Consider Depression era leaders. In your opinion, what was the relative importance of expertise, personality, philosophy, and circumstance in determining success or failure? Weigh specific examples from the readings to help illustrate your points. Please make sure you take it from the reading I have attached.
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UNIT IV STUDY GUIDE
The Great Depression and the New Deal
Course Learning Outcomes for Unit IV
Upon completion of this unit, students should be able to:
4. Explain the impact of the Civil Rights Movement on America’s societal infrastructure.
4.1 Explain the influences of varied economic developments and programs on the opportunities
available to different social groups from 1920–1940.
4.2 Identify figures and events associated with cultural change in post-World War I America.
4.3 Identify measures and events associated with the Great Depression era.
Chapter 24: The Jazz Age: Redefining the Nation, 1919–1929 (3 sections)
Chapter 25: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Great Depression, 1929–
1932 (4 sections)
Unit IV Assessment
Chapter 24: The Jazz Age: Redefining the Nation, 1919–1929 (3 sections)
Chapter 25: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Great Depression, 1929–
1932 (4 sections)
Chapter 26: Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1941 (3 sections)
Unit IV Assessment
Chapter 24: The Jazz Age: Redefining the Nation, 1919–1929 (3 sections)
Chapter 25: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Great Depression, 1929–
1932 (4 sections)
Unit IV Assessment
Required Unit Resources
In order to access the following resource, click the link below.
Throughout this course, you will be provided with sections of text from the online resource U.S. History. You
may be tested on your knowledge and understanding of the material listed below as well as the information
presented in the unit lesson. This unit’s chapter titles and sections are provided below:
Chapter 24: The Jazz Age: Redefining the Nation, 1919–1929, Sections 24.1, 24.2, and 24.3
Chapter 25: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Great Depression, 1929–1932, Sections 25.1, 25.2, 25.3,
Chapter 26: Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1941, Sections 26.1, 26.2, and 26.3
Fallout of the Great War
For Americans, the decades between the world wars were times of contrast and change—and with good
reason. The visual images of the Great Depression, such as businessmen in bread lines, have etched
themselves into the nation’s memory, but that is only a part of the story. This would be a time of great joy and
HIS 1302, American History II
heartbreak, triumph and adversity, and magic—perhaps best encapsulated in UNIT
masterpiece The Great Gatsby (Corbett et al., 2014). This setting provides a backdrop
to the attitudes and
extravagances of American society in the Roaring Twenties.
Although the more outrageous fads of the time would fade, some of the cultural gifts continue today. Perhaps
the most timeless, poignant donation is the fervent flowing radiance of jazz music, impassioned enough to
stimulate dance, decadence, and deception, but with the soul to personify both the highs and lows of the era.
Unit IV will focus on the fallout of the Great War, the realities of coming home in the wake of great changes,
and the society that was mortared back together from a world at war.
The end of the Great War brought about a
period of renewal in America. Though the
United States’ time in the war was limited,
it took its toll on the younger generation by
accounting for more than 320,000 killed,
wounded, or missing in action (Corbett et
al., 2014). As with any war, there would
soon be a period of economic
deterioration causing widespread loss of
jobs, great migrations in search of
opportunity, and a renewed period of
struggles. The first modern war was a
nightmare—a conflict so devastating that
many believed it was barbaric enough to
ensure that another war would never
begin. In the wake of the war, there would
continue to be waves in political
leadership, including Harding and Fall’s
scandalous Teapot Dome and Hughes’s
ambitious Five-Power Naval Treaty of
1922, which put limits on naval power and
created worries about being able to
defend the Pacific, but as a whole, it was
a return to politics as usual.
Today, we know that there would soon be
an even more devastating series of
conflicts on the horizon, but at the time, it
was a period of thankfulness and
celebration. The 1920s remain as one of
Troops returning from the war
the most iconic decades for the United
(Library of Congress, 1919)
States. The affordable automobile may be
one of the strongest manifestations of this
ideal. Loud and flashy, the automobile inspired exploration, innovation, and even youthful expression to
breathe a renewed zeal into the nation. Henry Ford’s savvy business success was not without a more
universal purpose and outcome; in addition to a rise in the necessity for car parts, America’s obsession with
travel would inspire new roads and services, introducing the iconic styles of glass gas pumps and fullservice stations.
Motels and restaurants would appear and become successful businesses to serve the number of weary
travelers. Sometimes, even new communities would arise, perhaps most notably in regions outside of the
chaos and racket of major cities—areas that are known as suburbs in today’s society.
There was also a new normal for many demographics in the population who had spent much of the previous
century simply trying to have their voices heard. Women, for the first time, were given ballots to vote for the
HIS 1302, American History II
president. Despite Harding’s failures in office, this first election after the war was
of great GUIDE
concerning equality for all Americans.
Women again would defy expectations by seeking education and gaining admittance to college in rising
numbers. Increasingly popular magazines geared toward women influenced the public image of women,
which threatened to shatter the gender spheres of influence. This culminated in another chance for
controversial reform: the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Like suffrage, the ERA would emphasize the equal
ability and intelligence of women. However, this would ultimately find defeat in the political halls. Unlike the
suffrage debate, the divide between supporters was not as pronounced along gender lines. The question of
what equality really meant became a common topic of conversation. Would this equality stop at wage
increases, or was there a barrier that could safeguard protective legislation, such as maternity leave and
related provisions, types of extreme physical labor, and even gender-specific washroom facilities? This reform
would again shake the expectations of society and lead to a new generation of outspoken female leaders in
the coming decades.
Another group tried once again to win an equal place in American society—African Americans, many of whom
were veterans of the war and fresh from overwhelming acceptance by the French they helped to liberate. The
desire to live in a similarly desegregated society expanded African American migration away from inefficient
or corruptive influences in regions of heightened segregation, including in the American Southeast. This
migration exploded in response to a pronounced (and often publicly sponsored) revival of hate groups who
tried to use religious and moral imagery to spread their message to the susceptible masses. Groups such as
the Ku Klux Klan resurged during this era, becoming an unavoidable reality. Now much less a secret society
than an unofficial policing agent, their message of 100% Americanism ensured that segregation was kept
alive not only in the Old South but throughout the nation.
In the North, the destination for many during current and earlier
migrations, a wave of culture change encapsulated the spirit of the
society. Marcus Garvey built a regiment of supporters who joined his
Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in droves, and the
term New Negro was coined as a way to identify those who influenced
a renewed era of culture that was reflective of the African American.
This culture became known as The Harlem Renaissance (1918–1937)
and resulted in the creation of a rich legacy of great works of art that
were painted, written, and performed musically, especially in an era
bearing witness to the rise of jazz and blues. The literary magazine
Fire! showcased a new generation of African American artists. Among
these were poet Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston, famous for
her anthropological stories of African American folktales and the
novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God and Dust Tracks on a Road
(Corbett et al., 2014).
For many of the upper-class citizens, this became a time of luxury and
criminal mischief. The Eighteenth Amendment, which banned all
manufacture, sale, and ingestion of alcoholic beverages, had an
unexpected consequence—crime grew throughout the nation. In major
cities, such as Chicago, crime bosses could have more power than
police chiefs. To many people, figures such as Al Capone were viewed
as kings, offering debauchery to anyone choosing to partake.
Zora Neale Hurston, beating the
hountar, or mama drum. (World
Telegram Staff Photographer,
1937). Library of Congress. New
York World-Telegram & Sun
HIS 1302, American History II
Today, the image of the semi-hidden speakeasy is still prevalent
throughout the media. Gambling, alcohol, prostitution, and other crimes
against moral standards were less and less of a risk for those seeking
these vices, which included politicians, writers, artists, and other
persons of influence and affluence throughout society. This was just a
taste of the kind of corruptive influence that was present in this era. Not
unlike the political machines a century earlier, these kings of influence
had a resilient hold on the lower and working classes. However, unlike
Boss Tweed and his contemporaries, these newer kings were, more
often than not, deposed by being riddled with bullets. They were finally brought
a repeal of
the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933 (Corbett et al., 2014).
The Great Depression
Just as many had taken the era by storm, there were also those who became immersed in more melancholy
views. Often associated with the horrors of war, changes in the society they had known, or simply drowning in
the vices of the age, cultural titans such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald
illuminated a darker side of the time, a reality for many in the shadows of the showy lights. These artists
discussed themes of poverty, loss, prejudice, and missed opportunity. This Lost Generation provides even
modern readers with a depiction of timeless struggles and human emotions drowned out by society. These
depictions, ranging from rural Mississippi, to Cuban seas, to lavish New York, still have a way of reaching out
to us in modern times. They would become increasingly relevant to all as the next great challenge arose: a
worldwide economic collapse of unprecedented scale.
The Great Depression hit the world
from seemingly out of nowhere. Its
devastating effects would cripple the
country’s economic infrastructure and
hierarchy. President Herbert Hoover,
who took office in January 1929 on a
platform of savings and reform, may be
better known today for Hoovervilles (the
unflatteringly named tenements filled
with starving Americans) than any
action taken during his presidency
(Corbett et al., 2014). Though a veteran
of strife and personal ambition based
on his own need, Hoover failed to
provide leadership during a calamity to
the extent of the Great Depression.
By 1929, the U.S. economy was
reaping what it had sown in the years
after the war. The U.S. decision to
forego providing aid for European
rebuilding and instead contributing to
the devastation through demands of
wartime repayment meant that
traditional buyers were no longer able
A Hooverville in Portland, Oregon
to purchase industrial goods, and the
economic collapse finally spread across
the Atlantic. In addition, poor management of funds only caused greater economic divide in America.
