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The Great Depression

Summary and Keywords

From the late 1920s through the 1930s, countries on every inhabited continent suffered through a dramatic and wrenching economic contraction termed the Great Depression, an economic collapse that has come to represent the nadir of modern economic history. With national unemployment reaching well into double digits for over a decade, productivity levels falling by half, prices severely depressed, and millions of Americans without adequate food, shelter or clothing, the United States experienced some of the Great Depression’s severest consequences. The crisis left deep physical, psychological, political, social, and cultural impressions on the national landscape. It encouraged political reform and reaction, renewed labor activism, spurred migration, unleashed grass-roots movements, inspired cultural experimentation, and challenged family structures and gender roles.

Keywords: Great Depression, deflation, Keynesian economics, Congress of Industrial Organizations, Wagner Act, Hooverville, Popular Front, Dust Bowl, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, New Deal

Causes

The roots of the Great Depression remain somewhat opaque, and historical considerations of causation are often entangled with efforts to explain its length and severity. A global event, it requires study from multiple national perspectives; thus, it is hardly surprising that scholars lack consensus on its causes. Some historians emphasize short-term events, others long term trends, and still others tendencies intrinsic to capitalism. Within these frameworks, historians and economists debate different factors’ significance, as well as the role of policy decisions and free market forces in either triggering or exacerbating the economic crisis that lasted longer than a decade.1

Nevertheless, many experts ascribe some causation to World War I, crediting that conflict with destabilizing economies and polities well into the 1920s. As one study of the global Depression reflected: “Absent the war, it is impossible to imagine a Great Depression.”2 With postwar disagreements over war debt payments and reparations, as well as policies to deal with inflation, deflation, tariffs, and restoration of the gold standard, sovereign nations struggled to coordinate international stabilization efforts, inaugurating an era of economic volatility. The United States suffered a recession from 1920 to 1922, and Germany experienced hyperinflation from 1921 to 1924. Both of these disrupted domestic economies, as well as international trade, debt repayment, and currency exchange rates.3 One economic historian, for instance, concluded that the cumulative effect of debt, bank, and currency crises in the 1920s and early 1930s meant that “people began to lose faith in money itself.”4

By committing to the return of a gold standard long considered the benchmark of a stable and prosperous economy, postwar governments had hoped to avoid that scenario. British officials, for instance, believed that putting the pound back on the gold standard would restore its reputation as the premier currency, although they also realized that a highly valued pound threatened to make their products more expensive and less attractive as exports. In addition, a gold standard meant that governments found themselves hemmed in by their own inflexible monetary policies.5 Debtor nations that experienced a drain on their gold reserves (which were disproportionately owed the United States as a lender nation) had to contract their money supplies, and concomitantly to tighten credit and public spending. Without ample money to spend, European nations bought fewer American goods and faced increasingly higher tariffs on their exports, which further deprived them of much-needed revenue. These developments inhibited trade and adversely affected production, making it difficult for European economies to recover from the war.6

The American economy was vulnerable as well. Fueled by new farm technology and lower demand in Europe, overproduction and falling prices on numerous agricultural commodities in the 1920s pinched farm income. Even though agriculture had become proportionately less important to the overall economy by the 1920s, it still employed nearly 25 percent of working adults as late as 1929, and it remained critical to a number of regions, including the South, parts of the Midwest, and the West Coast.7 Congress attempted to pass legislation throughout the decade to remedy the economic distress, but farm debt deepened. In some states, as many as 85 percent of the farms had mortgages.8 When agricultural incomes fell, farmers not only faced foreclosure on their property but also pressured the industrial sector by consuming fewer manufactured goods, and they burdened banks as they missed mortgage payments and drained their savings accounts.

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Figure 1. Farm auction in Iowa after a foreclosure between 1930–1940.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8b08252.

Industries such as automobiles and electricity expanded throughout the 1920s, but the uneven distribution of wealth strained long-term consumer demand. Across geographic regions, working-class Americans faced seasonal layoffs, an antiunion environment, and stagnant wages. Middle- and working-class Americans fortunate enough to feel secure incurred debt buying homes and durable goods, such as automobiles and appliances. Wealth became increasingly concentrated at the top of the income scale over the course of the decade, with the richest 24,000 families in 1929 earning as much as the poorest 11.5 million. These families held one-third of all savings in the country, while 80 percent of Americans had no savings at all.9 Consequently, large parts of the population could not buy the goods being pumped out by American manufacturers. Joined together in a dangerous cycle, overproduction and underconsumption threatened to upend an economy that increasingly demanded consumption.

In addition, speculative real estate and stock market booms revealed an unregulated economy vulnerable to reckless behavior. Starting in 1926, a real estate bubble in Florida burst, erasing fortunes and crippling banks.10 Three years later, the stock market began its steep decline. Scholars tend to downplay the stock market crash of October 1929 as a singular explanation for the Depression because it represented a shock to an already distressed economy that lacked safeguards.11 Even so, to contemporaries and generations of Americans afterward, the event served as a convenient marker for the start of the Depression and evidence of the dangers of a finance industry free of government oversight.

In early September 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked at 381 points, with the volume of trades rising significantly as companies speculated, sometimes in their own stock, and others bought on margin or with borrowed money leveraged against their purchased stock. The crash came in late October. Between the eight sessions spanning Wednesday, October 23, and Thursday, October 31, the Dow Jones average dropped 54 points, from 327 to 273. It rallied for a bit and then began another slide, extending into mid-November, when the average fell to 199. With 12.9 million shares trading hands (the previous record was 8.3 million) on Black Thursday, October 24, the market set another record just a few days later on Tuesday, October 29, when 16.4 million changed hands, including substantial blocks of blue-chip stocks.12 Between September and mid-November, $26 billion of wealth disappeared from the market.13 With little intervention by the federal government or Federal Reserve, which declined to lower interest rates and loosen credit, the crash both reflected and intensified existing weaknesses in the economy.14

Continuing problems with international trade, agriculture, and some other key industries converged to muffle consumption in 1930. This caused a deflationary cycle. Falling prices and profits discouraged companies from investing and encouraged them to lay off workers. Unemployed and underemployed workers stopped consuming, which then shrunk companies’ incentive to invest. High interest rates also dampened a desire to borrow money to expand operations. Meanwhile, the country stayed on the gold standard, limiting options for manipulation of the money supply to spur inflation.15 The downward cycle grew worse. The following year, as European currencies went into a tailspin and Austria’s largest bank failed, it became clear that a global recession was under way. In June 1932, the Dow Jones average hit 41, reflecting the nearly nonexistent state of investment and spurring a wave of bank panics in 1930, with more than 1,350 suspending operations. In excess of 3,800 banks closed their doors in the first three months of 1933. As a result, several states ceased bank operations, and the newly elected U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a “Bank Holiday” that shuttered all banks within days of his March 4 inauguration.16

From 1933 until the end of the decade, Roosevelt and Congress devised a number of New Deal policies and programs aimed at recovery. Some of these were holdovers from President Herbert Hoover’s administration, while others broke new ground in federal economic policy. These policies failed to address racial and gender inequalities, however, and given the power of Southern Democrats along with prevailing assumptions about race and gender, they made those inequalities worse over time in some cases.

Nevertheless, under Roosevelt, the federal government made an effort to improve economic conditions. While Roosevelt’s economic proposals were not necessarily driven by a commitment to a specific economic theory or model, they sought to raise prices and elevate employment. According to one economic historian, Roosevelt consistently strove to combat deflation by deploying monetary mechanisms.17 On March 6, he used emergency powers to move the United States off the gold standard. At the same time, he pursued a balanced budget by supporting a new Economy Act (the first had been signed by Hoover in 1932) that slashed government spending through cuts to veterans’ benefits and civil service employment. During the first Hundred Days, Roosevelt signed into law the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) as measures designed to raise prices on agricultural goods and manufactured products. A multitude of other statutes aimed to stabilize prices in industries beset by cutthroat competition. The Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, for instance, created a Civil Aeronautics Authority (later Board) to oversee airline rates and route allocations.

The president also recognized the devastation wrought by high unemployment rates and firmly believed that Americans preferred work relief rather than direct payments. For example, New Deal infrastructure programs, including the Civil Works Administration, Public Works Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Tennessee Valley Authority, and Works Progress Administration (WPA), provided employment as well as useful products.18 Other policies targeting banking and housing addressed immediate needs and deeper systemic problems within these sectors. The establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in 1933, for instance, protected depositors and bolstered overall confidence in banks. Government mortgage assistance through the Home Owners Loan Corporation (1933) and Federal Housing Authority (1934) similarly benefited homeowners and builders.

