In this renowned 1936 picture by Dorothea Lange, a destitute, thirty-two-year-old mommy of seven records the agonies the the good Depression. Library of Congress.

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I. Introduction

Hard times had actually hit the United says before, but never had actually an economic situation lasted so lengthy or inflicted as much damage as the slump that adhered to the 1929 crash. After almost a decade of claimed prosperity, the economic climate crashed come a halt. People suddenly stopped borrowing and buying. Industries constructed on debt-fueled purchases marketed fewer goods. Retailers lowered price and, as soon as that did not attract enough buyers to rotate profits, lock laid off workers to lower labor costs. With so many human being out of work and also without income, shops sold even less, dropped their prices lower still, and then shed still an ext workers, developing a vicious downward cycle.

Four years after the crash, the good Depression got to its lowest point: practically one in four Americans that wanted a job can not find one and, the those that could, an ext than half had to work out for part-time work. Farmers could not make enough money from their plants to do harvesting worthwhile. Food rotted in the fields of a starving nation.

The needy drew down whatever savings castle had, rotate to their families, and sought out charities for public assistance. Quickly they all were depleted. Unemployment workers and cash-strapped farmers could not defaulted on their debts, consisting of their mortgages. Currently over-extended banks, deprived of income, took savings account down v them when they closed. Fear-stricken observers saw their own banks and demanded their deposits. Banks that otherwise could have withstood the situation fell prey to panic, and shut down as well.

With so small being bought and sold, and so small lent and spent, with also bankers can not to lay their hands top top money, the nation’s economy ground practically to a halt. No one of the remedies adopted by the president or the congress succeeded—not greater tariffs, no one restriction the immigration, no one sticking to sound money, nor expressions of trust in the resilience the the American people. Whatever great these procedures achieved, that was not enough.

In the 1932 presidential election, the incumbent president, Herbert Hoover, a Republican, promised that he would stand firm versus those who, the said, would destroy the U.S. Constitution to restore the economy. Chief among these supposedly danger experimenters to be the democratic presidential nominee, brand-new York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who started his campaign by pledging a new Deal for the American people.

The voters decided Roosevelt in a landslide, inaugurating a rapid and also enduring revolution in the U.S. Government. Even though the new Deal never accomplished as much as its proponents hoped or its adversaries feared, the did an ext than any kind of other peacetime routine to adjust how Americans witnessed their country.

II. The beginnings of the great Depression

Crowds of world gather outside the brand-new York share Exchange adhering to the crash the 1929. Library that Congress.

On Thursday, October 24, 1929, stock market prices all of sudden plummeted. Ten billion dollars in invest (roughly tantamount to about $100 exchange rate today) disappeared in a issue of hours. Panicked selling set in, stock worths sank to suddenly lows, and stunned investors crowded the brand-new York share Exchange demanding answers. Top bankers met privately in ~ the offices of J. P. Morgan and also raised millions in personal and institutional contributions to halt the slide. Castle marched throughout the street and ceremoniously bought stocks at inflated prices. The industry temporarily stabilized however fears spread out over the weekend and the adhering to week frightened investor dumped your portfolios to avoid additional losses. ~ above October 29, black Tuesday, the stock market began its lengthy precipitous fall. Stock worths evaporated. Shares of U.S. Steel dropped indigenous $262 come $22. General Motors stock fell from $73 a share come $8. 4 fifths that J. D. Rockefeller’s fortune—the greatest in American history—vanished.

Although the crash stunned the nation, it exposed the deeper, underlying problems with the American economy in the 1920s. The share market’s popularity grew throughout the decade, but only 2.5 percent of Americans had brokerage accounts; the overwhelming majority of Americans had no direct personal stake in wall surface Street. The stock market’s collapse, no matter how dramatic, did no by itself depress the American economy. Instead, the crash exposed a great number of factors that, when combined with the gaue won panic, sank the American economic situation into the greatest of all financial crises. Climbing inequality, decreasing demand, rural collapse, overextended investors, and the bursting of dangerous bubbles every conspired come plunge the country into the great Depression.

Despite resistance by Progressives, the substantial gap in between rich and also poor increased throughout the at an early stage twentieth century. In the aggregate, american were much better off in 1929 than in 1920. Every capita income had actually risen 10 percent for every Americans, but 75 percent because that the country wealthiest citizens.1 The return that conservative politics in the 1920s reinforced commonwealth fiscal plans that exacerbated the divide: low corporate and personal taxes, basic credit, and also depressed interest rates overwhelmingly favored rich investors who, flush through cash, invested their money on deluxe goods and speculative invest in the rapidly rising share market.