Segregation of haves from have-nots increased, creating greater social tensions throughout the population.
Hoover tried to keep the nation’s head above water through plans of good faith between production and
industry, but as debt rose, so did frustrations. Implementing tariffs and taxes, lowering prices, and limiting
supply all failed to resurrect the economy. National spending, though helpful to a few, was far too late. When
he left office, Hoover had seen the American economy shrink to nearly half its worth in 1929. In 1933, the
economy was the lowest it had been in a generation (Corbett et al., 2014). Millions of people had lost
everything, and there was no longer faith in his leadership to correct the nation’s course. Once again, the
desperation led to rash action, which meant new spikes in racism, such as the Scottsboro case, and a
renewal of two controversial voices in American politics: Socialism and Communism.
The Second Roosevelt
As much as Hoover had appealed to the common person with his poor upbringing, it was difficult for the
now-destitute American voter to imagine one of his or her own having the answer to battling the Depression.
It is from this frustration that the nation would find Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). A cousin of the
HIS 1302, American History II
charismatic former president Theodore Roosevelt, FDR was also a demandingUNIT
a face that the
FDR practiced a policy of government that worked for the people, not one asserting that better times were
ahead. It was this enthusiasm that had brought him success as New York’s governor. In 1932, FDR and
Hoover were complete opposites in the eyes of the American people, and that was the perfect recipe for
bringing the Democratic Party back into the White House for the first time since the Civil War (Corbett et
FDR made himself what he had to be—a
man of the people. Though this was
almost an insult to the elites who shared
his experiences, Roosevelt proved his
willingness and ability to reach out to the
struggling masses. Perhaps his greatest
gift was his ability to use the technology of
the day to his advantage. Being stricken
with polio, he had limited ability to walk,
which might have unfairly discounted him
in a more prosperous or invasive era.
However, his inability to walk was cleverly
hidden with camera tricks and a dedicated
support network. Despite this affliction,
Roosevelt embraced the office of a public
figure, speaking directly to the American
people in their homes via radio broadcast
of his Fireside Chats. He provided a calm
but assertive reminder that there was a
strong, charismatic, and active voice
behind the American public’s interests.
FDR knew that time was not his ally, and
he promised the American people that
changes would come soon—a plan that
he explained would unfold in the first 100
Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a man of the people
days of his term. This plan would
eventually become known as the New
Deal. In simplest terms, the New Deal was a series of federally funded programs, most of which put the
average American person back to work, generally on projects that directly addressed other government needs
such as infrastructure building. Other programs that were also a part of this New Deal would be those that
reformed banking practices to ensure that the people’s money was safe. Now, with money in people’s pockets
and faith in financial institutions, Americans could again become consumers, and with consumption, the
downward spiral started to reverse.
Of course, no plan is perfect, and there is always an opposing side. FDR’s plan was no different.
Republicans, now out of their accustomed political roles, argued about loopholes in the programs. They
claimed that the plan was fascist and unequally beneficial to different-sized businesses and farms as well as
anti-capitalistic in nature. One program, the National Recovery Administration, was even declared
unconstitutional. Even nature seemed to be against FDR. John Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath
describes the hardships of the dustbowl that plagued the American Midwest in the 1930s, describing it and
the economic plight as akin to a trial, death, or a demon itself (Corbett et al., 2014).
Despite the disbelievers and heartache, the New Deal quickly benefited millions. With that motivation, a
second major effort was launched in 1935 with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This program was
also geared toward lowering unemployment and satisfying public work needs (Corbett et al., 2014).
Roosevelt, remember, considered himself as a man for the people. However, as widespread as these
programs were, many in the American population still would not directly benefit. In this time of uncertainty,
HIS 1302, American History II
even those who were able to remain employed needed some assistance against
GUIDE such as
steel, which held all bargaining power in the down economy.
With this in mind, unionization, which had emerged initially as a socialist measure, was given a muchneeded ally in 1935 with the Wagner Act and John L. Lewis’ Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO).
These guaranteed the safety and legality of unions (Corbett et al., 2014). The next and perhaps most
notable still-existing program today would address those who could no longer work but who felt the
economic strain all the same: Social Security. Though not as comprehensive as today, it did ensure benefits
for a struggling population. Even with these plans, life was not perfect, and many people continued to suffer.
This was especially true for the youngest and oldest, those without deep American or European roots, and
those suffering through segregation. Still, the majority of the population saw the American economy shifting to
FDR soundly won reelection in 1936 and subsequently took the opportunity to guarantee additional political
support. Using age against several current judges, he opened new positions on the Supreme Court to
account for Republican carryovers (Corbett et al., 2014). This meant that he would be able to guarantee four
Democratic voices on the highest court in the land. The New Deal had supporters and detractors, but for
many Americans, it brought hope to a time that might otherwise not have had any. Roosevelt’s plans put
people to work. The New Deal reached across age, gender, and ethnic lines to ensure that opportunities were
as fair as possible, and it worked to restore good faith in banking, labor, and protective institutions that had
withered in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash. As this era affected people on a world scale, it is
important to recognize how our own families and communities were and are impacted by both the time and
the programs associated with it. This was a project that was designed to be stimulating and enlightening.
By 1938, the luster of the New Deal was wearing off, but opportunity was shifting across the Atlantic. Once
again, there were rumbles of discontent and aggression rising from Western Europe, and the German
Wehrmacht army was marching under a fascist swastika and banner. At the same time, the often-elusive
Empire of Japan was making noise, gearing up to strike to ensure its own preservation. The world was again
about to be at war, and the United States was no longer able to assume a policy of isolation.
Corbett, P. S., Janssen, V., Lund, J. M., Pfannestiel, T., Waskiewicz, S., & Vickery, P. (2014). U.S. history.
Library of Congress. (1919). Returning from World War I [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.
Rothstein, A. (1936). Hooverville Portland Oregon [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.
Suckley, M. (1941). Roosevelt in wheelchair [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.
World Telegram Staff Photographer. (1937). Zora Neale Hurston NYWTS [Photograph]. Wikimedia
Suggested Unit Resources
In order to access the following resources, click the links below.
The transcripts for these videos can be found by clicking the “Transcript” tab to the right of the video in the
Films on Demand database.
Media Rich Learning. (2004). President Hoover’s response to the Great Depression (Segment 3 of 9) [Video].
In The great depression. Films On Demand.
HIS 1302, American History II
UNIT x STUDY GUIDE
Media Rich Learning. (2004). The new deal (Segment 5 of 9) [Video]. In The great depression. Films On
PBS. (2013). Harlem renaissance (Segment 14 of 25) [Video]. In Making a way out of no way (1897-1940):
the African Americans-many rivers to cross. Films On Demand.
PBS. (2013). Harlem integration (Segment 15 of 25) [Video]. In Making a way out of no way (1897-1940): the
African Americans-many rivers to cross. Films On Demand.
PBS. (2013). Harlem music (Segment 16 of 25) [Video]. In Making a way out of no way (1897-1940): the
African Americans-many rivers to cross. Films On Demand.
PBS. (2013). Oscar Micheaux (Segment 17 of 25) [Video]. In Making a way out of no way (1897-1940): the
African Americans-many rivers to cross. Films On Demand.
HIS 1302, American History II
Unit IV Themes and Advice
Hello Everyone, Please be sure to look for the feedback on the Unit III Essay
because it offers advice on all research essays (and good advice for professional
presentations, too) as well as substantive feedback on this specific issue.
Last week, we considered America’s evolution into a World War I ally and the
social and industrial mobilization that enhanced American global power. We also
considered how the wartime experiences of women at home and African
Americans fighting abroad stirred demands for social change and the expansion of
This week, we continue to trace that rising demand through the “roaring twenties”
and the Great Depression. This was an age of great optimism, social experiment,
enjoyment and expansion of culture and leisure for all and not just the wealthy. It
was also an age of increased incidents of racial violence. The Harlem Renaissance
offered an explosion of vibrant creativity in literature, science, social science,
visual and musical arts, and the rise of jazz that took the nation by storm. Wealth
accumulation was driven at times by solid expansion of productivity but also
speculation and graft. How did this generate the Great Depression and how did the
second Roosevelt president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, use the New Deal to coax the
economy back into expansion? What were the arguments for and against spending
on infrastructure to move money into the pockets of stricken Americans? How did
this shape the age in its own day and not subsequently or today.
Please note that the closer we get to our own times, the more gripping the
temptation to see only what we want to see or what is already familiar to us due to
political debates now. Reflection on our politics now is a part of citizenship we
encourage. However, that reflection is not history scholarship which is focused
differently. Scholarship delves into the complexity of their lives, not ours. It’s the
recreation of what it was like to experience change and what the significance of
change was for them. Be careful of assumptions and projections of debates from
today. There’s still a whole lotta history between then and now so arguments from
now are not logically relevant to recovering the complexity of “then” and could
prevent you from seeing the unique constellation of factors.
Unit IV Assessment Essay Advice
This week, the assessment essay aims to ensure that we are aware of how different
segments of society experienced the transition from the 20s to the 30s. So take that
as your main focus and as you read about the developments, aim to create your
insight about how a particular disenfranchised, marginalized, or impoverished
group was affected. Can you provide a rationale for how you would rank
influences on their experiences? Can you characterize an overall insight from your
reading about the nature of the impacts on them?
