Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Who We Were, Where We've Been

article number 341
article date 05-08-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Survive the Nosedive into The Great Depression, 1929-32
by Frederick Lewis Allen, assembled by Agnes Rogers

From the 1947 book, I Remember Distinctly.

EDITORS NOTE: It is difficult to layup this fantastic coffee table book for a web presentation. In our presentation, pictures follow the commentary specific for that picture.

It was on the morning of Thursday, October 24, 1929, that the bottom dropped out of the stock market, as the result of heavy selling and severe losses on preceding days. The picture below shows the panic crowds that collected that morning outside the majestic Stock Exchange building at Broad and Wall Streets, New York.


The big bankers came to the rescue and the avalanche was briefly stayed, but soon it was under way again; and on the following Tuesday, October 29, came the great liquidation, the famous sixteen-million-share day. Here we reproduce, from the next morning’s New York Times, a part of the stock-market table that recorded the unparalleled disaster.


Alas for President Herbert Hoover, whose cheerful plans for a statesmanlike term of office were wrecked by the onrushing economic storm. He called conferences, issued many reassuring statements, but they were all to no avail.


The panic—which did not end with the sixteen-million-share day, but went on smashing prices until November 13, 1929—was no mere matter of a bunch of speculators losing their shirts, while other investors simply saw the paper value of their securities diminish. It was much worse than that.

For in the first place, great numbers of people who had bought stock on margin—paying only a part of the purchase price—had to sell everything they owned in the vain attempt to protect their holdings, and were stripped clean of their lifetime savings.

In the second place, so many billions of dollars had been loaned to brokers to carry margin accounts that when prices collapsed the whole credit structure was shaken.

And in the third place, all sorts of business undertakings, such as the great systems of holding companies, had been predicated on high security prices and now were badly undermined.

What was politely called a “recession” in business began, and after a brief recovery in the spring of 1930, and a preposterous “Little Bull Market,” continued its discouraging course. The Great Depression was under way.

Lucky Calvin Coolidge, who no longer had to sit in the seat of authority while a catastrophe quite outside his experience overtook the country! He had retired to Northampton, where he and Mrs. Coolidge in due course moved from their duplex apartment on Massasoit Street to a fine house, The Beeches, scene of the photograph below.


He was writing magazine articles and—until he ran out of ideas—a syndicated newspaper column. The turn of economic events depressed him deeply, but at least he did not have to cope with it.

As the depression deepened, businesses threw off employees in a grim attempt to make both ends meet; factories laid off hands, cut wages. Each reduction in the working population, each wage cut, diminished the purchasing power for goods. And so unemployment grew and grew—with no means of relief open to those whose funds were exhausted but to appeal (if and when they could conquer their shame) to private charity.

For state tell funds were inadequate, and there was no federal relief. Below you may see what happened in Cleveland at the end of 1931 when the George H. Bowman Co. store on Euclid Avenue advertised that it would take on 150 people for Christmas holiday jobs; applicants surged about the building. (Note how many of these people were well dressed. You can be very hungry a long time before your good clothes give out.)


Next, jobless New Yorkers, at the end of 1930, are engaged in selling apples on the sidewalk.


This pictograph, made in 1937, gives a fair picture of what happened in the Depression—if you will bear in mind that statistics on unemployment include considerable guesswork, that it is often hard to draw the line between voluntary and involuntary joblessness, and that there are always some people temporarily without jobs. You will note that the wave of unemployment which followed the 1920 collapse in prices was short-lived, and that what took place after 1929 was something else again.


One of the strangest things about the Depression was that it was so nearly invisible to the casual eye (and to the camera, for that matter). To be sure, the streets were less crowded with trucks than they had been, many shops stood vacant, there were many beggars and panhandlers pleading for money, the railroads ran shorter trains (with pullmans sometimes almost empty), and chimneys which should have been smoking were not doing so. But these were all negative phenomena.

There just didn’t seem to be many people about. (In the mid-forties, by contrast, there seemed to be more people than ever before. Poverty stays at home, prosperity is out and about.) One of the few visible signs of trouble was the breadline.


Another sign of trouble: the in collections of shacks on Vacant lots, cruelly called “hoover-villes.” The next picture is of a Hooverville on the Seattle waterfront in March 1933.


Next is a shack, made of barrels and tar paper, on the river shore at St. Louis; one of a mile-long row of such makeshift huts. The picture was taken in 1931.


In the terrible summer of 1932 a Bonus Army” of unemployed veterans gathered in Washington, demonstrated on the Capitol steps . . .


