on University Employees and confront Farnam. He wrote Seymour about the meeting: “I told [the students] that . . . I thought that they could have confidence in the breadth of view of the Corporation in providing fair compensation and hours to University employees. . . . I informed them that the Sunday work was for a brief period, and I feared that a reduction of hours in the janitor service might result in reduction in pay.”

The provost appointed a faculty committee, which recommended in 1939 that Yale “take the lead in setting community standards, involving a greater attention to humane considerations than those required in competitive business or industry” and set wages to “meet the cost of living, productive of health, efficiency and normal relations for the worker and his family” while providing “for a gradually rising standard of life.” The Corporation accepted the report, ended seven-day work weeks, and increased wages for maids by 40 percent. Farnam was relieved of responsibility for labor relations.