Then, choose the 2-3 very specific examples of that change and show your reader
how that evidence illustrates your opening point. I’m here if you’d like to
ALL THAT JAZZ
Vibrant! – the word frequently paired with the cultural achievement exploding out
of Harlem from the close of World War I in 1919 to 1940: political discourse,
theatre, jazz and the blues, academic and news publications, visual arts, poetry, and
novels that gained American writers a place among the list of literary masterpieces
(known as the “canon”). Harlem pulsed with talent and achievement that drew the
admiration of the world.
The Harlem Renaissance is singular and remarkable for several reasons. In an age
of Jim Crow restrictions, Harlem offered the opportunity for African Americans to
live in a community of relative safety and to generate a culture that became
renowned throughout Europe for its innovation. For the first time, innovations in
African American culture were embraced by the nation. African American culture
was embraced as American culture. This is an important development since the
broadening of rights throughout the rest of the 20th century, though incomplete,
generated the ideas about American freedom and the Constitution that we have
now and that are often associated with America.
“Civil Rights by Copyright.” The contributions went beyond those in the arts.
Since racist sciences based on false assumptions and oversimplification had
painted Africans as less capable than Europeans (in fact creating a false hierarchy
of abilities for all ethnicities), the deconstruction of these falsehoods was critical.
The Harlem Renaissance also refers to the explosion of science and social science
using solid and expansive data sets to correct the record. The refutation of
falsehoods revealed assumptions embedded in much of academic learning and
methods and resulted in more logically and evidentially rigorous knowledge across
many fields of science, social science, and humanities. Emancipation through
publication, then, was an important precursor to the legal and political measures
that followed in the more visible Civil Rights Movement and more broadly, the
engine for the stronger research produced from then on.
Students might find Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” illuminating as an
example of how arts communicated cultural
Figure 25.1 In 1935, American photographer Berenice Abbott photographed these
shanties, which the unemployed in Lower Manhattan built during the depths of the Great
Depression. (credit: modification of work by Works Progress Administration)
25.1 The Stock Market Crash of 1929
25.2 President Hoover’s Response
25.3 The Depths of the Great Depression
25.4 Assessing the Hoover Years on the Eve of the New Deal
On March 4, 1929, at his presidential inauguration, Herbert Hoover stated, “I have no
fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.” Most Americans shared his
optimism. They believed that the prosperity of the 1920s would continue, and that the
country was moving closer to a land of abundance for all. Little could Hoover imagine
that barely a year into his presidency, shantytowns known as “Hoovervilles” would
emerge on the fringes of most major cities (Figure 25.1), newspapers covering the
homeless would be called “Hoover blankets,” and pants pockets, turned inside-out to
show their emptiness, would become “Hoover flags.”
The stock market crash of October 1929 set the Great Depression into motion, but other
factors were at the root of the problem, propelled onward by a series of both humanmade and natural catastrophes. Anticipating a short downturn and living under an ethos
of free enterprise and individualism, Americans suffered mightily in the first years of the
Depression. As conditions worsened and the government failed to act, they grew
increasingly desperate for change. While Hoover could not be blamed for the Great
Depression, his failure to address the nation’s hardships would remain his legacy.
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
Identify the causes of the stock market crash of 1929
Assess the underlying weaknesses in the economy that resulted in America’s
spiraling from prosperity to depression so quickly
Compare how the stock market crash impacted different groups in America
Figure 25.2 (credit “courthouse”: modification of work by National Oceanic and
Herbert Hoover became president at a time of ongoing prosperity in the country.
Americans hoped he would continue to lead the country through still more economic
growth, and neither he nor the country was ready for the unraveling that followed. But
Hoover’s moderate policies, based upon a strongly held belief in the spirit of American
individualism, were not enough to stem the ever-growing problems, and the economy
slipped further and further into the Great Depression.
While it is misleading to view the stock market crash of 1929 as the sole cause of the
Great Depression, the dramatic events of that October did play a role in the downward
spiral of the American economy. The crash, which took place less than a year after
Hoover was inaugurated, was the most extreme sign of the economy’s weakness.
Multiple factors contributed to the crash, which in turn caused a consumer panic that
drove the economy even further downhill, in ways that neither Hoover nor the financial
industry was able to restrain. Hoover, like many others at the time, thought and hoped
that the country would right itself with limited government intervention. This was not the
case, however, and millions of Americans sank into grinding poverty.
THE EARLY DAYS OF HOOVER’S PRESIDENCY
Upon his inauguration, President Hoover set forth an agenda that he hoped would
continue the “Coolidge prosperity” of the previous administration. While accepting the
Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1928, Hoover commented, “Given the
chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon with the help
of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation forever.” In
the spirit of normalcy that defined the Republican ascendancy of the 1920s, Hoover
planned to immediately overhaul federal regulations with the intention of allowing the
nation’s economy to grow unfettered by any controls. The role of the government, he
contended, should be to create a partnership with the American people, in which the
latter would rise (or fall) on their own merits and abilities. He felt the less government
intervention in their lives, the better.
Yet, to listen to Hoover’s later reflections on Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in office, one
could easily mistake his vision for America for the one held by his successor. Speaking
in 1936 before an audience in Denver, Colorado, he acknowledged that it was always
his intent as president to ensure “a nation built of home owners and farm owners. We
want to see more and more of them insured against death and accident, unemployment
and old age,” he declared. “We want them all secure.” 1 Such humanitarianism was not
uncommon to Hoover. Throughout his early career in public service, he was committed
to relief for people around the world. In 1900, he coordinated relief efforts for foreign
nationals trapped in China during the Boxer Rebellion. At the outset of World War I, he
led the food relief effort in Europe, specifically helping millions of Belgians who faced
German forces. President Woodrow Wilson subsequently appointed him head of the
U.S. Food Administration to coordinate rationing efforts in America as well as to secure
essential food items for the Allied forces and citizens in Europe.
Hoover’s first months in office hinted at the reformist, humanitarian spirit that he had
displayed throughout his career. He continued the civil service reform of the early
twentieth century by expanding opportunities for employment throughout the federal
government. In response to the Teapot Dome Affair, which had occurred during the
Harding administration, he invalidated several private oil leases on public lands. He
directed the Department of Justice, through its Bureau of Investigation, to crack down
on organized crime, resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of Al Capone. By the
summer of 1929, he had signed into law the creation of a Federal Farm Board to help
farmers with government price supports, expanded tax cuts across all income classes,
and set aside federal funds to clean up slums in major American cities. To directly assist
several overlooked populations, he created the Veterans Administration and expanded
veterans’ hospitals, established the Federal Bureau of Prisons to oversee incarceration
conditions nationwide, and reorganized the Bureau of Indian Affairs to further protect
Native Americans. Just prior to the stock market crash, he even proposed the creation
of an old-age pension program, promising fifty dollars monthly to all Americans over the
age of sixty-five—a proposal remarkably similar to the social security benefit that would
become a hallmark of Roosevelt’s subsequent New Deal programs. As the summer of
1929 came to a close, Hoover remained a popular successor to Calvin “Silent Cal”
Coolidge, and all signs pointed to a highly successful administration.
THE GREAT CRASH
The promise of the Hoover administration was cut short when the stock market lost
almost one-half its value in the fall of 1929, plunging many Americans into financial ruin.
However, as a singular event, the stock market crash itself did not cause the Great
Depression that followed. In fact, only approximately 10 percent of American
households held stock investments and speculated in the market; yet nearly a third
would lose their lifelong savings and jobs in the ensuing depression. The connection
between the crash and the subsequent decade of hardship was complex, involving
underlying weaknesses in the economy that many policymakers had long ignored.
What Was the Crash?
To understand the crash, it is useful to address the decade that preceded it. The
prosperous 1920s ushered in a feeling of euphoria among middle-class and wealthy
Americans, and people began to speculate on wilder investments. The government was
a willing partner in this endeavor: The Federal Reserve followed a brief postwar
recession in 1920–1921 with a policy of setting interest rates artificially low, as well as
easing the reserve requirements on the nation’s largest banks. As a result, the money
supply in the U.S. increased by nearly 60 percent, which convinced even more
Americans of the safety of investing in questionable schemes. They felt that prosperity
was boundless and that extreme risks were likely tickets to wealth. Named for Charles
Ponzi, the original “Ponzi schemes” emerged early in the 1920s to encourage novice
investors to divert funds to unfounded ventures, which in reality simply used new
investors’ funds to pay off older investors as the schemes grew in size. Speculation,
where investors purchased into high-risk schemes that they hoped would pay off
quickly, became the norm. Several banks, including deposit institutions that originally
avoided investment loans, began to offer easy credit, allowing people to invest, even
when they lacked the money to do so. An example of this mindset was the Florida land
boom of the 1920s: Real estate developers touted Florida as a tropical paradise and
investors went all in, buying land they had never seen with money they didn’t have and
selling it for even higher prices.
Selling Optimism and Risk
Advertising offers a useful window into the popular perceptions and beliefs of an era. By
seeing how businesses were presenting their goods to consumers, it is possible to
sense the hopes and aspirations of people at that moment in history. Maybe companies
are selling patriotism or pride in technological advances. Maybe they are pushing
idealized views of parenthood or safety. In the 1920s, advertisers were selling
opportunity and euphoria, further feeding the notions of many Americans that prosperity
would never end.
In the decade before the Great Depression, the optimism of the American public was
seemingly boundless. Advertisements from that era show large new cars, timesaving
labor devices, and, of course, land. This advertisement for California real estate
illustrates how realtors in the West, much like the ongoing Florida land boom, used a
combination of the hard sell and easy credit (Figure 25.3). “Buy now!!” the ad shouts.