From the depths of the Depression in 1933, the country moved toward recovery in the mid-1930s, with a downturn from 1937 to 1938, labeled the “Roosevelt Recession.” Crediting monetary policies that increased the money supply by an average of 10 percent between 1933 and 1937, economist Christina Romer calculated that the gross national product grew 33 percent from 1933 to 1937, declined 5 percent in 1938, and then rose 49 percent from 1938 to 1942.19 Unemployment rates also moved downward, from 22.89 percent in 1932 to 9.18 percent in 1937.20

Tight money policies from the Federal Reserve in 1936, along with Roosevelt’s decision in the summer of 1937 to balance the budget by scaling back spending on New Deal programs such as the WPA, pushed the country back into a recession. A greater commitment to defense preparedness as well as a return to expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, championed by a group of Roosevelt’s advisors, brought growth in 1939. While unemployment rates and other economic indices in the mid- to late-1930s suggest that World War II, rather than the New Deal, ended the Depression, the trend of employment and economic growth after 1933 indicates the critical role that the New Deal played in the recovery.21

The Great Depression by the Numbers

Scholars evaluating the Great Depression have had to use data largely constructed after the fact. Until the early 1930s, the U.S. government lacked standard mechanisms for determining national output and did not routinely collect information on unemployment or other macroeconomic indices.22 While somewhat incomplete and problematic, this information nevertheless illuminates patterns of deep and widespread economic collapse and deprivation. The historian William E. Leuchtenburg conveyed the enormity of the data as follows: “In heavily industrialized cities the toll of the depression read, as one observer noted, like British casualty lists at the Somme—so awesome as to become in the end meaningless, for the sheer statistics numbed the mind.”23

Across several measures—unemployment, stock market averages, gross domestic product (GDP), and farm income—the period from 1932 to 1933 was the worst year of the Depression in the United States. GDP fell from $103.7 billion in 1929 to $56.4 billion in 1933; farm income plummeted from $6.2 billion to $2 billion in the same period.24 Meanwhile, foreclosures increased sharply, from 150,000 in 1930 to 250,000 in 1932.25 This trough was followed by several years of incremental growth, a significant downturn in 1937–1938 due to President Roosevelt’s cuts to many New Deal programs (seeing them as emergency measures no longer needed), and then slow improvement until the war ushered in substantial investment, production, and full employment.

Steep declines in investment, which fell some 79 percent between 1929 and 1933, revealed an economy unable to produce goods or jobs.26 Durable goods industries, a major source of employment, experienced the most contraction, with national income earned by these industries falling from $11.3 billion in 1929 to $2 billion in 1932. Automobile production, an industry tied to a multitude of other businesses ranging from rubber to car dealerships, fell 66 percent, and steel production fell 60 percent from 1929 to 1933. While nondurable industries suffered less dramatic reversals (a 50 percent decline in income from 1929 to 1932), the state of American business in the early 1930s was dismal. In January 1929, 92 percent of corporations earned a profit; in January 1933, only 38.6 percent did.27

Unemployment rates climbed in proportion to this sharp decline, rising nationally from 2.89 percent in 1929 to 22.89 percent in 1932 and falling slightly to 20.9 percent in 1933. But those figures do not capture the problem of underemployment or the shrinking incomes of those who continued to work.28 Neither do they reflect the uneven distribution of unemployment across region, city, ethnicity, gender, and race. For example, in Detroit, unemployment rates among African-American women reached an astounding 69 percent in 1931; in Chicago, 55 percent; and in Pittsburgh, 41 percent. The overall unemployment rate in cities such as Akron rose to 80 percent, signifying to many the collapse of capitalism.29 With pay falling from 55–60 percent in most industries between 1929 and 1932, Americans’ purchasing power evaporated. Ordinary people had little money for food, shelter, or clothing, let alone other commodities—even at the lower prices that firms were forced to adopt amid deflation.30 As Roosevelt observed in 1937, the Depression left “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, [and] ill-nourished.”31

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Figure 2. Scrappers in the Black Belt, Chicago, 1941.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USF33-005189-M5.

Deprivation spanned the nation, but quantitative evidence indicates that the South, with its large agricultural economy, was the most impoverished region. With the price of cotton falling from 18 cents per pound in 1928 to 6.52 cents per pound in 1932, farm income barely kept landowners afloat. Harder hit were the tenants, sharecroppers, and farm laborers, who lacked any financial resources to withstand the crushing weight of the decline. The average seasonal price of rice fell by more than half between 1928 and 1932, from $2.02 to 93 cents per one hundred pounds.32 Between 1929 and 1933, annual per-capita income in Mississippi went from an already paltry $239 to $117.33 Psychological depression most certainly accompanied the economic depression, with the incidence of suicide rising from 13.9 suicides per 100,000 people in 1929 to 15.9 in 1933—a 14.4 percent increase.34

Financial stress took an emotional toll on family life. The marriage rate fell by nearly 11 percent between 1929 and 1933 before beginning a slow climb, perhaps reflecting a faith that the New Deal would stabilize the economy. Divorce rates also fell, but this was less a result of increased marital harmony than because staying together provided a better chance of economic survival. Many couples that separated chose abandonment over the more costly process of divorce. More tellingly, the birth rate fell 13.2 percent from 1929 to 1933, and then rose only 1.6 percent from 1933 to 1937, indicating people’s reluctance to have children during a period of so much economic uncertainty. Indeed, the birth rate in the United States during the 1930s was the lowest of any decade from the mid-18th century to the end of the 20th century.35

Although they faced labor market discrimination, especially if they were married, women entered the workforce in increasing numbers during the 1930s. This was partly because employers preferred their cheaper labor, but also because they predominated in service, clerical, and domestic service jobs, which disappeared with a lower frequency than those in manufacturing. Nevertheless, women earned an average of $525 a year in 1937, compared to men’s $1,027. Newspapers reported on homelessness among women, highlighting, for example, the several hundred who slept each night in Chicago’s parks.36

Work and Labor

American workers experienced the Depression in different ways. To some, it was a continuation of long-standing economic problems; to others, a new and immediate phenomenon; and to still others, it meant a gradual decline in employment hours and income. Workers in industries such as mining and agriculture felt their economic foothold narrow in the 1920s, as mechanization and falling commodity prices led to massive layoffs well before the stock market crash of 1929. But the labor market went from bad to catastrophic between 1930 and 1933.

In the heavy industries of the Midwest, between 40 and 50 percent of the labor force was idle. Ford Motor Company, for example, shed 37,000 of its 128,000 Michigan workers in the first few years of the Depression.37 Statistics were similarly grim nationwide, with more than 12 million unemployed by 1933.38 Those workers who held onto their jobs were often forced to accept reduced wages, itinerant hours, and chronic insecurity. As one farm worker recalled, “I got a job cutting asparagus, 15 cents an hour, as fast as you could move. I remember standing up to rub my aching back . . . [and] the straw boss yelling, ‘See those men standing by the road? They’re just waiting to get you fired.’”39 The labor market for those with jobs remained tenuous, as unemployment during the decade never dropped below 14 percent of the workforce.

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Figure 3. Filipino lettuce pickers, Imperial Valley, California, 1939.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8b33136.

This poor employment situation hardly seemed like a seedbed for organized labor. In 1932, Johns Hopkins labor economist George Barnett referenced the fewer than three million organized workers nationwide in declaring that unionism “was lessening [in] importance.” He concluded, “I see no reason to believe trade unionism will . . . become in the next decade a more potent social influence.”40 But Barnett and other pundits were mistaken. Even as the Depression created a labor crisis, it also exposed the limitations of welfare capitalism. Small local employers and ethnic- and race-based private charity institutions proved ill equipped to deal with the scale of the destitution. Many neighborhood ethnic associations, retailers, and radio stations were absorbed by national institutions, chain stores, and broadcast corporations in the 1930s, which helped usher forth a more homogenous working-class identity.41 Organized labor seized upon these new conditions, as leaders overcame some of their previous divisions to transform the structure, demographics, and power of unions during the Depression.

