Great Depression


I discovered this succinct brief summary/story of the Great Depression and thought you may be interested to read it, especially given today’s very uncertain times. Things were quite different then (attitudes, respect, lack of motor travel, infrastructure, gov’t handouts) and one wonders how a modern day depression would play out.



It was a time of utter despair, nearly unimaginable today. The memory of those years still lives in the minds of people who experienced unemployment, insufficient food, homelessness and lost family wealth.

For those born after World War II, it is inconceivable that such a time ever existed in America. In the days before Interstates connected the country, people were forced to travel west in search of a better life.

Destitute mothers had few, if any, options to provide for their children. Fathers throughout the country were forced to leave home to look for work elsewhere.


The Great Depression

The “Great Depression” was a time of unprecedented despair. After the 1929 stock market crash, America (and many other countries) endured long, trying years of economic downturn, lost fortunes (the link is a picture of the stock exchange floor just after the crash), and personal tragedies.

People were uprooted when out-of-work families packed up everything they owned and moved to California. By 1932, the worst year of the depression, nearly 25% of the American work force was unemployed. Without means of transportation, people had to walk miles just to see their families. Living in squatter’s camps (called “Hoovervilles”), dislocated families tried to stay together.

In other parts of the country, men left their families “at home” while they went to the industrial north to find work. Their “bachelor cabins” were nothing more than shanty towns. But there was also “No Work” for people in the north. The bustling docks of New York City were quiet.

Before the days of the FDR along the East River, and the Westside Parkway along the Hudson, an artist could walk to the water’s edge where he drew images of human hopelessness. Employment agencies in New York City were inundated with applications from well-dressed, out-of-work people. The “land of plenty” had become the land of hard times.


Starving People

As if the economic disaster were not enough, the American Midwest was hit with unprecedented drought. Food supplies were diminished as formerly fertile fields became dust bowls. And in the south, once-productive cotton fields were transformed into eroded wastelands.

People in America were starving. Oral histories, recorded by the Library of Congress, relate tales of despondent people. Some picked dandelion greens to use as food. Others had to relocate, like 76-year-old Perry Rupert and Alvin Sharpe of North Carolina.

By 1936, tenant farmers and their families had become homeless wanderers. Farmers that had worked their own land were also forced to “evacuate.” People moving west had little to go on but hope for a better future. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath had its roots in real-life America. Sometimes the struggle to retain one’s dignity was almost more than a human being could manage.

Private parties offered cheap (or free) food. People stood in “bread lines” which stretched many blocks, only to be disappointed by the time it was “their turn.” Food, in increasingly short supplies, was already gone. These were desperate times.

Before he became President, Herbert Hoover was the “United States Food Administrator.” Although he tried to distribute food throughout the country, as he had provided wheat to America’s allies during World War I, Hoover could not do his job the way he wanted to do it. There simply wasn’t enough to go around.


Color Photos of the Great Depression

Although most photos depicting the Great Depression are black-and-white, America’s Library of Congress has a series of color transparencies which have been digitized. Photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration (also known as the FSA, which later merged with the Office of War Information) took the pictures between 1939 and 1943.

Providing a glimpse into the lives of people enduring hardship, while sharing family love, these amazing FSA pictures are part of an exhibit which the Library calls “Bound for Glory: America in Color.” Take a look at some of the exhibit’s 70 featured photos (and learn the stories behind the pictures):

Bound for Glory: America in Color 1939-43


Causes of the Great Depression

The Great Depression caused many suicides, massive unemployment, disrupted lives, and destroyed fortunes. But what caused the Great Depression? Why were so many people out of work? Why were thousands of families forced to uproot and migrate to places like California? Did the stock market crash – of October 24, 1929 – itself cause the ” run on banks” a few years later? And – significantly – why did the Great Depression last so long?

Knowledgeable people have debated these issues ever since the Great Depression. Some economists conclude that wild stock market speculation contributed to the nightmare. (1929 headlines, from The New York Times, show economists were seriously debating the strength of the market in the days before the crash.)

President Hoover thought the depression was caused by the disruptions of World War I, the poor structure of American banks, and the failure of Congress to act on many of his proposals. Still others blamed Hoover himself, and the policies of his administration.

At the time, people throughout the world cared more about finding ways to survive than they cared about finding reasons for the cause of the economic decline. Songs of the day, (like 1932’s Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?) reflect anguish but other tunes (All of Me and On the Sunny Side of the Street) demonstrate human resiliency.

Government intervention (introduced by Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”) helped, but America remained in the grip of the Great Depression until 1941. Not until World War II, when millions of men were drafted and millions of women went to work in factories to support the war effort, did the United States emerge from its darkest economic downturn.

Credit author: Carole D. Bos, J.D.


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