“You are sure to make money on these.” In great numbers, people did. With easy
access to credit and hard-pushing advertisements like this one, many felt that they
could not afford to miss out on such an opportunity. Unfortunately, overspeculation in
California and hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and in Florida conspired to burst this
land bubble, and would-be millionaires were left with nothing but the ads that once
pulled them in.
Figure 25.3 This real estate advertisement from Los Angeles illustrates the hard-sell
techniques and easy credit offered to those who wished to buy in. Unfortunately, the
opportunities being promoted with these techniques were of little value, and many lost
their investments. (credit: “army.arch”/Flickr)
The Florida land boom went bust in 1925–1926. A combination of negative press about
the speculative nature of the boom, IRS investigations into the questionable financial
practices of several land brokers, and a railroad embargo that limited the delivery of
construction supplies into the region significantly hampered investor interest. The
subsequent Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 drove most land developers into outright
bankruptcy. However, speculation continued throughout the decade, this time in the
stock market. Buyers purchased stock “on margin”—buying for a small down payment
with borrowed money, with the intention of quickly selling at a much higher price before
the remaining payment came due—which worked well as long as prices continued to
rise. Speculators were aided by retail stock brokerage firms, which catered to average
investors anxious to play the market but lacking direct ties to investment banking
houses or larger brokerage firms. When prices began to fluctuate in the summer of
1929, investors sought excuses to continue their speculation. When fluctuations turned
to outright and steady losses, everyone started to sell. As September began to unfold,
the Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked at a value of 381 points, or roughly ten times
the stock market’s value, at the start of the 1920s.
Several warning signs portended the impending crash but went unheeded by Americans
still giddy over the potential fortunes that speculation might promise. A brief downturn in
the market on September 18, 1929, raised questions among more-seasoned investment
bankers, leading some to predict an end to high stock values, but did little to stem the
tide of investment. Even the collapse of the London Stock Exchange on September 20
failed to fully curtail the optimism of American investors. However, when the New York
Stock Exchange lost 11 percent of its value on October 24—often referred to as “Black
Thursday”—key American investors sat up and took notice. In an effort to forestall a
much-feared panic, leading banks, including Chase National, National City, J.P.
Morgan, and others, conspired to purchase large amounts of blue chip stocks (including
U.S. Steel) in order to keep the prices artificially high. Even that effort failed in the
growing wave of stock sales. Nevertheless, Hoover delivered a radio address on Friday
in which he assured the American people, “The fundamental business of the country . . .
is on a sound and prosperous basis.”
As newspapers across the country began to cover the story in earnest, investors
anxiously awaited the start of the following week. When the Dow Jones Industrial
Average lost another 13 percent of its value on Monday morning, many knew the end of
stock market speculation was near. The evening before the infamous crash was
ominous. Jonathan Leonard, a newspaper reporter who regularly covered the stock
market beat, wrote of how Wall Street “lit up like a Christmas tree.” Brokers and
businessmen who feared the worst the next day crowded into restaurants and
speakeasies (a place where alcoholic beverages were illegally sold). After a night of
heavy drinking, they retreated to nearby hotels or flop-houses (cheap boarding houses),
all of which were overbooked, and awaited sunrise. Children from nearby slums and
tenement districts played stickball in the streets of the financial district, using wads of
ticker tape for balls. Although they all awoke to newspapers filled with predictions of a
financial turnaround, as well as technical reasons why the decline might be short-lived,
the crash on Tuesday morning, October 29, caught few by surprise.
No one even heard the opening bell on Wall Street that day, as shouts of “Sell! Sell!”
drowned it out. In the first three minutes alone, nearly three million shares of stock,
accounting for $2 million of wealth, changed hands. The volume of Western Union
telegrams tripled, and telephone lines could not meet the demand, as investors sought
any means available to dump their stock immediately. Rumors spread of investors
jumping from their office windows. Fistfights broke out on the trading floor, where one
broker fainted from physical exhaustion. Stock trades happened at such a furious pace
that runners had nowhere to store the trade slips, and so they resorted to stuffing them
into trash cans. Although the stock exchange’s board of governors briefly considered
closing the exchange early, they subsequently chose to let the market run its course,
lest the American public panic even further at the thought of closure. When the final bell
rang, errand boys spent hours sweeping up tons of paper, tickertape, and sales slips.
Among the more curious finds in the rubbish were torn suit coats, crumpled eyeglasses,
and one broker’s artificial leg. Outside a nearby brokerage house, a policeman allegedly
found a discarded birdcage with a live parrot squawking, “More margin! More margin!”
On Black Tuesday, October 29, stock holders traded over sixteen million shares and
lost over $14 billion in wealth in a single day. To put this in context, a trading day of
three million shares was considered a busy day on the stock market. People unloaded
their stock as quickly as they could, never minding the loss. Banks, facing debt and
seeking to protect their own assets, demanded payment for the loans they had provided
to individual investors. Those individuals who could not afford to pay found their stocks
sold immediately and their life savings wiped out in minutes, yet their debt to the bank
still remained (Figure 25.4).
Figure 25.4 October 29, 1929, or Black Tuesday, witnessed thousands of people racing
to Wall Street discount brokerages and markets to sell their stocks. Prices plummeted
throughout the day, eventually leading to a complete stock market crash.
The financial outcome of the crash was devastating. Between September 1 and
November 30, 1929, the stock market lost over one-half its value, dropping from $64
billion to approximately $30 billion. Any effort to stem the tide was, as one historian
noted, tantamount to bailing Niagara Falls with a bucket. The crash affected many more
than the relatively few Americans who invested in the stock market. While only 10
percent of households had investments, over 90 percent of all banks had invested in the
stock market. Many banks failed due to their dwindling cash reserves. This was in part
due to the Federal Reserve lowering the limits of cash reserves that banks were
traditionally required to hold in their vaults, as well as the fact that many banks invested
in the stock market themselves. Eventually, thousands of banks closed their doors after
losing all of their assets, leaving their customers penniless. While a few savvy investors
got out at the right time and eventually made fortunes buying up discarded stock, those
success stories were rare. Housewives who speculated with grocery money,
bookkeepers who embezzled company funds hoping to strike it rich and pay the funds
back before getting caught, and bankers who used customer deposits to follow
speculative trends all lost. While the stock market crash was the trigger, the lack of
appropriate economic and banking safeguards, along with a public psyche that pursued
wealth and prosperity at all costs, allowed this event to spiral downward into a
CLICK AND EXPLORE
The National Humanities Center has brought together a selection of newspaper
commentary from the 1920s, from before the crash to its aftermath. Read through to
see what journalists and financial analysts thought of the situation at the time.
Causes of the Crash
The crash of 1929 did not occur in a vacuum, nor did it cause the Great Depression.
Rather, it was a tipping point where the underlying weaknesses in the economy,
specifically in the nation’s banking system, came to the fore. It also represented both
the end of an era characterized by blind faith in American exceptionalism and the
beginning of one in which citizens began increasingly to question some long-held
American values. A number of factors played a role in bringing the stock market to this
point and contributed to the downward trend in the market, which continued well into the
1930s. In addition to the Federal Reserve’s questionable policies and misguided
banking practices, three primary reasons for the collapse of the stock market were
international economic woes, poor income distribution, and the psychology of public
After World War I, both America’s allies and the defeated nations of Germany and
Austria contended with disastrous economies. The Allies owed large amounts of money
to U.S. banks, which had advanced them money during the war effort. Unable to repay
these debts, the Allies looked to reparations from Germany and Austria to help. The
economies of those countries, however, were struggling badly, and they could not pay
their reparations, despite the loans that the U.S. provided to assist with their payments.
The U.S. government refused to forgive these loans, and American banks were in the
position of extending additional private loans to foreign governments, who used them to
repay their debts to the U.S. government, essentially shifting their obligations to private
banks. When other countries began to default on this second wave of private bank
loans, still more strain was placed on U.S. banks, which soon sought to liquidate these
loans at the first sign of a stock market crisis.
Poor income distribution among Americans compounded the problem. A strong stock
market relies on today’s buyers becoming tomorrow’s sellers, and therefore it must
always have an influx of new buyers. In the 1920s, this was not the case. Eighty percent
of American families had virtually no savings, and only one-half to 1 percent of
Americans controlled over a third of the wealth. This scenario meant that there were no
new buyers coming into the marketplace, and nowhere for sellers to unload their stock
as the speculation came to a close. In addition, the vast majority of Americans with
limited savings lost their accounts as local banks closed, and likewise lost their jobs as
investment in business and industry came to a screeching halt.
Finally, one of the most important factors in the crash was the contagion effect of panic.
For much of the 1920s, the public felt confident that prosperity would continue forever,
and therefore, in a self-fulfilling cycle, the market continued to grow. But once the panic
began, it spread quickly and with the same cyclical results; people were worried that the
market was going down, they sold their stock, and the market continued to drop. This
was partly due to Americans’ inability to weather market volatility, given the limited cash
surpluses they had on hand, as well as their psychological concern that economic
recovery might never happen.
IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE CRASH
After the crash, Hoover announced that the economy was “fundamentally sound.” On
the last day of trading in 1929, the New York Stock Exchange held its annual wild and
lavish party, complete with confetti, musicians, and illegal alcohol. The U.S. Department
of Labor predicted that 1930 would be “a splendid employment year.” These sentiments
were not as baseless as it may seem in hindsight. Historically, markets cycled up and
down, and periods of growth were often followed by downturns that corrected
themselves. But this time, there was no market correction; rather, the abrupt shock of
the crash was followed by an even more devastating depression. Investors, along with
the general public, withdrew their money from banks by the thousands, fearing the
banks would go under. The more people pulled out their money in bank runs, the
closer the banks came to insolvency (Figure 25.5).