Workers also made legal gains during the Depression, as the federal government established new protections of their rights. A small victory came with the Norris-LaGuardia Act, a 1932 ban on “yellow dog” contracts that prohibited a worker from joining a union as a condition of his or her employment. But the two watershed pro-labor laws came after the presidential election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who packaged them as part of the first and second New Deals. Due in part to lobbying by United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis, President Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) into law in June 1933.42 Largely a bill to stabilize the price of consumer goods, its section 7(a) asserted workers’ rights to choose their own representatives and bargain collectively with their employers. This provision proved controversial; the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional in May 1935, but not before the law inspired over one million new workers to join the American Federation of Labor (AFL).43

Before this Supreme Court ruling (and perhaps anticipating it), Democratic senator Robert F. Wagner of New York authored a bill to strengthen the collective bargaining provisions of section 7(a) by adding a list of unfair labor practices, establishing a process for democratic union elections within workplaces, and forming a federal National Labor Relations Board to regulate labor-management relations.44 This bill was signed into law on July 5, 1935, and the Supreme Court reaffirmed its legality two years later. Even though it excluded public sector, agricultural, and domestic workers (with the latter two categories an acquiescence to Southern Democrats’ desire to preserve Jim Crow labor exploitation), this act helped to deliver an unprecedented period of labor organization.45

The organizing and strikes that preceded the law that became known as the Wagner Act of 1935 also highlighted organized labor’s institutional and conceptual limitations. Formed as a federation of skilled, craft unions, the AFL struggled to accommodate new semiskilled and unskilled members, many of whom were immigrants, racial minorities, and women. The AFL had a strong record of racial exclusion, often only reluctantly acknowledging segregated locals. On matters of sex, the AFL in 1931 reaffirmed its commitment to supporting male heads of households. This stance pressured many women, especially those who were married and working in male-typed occupations, to quit and make way for men.46 By the AFL’s 1935 convention, the group of union leaders whose members did both skilled and unskilled work (principally miners, clothing, and needlepoint workers) complained about the AFL’s narrow vision, but it met stiff resistance from craft unionists, such as those in the building trades. Undeterred, these unions formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (later the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO) in November 1935. Formed originally as a subsection of the AFL, the CIO began to act as a renegade union body well before it broke from the AFL in late 1938. Despite mutual tension and competition, each labor body grew to around four million members by decade’s end.47

This union growth would not have been possible without workers’ grass-roots organizing and strikes that often surged ahead of national leadership. Major strikes in 1934 by auto parts workers in Ohio, dockworkers in California, teamsters in Minnesota, and textile workers in the Northeast and South led the way in exposing ordinary workers’ anger and militancy. With the exception of a defeated textile workers’ campaign, these strikes won employer recognition and prefigured victories to come later in the decade. But as important, they often drew violent repression that led to public sympathy, solidarity among workers in different occupations, and even citywide strikes in San Francisco and Minneapolis.

The turning point came after 1935, when the CIO organizers took on the seemingly impossible task of organizing racially and ethnically diverse workers in America’s major industries. Rubber workers in Ohio, steel workers in Indiana and Illinois, and autoworkers in Michigan led the way in revealing the new CIO’s resolve.48 The workers in Flint, Michigan, who struck at a General Motors plant in late 1936 targeted the nation’s largest and most profitable employer. And they did so by employing the new tactic of the sit-down strike.

Pioneered by rubber workers in 1936 in an Ohio Goodyear plant, the strategy of sitting down and occupying the factory spread across the CIO. The Flint workers’ six-week sit-down strike prevented strikebreakers from entering the plant and helped protect the strikers from police and other antiunion violence. When the workers emerged victorious on February 11, 1937, the Detroit News declared, “Sitting down has replaced baseball as a national pastime.”49 With hindsight, one historian has declared the Flint workers’ victory “the most significant American labor conflict in the twentieth century.”50 Shortly thereafter, the CIO’s Steel Workers Organizing Committee’s strike against Republic Steel seized the nation’s attention, especially after a Paramount newsreel cameraman filmed police shooting dozens of peaceful workers, and killing ten, on Memorial Day.51 Cumulatively, workers engaged in more than 5,000 strikes in 1937 and won 80 percent of them.52

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Figure 4. Sitdown strikers, Fisher body plant, Flint, Michigan, 1937.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8c28669.

By the end of the Depression, millions of unskilled and semiskilled workers had organized strong industrial unions, and craft unions had expanded as well. This made organized labor a powerful broker in the New Deal coalition, reshaping politics and culture nationwide. In politics, unions had partnered with the Democratic Party to precipitate a new era of government labor market regulation. Meantime, new forms of class consciousness, citizenship, and worker identification led to a “laboring of American culture” that identified a unique national American workers’ culture in art, literature, and music that was produced by and for ordinary people.53

Homelessness, Transience, and Migration

For those without a steady job, the Great Depression caused alarming levels of homelessness. Early in the decade, makeshift encampments of displaced people, called “Hoovervilles” (named in rebuke of President Hoover’s denial of the depth of poverty) cropped up near rail yards and in other vacant urban areas. Meantime, public and private homeless shelters in major cities reported dramatic increases in demand, from 280 percent in St. Louis, to over 400 percent in Minneapolis, to over 700 percent in Cleveland and Detroit. By January 1933, federal authorities estimated that at least 1.5 million people had no permanent home.54

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Figure 5. Hobo “jungle,” St. Louis, Missouri, 1936.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8b27090.

This destitution set many Americans on the move, in search of shelter and work. But the Great Depression unfolded between two periods of the Great Migration, when many rural and Southern Americans moved to the North and West to pursue industrial jobs in cities. The Depression years were distinct because uprooted people in the 1930s were less migratory than transient. Most moved around continuously, rather than leaving one place to settle in another.55 There were “so many ridin’ the freight,” one hobo recalled, that “when a train would stop in a small town and the bums got off, the population tripled.”56 Indeed, the Southern Pacific Railway ejected over 687,000 people from its trains in 1932, up from only 78,000 five years earlier.57

The phenomenon of the hobo or tramp was not born in the 1930s. But this prevalent figure became a symbol of the Great Depression in 1932, when more than 25,000 homeless veterans brought demands to Washington, D.C. The Bonus Expeditionary Force, a group of men mostly between the ages of 35 and 40, vowed to camp out in the city and govern themselves until the government paid the bonus owed to them for their service in World War I.58 Congress declined to authorize this payment, and President Hoover took a similarly harsh approach. He ordered army tanks and infantry cavalry to burn the camp and disperse its residents. The Bonus Expeditionary Force never got paid, but it made the homelessness and poverty of patriotic men into an emblem of the failure of the government and the American Dream.59

By 1933, Americans increasingly saw the problem of transients as a national crisis that required government intervention. Unlike the previous era, when hobos were generally scorned and blamed for their own poverty, the Depression’s dislocation came to seem like a result of systematic economic failure. People gave money to beggars, tolerated shantytowns in cities, and set up soup kitchens and shelters in record numbers. But private efforts could hardly keep pace with the problem. The Federal Transient Service (FTS), established in 1933, funded state-level proposals to assist transient people. FTS helped to serve more than one million homeless people in the two years before government officials shifted their focus to employment relief.60

The Great Depression also gave rise to new types of hobos, beyond working-age white men: young people, women, and racial minorities moved about the country as never before. At the height of the Depression, at least 250,000 youth roamed the country. Officials at the federal Children’s Bureau feared the long-term effects of their homelessness. In addition, estimates of women on the road rose from a negligible amount between 4 to 10 percent of the transient population, and this figure is likely too low, considering that many female hobos dressed as men and boys for protection. The sharp increase in the transient population also included many African Americans. Whether in Hoovervilles, CCC camps, or on boxcars, they interacted with whites in desperate yet more egalitarian environments.61 This influx of women and men of color on the road captured national attention in 1931 when police charged nine young black men with raping two white women on a train moving through Alabama. The “Scottsboro Boys” case became an international cause célèbre for the Communist Party, which eventually exposed the charges as false and indicted the U.S. legal and economic system as exploitive along both race and gender lines.62

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Figure 6. Flood refugees, near Cache, Illinois, 1937.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8b30116.

But no group of Americans captured more attention than the victims of the Dust Bowl, which triggered a national dialogue about Americans’ relationship to the natural world and its rural citizens. During the 1930s, all farmers on the plains dealt with withered crops and starving livestock, but residents on the southern plains also faced massive dust storms caused by wind erosion. These storms came as the result of shortsighted farming techniques in the 1920s, as farmers tried to make up for declining wheat prices by using one-way disc plows to break up the sod that held the land in place and cultivate more acreage. By 1934, one dust storm alone in May carried 300 million tons of fertile soil as far as the Atlantic Ocean.63 As one farmer recalled, “oil was in that sand” of the dust storms, which stained everything “the most awful color you ever saw.”64

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Figure 7. Dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-00241.

