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Dennis Nishi, Life During the Great Depression

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    Imagine witnessing the faces of pitiful starving young children, frantic men and women lining up in front of closed banks that held their life savings, and/or the homeless living in cardboard shantytowns. Unfortunately, these were just a fraction of some of the horrific sights of everyday life during the Great Depression. For most people, it was a very harsh time that was filled with despair, starvation, suicide, and suffering.1 A boy living in this era describes it well, “For a whole week one time we didn‟t have anything to eat but potatoes. Another time my brother went around to grocery stores and got them to give meat for his dog-only he didn‟t have a dog. We ate that dog meat with the potatoes. I went to school hungry and came home to a house where there wasn‟t any fire.”2 This was a common scenario that was played out in many homes across the nation.

    For the United States, it was one of the worst economic collapses of its time.3 It began soon after the stock market crash of October 1929, which sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out millions of investors.4 Many people were out of work and poverty became the norm after a decade of prosperity and good times. There were many contributing causes to this catastrophe, which included the stock market crash, reduction in purchasing after years of mass consumption, bank failures, the economic policy of the United States with the rest of the world, and the severe drought. Even though Franklin Roosevelt initiated many new programs in his New Deal such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration, these only served to alleviate some of the problems but not end the depression.


    Ronald Reis, The Great Depression and The New Deal (New York: Chelsea House, 2011), 7. Quoted in Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great
    Depression. (New York: Pantheon, 1970), 20.
    . Habib, The Great Depression and The New Deal, 1.
    . “The Great Depression” (Accessed 29 March 2012).


    There is always that incident that seems to define a pivotal point in history. For the Great Depression, it was the stock market crash on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. Prior to this time, the stock market had been booming. Many investors and brokers were so confident of making huge sums of money that they had been buying stocks on margin, a practice of buying stocks on credit. Then when money was made, the stock would be paid in full and the rest would be profit. People viewed it as an easy way to get rich. This increased the demand for stocks, which in turn, inflated the prices of stock unrealistically. Unfortunately, this practice destabilized the stock market system of the 1920s and all kinds of people from doctors to shoeshine boys lost everything in this speculation frenzy as banks called in their loans.5 Huge amounts of money were lost in a single day.

    The New York Times reported, “…it was estimated that 880 issues on the New York Stock Exchange, lost between $8,000,000,000 and $9,000,000,000 yesterday.”6 This crash shook the financial market of the United States and served to be a catalyst for the economic calamity that followed.7 It was one of the many contributing factors that played a role in causing the Great Depression.

    Just as stocks were purchased on credit before the crash, so were many other consumer products. A whole attitude change occurred about purchasing goods in the 1920s where people went from paying in full and buying only what they could afford to purchasing luxury goods on payment plans. A mass production of consumer goods was occurring in the years prior to the crash and this meant that there had to be mass consumption to maintain the economy.
    Advertisers had to combat the traditional views of 5

    Dennis Nishi, Life During the Great Depression (San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998), 11. “Stocks Collapse in 16,410,030-Share Day, But Rally At Close Cheers Brokers.” The New York Times. 30 October 1929, (Accessed 4 April 2012).

    Habib, The Great Depression and The New Deal, 19


    saving and avoiding debt and so the merits of credit resonated throughout the media.8 Nearly 15 percent of all retail sales in the United State were made on the basis of installment purchases in the 1920s.9 “By the end of the decade, credit was used to procure up to 90 percent of all major durable goods.”10 Prior to the installment plan, it would take a typical American family five years to save enough money to pay cash for an automobile.11 This new way of buying worked for a time but there were not enough people that could support the purchase of all the goods coming off the assembly lines even with credit. “Yet with worker‟s wages in no way keeping up with increased productivity, the question surfaced: Would the middle class be able to keep paying on the installment plan as the bills kept arriving every month?”12 The answer was no and mass consumer consumption came to a screeching halt. Eventually, there were stockpiles of unsold goods in factories and warehouses.13 As the goods accumulated, production had to decrease, and workers were laid off from their jobs.

    Unemployed workers meant that there was less purchasing power and so this created a vicious cycle that sucked the entire economy into a deepening whirlpool.14 “Almost twelve million Americans were unemployed in 1932, which amounted to one quarter of the population of the United States. Most of them had been out of work for so long that their savings had run out.”15 If people still had a job, many were only working part-time so there was much less income. This just further compounded the problem of the stock market crash and played a role in further deepening the depression.


    Robert Mc Elvaine, The Depression and New Deal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 17. Ibid.
    Habib, The Great Depression and The New Deal, 13
    Ibid. 14
    Habib. The Depression and New Deal, 17
    Jacqueline Farrell, The Great Depression (San Diego: Lucent Books, 1996), 13.