The pro-business policies of the 1920s were designed for an American economy built on the production and also consumption of resilient goods. However by the late 1920s, lot of the industry was saturated. The boom of vehicle manufacturing, the an excellent driver of the American economy in the 1920s, slowed as fewer and fewer Americans through the means to acquisition a auto had not currently done so. More and more, the well-to-do had no need for the brand-new automobiles, radios, and other customer goods that sustained gross residential product (GDP) growth in the 1920s. When assets failed to sell, inventories piled up, manufacturers scaled back production, and companies fired workers, stripping potential consumer of cash, blunting demand for consumer goods, and replicating the downward financial cycle. The instance was only compounded by boosted automation and also rising effectiveness in American factories. Regardless of impressive in its entirety growth transparent the 1920s, unemployment hovered approximately 7 percent transparent the decade, suppressing purchasing power for a an excellent swath of potential consumers.2


While a manufacturing innovation, Henry Ford’s assembly line developed so many cars as to flood the car market in the 1920s. Wikimedia.

For American farmers, meanwhile, difficult times began long prior to the industries crashed. In 1920 and 1921, after number of years of larger-than-average profits, farm prices in the South and also West continued their lengthy decline, plummeting as production climbed and also domestic and international demand for cotton, foodstuffs, and other farming products stalled. Prevalent soil fatigue on western farms only compounded the problem. Farmers found themselves can not to do payments on loan taken out throughout the great years, and also banks in agricultural areas tightened credit transaction in response. By 1929, farm households were overextended, in no form to consist of for declining consumption, and also in a precarious economic position even prior to the Depression wrecked the global economy.3

Despite major foundational difficulties in the industrial and agricultural economy, many Americans in 1929 and also 1930 still thought the economic climate would bounce back. In 1930, amid among the Depression’s many false hopes, chairman Herbert Hoover reassured one audience the “the depression is over.”4 however the president to be not merely guilty the false optimism. Hoover made many mistakes. During his 1928 election campaign, Hoover promoted higher tariffs as a way for encouraging domestic consumption and also protecting American farmer from foreign competition. Spurred by the ongoing farming depression, Hoover signed right into law the highest possible tariff in American history, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff the 1930, simply as worldwide markets started to crumble. Other nations responded in kind, tariff walls rose across the globe, and international profession ground to a halt. Between 1929 and also 1932, international trade dropped native $36 exchange rate to only $12 billion. American exports fell by 78 percent. Merged with overproduction and also declining residential consumption, the tariff exacerbated the world’s economic collapse.5

But beyond structural flaws, speculative bubbles, and destructive protectionism, the final contributing element of the good Depression was a quintessentially person one: panic. The frantic reaction to the market’s fall aggravated the economy’s other plenty of failings. More economic policies backfired. The commonwealth Reserve overcorrected in their solution to speculation by raising interest rates and tightening credit. Throughout the country, banks denied loans and called in debts. Your patrons, afraid the reactionary policies meant more financial trouble, rushed to retract money prior to institutions might close their doors, ensuring your fate. Such bank runs were not unusual in the 1920s, however in 1930, v the economic situation worsening and panic indigenous the crash accelerating, 1,352 financial institutions failed. In 1932, nearly 2,300 banks collapsed, taking personal deposits, savings, and credit through them.6

The great Depression to be the confluence of many problems, many of i m sorry had started during a time that unprecedented financial growth. Fiscal plans of the Republican “business presidents” without doubt widened the gap in between rich and poor and also fostered a standoff over global trade, yet such plans were widely popular and, for lot of the decade, widely viewed as a resource of the decade’s explosive growth. Through fortunes to it is in won and standards of living to maintain, few Americans had actually the foresight or wherewithal to repudiate an age of simple credit, rampant consumerism, and wild speculation. Instead, as the Depression worked its way across the united States, Americans hope to weather the economic storm as best they could, hoping for part relief native the ever-mounting financial collapse the was strangling so numerous lives.

III. Herbert Hoover and the national politics of the Depression

Unemployed males queued external a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago through Al Capone. February 1931. Wikimedia.