The hunger and displacement that followed exposed an extreme variant of a similar agricultural depression nationwide, sparking new ideas and demands on how to make rural America a more sustainable resource base. New ideas and projects to rectify these crises included soil preservation, tree conservation, flood control, hydropower, and electrification. Some of these programs, such as the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) project of the Department of Agriculture, helped farmers who stayed put learn how to grow more sustainable crops.65 Meanwhile, the CCC put people to work preserving and managing America’s outdoor spaces, while also purporting to restore the health of unemployed workers through hearty outdoor labor.66 Other federal and local programs, however, prioritized agribusiness and commodities over small farmers and conservation. The AAA, for example, paid farm owners to grow fewer crops, which led them to evict tenants and sharecroppers.

Many of these dispossessed agricultural workers headed west, where economic fortunes seemed more promising.67 By 1939, when John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath chronicled the Joad family’s belabored exodus from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, the media already had labeled such migrants Okies. This caricature, which became a powerful symbol of the Depression, was of a primitive, white Southern family steering its jalopy to the West Coast.68 “America looked at the Dust Bowl migrants,” one historian concluded, “and saw itself: first finding a symbol of Depression-era failure, later an affirmation of success and deliverance,” as these migrants began to find work in war industries by the end of the decade.69

Protest Politics

The poverty and homelessness that pervaded in the early Depression years hit the unskilled, young, minority, and foreign born especially hard. Many developed survival strategies that began in their family and neighborhood networks, but small-scale private supports soon became overwhelmed. With little government help on the horizon in 1930, radical activists began to organize employment, anti-eviction, and relief demonstrations. These included Communists, Socialists, and followers of A. J. Muste, known as Musteites. Socialists and Communists redoubled their earlier efforts to organize the poor, with the latter organizing Unemployment Councils based on the immediate needs of urban, working-class people. These councils organized an International Employment Day, which drew over a million people nationwide into demonstrations on March 6, 1930.70 Their focus on bread-and-butter issues led many people to respect these radicals, with cries to “Run quick and find the Reds!” when authorities threatened eviction or withdrawal of emergency food relief.71 Meantime, Musteites had more success in smaller towns and rural areas with religious and patriotic appeals that they linked to the Bonus Expeditionary Force. They organized the poor and middle-class unemployed in mining towns in Ohio, steel mills in Pennsylvania, and textile areas of North Carolina.72

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Figure 8. Unemployed demonstration, Columbus, Kansas, 1936.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8b27577.

This early Depression movement had drawn only about 100,000 people to its official organizations by its 1933 peak, but it reshaped protest politics. In many large cities, activist networks won moratoriums on evictions and gained more relief for people out of work. They then became less militant as they coordinated with New Deal relief and legislative efforts and helped to broker the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. These protests convinced many Americans that poverty resulted from economic forces rather than a lack of individual merit. The experience of demonstrating in the streets opened many Americans up to radical ideas and convinced them to become activists themselves.73

By 1935, early relief demonstrations had given way to larger mobilization, as coalitions converged around a common determination to expand American democracy and defeat the alarming spread of fascism abroad and at home. The Communist Party adopted a new Popular Front strategy to engage in broad antifascist campaigns with liberal New Dealers and Socialists alike. Some of these activists, particularly African Americans, protested in their neighborhoods and outside Italian consulates in major cities against Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935. Thereafter, about three thousand leftists organized the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight overseas against a fascist takeover of Spain from 1937 to 1939.74 Back home, the 1935 formation of the CIO brought a wave of organizing that spawned some progressive new unions committed to civil rights—a vision that extended beyond shop-floor grievances to incorporate other forms of democratic and antiracist protest politics, mirroring the Communist Party slogan of “Negro and White: Unite and Fight.”75

This nationwide push to organize the unorganized yielded unions that were also social movements. The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) demanded that planters cut agricultural workers a piece of the federal subsidies that they received to remove more than 50 percent of the region’s cotton acreage from production.76 The Socialist-led STFU and its Communist-led rival United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers Union (UCAPAWA) openly challenged the racial apartheid of the Southern government and plantation system. These unions also embraced new organizing tactics—such as hiring itinerant radical preachers—in promoting social justice activism that crossed geographic, racial, and religious denominational lines.77

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Figure 9. Evicted sharecroppers, roadside demonstration, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8a10485.

Meanwhile, in urban areas, unions such as the United Auto Workers, United Packinghouse Workers of America, and United Electrical Workers served as training grounds for working-class activists who became significant grass-roots social movement leaders.78 These included women and racial minorities, who developed feminist and antiracist class positions within and beyond the labor movement. As Depression-era unions expanded, however, they remained male dominated. The membership of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, for example, increased by 500 percent, or 200,000 members, during the Depression. But while three-quarters of its members were women, there was only one woman on its twenty-four-member national executive board.79

Seeking to capitalize on these new forms of protest politics, a network of African-American intellectuals, activists, and workers developed new challenges to poverty, as well as early New Deal policies that excluded or discriminated against them. In 1935, they formed the National Negro Congress (NNC) and elected the well-known civil rights and labor champion Asa Philip Randolph as its president. Two years later, NNC activists formed the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an offshoot that dealt more explicitly with the problems of African-American youth in the South. These organizations revived a black-led and working-class dimension to the Black Freedom Movement by uniting select activists and unionists for antifascist goals spanning from economic justice to protection from lynching and police brutality. While the NNC did not deliver a fatal “Death Blow to Jim Crow,” it and others reoriented many communities toward a more aggressive stance on civil rights and pressured more conservative racial uplift organizations, labor unions, and New Deal liberals to embrace more militant tactics and goals.80

The Depression years also saw the development of regional social movements that were subsequently incorporated, coopted, or cast off by the New Deal state. When Franklin Roosevelt called for “bold, persistent experimentation” in a May 1932 speech, he inspired many interest groups to coalesce and demand reforms within the emerging broker-state that would define the New Deal during his presidency.81 These included movements galvanized under a single leader or voice, such as governor and senator Huey Long and his Share Our Wealth Plan in Louisiana, the radio celebrity priest Charles Coughlin and his National Union for Social Justice in Michigan, the socialist Upton Sinclair and his End Poverty in California movement, and physician Francis Townsend and his Townsend Plan for old-age insurance.82 The Roosevelt administration drew from some of these organic movements—for example, by incorporating progressive taxation and old-age insurance into the New Deal—while eschewing others, especially when they evinced elements of fascism themselves.

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Figure 10. Selling Father Coughlin’s Social Justice newspaper, New York City, 1939.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8b33832.

Depression-Era Culture

Despite their economic deprivation, Americans built a rich cultural life during the Great Depression. At times supported by the government through the WPA’s Federal One projects, the U.S. Treasury Department’s art program, the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) photography program, and other initiatives, creative minds demonstrated an astounding commitment to engaging broad audiences and celebrating diverse American identities. Throughout the decade, cultural workers grappled with the same ideological currents running through the labor movement and practical realities facing those who were forced to rove around the nation. Woven into American culture, whether elite or popular, were reflections of the struggles facing ordinary people, critiques of a capitalist system that appeared broken, celebrations of American values, and utopian visions of the future. Artists sought to put a human face on the mind-numbing statistics that often defined the Depression in politics and the media.

In the end, both the creators and recipients of culture reckoned with the Depression in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways. On the one hand, audiences embraced philosophical and political themes that allowed them to wrestle with questions of power and individual agency. On the other hand, tens of millions of Americans went to the cinema, listened to radio soap operas, attended sporting events, and read comic books to escape temporarily from the pervasive anxiety of hard economic times.