Figure 25.5 As the financial markets collapsed, hurting the banks that had gambled with
their holdings, people began to fear that the money they had in the bank would be lost.
This began bank runs across the country, a period of still more panic, where people
pulled their money out of banks to keep it hidden at home.
The contagion effect of the crash grew quickly. With investors losing billions of dollars,
they invested very little in new or expanded businesses. At this time, two industries had
the greatest impact on the country’s economic future in terms of investment, potential
growth, and employment: automotive and construction. After the crash, both were hit
hard. In November 1929, fewer cars were built than in any other month since November
1919. Even before the crash, widespread saturation of the market meant that few
Americans bought them, leading to a slowdown. Afterward, very few could afford luxury
cars, like Stutz, Deusenberg, and Pierce-Arrow, so these car companies gradually went
out of business in the 1930s. In construction, the drop-off was even more dramatic. It
would be another thirty years before a new hotel or theater was built in New York City.
The Empire State Building itself stood half empty for years after being completed in
The damage to major industries led to, and reflected, limited purchasing by both
consumers and businesses. Even those Americans who continued to make a modest
income during the Great Depression lost the drive for conspicuous consumption that
they exhibited in the 1920s. People with less money to buy goods could not help
businesses grow; in turn, businesses with no market for their products could not hire
workers or purchase raw materials. Employers began to lay off workers. The country’s
gross national product declined by over 25 percent within a year, and wages and
salaries declined by $4 billion. Unemployment tripled, from 1.5 million at the end of 1929
to 4.5 million by the end of 1930. By mid-1930, the slide into economic chaos had
begun but was nowhere near complete.
THE NEW REALITY FOR AMERICANS
For most Americans, the crash affected daily life in myriad ways. In the immediate
aftermath, there was a run on the banks, where citizens took their money out, if they
could get it, and hid their savings under mattresses, in bookshelves, or anywhere else
they felt was safe. Some went so far as to exchange their dollars for gold and ship it out
of the country. A number of banks failed outright, and others, in their attempts to stay
solvent, called in loans that people could not afford to repay. Working-class Americans
saw their wages drop: Even Henry Ford, the champion of a high minimum wage, began
lowering wages by as much as a dollar a day. Southern cotton planters paid workers
only twenty cents for every one hundred pounds of cotton picked, meaning that
the strongest picker might earn sixty cents for a fourteen-hour day of work. Cities
struggled to collect property taxes and subsequently laid off teachers and police.
The new hardships that people faced were not always immediately apparent; many
communities felt the changes but could not necessarily look out their windows and see
anything different. Men who lost their jobs didn’t stand on street corners begging; they
disappeared. They might be found keeping warm by a trashcan bonfire or picking
through garbage at dawn, but mostly, they stayed out of public view. As the effects of
the crash continued, however, the results became more evident. Those living in cities
grew accustomed to seeing long breadlines of unemployed men waiting for a meal
(Figure 25.6). Companies fired workers and tore down employee housing to avoid
paying property taxes. The landscape of the country had changed.
Figure 25.6 As the Great Depression set in, thousands of unemployed men lined up in
cities around the country, waiting for a free meal or a hot cup of coffee.
The hardships of the Great Depression threw family life into disarray. Both marriage and
birth rates declined in the decade after the crash. The most vulnerable members of
society—children, women, minorities, and the working class—struggled the most.
Parents often sent children out to beg for food at restaurants and stores to save
themselves from the disgrace of begging. Many children dropped out of school, and
even fewer went to college. Childhood, as it had existed in the prosperous twenties, was
over. And yet, for many children living in rural areas where the affluence of the previous
decade was not fully developed, the Depression was not viewed as a great challenge.
School continued. Play was simple and enjoyed. Families adapted by growing more in
gardens, canning, and preserving, wasting little food if any. Home-sewn clothing
became the norm as the decade progressed, as did creative methods of shoe repair
with cardboard soles. Yet, one always knew of stories of the “other” families who
suffered more, including those living in cardboard boxes or caves. By one estimate, as
many as 200,000 children moved about the country as vagrants due to familial
Women’s lives, too, were profoundly affected. Some wives and mothers sought
employment to make ends meet, an undertaking that was often met with strong
resistance from husbands and potential employers. Many men derided and criticized
women who worked, feeling that jobs should go to unemployed men. Some campaigned
to keep companies from hiring married women, and an increasing number of school
districts expanded the long-held practice of banning the hiring of married female
teachers. Despite the pushback, women entered the workforce in increasing numbers,
from ten million at the start of the Depression to nearly thirteen million by the end of the
1930s. This increase took place in spite of the twenty-six states that passed a variety of
laws to prohibit the employment of married women. Several women found employment
in the emerging pink collar occupations, viewed as traditional women’s work, including
jobs as telephone operators, social workers, and secretaries. Others took jobs as maids
and housecleaners, working for those fortunate few who had maintained their wealth.
White women’s forays into domestic service came at the expense of minority women,
who had even fewer employment options. Unsurprisingly, African American men and
women experienced unemployment, and the grinding poverty that followed, at double
and triple the rates of their White counterparts. By 1932, unemployment among African
Americans reached near 50 percent. In rural areas, where large numbers of African
Americans continued to live despite the Great Migration of 1910–1930, depression-era
life represented an intensified version of the poverty that they traditionally experienced.
Subsistence farming allowed many African Americans who lost either their land or jobs
working for White landholders to survive, but their hardships increased. Life for African
Americans in urban settings was equally trying, with Black people and working-class
White people living in close proximity and competing for scarce jobs and resources.
Life for all rural Americans was difficult. Farmers largely did not experience the
widespread prosperity of the 1920s. Although continued advancements in farming
techniques and agricultural machinery led to increased agricultural production,
decreasing demand (particularly in the previous markets created by World War I)
steadily drove down commodity prices. As a result, farmers could barely pay the debt
they owed on machinery and land mortgages, and even then could do so only as a
result of generous lines of credit from banks. While factory workers may have lost their
jobs and savings in the crash, many farmers also lost their homes, due to the thousands
of farm foreclosures sought by desperate bankers. Between 1930 and 1935, nearly
750,000 family farms disappeared through foreclosure or bankruptcy. Even for those
who managed to keep their farms, there was little market for their crops. Unemployed
workers had less money to spend on food, and when they did purchase goods, the
market excess had driven prices so low that farmers could barely piece together a
living. A now-famous example of the farmer’s plight is that, when the price of coal began
to exceed that of corn, farmers would simply burn corn to stay warm in the winter.
As the effects of the Great Depression worsened, wealthier Americans had particular
concern for “the deserving poor”—those who had lost all of their money due to no fault
of their own. This concept gained greater attention beginning in the Progressive Era of
the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when early social reformers sought to
improve the quality of life for all Americans by addressing the poverty that was
becoming more prevalent, particularly in emerging urban areas. By the time of the Great
Depression, social reformers and humanitarian agencies had determined that the
“deserving poor” belonged to a different category from those who had speculated and
lost. However, the sheer volume of Americans who fell into this group meant that
charitable assistance could not begin to reach them all. Some fifteen million “deserving
poor,” or a full one-third of the labor force, were struggling by 1932. The country had no
mechanism or system in place to help so many; however, Hoover remained adamant
that such relief should rest in the hands of private agencies, not with the federal
government (Figure 25.7).
Figure 25.7 In the early 1930s, without significant government relief programs, many
people in urban centers relied on private agencies for assistance. In New York City, St.
Peter’s Mission distributed bread, soup, and canned goods to large numbers of the
unemployed and others in need.
Unable to receive aid from the government, Americans thus turned to private charities;
churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations; and state aid. But these
organizations were not prepared to deal with the scope of the problem. Private aid
organizations showed declining assets as well during the Depression, with fewer
Americans possessing the ability to donate to such charities. Likewise, state
governments were particularly ill-equipped. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first
to institute a Department of Welfare in New York in 1929. City governments had equally
little to offer. In New York City in 1932, family allowances were $2.39 per week, and
only one-half of the families who qualified actually received them. In Detroit, allowances
fell to fifteen cents a day per person, and eventually ran out completely. In most cases,
relief was only in the form of food and fuel; organizations provided nothing in the way of
rent, shelter, medical care, clothing, or other necessities. There was no infrastructure to
support the elderly, who were the most vulnerable, and this population largely depended
on their adult children to support them, adding to families’ burdens (Figure 25.8).
Figure 25.8 Because there was no infrastructure to support them should they become
unemployed or destitute, the elderly were extremely vulnerable during the Great
Depression. As the depression continued, the results of this tenuous situation became
more evident, as shown in this photo of a vacant storefront in San Francisco, captured
by Dorothea Lange in 1935.
During this time, local community groups, such as police and teachers, worked to help
the neediest. New York City police, for example, began contributing 1 percent of their
salaries to start a food fund that was geared to help those found starving on the streets.
In 1932, New York City schoolteachers also joined forces to try to help; they contributed
as much as $250,000 per month from their own salaries to help needy children. Chicago
teachers did the same, feeding some eleven thousand students out of their own pockets
in 1931, despite the fact that many of them had not been paid a salary in months. These
noble efforts, however, failed to fully address the level of desperation that the American
public was facing.
1Herbert Hoover, address delivered in Denver, Colorado, 30 October 1936,
compiled in Hoover, Addresses Upon the American Road, 1933-1938 (New York,
1938), p. 216. This particular quotation is frequently misidentified as part of
Hoover’s inaugural address in 1932.