. . . and settled themselves in Anacostia Park, and were dispersed in Washington’s streets by federal troops.


Under the circumstances, the patience of the American people was extraordinary. They shared the bewilderment of Charles M. Schwab, the great steel executive (“I’m afraid, every man is afraid. I don’t know, we don’t know, whether the values we have are going to be real next month or not”), and of Andrew W. Mellon, Ambassador to Great Britain and former Secretary of the Treasury (“None of us has any means of knowing when and how we shall emerge from the valley of depression in which the world is traveling”), and of ex-President Coolidge (“We all hope it will end, but we don’t see it yet”).

If a Morgan partner was alleged to have said, “As for the cause of the Depression, or the way out, you know as much as I do,” how could ordinary men and women tell what had hit them?

They tried, here and there, unorthodox schemes such as barter and the use of scrip currency; they were fascinated by such cure-all notions as Social Credit and Howard Scott’s Technocracy; sometimes they were goaded by desperation into lawlessness—as when farmers simply refused to let foreclosure sales take place; but the vast majority took their adversity with astonishing calmness.

Below, we show a group of radical ‘hunger marchers” gathering in New York for a “march on Washington” in November 1932, with Red banners and the chanting of the Internationale. But in the election held that month, the Communists had polled only 102,991 votes, the Socialists only 884,781—out of a total of 39,816,522!


Gentlemen like the subject of the next cartoon (by Perry Barlow in The New Yorker for February 27, 1932) tended to think at first that the depression was caused by “lack of confidence,” and to repeat the slogan, “Prosperity is just around the corner,” but after a while those words seemed to lose their savor.

“Imperial Can dropped eight points, sir. The temperature in New York today is fifty degrees. Sorry, sir.”

Of course, one could discharge most of one’s servants and make out bravely without them, but it was awful just the same: Insull going broke, Kreuger killing himself (and proving to have been a crook), bond prices diving, many banks in trouble; Steel common (which had been over 260 in 1929) at the miserable price of 21¼ ; Radio at 2½; General Motors at 7 5/8 ; the federal budget unbalanced. And was a revolution coming?

And even those who most wanted to work hard and get things done often found that even if they had jobs, there was very little to do except sit and watch the business on which they had built both their income and their pride slowly crumble away.

For such people it was a relief to be reminded that the situation had humorous aspects—as in the Steig drawing, in “The New Yorker,” of an automobile salesman dozing, and another man shaking him and shouting, “Hey, wake up! I’m a prospect!” . . .

. . . or as in the following Perry Barlow drawing from “The New Yorker,”. March 12, 1932.

“Mr. St. Pierre called. He wants to know if you can squeeze in some handball this afternoon.”

If Americans didn’t go in for revolution when hard times came, they went in for gambling. The stock market having proved a bad bet, they not only patronized slot machines, succumbed to the numbers racket, and played the horses to an extent which belied their poverty, but went in for various new gambles.

There was bingo, a game so respectable that it became an institution even at church suppers.

There was pinball, which originated in 1932—and in its simpler forms could be played simply for fun, as a game of skill, at a nickel a throw.

There was that bright solace of the movie-house proprietors, bank night, which was introduced in Colorado in 1932-33, and swept the country.

There was the chain-letter epidemic, rampant in the mid-thirties (“Scratch out the top name and send a dime”).

And among the first of the novelties in gambling was the institution of the sweepstakes.

Our picture is not of a scene from a musical show, but of the “Fairyland” setting for the draw in the Irish Hospitals Derby Sweepstakes, held in the Mansion House, Dublin, Eire—a lottery for which tickets were sold all over the world. It has been estimated that in 1933, at the bottom of the Depression, something like 400,000 American tickets got into the draw—and heaven only knows how many more were bought and never reached Ireland.


Presently word would come that some humble housewife or jobless janitor had won $150,000, and the rest of us would wonder what it was like to be suddenly rich, and interviewed, and put on the sucker lists.

The heyday of the gangsters went right on. The law at last caught up with Capone and he went to Alcatraz—but the fact that he went on income-tax charges only advertised the helplessness of the ordinary forces of the law.

By now small boys all over the country were playing gangster in the streets, with very pretty imitations of the rat-tat-tat of a sub-machine gun. Not could New Yorkers claim that racketeering was a Chicago in institution for Arnold Rothstein, murdered in 1928, had been a big financier of underworld business.