Among intellectuals of the decade, the Depression encouraged explorations of the human condition pushed to its limits, as well as the marriage of art to activism. The existence of a Popular Front in cultural circles meant that working-class experiences, racial oppression, the nature of protest, and the threat of fascism appeared as topics and themes in the literature, photography, film, and music of the Great Depression. The messages varied, as a vibrant leftist perspective challenged the viability of capitalism, while liberal critics advocated for remedies within the existing system.83

Through searing literature, authors Richard Wright and John Steinbeck, for instance, drew attention to inequalities that challenged American narratives of upward mobility through hard work. Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), a book of short stories, and Native Son (1940), a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, gave voice to racial and class oppression. Wright’s characters, including Bigger Thomas of Native Son, face multiple injustices, yet they ultimately find a path out of alienation and toward agency. Wright probed the intersection of class and race as he highlighted the extreme violence at the foundation of racial hierarchies. Although he showcased working-class protagonists, Steinbeck often stopped short of a radical critique of the system. For instance, despite the hardships faced by the Joad family and the criticism leveled at banks and large landowners in Steinbeck’s bestselling novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), the story does not advocate collective farm ownership. Instead, it aims to restore American faith in the small family farm and calls for a collective action akin to small-town community rather than Communism. At the same time, Steinbeck’s realistic rendering of the Joads’ trials resonated with American readers.

Frequently eliding the space between fact and fiction, writers and visual artists drew inspiration from their factual observations of Depression-era America to craft emotional stories with a social justice message. In the tradition of social realism, Steinbeck traveled through farm communities and farm labor camps in California, penning a series of articles, “The Harvest Gypsies,” for the San Francisco News. His research became the basis for The Grapes of Wrath, but he also reprinted the articles with photographs from Dorothea Lange in a pamphlet called Their Blood Is Strong. In turn, John Ford, the director of the film version of The Grapes of Wrath, which was released a year after the book’s publication, modeled scenes on photographs of agricultural labor taken by Lange. Writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston relied on her sensitive ear for folklore and dialect, penning fictional works that demonstrated not only the obstacles confronting poor African Americans, but also their ability to forge community and achieve self-realization.

Wright, Hurston, and Lange understood firsthand the value of public support for cultural production. For a time, Wright and Hurston found work with the WPA Federal Writers’ Project, and Lange was one of the forty photographers employed by the FSA’s Historical Section between 1935 and 1943 who documented the effects of the Depression on people and landscapes. Working on city and state guides for the Writers’ Project in Chicago and New York by day, Wright wrote his own fiction at night. Wright and others on the project, according to one scholar, “were distilling a synthesis of fictional invention, autobiographical reflection, and urban field work” in their own writing.84 Hurston’s work collecting rural African American folklore illustrated how the New Deal fostered democratic values, with an emphasis on culture that was open to and represented all Americans, not just the privileged few.85 Significantly, Lange’s photographs of migrant farm workers, Georgia peach pickers, impoverished tenants, and others across the country brought to middle- and upper-class audiences an accounting of the Depression’s ravaging effects on the poor.86

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Figure 11. Dorothea Lange, FSA photographer, in California, 1936.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8b27245.

Photojournalism flourished during the period and challenged the boundary between journalism and art. With her husband, economist Paul Taylor, Lange published American Exodus (1940), showcasing her photographs accompanied by essays that sought to ground their meaning. But white authors and photographers tended to ignore or gloss over the presence and exploitation of Mexican, Filipino, and African Americans. Wright responded by publishing Twelve Million Black Voices (1941), featuring FSA photographs by Edwin Rosskam, which told the story of their distinct migration. Painter Jacob Lawrence visualized these experiences in his 1941 “Migration Series,” calling attention to the violence and low wages that prompted African Americans to leave the South. Other painters turned to regional and historical themes, portraying characteristics that they believed would carry Americans through hard times in a genre referred to as the “American Scene.” Some American Scene paintings, such as those of Thomas Hart Benton, celebrated the distinctive American values of hard work, fortitude, and thrift. Not surprisingly, Benton provided illustrations for The Grapes of Wrath.

In mass entertainment, producers and writers addressed class relations, but they often emphasized bridges rather than divisions. Superman, first published as a comic book in 1938, followed the exploits of journalist Clark Kent, an ordinary man imbued with superhuman powers. In the third Action Comic of this series, The Blakely Mine Disaster, Superman characteristically uses his powers on behalf of the underdog. While rescuing a miner trapped in a shaft, Superman discovers that deficient safety measures caused the collapse. As Clark Kent, he confronts the mine owner, who denies any knowledge of, or responsibility for, the situation. Consequently, Superman arranges to have the owner and his wealthy friends trapped in the unsafe mine so that they understand the necessity of fixing the problem. After this harrowing experience, the enlightened mine owner pledges to adhere to the most rigid safety standards in the industry.87

Popular screwball comedies and dramatic films of the decade similarly reveal class divisions or political corruption but end with sanguine messages about the ultimate goodness inherent in the wealthiest capitalists.88 In director Gregory La Cava’s 1936 film, My Man Godfrey, rich socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) takes in a “forgotten man,” Godfrey Smith (William Powell), hiring him as her family’s butler. As it turns out, Godfrey, a Harvard graduate, hails from a Boston Brahmin family. He nearly committed suicide due to a failed love affair, but he was saved and taken in by the forgotten men of “the dump,” a New York City Hooverville. There, he learned that “the only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.” As the Bullock family butler, Godfrey helps each member of the family discover the common humanity binding together rich and poor. Consequently, in spite of their aristocratic status and frivolous lifestyle, the Bullocks are not irredeemable. In the end, Godfrey chooses to start a restaurant and open housing for the homeless on the waterfront once occupied by a Hooverville, using his inheritance as seed money for this profitable industry. No New Deal is required.

Another dramatic example was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, which ends with Scarlett O’Hara optimistically declaring “Tomorrow is another day.” This historical drama was the bestselling novel of 1936 and 1937 before becoming a wildly popular film in 1939. However, groups of African Americans and their allies picketed theaters to contest the book and movie’s cultural depiction of docile slaves and victimized white Southern planters as false history.89 As these films and others suggest, mainstream Hollywood did not necessarily support substantial government intervention to address inequalities, whereas the working class and minorities simultaneously created and revived new forms of culture to push for an industrial democracy.90

For many Americans, popular culture, such as comic books, games, and spectator sports provided much-needed escapism at little cost. But even there, the influence of contemporary politics and a depressed economy were evident. Tellingly, Monopoly, which had players vying for real estate, paying dreaded income taxes, and sometimes gouging other players for rent on high-end properties, was one of the most popular board games of the era. As one cultural historian remarked, in an era in which competitive capitalism had broken down, Americans seemed drawn to games that “held out the opportunity to compete and the hope of winning within a stable framework of rules.”91 Ordinary people also flocked to professional baseball games and listened to epic boxing matches on the radio, including some rife with racial and national symbolism, as when Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” twice fought German Max Schmeling in the 1930s. Thus, even sporting events could not always avoid political symbolism. African-American track star Jessie Owens, for instance, took home four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics a year after the Nazis and Adolf Hitler adopted the Nuremberg laws, a series of racial statutes that proclaimed the superiority of “Aryans.”

The Great DepressionClick to view larger

Figure 12. Serbian Club steelworkers listen to Joe Louis fight on the radio, Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, January 1941.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USF34-043109-D.

Depression-era culture also displayed optimism, as Americans looked toward a better future. As the decade closed and war clouds hovered over Europe, the New York World’s Fair opened with the hopes of reviving the city’s lagging economy and showcasing the benefits of American democracy. Built around a theme known as the “World of Tomorrow,” a team of industrial designers projected their vision of the ideal society, in which technology, democracy, and efficiency forged a seamless whole. Private corporations sponsored many of the fair’s exhibits, including “Futurama,” located inside the Trylon, one of two structures at the center of the fair. Spotlighting the automobile as the unifying force for the country, General Motors transported fairgoers to 1960 and a world of superhighways connecting skyscrapers and greenbelts. Absent public transportation, technology promised individuals prosperity, convenience, and order.

Next to the Trylon, the Perisphere housed “Democracity,” the fair’s theme exhibit, where public money and government regulation influenced urban design, with residents living in tall apartment houses, suburban garden developments, or satellite communities. In this planned community, however, people still relied upon private automobiles and highways to link its disparate parts. Unfortunately, many ordinary people could not afford the fair’s average cost of $5 for a day of activities; attendance underperformed expectations, and the corporation running the fair declared bankruptcy.92 Even so, the “World of Tomorrow” took the eyes of fairgoers off the present and the past, diverting their attention from ten long years of economic deprivation and toward visions of a thriving capitalist and more democratic nation.