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
Explain Herbert Hoover’s responses to the Great Depression and how they
reflected his political philosophy
Describe the causes, objectives, and outcomes of Great Depression protests
Analyze the frustration and anger that a majority of Americans directed at Herbert
President Hoover was unprepared for the scope of the depression crisis, and his limited
response did not begin to help the millions of Americans in need. The steps he took
were very much in keeping with his philosophy of limited government, a philosophy that
many had shared with him until the upheavals of the Great Depression made it clear
that a more direct government response was required. But Hoover was stubborn in his
refusal to give “handouts,” as he saw direct government aid. He called for a spirit of
volunteerism among America’s businesses, asking them to keep workers employed,
and he exhorted the American people to tighten their belts and make do in the spirit of
“rugged individualism.” While Hoover’s philosophy and his appeal to the country were
very much in keeping with his character, it was not enough to keep the economy from
plummeting further into economic chaos.
The steps Hoover did ultimately take were too little, too late. He created programs for
putting people back to work and helping beleaguered local and state charities with aid.
But the programs were small in scale and highly specific as to who could benefit, and
they only touched a small percentage of those in need. As the situation worsened, the
public grew increasingly unhappy with Hoover. He left office with one of the lowest
approval ratings of any president in history.
THE INITIAL REACTION
In the immediate aftermath of Black Tuesday, Hoover sought to reassure Americans that all was
well. Reading his words after the fact, it is easy to find fault. In 1929 he said, “Any lack of
confidence in the economic future or the strength of business in the United States is foolish.” In
1930, he stated, “The worst is behind us.” In 1931, he pledged federal aid should he ever witness
starvation in the country; but as of that date, he had yet to see such need in America, despite the
very real evidence that children and the elderly were starving to death. Yet Hoover was neither
intentionally blind nor unsympathetic. He simply held fast to a belief system that did not change
as the realities of the Great Depression set in.
Hoover believed strongly in the ethos of American individualism: that hard work brought its
own rewards. His life story testified to that belief. Hoover was born into poverty, made his way
through college at Stanford University, and eventually made his fortune as an engineer. This
experience, as well as his extensive travels in China and throughout Europe, shaped his
fundamental conviction that the very existence of American civilization depended upon the
moral fiber of its citizens, as evidenced by their ability to overcome all hardships through
individual effort and resolve. The idea of government handouts to Americans was repellant to
him. Whereas Europeans might need assistance, such as his hunger relief work in Belgium
during and after World War I, he believed the American character to be different. In a 1931 radio
address, he said, “The spread of government destroys initiative and thus destroys character.”
Likewise, Hoover was not completely unaware of the potential harm that wild stock speculation
might create if left unchecked. As secretary of commerce, Hoover often warned President
Coolidge of the dangers that such speculation engendered. In the weeks before his inauguration,
he offered many interviews to newspapers and magazines, urging Americans to curtail their
rampant stock investments, and even encouraged the Federal Reserve to raise the discount rate to
make it more costly for local banks to lend money to potential speculators. However, fearful of
creating a panic, Hoover never issued a stern warning to discourage Americans from such
investments. Neither Hoover, nor any other politician of that day, ever gave serious thought to
outright government regulation of the stock market. This was even true in his personal choices,
as Hoover often lamented poor stock advice he had once offered to a friend. When the stock
nose-dived, Hoover bought the shares from his friend to assuage his guilt, vowing never again to
advise anyone on matters of investment.
In keeping with these principles, Hoover’s response to the crash focused on two very common
American traditions: He asked individuals to tighten their belts and work harder, and he asked
the business community to voluntarily help sustain the economy by retaining workers and
continuing production. He immediately summoned a conference of leading industrialists to meet
in Washington, DC, urging them to maintain their current wages while America rode out this
brief economic panic. The crash, he assured business leaders, was not part of a greater downturn;
they had nothing to worry about. Similar meetings with utility companies and railroad executives
elicited promises for billions of dollars in new construction projects, while labor leaders agreed
to withhold demands for wage increases and workers continued to labor. Hoover also persuaded
Congress to pass a $160 million tax cut to bolster American incomes, leading many to conclude
that the president was doing all he could to stem the tide of the panic. In April 1930, the New
York Times editorial board concluded that “No one in his place could have done more.”
However, these modest steps were not enough. By late 1931, when it became clear that the
economy would not improve on its own, Hoover recognized the need for some government
intervention. He created the President’s Emergency Committee for Employment (PECE), later
renamed the President’s Organization of Unemployment Relief (POUR). In keeping with
Hoover’s distaste of what he viewed as handouts, this organization did not provide direct federal
relief to people in need. Instead, it assisted state and private relief agencies, such as the Red
Cross, Salvation Army, YMCA, and Community Chest. Hoover also strongly urged people of
means to donate funds to help the poor, and he himself gave significant private donations to
worthy causes. But these private efforts could not alleviate the widespread effects of poverty.
Congress pushed for a more direct government response to the hardship. In 1930–1931, it
attempted to pass a $60 million bill to provide relief to drought victims by allowing them access
to food, fertilizer, and animal feed. Hoover stood fast in his refusal to provide food, resisting any
element of direct relief. The final bill of $47 million provided for everything except food but did
not come close to adequately addressing the crisis. Again in 1931, Congress proposed the
Federal Emergency Relief Bill, which would have provided $375 million to states to help
provide food, clothing, and shelter to the homeless. But Hoover opposed the bill, stating that it
ruined the balance of power between states and the federal government, and in February 1932, it
was defeated by fourteen votes.
However, the president’s adamant opposition to direct-relief federal government programs
should not be viewed as one of indifference or uncaring toward the suffering American people.
His personal sympathy for those in need was boundless. Hoover was one of only two presidents
to reject his salary for the office he held. Throughout the Great Depression, he donated an
average of $25,000 annually to various relief organizations to assist in their efforts. Furthermore,
he helped to raise $500,000 in private funds to support the White House Conference on Child
Health and Welfare in 1930. Rather than indifference or heartlessness, Hoover’s steadfast
adherence to a philosophy of individualism as the path toward long-term American recovery
explained many of his policy decisions. “A voluntary deed,” he repeatedly commented, “is
infinitely more precious to our national ideal and spirit than a thousand-fold poured from the
As conditions worsened, however, Hoover eventually relaxed his opposition to federal relief and
formed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) in 1932, in part because it was an election
year and Hoover hoped to keep his office. Although not a form of direct relief to the American
people in greatest need, the RFC was much larger in scope than any preceding effort, setting
aside $2 billion in taxpayer money to rescue banks, credit unions, and insurance companies. The
goal was to boost confidence in the nation’s financial institutions by ensuring that they were on
solid footing. This model was flawed on a number of levels. First, the program only lent money
to banks with sufficient collateral, which meant that most of the aid went to large banks. In fact,
of the first $61 million loaned, $41 million went to just three banks. Small town and rural banks
got almost nothing. Furthermore, at this time, confidence in financial institutions was not the
primary concern of most Americans. They needed food and jobs. Many had no money to put into
the banks, no matter how confident they were that the banks were safe.
Hoover’s other attempt at federal assistance also occurred in 1932, when he endorsed a bill by
Senator Robert Wagner of New York. This was the Emergency Relief and Construction Act.
This act authorized the RFC to expand beyond loans to financial institutions and allotted $1.5
billion to states to fund local public works projects. This program failed to deliver the kind of
help needed, however, as Hoover severely limited the types of projects it could fund to those that
were ultimately self-paying (such as toll bridges and public housing) and those that required
skilled workers. While well intended, these programs maintained the status quo, and there was
still no direct federal relief to the individuals who so desperately needed it.
PUBLIC REACTION TO HOOVER
Hoover’s steadfast resistance to government aid cost him the reelection and has placed him
squarely at the forefront of the most unpopular presidents, according to public opinion, in
modern American history. His name became synonymous with the poverty of the era:
“Hoovervilles” became the common name for homeless shantytowns (Figure 25.9) and “Hoover
blankets” for the newspapers that the homeless used to keep warm. A “Hoover flag” was a pants
pocket—empty of all money—turned inside out. By the 1932 election, hitchhikers held up signs
reading: “If you don’t give me a ride, I’ll vote for Hoover.” Americans did not necessarily
believe that Hoover caused the Great Depression. Their anger stemmed instead from what
appeared to be a willful refusal to help regular citizens with direct aid that might allow them to
recover from the crisis.
Figure 25.9 Hoover became one of the least popular presidents in history. “Hoovervilles,” or
shantytowns, were a negative reminder of his role in the nation’s financial crisis. This family (a)
lived in a “Hooverville” in Elm Grove, Oklahoma. This shanty (b) was one of many making up a
“Hooverville” in the Portland, Oregon area. (credit: modification of work by United States Farm
FRUSTRATION AND PROTEST: A BAD SITUATION GROWS WORSE FOR
Desperation and frustration often create emotional responses, and the Great Depression was no
exception. Throughout 1931–1932, companies trying to stay afloat sharply cut worker wages,
and, in response, workers protested in increasingly bitter strikes. As the Depression unfolded,
over 80 percent of automotive workers lost their jobs. Even the typically prosperous Ford Motor
Company laid off two-thirds of its workforce.