    Since people were unable to pay their bills due to unemployment and/or the stock market crash, the banks that made the loans to these people began to feel the crunch and were closing their doors. The trouble for the banks began before the stock market crashed. During World War I, the farmers were having a boon as the need for wheat increased to meet the demands for home and war-torn Europe.16 Many farmers, in an effort to increase production, had bought more farmland with money loaned from the banks. Then when the war came to a close, the prices of farm crops decreased. In an effort to make more money the farmers began buying even more land to increase production but this only drove prices lower as crops began to stockpile.17 As suburbia grew, farmland began to be taxed at a higher rate because of the increased valuation of the land.18 Farmers were not able to make payment to the banks
    on their loans and mortgages.

    Conditions worsened in the cities with more and more people out of work. They could no longer pay their loans on homes and goods and this placed a further strain on the banks. These issues combined with banks making some poor investments caused many of them to fail and close their doors. There was no insurance for deposits so when the banks closed many people lost their savings once the money ran out. The people were quickly losing confidence in the whole banking system and began rushing to take their money out. People began to hoard their money in mattresses, walls of their houses, and tin cans buried in their yards, which in turn took it out of circulation.19 “These „runs‟ as they were called, drained what money a bank had left.20 It forced the banks to liquidate their assets for a fraction of what they were worth. “In 1929, there were 25,568 banks in 16


    Habib, The Great Depression and The New Deal, 12.
    Habib, The Great Depression, 21.
    Habib, The Great Depression and The New Deal, 36.


    the United States; by 1933, there were only 14,771.21 All of these closures meant less money being fed into the economy, higher unemployment, and personal financial losses. Bank failures gave more fuel to the fire in causing the Great Depression. Not only did the economic policies at home cause the Great Depression, the economic policy of the United States with the rest of the world was a major cause of this event. “By the middle of 1932, American industry was operating at half its maximum 1929 volume.”22 President Hoover, in an effort to fix this problem, took action by first signing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act into law, which raised tariffs from 38 to 49 percent.23 Over one thousand economists recognized that this act would be a disaster. They knew it would cause increased prices at home and discourage trade with foreign countries.

    As reported in the New York Times, “Our export trade, in general, would suffer. Countries cannot permanently buy from us unless they are permitted to sell to us, and the more we restrict the importation of goods from them by means of ever higher tariffs, the more we reduce the possibility of our exporting to them.”24 These economists were correct in their predictions but President Hoover did not follow their advice. Foreign counties retaliated and raised tariffs on American exports.”25 Now the overstock of goods and crops were not being sold at home or in foreign countries. This tariff shut the United States sellers off from the world at a time when they needed customers.”26 Fewer customers from abroad meant more stockpiles in factories and warehouses at home and 21

    Kathy Gill, “What Caused The Great Depression?” US Politics, (Accessed 29 March 2012).
    Habib, The Great Depression and The New Deal, 26.
    “1028 Economist Ask Hoover To Veto Pending Tariff Bill,” New York Times, 5 May 1930, (Accessed April 5, 2012).  farmers could not even afford to harvest their crops. Unemployment increased even more as more and more businesses had to close their doors. This economic policy with foreign countries was one more reason for the deepening depression.

    It was bad enough that the economy was in such a dire state, but even Mother Nature did not cooperate with the people, especially farmers, during the Great Depression. A severe drought occurred during the 1930s in the Great Plains, which also had a role in causing this disaster. “It was the beginning of what would be called the „Dirty Thirties,” a seven-year period when the nation‟s Great Plains would experience the worst drought in its history.”27 Due to the lack of rain, farmers here could not produce their usual crops of wheat and cotton. Without crops, they could not pay their loans and/or mortgages. This drought was bad enough but unfortunately it was accompanied by strong winds that would sweep over the dry plains and gather up the soil and bury the area in a blizzard of dust.28 This dust, coined the Dust Bowl, was so strong it would bury the crops, suffocate the cattle and hogs, and carry yellow, hazy smog all the way to the Atlantic seaboard.29 Many Midwest farmers had no choice but to leave their farms because they could no longer make a go it due to their seeds being ripped from the ground and their belongings being blown down the street.30 Many moved westward in hopes of finding work but this just placed a further strain on the economy thus playing a role in the depression that refused to end.