Discussion of the Literature

Even as the Great Depression was unfolding, scholars sought to understand its causes and consequences. The conversation continues, and in some corners, it has intensified since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. While the Great Depression worsened in the early 1930s, economists, social scientists, and others collected and scrutinized data in an effort to obtain clarity on why the Depression occurred, how to address it, and what it meant to the millions of Americans experiencing its ravages. In fact, in seeking to document its effects through photographs, oral history interviews, sound recordings of music, and written reports, among other works, government workers in the 1930s provided a wealth of material for future historians as they pioneered the practice of social and cultural history. Critically, that work has enriched scholarship on the decade, moving historians beyond an equation of the Great Depression with the New Deal and into studies that probe the rich tapestry of American life outside the confines of electoral politics and federal policies.

Historians and economists often have pointed to poor decision-making to explain why this economic downturn became the Great Depression. In the early years of the Depression, British economist John Maynard Keynes, a pioneer in macroeconomics, shared with government officials in Britain and the United States his theories on monetary policy and countercyclical public spending. His views offered a fundamental challenge to conventional perceptions that “market economies were naturally stable, and that the only macro-economic task of government was to maintain sound money.”93 A proponent of an active, and flexible, monetary policy to control deflation, Keynes also came to advocate for fiscal policies to stimulate growth, especially if monetary adjustments proved inadequate.

During a deflationary cycle when prices, expenditures, and employment plummeted into a death spiral, how could demand be spurred, investment increased, and employment expanded? Over the course of the 1930s, Keynes answered this question by arguing that during periods of recession and depression, governments should raise expenditures, even if it meant deficit spending. Doing so flushed money into the economy, restored consumers’ purchasing power, and elevated demand, which in turn enticed businesses to increase output and hire more people. Keynes published his seminal work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in 1936. While his views did not have a substantial influence on the direction that Roosevelt took economic policy in the 1930s, they gradually became accepted among many American policymakers.94 Keynesians thus espoused a path that directly involved government in the economy, rather than a belief in a hands-off approach to business cycles. When World War II and an expanded state seemed to confirm the need for government outlays to keep unemployment relatively low and the economy stable, free market advocates lost some influence. Perhaps most important, Keynes’s ideas influenced how economists and historians in the postwar era understood the causes of, and evaluated responses to, the Great Depression.

After the 1950s, a group of economists focused on a flawed monetary policy as the explanation for the deflation that defined the Great Depression. They suggested that fears of inflation in the United States and Europe may have encouraged countries to pursue deflationary policies, such as tightening of the money supply, when faced with recession. In 1963, Milton Friedman, an economist at the University of Chicago, and Anna Schwartz, an economist at the National Bureau of Economic Research, blamed American monetary policy for the Great Depression, asserting that the Federal Reserve’s failure to expand the money supply led to the uncontrollable deflationary cycle.95 Their analysis legitimated a conservative view that called for limited government intervention in the economy, thus challenging the more assertive government role called for by a Keynesian approach.96

In the 1980s and 1990s, Peter Temin, Charles Kindleberger, and Barry Eichengreen reframed the debate over the Great Depression’s cause, as well as the appropriate cure, by pointing to the unique role that adherence to the gold standard played in instigating deflation.97 In his work, Temin asserted that a “gold standard ideology” tied governments to a rigid money supply, preventing them from embracing policies that would have grown the money supply and inflated prices. Rising prices would have increased profits and encouraged companies to invest, expand production, and hire employees. Using their income, employees would have begun to consume again, stimulating demand and sparking a growth cycle. Data supported the idea that those countries that went off the gold standard first tended to recover first from the Great Depression.98 Most recently, Charles R. Morris, in a less academic treatment of the Depression that applied elements from Temin and Kindleberger, emphasized the importance of global forces in pushing an economic downturn in the United States into a worldwide Great Depression.99

For other scholars (and contemporaries), the Great Depression was merely a reflection of the natural business cycles of boom and bust driven by capitalism. In this framework, the roots of the Depression require little investigation because busts allow the market to correct itself by purging weak firms, laying the groundwork for a new period of growth. The only lesson that it suggested for future policymakers was minimal-to-no government interference, in order to allow the market to make its own corrections. Low wages and prices, they maintained, eventually stimulated economic expansion, and therefore efforts to raise prices and wages such as the NIRA (1933), NLRA (1935), and Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) inhibited investment and recovery.100

At the other end of the spectrum, Marxists and other critics of capitalism saw in the Great Depression evidence of flaws built into a system based on private ownership and labor exploitation. While they perceived the solution as government control and nationalization (or collective ownership) of industries, they considered the Great Depression a consequence of large, impersonal, and somewhat uncontrollable forces that exemplified the fragility and human suffering intrinsic to capitalism. Scholars favoring a free market shared a similar view of the inevitability of booms and busts in a capitalist system; however, unlike Marxists, they understood these cycles as signs of a self-correcting system that was ultimately more beneficial than harmful to the economy and society.101

In conversation with conservative critics, a strong cohort of scholars who have examined why the depression ended—as opposed to why it began—have presented evidence of the New Deal’s effectiveness, crediting it, rather than World War II, with stimulating the recovery. Christina Romer’s 1992 article, “What Ended the Great Depression?” Gauti Eggertsson’s 2008 article “Great Expectations,” and Eric Rauchway’s 2015 book, The Money Makers, explore New Deal decisions and measures that halted national economic decline and promoted economic growth.102 At the same time, economists such as Paul Krugman and Dean Baker have reasserted Keynesian interpretations of the Depression’s causes and effects. They, as well as Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke (2006–2014), advocated a massive government stimulus package to combat the 2008 Great Recession by taking lessons from the 1930s Great Depression.103

In assessing the politics of economic recovery, historians Kathryn Olmsted, Elliot Rosen, and Kim Phillips-Fein revisited the Great Depression during the 2008 recession to argue that opposition to the New Deal in the 1930s reveals the roots of modern conservatism. These scholars have analyzed the shifting Republican Party ideology with its commitment to laissez-faire economics (as elucidated in Herbert Hoover’s 1934 book, The Challenge of Liberty), as well as the lobbying of business and especially agribusiness leaders, who allied with journalists to castigate labor as an assault of traditional gender and racial norms.104

Broadening the view of the Depression beyond its economic dimensions, historians have moved from top-down political narratives about the Depression and New Deal to bottom-up social and cultural perspectives. Although there was never a rigid divide between political, social, and cultural history or a complete disregard of the lives of ordinary people, most historians at first studied the Great Depression through the lens of the New Deal. Arthur Schlesinger’s three-volume study The Age of Roosevelt and William Leuchtenburg’s Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940, framed many subsequent studies of the Depression.105

With the flowering of social history in the 1960s and 1970s, historical studies of the Depression era turned toward the lives of industrial workers, sharecroppers, tenants, transients, Dust Bowl migrants, and numerous other groups of ordinary people. Increasingly, historians have emphasized how regional grass-roots movements took President Roosevelt’s ideas of experimentation and the broker-state seriously, as they organized to push for more robust conceptions and applications of citizenship and security. This perspective has led to a reassessment of the Dust Bowl migration, as well as a broadening of who rode the rails and why in the 1930s.106 Historians also have focused on new forms of unionism and militancy among the working class, especially during the second half of the decade.107 More recently, others have emphasized impactful, yet internally combative, antifascist alliances between liberals and radicals. These activists, particularly those informed by the Black Freedom struggle, linked economic justice and antiracist concerns that brought forth a “decisive first phase” of the modern civil rights movement.108

The study of social movements during the Depression—from the rise of industrial unionism to the growth of American radicalism—always has been a major focus of historians of the era. Early works focused on how the efforts of the forgotten men (and women) of President Roosevelt’s New Deal to lobby the federal government for programs, as well as to demand existing relief, become more robust and equitable.109 Another set of studies highlighted the activities of the Communist Party and other more radical attempts to overthrow or transform American capitalist institutions.110

While this give-and-take with the New Deal broker-state and its radical political alternatives certainly remains central to 1930s histories, other scholars have concentrated on grass-roots social movements that operated within the broader context of the hardships and opportunities presented by the Great Depression. During the second half of the decade, many liberals and radicals joined under the umbrella of the Popular Front, responding to the global rise of fascism with protest politics that connected local campaigns to national and international ones.111 In the meantime, African Americans and their allies fomented antiracist demands and fostered activism that represented much more than a prelude to the postwar civil rights movement.112 While most historians agree that economic hardship alone did not necessarily inspire organized resistance, they have sought to analyze why so many Americans nonetheless worked to redress preexisting and widening inequalities and enact visions for a more participatory and egalitarian democracy, which widens the terrain of protest politics from being framed as synonymous with New Deal politics.