In 1932, a major strike at the Ford Motor Company factory near Detroit resulted in over sixty
injuries and four deaths. Often referred to as the Ford Hunger March, the event unfolded as a
planned demonstration among unemployed Ford workers who, to protest their desperate
situation, marched nine miles from Detroit to the company’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn. At
the Dearborn city limits, local police launched tear gas at the roughly three thousand protestors,
who responded by throwing stones and clods of dirt. When they finally reached the gates of the
plant, protestors faced more police and firemen, as well as private security guards. As the
firemen turned hoses onto the protestors, the police and security guards opened fire. In addition
to those killed and injured, police arrested fifty protestors. One week later, sixty thousand
mourners attended the public funerals of the four victims of what many protesters labeled police
brutality. The event set the tone for worsening labor relations in the U.S.
Farmers also organized and protested, often violently. The most notable example was the Farm
Holiday Association. Led by Milo Reno, this organization held significant sway among farmers
in Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. Although they never comprised a
majority of farmers in any of these states, their public actions drew press attention nationwide.
Among their demands, the association sought a federal government plan to set agricultural prices
artificially high enough to cover the farmers’ costs, as well as a government commitment to sell
any farm surpluses on the world market. To achieve their goals, the group called for farm
holidays, during which farmers would neither sell their produce nor purchase any other goods
until the government met their demands. However, the greatest strength of the association came
from the unexpected and seldom-planned actions of its members, which included barricading
roads into markets, attacking nonmember farmers, and destroying their produce. Some members
even raided small town stores, destroying produce on the shelves. Members also engaged in
“penny auctions,” bidding pennies on foreclosed farm land and threatening any potential buyers
with bodily harm if they competed in the sale. Once they won the auction, the association
returned the land to the original owner. In Iowa, farmers threatened to hang a local judge if he
signed any more farm foreclosures. At least one death occurred as a direct result of these protests
before they waned following the election of Franklin Roosevelt.
One of the most notable protest movements occurred toward the end of Hoover’s presidency and
centered on the Bonus Expeditionary Force, or Bonus Army, in the spring of 1932. In this
protest, approximately fifteen thousand World War I veterans marched on Washington to
demand early payment of their veteran bonuses, which were not due to be paid until 1945. The
group camped out in vacant federal buildings and set up camps in Anacostia Flats near the
Capitol building (Figure 25.10).
Figure 25.10 In the spring of 1932, World War I veterans marched on Washington and set up
camps in Anacostia Flats, remaining there for weeks. (credit: Library of Congress)
Many veterans remained in the city in protest for nearly two months, although the U.S. Senate
officially rejected their request in July. By the middle of that month, Hoover wanted them gone.
He ordered the police to empty the buildings and clear out the camps, and in the exchange that
followed, police fired into the crowd, killing two veterans. Fearing an armed uprising, Hoover
then ordered General Douglas MacArthur, along with his aides, Dwight Eisenhower and George
Patton, to forcibly remove the veterans from Anacostia Flats. The ensuing raid proved
catastrophic, as the military burned down the shantytown and injured dozens of people, including
a twelve-week-old infant who was killed when accidentally struck by a tear gas canister (Figure
Figure 25.11 When the U.S. Senate denied early payment of their veteran bonuses, and Hoover
ordered their makeshift camps cleared, the Bonus Army protest turned violent, cementing
Hoover’s demise as a president. (credit: U.S. Department of Defense)
As Americans bore witness to photographs and newsreels of the U.S. Army forcibly removing
veterans, Hoover’s popularity plummeted even further. By the summer of 1932, he was largely a
defeated man. His pessimism and failure mirrored that of the nation’s citizens. America was a
country in desperate need: in need of a charismatic leader to restore public confidence as well as
provide concrete solutions to pull the economy out of the Great Depression.
CLICK AND EXPLORE
Whether he truly believed it or simply thought the American people wanted to hear it, Hoover
continued to state publicly that the country was getting back on track. Listen as he speaks about
the “Success of Recovery” at a campaign stop in Detroit, Michigan on October 22, 1932.
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
Identify the challenges that everyday Americans faced as a result of the Great
Depression and analyze the government’s initial unwillingness to provide
Explain the particular challenges that African Americans faced during the crisis
Identify the unique challenges that farmers in the Great Plains faced during this
Explain the Great Depression’s influence on American values and popular culture
From industrial strongholds to the rural Great Plains, from factory workers to farmers,
the Great Depression affected millions. In cities, as industry slowed, then sometimes
stopped altogether, workers lost jobs and joined breadlines, or sought out other
charitable efforts. With limited government relief efforts, private charities tried to help,
but they were unable to match the pace of demand. In rural areas, farmers suffered still
more. In some parts of the country, prices for crops dropped so precipitously that
farmers could not earn enough to pay their mortgages, losing their farms to foreclosure.
In the Great Plains, one of the worst droughts in history left the land barren and unfit for
growing even minimal food to live on.
The country’s most vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, and those
subject to discrimination, like African Americans, were the hardest hit. Most White
Americans felt entitled to what few jobs were available, leaving African Americans
unable to find work, even in the jobs once considered their domain. In all, the economic
misery was unprecedented in the country’s history.
STARVING TO DEATH
By the end of 1932, the Great Depression had affected some sixty million people, most of whom
wealthier Americans perceived as the “deserving poor.” Yet, at the time, federal efforts to help
those in need were extremely limited, and national charities had neither the capacity nor the will
to elicit the large-scale response required to address the problem. The American Red Cross did
exist, but Chairman John Barton Payne contended that unemployment was not an “Act of God”
but rather an “Act of Man,” and therefore refused to get involved in widespread direct relief
efforts. Clubs like the Elks tried to provide food, as did small groups of individually organized
college students. Religious organizations remained on the front lines, offering food and shelter.
In larger cities, breadlines and soup lines became a common sight. At one count in 1932, there
were as many as eighty-two breadlines in New York City.
Despite these efforts, however, people were destitute and ultimately starving. Families would
first run through any savings, if they were lucky enough to have any. Then, the few who had
insurance would cash out their policies. Cash surrender payments of individual insurance
policies tripled in the first three years of the Great Depression, with insurance companies issuing
total payments in excess of $1.2 billion in 1932 alone. When those funds were depleted, people
would borrow from family and friends, and when they could get no more, they would simply
stop paying rent or mortgage payments. When evicted, they would move in with relatives, whose
own situation was likely only a step or two behind. The added burden of additional people would
speed along that family’s demise, and the cycle would continue. This situation spiraled
downward, and did so quickly. Even as late as 1939, over 60 percent of rural households, and 82
percent of farm families, were classified as “impoverished.” In larger urban areas,
unemployment levels exceeded the national average, with over half a million unemployed
workers in Chicago, and nearly a million in New York City. Breadlines and soup kitchens were
packed, serving as many as eighty-five thousand meals daily in New York City alone. Over fifty
thousand New York citizens were homeless by the end of 1932.
Children, in particular, felt the brunt of poverty. Many in coastal cities would roam the docks in
search of spoiled vegetables to bring home. Elsewhere, children begged at the doors of more
well-off neighbors, hoping for stale bread, table scraps, or raw potato peelings. Said one
childhood survivor of the Great Depression, “You get used to hunger. After the first few days it
doesn’t even hurt; you just get weak.” In 1931 alone, there were at least twenty documented
cases of starvation; in 1934, that number grew to 110. In rural areas where such documentation
was lacking, the number was likely far higher. And while the middle class did not suffer from
starvation, they experienced hunger as well.
By the time Hoover left office in 1933, the poor survived not on relief efforts, but because they
had learned to be poor. A family with little food would stay in bed to save fuel and avoid burning
calories. People began eating parts of animals that had normally been considered waste. They
scavenged for scrap wood to burn in the furnace, and when electricity was turned off, it was not
uncommon to try and tap into a neighbor’s wire. Family members swapped clothes; sisters might
take turns going to church in the one dress they owned. As one girl in a mountain town told her
teacher, who had said to go home and get food, “I can’t. It’s my sister’s turn to eat.”
CLICK AND EXPLORE
For his book on the Great Depression, Hard Times, author Studs Terkel interviewed hundreds of
Americans from across the country. He subsequently selected over seventy interviews to air on a
radio show that was based in Chicago. Visit Studs Terkel: Conversations with America to listen
to those interviews, during which participants reflect on their personal hardships as well as on
national events during the Great Depression.
BLACK AND POOR: AFRICAN AMERICANS AND THE GREAT
Most African Americans did not participate in the land boom and stock market speculation that
preceded the crash, but that did not stop the effects of the Great Depression from hitting them
particularly hard. Subject to continuing racial discrimination, Black people nationwide fared
even worse than their hard-hit White counterparts. As the prices for cotton and other agricultural
products plummeted, farm owners paid workers less or simply laid them off. Landlords evicted
sharecroppers, and even those who owned their land outright had to abandon it when there was
no way to earn any income.
In cities, African Americans fared no better. Unemployment was rampant, and many White
people felt that any available jobs should first go to them. In some Northern cities, White
employees would conspire to have African American workers fired to allow White workers
access to their jobs. Even jobs traditionally held by Black workers, such as household servants or
janitors, were now going to White people. By 1932, approximately one-half of all Black
Americans were unemployed. Racial violence also began to rise. In the South, lynching became
more common again, with twenty-eight documented lynchings in 1933, compared to eight in
1932. Since communities were preoccupied with their own hardships, and organizing civil rights
efforts was a long, difficult process, many resigned themselves to, or even ignored, this culture
of racism and violence. Occasionally, however, an incident was notorious enough to gain
One such incident was the case of the Scottsboro Boys (Figure 25.12). In 1931, nine Black boys,
who had been riding the rails, were arrested for vagrancy and disorderly conduct after an
altercation with some White travelers on the train. Two young White women, who had been
dressed as boys and traveling with a group of White boys, came forward and said that the Black
boys had raped them. The case, which was tried in Scottsboro, Alabama, illuminated decades of
racial hatred and illustrated the injustice of the court system. Despite significant evidence that the
women had not been raped at all, along with one of the women subsequently recanting her
testimony, the all-White jury quickly convicted the boys and sentenced all but one of them to
death. The verdict broke through the veil of indifference toward the plight of African Americans,
and protests erupted among newspaper editors, academics, and social reformers in the North. The
Communist Party of the United States offered to handle the case and sought retrial; the NAACP
later joined in this effort. In all, the case was tried three separate times. The series of trials and
retrials, appeals, and overturned convictions shone a spotlight on a system that provided poor
legal counsel and relied on all-White juries. In October 1932, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed
with the Communist Party’s defense attorneys that the defendants had been denied adequate
legal representation at the original trial, and that due process as provided by the Fourteenth
Amendment had been denied as a result of the exclusion of any potential Black jurors.