    In an effort to bring the Great Depression to a close and relieve much of the suffering, Franklin D. Roosevelt came up with several plans that combined were named


    Ibid., 70.
    Habib, The Great Depression, 50.
    Habib, The Great Depression and The New Deal. 70.


    the New Deal. One of the more successful programs of the New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It was designed to help the unemployed and at the same time preserve the natural resources of the United States.31 It put to work unemployed single men between the ages of 18 to 25 to plant trees, construct reservoirs, build dams and refurbish forests, parks, and beaches while paying each enrollee $30 a month of which $25 would have to be sent home to their families.32 It also provided each young man in the program with food, clothing, and shelter.33 During its nine years of operation, this program put 3 million young men to work.34 It has a long list of accomplishments that it can brag about that includes “38,087 vehicular bridges, 26,368,296 rods of fencing, 83,548 miles of telephone lines, 23,725 water sources, 122,169 miles of truck trails and minor roads, 2,246,1000,600 trees planted”35 and provided many other positive contributions to this country that people are still benefiting from today. As great as it was to put young men back to work and improve the landscape and structure of the United States, it also built character in the men that joined. As a mother of eleven children explained:

    When he went he had the idea that everybody wuz pickin‟ on him an‟ I was scared he‟d get in with wrong crowd. He‟d wanta go to a show an‟ I wun‟t have the money fur him or ta buy him a pack a cigarettes an‟ ya know how it is. Now he‟s home an‟ how he changed. Don‟t go round lookin‟ fur a crowd to rob


    Habib, Life During the Great Depression, 19.
    Habib, The Great Depression and The New Deal, 57.
    Habib, The Great Depression, 44.
    Habib, The Great Depression and The New Deal, 62.


    somebody‟s pear tree or something. And I cun‟t go round followin‟ after „leven. So I wuz glad fur the CCC.36
    Even though the CCC did not end the depression, it was able to reduce the staggering unemployment numbers, did major work to conserve the environment, and gave young men a positive direction in their lives.

    Another program of the New Deal that was designed to get people back working, which was one of Roosevelt‟s main concerns, was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). “Over the life of the program, the WPA gave jobs instead of handouts to 8.5 million people to build roads, bridges, and parks.”37 This program also provided jobs for unemployed artists, actors, and writers by hiring them to do sculpture, paintings and statues for exhibit.38 Lasting over an eight-year period, this dispensed nearly $11 billion of government money.39 Even though it put money in men and women‟s pockets, the program drew criticism because some felt the projects the people worked on were considered useless.40 Yet much good did come out of these New Deal programs and they helped many when they were at their lowest. Unfortunately these make-work programs did not end the depression because they were not real jobs in productive and prosperous industries.41 Even though some were back at work, the economy had not been stimulated enough to get business, factories, and warehouses booming again and so the depression dragged on.


    Habib, Life During the Great Depression, 20.
    Ibid., 22.
    Habib, The Great Depression, 58-59.
    Habib, The Great Depression and The New Deal, 63.
    Ibid., 63.
    Habib, The Great Depression, 59.


    The Great Depression was a catastrophic event that shaped the 20th century. It did not discriminate as it brought joblessness, hunger, despair, and suffering to all people, all ages, all races, all gender, all economic backgrounds, all towns/cities whether rural or urban. The depression was not caused by a single circumstance but rather a multitude of circumstances that fed on each other much like a fire that is continuously fed wood. These conditions included the stock market crash, reduction in purchasing after years of mass consumption, bank failures, the economic policy of the United States with the rest of the world, and the severe drought. Franklin Delano Roosevelt succeeded to decrease the unemployment rate with his New Deal Programs of Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration. Yet these government made jobs did not end the depression even with all the billions that were spent. They did minimal to stimulate the economy enough to cause the growth of private businesses and to get the people back to work in these types of jobs. It took another war to accomplish that feat.


    Farrell, Jacqueline. The Great Depression. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1996. This book gave a good description of what life was like during this time using both primary and secondary sources.
    Gill, Kathy. “What Caused The Great Depression?” US Politics, (Accessed 29 March 2012). This Internet article gave a brief summary of the Great Depression, its causes and effects.

    McElvaine, Robert. The Depression and New Deal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. This book contained a collection of primary documents that told the history of the Great Depression and the effectiveness of the New Deal. Nishi, Dennis. Life During the Great Depression. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998. This author describes life for people living in the cities and rural area during the depression using primary sources that included speeches, songs, interviews, and pictures.

    . “1028 Economists Ask Hoover To Veto Pending Tariff Bill,” New York Times, 5 May 1930, 05%2005%2030.pdf (Accessed 5 April 2012). This primary source is the front page newspaper article where leading economists of the depression era try to convince Hoover to veto the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act.


    Reis, Ronald. The Great Depression and The New Deal. New York: Chelsea House, 2011. This author showed the many hardships of life during the Great Depression by the use of primary sources of pictures, speeches and songs during this time. “Stocks Collapse in 16,410,030-Share Day, But Rally At Close Cheers Brokers.” The New York Times. 30 October 1929, (Accessed 4 April 2012). This was a front-page article the day after Black Tuesday and gives an account to just how many stocks were traded.

    Studs, Terkel. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: Pantheon, 1970. The book uses a collection of interviews with survivors of the Great Depression to gain an insightful look at what life was like. “The
    Great Depression.” History.Channel website, (Accessed 29 March 2012). This article gives a short description of the Great Depression, its causes, and some of Roosevelt‟s programs to end the many hardships of this era.

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