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What America looked like during the Great Depression

  • What America looked like during the Great Depression

    The Great Depression can be traced back to the devastating stock market crash of October 1929. Although the U.S. economy expanded exponentially in the period after World War I and the New York Stock Exchange surged, heedless speculation was all too common, putting many Americans at risk.

    There were signs during the summer of 1929 that economic expansion was slowing. Consumer debt and unemployment rose while wages remained low and production declined. In one week in October, tens of millions of shares were traded on the stock market as investors panicked, rendering millions of shares worthless. Investors who had borrowed money also saw their investments completely wiped out.

    Financial stress continued to worsen from 1929 to 1933. U.S. industrial production declined by 47%, and unemployment is thought to have exceeded 20% at its peak. In comparison, during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, unemployment peaked at just under 10%. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, he signed the New Deal into law, which created several programs aimed at spurring economic recovery and employing the jobless, like the Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

    The American money supply also increased drastically, rising by almost 42% between 1933 and 1937, thanks to an influx of gold in the U.S., but also partly because of growing political tensions in Europe that precipitated World War II. Low interest rates also made credit more available and encouraged borrowing.

    Stacker compiled a collection of 50 incredible images showcasing what life was like during the Great Depression. Using several historical and archival websites, the following slides help understand the stories behind the images, and how the Great Depression affected the lives of millions of Americans.

    Read on for a glimpse into how Americans persevered during one of the most difficult decades in history.

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  • Man sleeps on New York City docks in 1930 or 1931

    A man wearing a three-piece suit under an overcoat is pictured in this photograph asleep in New York City, his attire indicating that he was once a white-collar worker. At the time when unemployment rates peaked during the Great Depression, one-third of the population of New York City was jobless. Many workers who kept their jobs were forced to take significant pay cuts. To jumpstart the economy in the city, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt commissioned the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel and the restoration of LaGuardia Airport.

    [Pictured: A man sleeps on the docks in New York City photographed by Lewis Hine.]

  • Maxwell Street Market in Chicago around 1930

    The Great Depression hit the city of Chicago hard because manufacturing was the dominating industry in the city, and it was this industry that was hit the hardest by the economic downturn. African Americans and Mexican-Americans were disproportionately affected by the Great Depression—by 1932, up to 50% of black workers in Chicago were unemployed. Even before the Great Depression, Chicago was facing financial difficulties. In 1928, the city was unable to collect taxes due to a property reassessment, which led to Chicago’s fiscal emergency funds being completely emptied by 1932.

    [Pictured: Maxwell Street market in Chicago circa 1930.]

  • Unemployed people in line for dinner at a shelter in New York City in 1930

    New York City’s Municipal Lodging House opened in 1909 at 432 East 25th Street to provide accommodation and lodging to the homeless. The building had a total of 964 beds, and three meals a day were served there. In return, men had to work for five hours in a stoneyard. The Municipal Lodging House is thought to have been the first building constructed by the city to specifically serve temporarily homeless men and women. The demand for shelter at the building was so high that it was renovated in 1932 to lodge 4,500 people.

    [Pictured: Throngs of unemployed waiting line to gain entrance to the Municipal Lodging House in New York City for the Sunday Dinner.]

  • A shanty town in New York in 1932

    During the Great Depression, the demand for lodging in homeless shelters increased so dramatically that most cities simply couldn’t accommodate everyone in need of housing. Instead, people experiencing homelessness constructed shanty towns or “Hoovervilles” close to free soup kitchens. These shanty towns usually consisted of tents or small shacks, with most people building temporary residences out of wooden crates, cardboard, scrap metal, or whatever other material they could find.

    [Pictured: A shanty town in New York City.]

  • Line for a soup kitchen in Los Angeles in 1931

    In this photograph, men wait in line at a soup kitchen that had just been opened by Aimee Semple McPherson-Hutton, an evangelist who had become an American cultural icon in the 1920s. She dedicated the Angelus Temple in 1923, which could hold up to 5,300 people. Throughout the Great Depression, the Angelus Temple provided food, clothing, and other necessities to families in need.

    [Pictured: A soup kitchen in Los Angeles dated December 1931.]

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  • Miners in Ward, West Virginia on strike in 1931

    The West Virginia Mine Workers Union was created in 1931 in response to the difficult financial times many miners and their families faced during the Great Depression. Frank Keeney headed the union, and in July 1931, the union staged a major strike. Although a number of progressive labor organizations supported the strike, it was called off later in August as the cost of feeding and housing the striking workers became too expensive. The union later disbanded in 1933.

    [Pictured: Striking miners in Ward, West Virginia dated August 4, 1931.]

  • Menu at a penny restaurant in New York in 1931

    While penny restaurants first came to be in the late 19th century, they rose to particular significance during the Great Depression. Bernarr Macfadden, who is credited as being one of the founders of American fitness culture, ran the most well-known penny restaurants in New York, using proceeds from his magazines to open several restaurants that would offer food staples like prunes and whole wheat bread for just a penny—Macfadden famously thought of white flour as poison. His penny restaurant on West 44th Street had four floors: one that offered fine dining, two where customers could eat at tables, and one where customers could stand and eat.

    [Pictured: Menu of “Penny Restaurant” offering a measure of relief.]

  • Dormitory for the homeless in New York in 1930

    Beginning in 1930, organizations like the Salvation Army amped up their operations as the economic downturn became more severe, and began offering more people free dinner and lodging. However, patrons of the Salvation Army usually had to listen to a sermon before they could eat dinner, and some people started avoiding the shelters because of the religious undertones. Instead, many people took to shanty towns or even slept in smoke shops.

    [Pictured: A dormitory for homeless unemployed persons in New York City dated May 12, 1930.]

  • Signs depicting wage scales in 1935

    Four years after the stock market crashed in 1929, about 25% of the U.S. workforce was unemployed. Even white collar professionals like doctors and lawyers experienced their incomes drop by as much as 40%. Although unemployment was all too common, the number of married women in the workforce actually rose during the Great Depression as families looked to add an extra wage-earner. However, many people criticized women for taking jobs while so many men struggled to find work of their own.

    [Pictured: Signs showing depressed wage scales circa 1935.]

  • Unemployed workers protest in Chicago in 1932

    In the early 1930s, Chicago’s unemployment councils had 22,000 members while the Chicago Workers’ Committee on Unemployment had 25,000 members in 1932. Chicago’s unemployment councils would frequently hold protests to stop evictions. People would meet at Washington Park and then march over to the site of an eviction. These protests could draw thousands of people, and the march over from Washington Park would often attract even more onlookers. The protests were sometimes successful, with landlords and police deciding eviction wasn’t worth the trouble.

    [Pictured: A demonstration of 20,000 unemployed workers in Chicago’s Grant Park dated October 31, 1932.]

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