Eventually, most of the accused received lengthy prison terms and subsequent parole, but
avoided the death penalty. The Scottsboro case ultimately laid some of the early groundwork for
the modern American civil rights movement. Alabama granted posthumous pardons to all
defendants in 2013.
Figure 25.12 The trial and conviction of nine African American boys in Scottsboro, Alabama,
illustrated the numerous injustices of the American court system. Despite being falsely accused,
the boys received lengthy prison terms and were not officially pardoned by the State of Alabama
CLICK AND EXPLORE
Read Voices from Scottsboro for the perspectives of both participants and spectators in the
Scottsboro case, from the initial trial to the moment, in 1976, when one of the women sued for
ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE MEETS ECONOMIC HARDSHIP:
THE DUST BOWL
Despite the widely held belief that rural Americans suffered less in the Great Depression due to
their ability to at least grow their own food, this was not the case. Farmers, ranchers, and their
families suffered more than any group other than African Americans during the Depression.
From the turn of the century through much of World War I, farmers in the Great Plains
experienced prosperity due to unusually good growing conditions, high commodity prices, and
generous government farming policies that led to a rush for land. As the federal government
continued to purchase all excess produce for the war effort, farmers and ranchers fell into several
bad practices, including mortgaging their farms and borrowing money against future production
in order to expand. However, after the war, prosperity rapidly dwindled, particularly during the
recession of 1921. Seeking to recoup their losses through economies of scale in which they
would expand their production even further to take full advantage of their available land and
machinery, farmers plowed under native grasses to plant acre after acre of wheat, with little
regard for the long-term repercussions to the soil. Regardless of these misguided efforts,
commodity prices continued to drop, finally plummeting in 1929, when the price of wheat
dropped from two dollars to forty cents per bushel.
Exacerbating the problem was a massive drought that began in 1931 and lasted for eight terrible
years. Dust storms roiled through the Great Plains, creating huge, choking clouds that piled up in
doorways and filtered into homes through closed windows. Even more quickly than it had
boomed, the land of agricultural opportunity went bust, due to widespread overproduction and
overuse of the land, as well as to the harsh weather conditions that followed, resulting in the
creation of the Dust Bowl (Figure 25.13).
Figure 25.13 The dust storms that blew through the Great Plains were epic in scale. Drifts of dirt
piled up against doors and windows. People wore goggles and tied rags over their mouths to
keep the dust out. (credit: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Livestock died, or had to be sold, as there was no money for feed. Crops intended to feed the
family withered and died in the drought. Terrifying dust storms became more and more frequent,
as “black blizzards” of dirt blew across the landscape and created a new illness known as “dust
pneumonia.” In 1935 alone, over 850 million tons of topsoil blew away. To put this number in
perspective, geologists estimate that it takes the earth five hundred years to naturally regenerate
one inch of topsoil; yet, just one significant dust storm could destroy a similar amount. In their
desperation to get more from the land, farmers had stripped it of the delicate balance that kept it
healthy. Unaware of the consequences, they had moved away from such traditional practices as
crop rotation and allowing land to regain its strength by permitting it to lie fallow between
plantings, working the land to death.
For farmers, the results were catastrophic. Unlike most factory workers in the cities, in most
cases, farmers lost their homes when they lost their livelihood. Most farms and ranches were
originally mortgaged to small country banks that understood the dynamics of farming, but as
these banks failed, they often sold rural mortgages to larger eastern banks that were less
concerned with the specifics of farm life. With the effects of the drought and low commodity
prices, farmers could not pay their local banks, which in turn lacked funds to pay the large urban
banks. Ultimately, the large banks foreclosed on the farms, often swallowing up the small
country banks in the process. It is worth noting that of the five thousand banks that closed
between 1930 and 1932, over 75 percent were country banks in locations with populations under
2,500. Given this dynamic, it is easy to see why farmers in the Great Plains remained wary of big
For farmers who survived the initial crash, the situation worsened, particularly in the Great
Plains where years of overproduction and rapidly declining commodity prices took their toll.
Prices continued to decline, and as farmers tried to stay afloat, they produced still more crops,
which drove prices even lower. Farms failed at an astounding rate, and farmers sold out at rockbottom prices. One farm in Shelby, Nebraska was mortgaged at $4,100 and sold for $49.50. Onefourth of the entire state of Mississippi was auctioned off in a single day at a foreclosure auction
in April 1932.
Not all farmers tried to keep their land. Many, especially those who had arrived only recently, in
an attempt to capitalize on the earlier prosperity, simply walked away (Figure 25.14). In hard-hit
Oklahoma, thousands of farmers packed up what they could and walked or drove away from the
land they thought would be their future. They, along with other displaced farmers from
throughout the Great Plains, became known as Okies. Okies were an emblem of the failure of the
American breadbasket to deliver on its promise, and their story was made famous in John
Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
Figure 25.14 As the Dust Bowl continued in the Great Plains, many had to abandon their land
and equipment, as captured in this image from 1936, taken in Dallas, South Dakota. (credit:
United States Department of Agriculture)
CLICK AND EXPLORE
Experience the Interactive Dust Bowl to see how decisions compounded to create peoples’
destiny. Click through to see what choices you would make and where that would take you.
Caroline Henderson on the Dust Bowl
Now we are facing a fourth year of failure. There can be no wheat for us in 1935 in spite of all
our careful and expensive work in preparing ground, sowing and re-sowing our allocated
acreage. Native grass pastures are permanently damaged, in many cases hopelessly ruined,
smothered under by drifted sand. Fences are buried under banks of thistles and hard packed earth
or undermined by the eroding action of the wind and lying flat on the ground. Less traveled roads
are impassable, covered deep under by sand or the finer silt-like loam. Orchards, groves and
hedge-rows cultivated for many years with patient care are dead or dying . . . Impossible it seems
not to grieve that the work of hands should prove so perishable. —Caroline Henderson, Shelton,
Much like other farm families whose livelihoods were destroyed by the Dust Bowl, Caroline
Henderson describes a level of hardship that many Americans living in Depression-ravaged cities
could never understand. Despite their hard work, millions of Americans were losing both their
produce and their homes, sometimes in as little as forty-eight hours, to environmental
catastrophes. Lacking any other explanation, many began to question what they had done to
incur God’s wrath. Note in particular Henderson’s references to “dead,” “dying,” and
“perishable,” and contrast those terms with her depiction of the “careful and expensive work”
undertaken by their own hands. Many simply could not understand how such a catastrophe could
CHANGING VALUES, CHANGING CULTURE
In the decades before the Great Depression, and particularly in the 1920s, American culture
largely reflected the values of individualism, self-reliance, and material success through
competition. Novels like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Sinclair
Lewis’s Babbit portrayed wealth and the self-made man in America, albeit in a critical fashion.
In film, many silent movies, such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, depicted the rags-toriches fable that Americans so loved. With the shift in U.S. fortunes, however, came a shift in
values, and with it, a new cultural reflection. The arts revealed a new emphasis on the welfare of
the whole and the importance of community in preserving family life. While box office sales
briefly declined at the beginning of the Depression, they quickly rebounded. Movies offered a
way for Americans to think of better times, and people were willing to pay twenty-five cents for
a chance to escape, at least for a few hours.
Even more than escapism, other films at the close of the decade reflected on the sense of
community and family values that Americans struggled to maintain throughout the entire
Depression. John Ford’s screen version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath came out in 1940,
portraying the haunting story of the Joad family’s exodus from their Oklahoma farm to
California in search of a better life. Their journey leads them to realize that they need to join a
larger social movement—communism—dedicated to bettering the lives of all people. Tom Joad
says, “Well, maybe it’s like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a
soul—the one big soul that belongs to ever’body.” The greater lesson learned was one of the
strength of community in the face of individual adversity.
Another trope was that of the hard-working everyman against greedy banks and corporations.
This was perhaps best portrayed in the movies of Frank Capra, whose Mr. Smith Goes to
Washington was emblematic of his work. In this 1939 film, Jimmy Stewart plays a legislator sent
to Washington to finish out the term of a deceased senator. While there, he fights corruption to
ensure the construction of a boy’s camp in his hometown rather than a dam project that would
only serve to line the pockets of a few. He ultimately engages in a two-day filibuster, standing up
to the power players to do what’s right. The Depression era was a favorite of Capra’s to depict in
his films, including It’s a Wonderful Life, released in 1946. In this film, Jimmy Stewart runs a
family-owned savings and loan, which at one point faces a bank run similar to those seen in
1929–1930. In the end, community support helps Stewart retain his business and home against
the unscrupulous actions of a wealthy banker who sought to bring ruin to his famil…
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