As the Depression spread, public blame settled on chairman Herbert Hoover and the conservative politics of the Republican Party. In 1928, having won the presidency in a landslide, Hoover had no factor to believe that his presidency would be any type of different than that the his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, whose time in office was marked by relative federal government inaction, look at rampant prosperity, and high approval ratings.7 Hoover gone into office ~ above a wave of popular support, yet by October 1929 the financial collapse had actually overwhelmed his presidency. Like every too many Americans, Hoover and also his torture assumed—or perhaps just hoped—that the sharp financial and also economic decrease was a momentary downturn, an additional “bust” that the unavoidable boom-bust cycles the stretched back through America’s advertising history. “Any absence of to trust in the economic future and the straightforward strength of company in the United says is just foolish,” he claimed in November.8 and also yet the crisis grew. Unemployment commenced a slow, sickening rise. New-car registrations dropped by practically a quarter within a few months.9 customer spending on resilient goods dropped by a 5th in 1930.10 

When enduring Americans looked come Hoover for help, Hoover can only answer with volunteerism. The asked business leaders come promise to maintain investments and also employment and encouraged state and local charities to aid those in need. Hoover created the President’s organization for joblessness Relief, or POUR, to assist organize the efforts of private agencies. While to water urged charity giving, charitable relief establishments were overwhelmed by the cultivation needs that the plenty of multiplying unemployed, underfed, and unhoused Americans. By mid-1932, for instance, a quarter of all of brand-new York’s personal charities closed: they had actually simply operation out that money. In Atlanta, solvent relief charities might only administer $1.30 every week come needy families. The size and scope of the Depression overpowered the radically inadequate capacity of private volunteer institutions to mediate the crisis.11

Although Hoover is occasionally categorized as a “business president” in line through his Republican predecessors, he also adopted a kind of organization progressivism, a mechanism of voluntary activity called associationalism the assumed Americans can maintain a web of voluntary cooperative organizations committed to providing financial assistance and also services to those in need. Businesses, the reasoning went, would certainly willingly limit harmful exercise for the greater economic good. To Hoover, straight government help would discourage a healthy work ethic when associationalism would encourage the self-control and also self-initiative the fueled financial growth. Yet when the Depression exposed the incapacity of such methods to create an financial recovery, Hoover confirmed insufficiently functional to identify the boundaries of his ideology.12 “We can not legislate ourselves out of a world economic depression,” that told conference in 1931.13

Hoover resisted straight action. Together the crisis deepened, also bankers and businessmen and also the president’s own advisors and appointees all pleaded with him to usage the government’s strength to struggle the Depression. However his conservative belief wouldn’t permit him to. He thought in limited government as a matter of principle. Senator Robert Wagner of brand-new York stated in 1931 the the president’s plan was “to perform nothing and also when the press becomes irresistible to execute as little as possible.”14 by 1932, with the economic climate long since stagnant and also a reelection project looming, Hoover, hope to stimulate American industry, created the repair Finance copy, group (RFC) to administer emergency loan to banks, building-and-loan societies, railroads, and also other personal industries. It to be radical in its use of straight government assist and out of character for the usually laissez-faire Hoover, however it additionally bypassed needy americans to bolster industrial and financial interests. New York congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, who later on served as mayor of brand-new York City, caught public sentiment as soon as he denounced the RFC together a “millionaire’s dole.”15

IV. The Lived suffer of the an excellent Depression

A Hooverville in Seattle, Washington between 1932 and 1937. Washington State Archives.

In 1934 a mrs from Humboldt County, California, composed to an initial Lady Eleanor Roosevelt seek a project for she husband, a surveyor, who had actually been out of occupational for almost two years. The pair had actually survived on the meager income she received from functioning at the ar courthouse. “My salary could keep us going,” she explained, “but—I to be to have a baby.” The family needed short-term help, and, she explained, “after the I deserve to go back to work and also we have the right to work the end our very own salvation. Yet to have this baby concerned a home complete of worry and also despair, through no money because that the things it needs, is not fair. That needs and deserves a happy start in life.”16

As the United states slid ever deeper into the good Depression, together tragic scenes played the end time and also time again. Individuals, families, and communities challenged the painful, frightening, and also often bewildering collapse of the financial institutions ~ above which castle depended. The an ext fortunate were spared the worst effects, and a few even profited indigenous it, yet by the finish of 1932, the crisis had come to be so deep and also so prevalent that many Americans had actually suffered directly. Industries crashed through no error of your own. Workers were plunged into poverty due to the fact that of impersonal forces for i m sorry they common no responsibility.