Related to this emphasis on ordinary Americans’ experiences of the 1930s, scholars have connected protest politics to the artistic achievements of those years. Recent works have examined how an expansion of mass culture, aided by government support, was produced by and for working-class Americans. From the writings of African-American and ethnic authors, to popular music such as jazz, blues, and country, to gangster movies and film noir, these artists and genres defined new ideas of American cultural achievement and identity that circulated the globe in the Depression years and thereafter.113

Primary Sources

Given the scope and complexity of the Great Depression, students will find no single archive or set of primary sources sufficient to master the topic. Fortunately, many primary sources on a wide variety of topics relating to the Depression have been published in books and are readily available. In addition, the proliferation of source-rich websites (see the “Links to Digital Materials”) allows scholars easy access to written, visual, oral, and aural documentation of the era.

Those interested in the economic history of the period should consult Historical Statistics of the United States, edited by Susan B. Carter et al., which is available through many research library databases. Especially helpful are tables grouped under the heading “Great Depression Series” and accompanying essays, which explain the limitations of the data from this era. U.S. government agencies such as the Census Bureau and Department of Labor (including the Women’s Division) produced reports during the period that contain a wealth of data. Libraries designated as government document depositories are the best places to search for these reports. Frederick E. Hosen’s The Great Depression and the New Deal: Legislative Acts in Their Entirety (1932–1933) and Statistical Economic Data (1926–1946) contains 63 pages of tables.114 Data from the 1930 U.S. Census and 1940 U.S. Census may be fruitful as well.

A number of published books and collections provide glimpses into the hopes, fears, and desires of ordinary Americans during the Depression. Scholars have mined the papers of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, publishing letters that they received during their years in the White House. See, for example, Robert McElvaine, Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man; Robert Cohen, Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression; and Cathy Knepper, Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters to Eleanor Roosevelt Through Depression and War.115 Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner gathered letters from a variety of government archives to document the lives of the working class in “Slaves of the Depression”: Workers’ Letters About Life on the Job.116 The multivolume Documentary History of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidency contains reports, drafts of legislation; correspondence, including letters written by ordinary Americans to Roosevelt during the Depression; and myriad primary sources on topics ranging from agriculture to social security to foreign affairs. For transcribed oral histories from people who lived through the period, see for instance, Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, and the oral histories of labor activists conducted by Professor Elizabeth Balanoff at Roosevelt University.117

During the Depression, relief administrators sent former reporter Lorena Hickok on the road to report on the lives of ordinary people. Those pieces are available in Richard Lowitt and Maurine Beasely, One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression.118 Robert and Helen Lynd’s two studies of Middletown, Indiana, also provide insight from the perspective of ordinary Americans: Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture and Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts.119

Potential archival collections are too numerous to list and depend highly upon the specific topic of interest. Even so, searches with specific terms, or for some major archives, terms as broad as “New Deal” and “Great Depression” may yield relevant sources and finding aids. Major archives with substantial holdings on the 1930s include the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York; the George Meany Memorial AFL-CIO Archives in College Park, Maryland; the Wayne State Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs in Detroit; the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art (which has substantial manuscript and oral history collections related to New Deal artists); the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City; and the Library of Congress Manuscript Division in Washington, D.C. Papers, maps, and photographs relating to federal agencies are housed at the National Archives and Records Administration, primarily at National Archives II in College Park, Maryland. The National Archives also maintains regional archives throughout the country.

Further Reading

Amenta, Edwin. When Movements Matter: The Townsend Plan and the Rise of Social Security. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

    Brendon, Piers. The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.Find this resource:

      Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. New York: Knopf, 1982.Find this resource:

        Cohen, Lizabeth. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

          Cooney, Terry A. Balancing Acts: American Thought and Culture in the 1930s. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.Find this resource:

            Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. New York: Verso, 1997.Find this resource:

              Dickstein, Morris. Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2009.Find this resource:

                Dolinar, Brian. The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.Find this resource:

                  Eichengreen, Barry. Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919–1939. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                    Fearon, Peter. War, Prosperity, and Depression: The U.S. Economy, 1917–45. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987.Find this resource:

                      Gellman, Erik S. Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                        Gordon, Linda. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. New York: Norton, 2009.Find this resource:

                          Gregory, James. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

                            Katznelson, Ira. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. New York: Liveright, 2013.Find this resource:

                              Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.Find this resource:

                                Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

                                  Klein, Maury. “The Stock Market Crash of 1929: A Review Article,” Business History Review 75, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 325–351.Find this resource:

                                    Kusmer, Kenneth. “From Tramp to Transient: The Great Depression.” In Down and Out, on the Road: The Homeless in American History, 193–220. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

                                      Leuchtenburg, William. The Perils of Prosperity, 1914–1932. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.Find this resource:

                                        Morris, Charles. A Rabble of Dead Money: The Great Depression and the Global Depression, 1929–1939. New York: Public Affairs, 2017.Find this resource:

                                          Pells, Richard. Radical Visions, American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.Find this resource:

                                            Rauchway, Eric. The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace. New York: Basic Books, 2015.Find this resource:

                                              Rosen, Elliot. The Republican Party in the Age of Roosevelt: Sources of Anti-Government Conservatism in the United States. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                                                Scharf, Lois. To Work and To Wed: Female Employment, Feminism, and the Great Depression. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.Find this resource:

                                                  Temin, Peter. Lessons from the Great Depression. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.Find this resource:

                                                    White, Ahmad. The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                                                      Zieger, Robert. The CIO: 1935–1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.Find this resource:

                                                        Notes:

                                                        (1.) The most significant works on the economic causes of the Great Depression include John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash, 1929 (New York: Time Inc., 1962); Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, The Great Contraction, 1929–1933 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964); John Garraty, The Great Depression: An Inquiry into the Causes, Course, and Consequences of the Worldwide Depression of the Nineteen-Thirties, as Seen by Contemporaries and in the Light of History (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1986); Charles Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929–1939 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986); Peter Fearon, War, Prosperity, and Depression: The U.S. Economy, 1917–45 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987); Michael A. Bernstein, The Great Depression: Delayed Recovery and Economic Change in America, 1929–1939 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Peter Temin, Lessons from the Great Depression (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991); Barry Eichengreen, Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919–1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Ben Bernanke, Essays on the Great Depression (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); and Charles R. Morris, A Rabble of Dead Money: The Great Crash and the Global Depression, 1929–1939 (New York: Public Affairs, 2017).

                                                        (2.) Morris, A Rabble of Dead Money, 16; and Temin, Lessons from the Great Depression, 6, 10.

                                                        (3.) Temin, Lessons from the Great Depression, 10–38.

                                                        (4.) Eric Rauchway, The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 18.

                                                        (5.) For a concise and accessible discussion of the gold standard, see Rauchway, The Money Makers, 19–27.

                                                        (6.) Temin, Lessons from the Great Depression, 17–25; Kim Quaile Hill, Democracies in Crisis: Public Policy Responses to the Great Depression (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), 65–82; and Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 14–41.

                                                        (7.) Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 73; and Rauchway, The Money Makers, 20–21. Morris tends to downplay the role that agricultural collapse played in the advent of the Depression in the United States, although he does acknowledge it as a factor. A Rabble of Dead Money, 103–105, 306.

                                                        (8.) Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 84.

                                                        (9.) Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (New York: Vintage Books), 75–76.

                                                        (10.) Morris, A Rabble of Dead Money, 106–109.

                                                        (11.) Temin, for instance, maintains that it cut into consumer wealth and dampened individuals’ and firms’ economic activity. Lessons from the Great Depression, 45–46. See also Maury Klein, “The Stock Market Crash of 1929: A Review Article,” Business History Review 75, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 340–348.

                                                        (12.) Klein, “The Stock Market Crash of 1929,” 325–326; and Maury Klein, Rainbow’s End: The Crash of 1929 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 214, 229.

                                                        (13.) David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 38.

                                                        (14.) Eichengreen, Golden Fetters, 12.

                                                        (15.) Eichengreen argues that at the time, many people perceived low interest rates and expansionist monetary policies as a cause of speculation. Consequently, the Federal Reserve responded to the boom by implementing tight monetary policies in the hope that it would squelch speculation and funnel money into tangible, productive uses. Eichengreen, Golden Fetters, 14.

                                                        (16.) Temin, Lessons from the Great Depression, 65. According to statistics, 1,350 banks suspended operations in 1930; 2,293 in 1931; 1,453 in 1932; and 4,000 in 1933. More than 3,400 banks closed in March 1933. Banks suspending operations during the bank holiday but reopening after its conclusion are not included in this number. Susan B. Carter et al., ed., Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition Online, Table Cb70: Money and Banking, Bank Suspensions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).