Arthur Flegenheimer (“Dutch Schultz”), taking control of the “numbers” racket in Harlem, was said to run it to the tune of a million dollars a year; and as for splendor, the funerals of Frankie Uale and “Joe the Baker” were said to have cost $40,000 or more apiece—larger sums than had been spent on the obsequies of Dion O’Banion in Chicago.

Below is a New York hoodlum, Jack (“Legs”) Diamond, temporarily in the hands of the law in Troy, New York, in July 1931, a few months before he came to an end ironically suggestive of the status of the gangster in society; he was shot to death while lying drunk after celebrating his acquittal!


Here are Edward G. Robinson (right) and Sidney Blackmer in a scene from a gangster movie, “Little Caesar.”


In the year 1930—the year when millions of people were discovering the nightly delight of listening to Amos ‘n’ Andy over the radio, and Bobby Jones won his quadruple crown, and women’s dresses began to exhibit ruffles and flounces, and their evening gowns actually touched the ground, and business men and public officials were tirelessly repeating that “business was fundamentally sound” though very clearly it wasn’t, and the Little Bull Market pushed stock prices up and then faded out in a long, new liquidation . . .

. . . in that year a new fad arrived: miniature golf. Garnet Carter of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, had built a little “Tom Thumb Golf Course,” and late in the summer of 1929 he had gone to Miami to install one there, and the thing had caught on, and by the summer of 1930 miniature golf courses were springing up everywhere by the roadside—putters and balls provided by the management, greenswards made of cottonseed hulls, and pipes through which your ball must roll. (Driving ranges became popular the next year.)

It was great fun, for a time, to stop your car by a miniature course and have a game; but it was perhaps a sign of the state to which economic thinking had descended that some people seriously claimed that this industry might lift the country out of Depression.


High, during those years of the downswing, rose the vogue of contract bridge. It was in the toboggan-slide year 1931 that Mr. and Mrs. Ely Culbertson played a contract match with Sidney Lenz and Oswald Jacoby which was flashed over the news wires, play by play, from the Hotel Chatham in New York to an eager public. Sales of playing cards did not slip that year, when almost everything else did; they actually gained. Here are Mr. and Mrs. Culbertson in 1931. That was long before he proposed a plan for world security.


At the beginning of the nineteen-thirties Hollywood was still struggling with the new problems of the talking picture—importing. dramatists and actors from Broadway, limiting the power of the director to tinker with the script, and improving the quality of sound production. Below is a scene from the movie made from Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” produced by Universal in 1930.


Remember Marie Dressier, a veteran imported from Broadway (she had sung “Heaven will protect the working girl” in “Tillie’s Nightmare” way back in 1910), who became one of the largest—in two senses—moneymakers among Hollywood actresses? Here she is acting with Wallace Beery in “Min and Bill” (1930).


Below: Boris Karloff and Dwight Frye, in “Frankenstein” (1931), set a fashion in pictures which was to cause a good many shrieks in movie theatres.


The foremost actress in the Hollywood of the early nineteen-thirties was unquestionably the lovely and elusive Greta Garbo, shown here as she appeared in “Romance” in 1930.


October 1931 saw the production by the Theatre Guild of Eugene O’Neill’s trilogy, “Mourning Becomes Electra,” which as Rosamond Gilder said “turned to the Greeks for its theme, to Freud for its psychology, to New England for its setting.” It was acclaimed by many as a work even greater than his “Strange Interlude” (1928). Alla Nazimova, Alice Brady, and Earle Larimore played the leads before Robert Edmond Jones’s set of the Mannons’ pillared portico.


O’Neill was not the only dramatist to give distinction to the American theatre in the years of the onrushing Depression. There were many fine plays, and at least one musical comedy which broke new ground, incorporating mature political satire into a very funny show. This was “Of Thee I Sing,” by Kaufman and Ryskind, with music by the Gershwins, Victor Moore as the gentle Vice President Throttlebottom, and the slogan, “Posterity is just around the corner.”

But perhaps the most memorable play of the period was “The Green Pastures,” by Marc Connelly, produced in February 1930. Here is a scene from this play, with Richard B. Harrison taking, in a frock coat, the part of “de Lawd.”


Katharine Cornell made a great popular success in 1931 in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”— in which we see her playing the part of the invalid poetess, Elizabeth Barrett, receiving the attentions of Robert Browning (Brian Aherne).


Here are the jackets of three books which held the attention of American readers during the downhill years. “The Story of San Michele,” after a slow start, became the non-fiction best seller of 1930 (while Edna Ferber’s “Cimarron” led the novels).


“The Good Earth,” published in 1931, received both critical and popular acclaim and headed the fiction best-seller list for two successive years, 1931 and 1932.