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With rampant unemployment and declining wages, american slashed expenses. The fortunate could survive by just deferring vacations and also regular customer purchases. Middle- and also working-class Americans can rely on disappearing credit transaction at community stores, default on energy bills, or skip meals. Those that could borrowed from relatives or absorbed boarders in homes or “doubled up” in tenements. However such sources couldn’t stand up to the infinite relentlessness that the financial crisis. As one brand-new York City official defined in 1932,

When the breadwinner is the end of a task he typically exhausts his save if he has any.… that borrows native his friends and also from his relatives until they can stand the burden no longer. He gets credit transaction from the corner grocery store and also the butcher shop, and the landlord forgoes collecting the rent until interest and taxes need to be paid and something has to be done. All of these sources are finally tired over a duration of time, and it becomes necessary for these people, who have never before remained in want, to walk on assistance.17

But publicly assistance and also private charities were quickly exhausted by the border of the crisis. As one Detroit city main put that in 1932,

Many important public services have been reduced beyond the minimum suggest absolutely crucial to the health and safety that the city.… The wages of city employees have been twice reduced … and numerous faithful employee … have to be furloughed. Thus has actually the city obtained from its own future welfare to save its unemployed on the barest subsistence levels.… A wage work arrangement which had supported 11,000 families fell down last month since the city to be unable to find funds come pay this unemployed—men who wished to knife their very own support. Because that the comes year, Detroit can see no possibility of staying clear of wide-spread hunger and slow scarcity through its very own unaided resources.18

These most desperate Americans, the chronically unemployed, encamped on windy or marginal soil in “Hoovervilles,” spontaneous shantytowns the dotted America’s cities, relying on bread lines and street-corner peddling. One doctor recalled that “every work … someone would certainly faint on a streetcar. They’d carry him in, and also they wouldn’t ask any questions.… they knew what the was. Hunger.”19

The emotional and psychological shocks of unemployment and underemployment only included to the shocking material depravities the the Depression. Society workers and also charity officials, because that instance, often uncovered the unemployed enduring from feeling of futility, anger, bitterness, confusion, and also loss the pride.20 “A guy is not a guy without work,” one of the jobless told an interviewer.21 The best of the “male breadwinner” was always a fiction for negative Americans, and, during the crisis, women and young children entered the labor force, as they constantly had. But, in together a job crisis, countless employers, subscribing to classic notions of masculine bread-winning, were less likely to rental married females and more likely to dismiss those they currently employed.22 As one politician remarked at the time, the woman worker was “the an initial orphan in the storm.”23

American suppositions around family framework meant the women experienced disproportionately indigenous the Depression. Since the begin of the twenty century, solitary women had actually become raising share the the workforce, yet married women, americans were likely to believe, take it a job because they want to and not due to the fact that they essential it. When the Depression came, employers were because of this less likely to hire married women and an ext likely to dismiss those they currently employed.24 ladies on their own and also without regular work experienced a greater threat of sexual violence 보다 their masculine counterparts; account of such women suggest they depended on each various other for protection25

The great Depression was specifically tough for nonwhite Americans. “The negro was born in depression,” one black pensioner told interviewer Studs Terkel. “It didn’t median too much to him. The good American Depression . . . Only ended up being official when it fight the white man.” ((Studs Terkel,Hard Times: one Oral history of the good Depression(New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), 81-82.)) Black workers were normally the critical hired once businesses expanded production and the an initial fired as soon as businesses knowledgeable downturns. Together a national Urban league study found, “So general is this exercise that one is warranted in suspecting the it has actually been embraced as a an approach of relieving unemployment of white skin - man without regard to the aftermath upon Negroes.”26 In 1932, v the national unemployment median hovering approximately 25 percent, black color unemployment got to as high as 50 percent, while even Black workers who retained their tasks saw their currently low wages reduced dramatically.27

V. Migration and the great Depression

On the great Plains, eco-friendly catastrophe deepened America’s longstanding farming crisis and intensified the tragedy of the Depression. Beginning in 1932, serious droughts fight from Texas to the Dakotas and lasted till at the very least 1936. The droughts compounded year of farming mismanagement. To flourish their crops, levels farmers had plowed up natural ground covering that had actually taken periods to form over the surface of the dry levels states. Fairly wet years had protected them, but, throughout the beforehand 1930s, there is no rain, the exposed productive topsoil turned come dust, and also without sod or windbreaks such together trees, rojo winds churned the dust into substantial storms the blotted the end the sky, choked settlers and also livestock, and rained dirt not only across the region but together far east as Washington, D.C., brand-new England, and ships on the Atlantic Ocean. The Dust Bowl, as the an ar became known, exposed all-too-late the need for conservation. The ar farmers, currently hit by year of foreclosures and declining commodity prices, to be decimated.28 For countless in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arkansas that were “baked out, puffy out, and broke,” their only hope was to take trip west to California, whose rains still carried bountiful harvests and—potentially—jobs for farmworkers. It was an exodus. Oklahoma lost 440,000 people, or a full 18.4 percent of its 1930 population, to outmigration.29