It was followed the next year by Hervey Allen’s “Anthony Adverse,” a long historical novel whose sensational popularity set in motion a wave of oversized historical romances which rolled on and on during the rest of the decade.


Were Americans, in their addiction to such books, trying to escape the ugly present? Perhaps; but note too that the non-fiction best seller of the climactic year 1933 was Walter B. Pitkin’s “Life Begins at Forty,” which offered solace to men and women whose early ambitions had been wrecked by the Depression.

If you don’t recognize the men in the next pictue, or even their names, Freeman F. Gosden and Charles J. Correll, don’t be ashamed. But you probably know their voices, and you certainly did if you listened to the radio in 1930, when they introduced millions of people to “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”


Then we show the late Floyd Gibbons, the former war correspondent (he had lost the sight of one eye at Château-Thierry in 1918) who became a fast-talking radio reporter . . .


… then Ted Husing, as he gave a play-by-play account of a World Series base ball game in 1932.


Here is a sound-effects man of 1930, with a few of the devices then used to convey noises to radio audiences. They have now been largely supplanted by records.


Prices and personal fortunes were not the only things that crumbled during the Depression; another thing that went down was America’s pride in her great rigid airships. The German “Graf Zeppelin” made hundreds of long flights without misadventure; the “Los Angeles,” American-operated but German-built, survived a long career in the air before she was decommissioned for economy’s sake in 1932.

But the American-built “Shenandoah” broke up in a line squall over Ohio in 1925, with a loss of 14 lives; and an even more complete tragedy awaited the “Akron,” which went into commission in the autumn of 1931.

Here is the vast “Akron”—as big as an ocean liner—as she lay in her hangar in the summer of 1931, with her already assembled crew.


After seventeen months of operation she was lost early in 1933 in a storm off Barnegat Light on the New Jersey coast, and 73 out of 76 men aboard her were lost. You see the largest piece of her to be salvaged; the port fin, as it rested on the deck of a salvage ship after having been hauled up from the ocean bottom.


There was still one more rigid dirigible to come, the “Macon,” which went into service that same year (1933). She broke up and was sunk off Point Sur, California, in 1935, bringing a chapter of American aeronautical history to a close.

A disturbing feature of the collapse of 1929-33 was the way in which the drop in security values and the fall of business empires undermined the banks. One of the earliest to go was the flagrantly mismanaged Bank of United States, in New York; below you see the crowds waiting unhappily about the doors of a branch in the Bronx after the bank was closed in December 1930.


The panic grew widespread and intense early in 1933, cumulating in the closing of every bank in the country on March 4, 1933—the day Hoover left office and Roosevelt came in.

The Radio City advertisement appeared in New York papers on March 7, 1933, and was typical of the “bank holiday” period, when the government was expected to issue temporary scrip. Other advertisements urged customers to use their charge accounts now.


Below is one of the scenes of the aftermath: depositors of the Union Trust Company in Cleveland, which failed, are filing up to the windows months afterwards, in July 1933, to draw out what is left of their deposits.


Hoover tried to stop the Depression, and failed. He stood stubbornly for a principle—that the federal government must not give money to individual Americans, lest it undermine local responsibility and individual character—and was a martyr to this principle. For to people in desperate trouble it looked stingy and cruel. As the crisis worsened in 1932, Hoover’s chances for re-election dwindled.

The Democrats, taking hope, held a hot and stormy national convention at Chicago and nominated the man you see below. (He is making the acceptance speech that he flew from Albany to Chicago to deliver; his son, James Roosevelt, sits at his elbow.)


Roosevelt was by no means a radical. When he had run for the vice presidency in 1920—the year before infantile paralysis struck him down—the “Commercial & Financial Chronicle,” hardly a hot-headed publication, had described him as “an experienced and energetic public man, with conservative opinions on public questions”; and though his character had deepened since his illness, and he had acquired solid executive experience as governor of New York, he had certainly not gained a reputation as a firebrand, and to many he seemed to have more political ambition than political courage.

But he liked innovation—witness his flying to Chicago—and he knew that great crises require bold measures; and so he gathered about him a group of intelligent young “brain trusters,” and plenty of political advisers, and from these varied sources he drew a mixed program, part progressive, part conservative, that at least promised manifold action . . .

. . .and also was well calculated to win votes. He campaigned vigorously, radiated charm, and won in a landslide.

But not until March 4, 1933—the day when he took office—did Roosevelt’s stature become really impressive. . . .

< Back to Top of Page