                                                        (17.) Rauchway, The Money Makers. See also Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Vintage Books, 1995). Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt voiced a commitment to balanced budgets, which inhibited support for extensive government spending programs and deficit spending.

                                                        (18.) See, for instance, Robert D. Leighninger, Jr. Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007); and Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933–1956 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Alexander Field sees the Depression era as one of technological and organizational innovation, partially due to private-sector initiatives and partially to public-sector investment. A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), especially chapter 1 and 258–276.

                                                        (19.) Christina Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 4 (December 1992): 757–761.

                                                        (20.) Historical Statistics of the United States, Table Ba475: Labor Force Employment and Unemployment: 1890–1990, Unemployment.

                                                        (21.) For an argument that attributes recovery to the Roosevelt administration’s ability to alter expectations by dispensing with three dogmas—adherence to the ideas of a gold standard, a balanced budget, and small government—see Gauti B. Eggertsson, “Great Expectations and the End of the Great Depression,” American Economic Review 98, no. 4 (2008): 1476–1516.

                                                        (22.) The U.S. Senate requested this national data, and National Bureau of Economic Research employee Simon Kuznet led the effort to develop it. See Historical Statistics of the United States, “The History of National Income Accounting.” Data reported in sources such as Historical Statistics of the United States must be used with the recognition that the figures represent the best estimation possible at the time. Moreover, the types of data and mechanisms for collecting it often shifted over time, thus complicating the comparison of one period to another, or even one year to another. Economists and economic historians have worked to revise and refine this economic data. See, for example, David R. Weir, “A Century of U.S. Unemployment, 1890–1990: Revised Estimates and Evidence for Stabilization,” Research in Economic History 14 (1992): 301–346. Weir’s work is utilized in Historical Statistics of the United States. For an interesting contemporary discussion of government data collection, especially by the Census Bureau, see Abraham Epstein, Insecurity, a Challenge to America: A Study of Social Insurance in the United States and Abroad; introduction by Frances Perkins (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1933), 193–194.

                                                        (23.) William Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity, 1914–1932 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 247.

                                                        (24.) Unless otherwise noted, all dollars are stated in nominal terms, or unadjusted for inflation. Historical Statistics of the United States, Table Ca10: Gross Domestic Product, 1790–2002; Table Da1295: Farm Income.

                                                        (25.) Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 163.

                                                        (26.) Gross private domestic investment fell from $14.9 billion in 1929 to $3.1 billion in 1933; see Historical Statistics of the United States, Table Ca98: Gross Private Domestic Investment.

                                                        (27.) Historical Statistics of the United States, Table Ca42: National Income, Durable Goods; Table Ca43: Non-Durable Goods; Table Cb55: Great Depression Series, Percentage of Corporations with Profits; Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 163.

                                                        (28.) These figures represent rates for the civilian labor force. Rates for the private, nonfarm sector (absent government and farm workers) are higher in these years, reaching 30.02 percent in 1933. Historical Statistics of the United States, Table Ba475: Labor Force Employment and Unemployment: 1890–1990, Unemployment.

                                                        (29.) Stanley Lieberson, A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants Since 1880 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 244; and Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 247.

                                                        (30.) Epstein, Insecurity, a Challenge to America, 195.

                                                        (31.) Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Second Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1937, FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

                                                        (32.) Frederick E. Hosen, The Great Depression and the New Deal: Legislative Acts in Their Entirety (1932–1933) and Statistical Economic Data (1926–1946) (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 1992), 272–273.

                                                        (33.) Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 163.

                                                        (34.) Hosen, The Great Depression and the New Deal, 294.

                                                        (35.) Hosen, The Great Depression and the New Deal, 294. See also Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 165. More women had access to birth control during the 1930s than previously. Gerald D. Nash, The Crucial Era: The Great Depression and World War II, 1929–1945 (2nd ed.) (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 78.

                                                        (36.) Nash, The Crucial Era, pp. 75–76, 84; and “Jobless Women in Parks,” The New York Times, September 20, 1931.

                                                        (37.) Elizabeth Faue, Rethinking the American Labor Movement (New York: Routledge, 2017), 90–91; and Robert Zieger, American Workers, American Unions (2nd ed., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 11.

                                                        (38.) Raymond Wolters, Negroes and the Great Depression: The Problem of Economic Recovery (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1970), ix; and Lisa Kannenberg, “Great Depression: 1930s,” in Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History, vol. 1, ed. Eric Arnesen (New York: Routledge, 2007), 542.

                                                        (39.) Slim Collier in Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), 110.

                                                        (40.) George E. Barnett, “American Trade Unionism and Social Insurance,” American Economic Review, cited in David Brody, Labor Embattled: History, Power, Rights (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 30–31.

                                                        (41.) Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), chapters 3, 6, and 8.

                                                        (42.) Saul Alinsky, John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography (New York: Vintage, 1970), 62–85; and J. Joseph Huthmacher, Senator Robert F. Wagner and the Rise of Urban Liberalism (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 147–151.

                                                        (43.) James Green, The World of the Worker: Labor in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 140–141.

                                                        (44.) Zieger, American Workers, American Unions, 39–41.

                                                        (45.) Margaret Rung, Servants of the State: Managing Diversity and Democracy in the Federal Workforce 1933–1953 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002); and Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liveright, 2013).

                                                        (46.) Kannenberg, “Great Depression: 1930s,” 543.

                                                        (47.) Zieger, American Workers, American Unions, 60.

                                                        (48.) Robert Zieger, The CIO: 1935–1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

                                                        (49.) Quoted from Sidney Fine, Sit Down: the General Motors Strike of 1936–7 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), 331, 341.

                                                        (50.) Ibid., 341.

                                                        (51.) Michael Dennis, Blood on Steel: Chicago Steelworkers and the Strike of 1937 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), vii, 50. Ahmad White, The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).

                                                        (52.) Faue, Rethinking the American Labor Movement, 96.

                                                        (53.) Philip Dray, There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America (New York: Doubleday, 2010), chapter 8; and quote from Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997), xvi–xvii.

                                                        (54.) Kenneth Kusmer, “From Tramp to Transient: The Great Depression,” in Down and Out, on the Road: The Homeless in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 194.

                                                        (55.) Todd Depastino, Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 216.

                                                        (56.) Frank Czerwonka, quoted in Terkel, Hard Times, 41.

                                                        (57.) Errol Lincoln Uys, Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression (New York: TV Books, 1999), 13.

                                                        (58.) Zieger, American Workers, American Unions, 18.

                                                        (59.) Kusmer, “From Tramp to Transient,” 202–203; and Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, The Bonus Army: An American Epic (New York: Walker & Company, 2004).

                                                        (60.) Kusmer, “From Tramp to Transient,” 210–218.

                                                        (61.) Kusmer, “From Tramp to Transient,” 204; and Uys, Riding the Rails, 11–32.

                                                        (62.) Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Dan Carter, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, rev. ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007); and James Miller, Susan D. Pennybacker, and Even Rosenhaft, “Mother Ada Wright and the International Campaign to Free the Scottsboro Boys, 1931–1934,” American Historical Review 106, no. 2 (April 2001): 387–430.

                                                        (63.) Sarah Phillips, This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 123 and passim.

                                                        (64.) Mary Owsley and Peggy Terry, quoted in Terkel, Hard Times, 50, 55.

                                                        (65.) Phillips, This Land, This Nation, 127, 137, 207.

                                                        (66.) Neil Maher, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

                                                        (67.) James Gregory, The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Changed America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 30.

                                                        (68.) John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking, 1939); and Gregory, Southern Diaspora, 64.

                                                        (69.) Gregory, American Exodus, xiv.

                                                        (70.) Roy Rosenzweig, “Organizing the Unemployed: the Early Years of the Great Depression, 1929–1933,” Radical America 10, no. 4 (July–August 1976): 40–41.

                                                        (71.) Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945, 1999 edition), 87.

                                                        (72.) Rosenzweig, “Organizing the Unemployed,” 49–52.

                                                        (73.) Rosenzweig, “Organizing the Unemployed,” 52–56; Mark Naison, “From Eviction Resistance to Rent Control: Tenant Activism in the Great Depression,” in The Tenant Movement in New York City, 1904–1984, ed. Ronald Lawson (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986), 94–133; and Daniel Leab, “United We Eat: The Creation and Organization of Unemployment Councils in 1930,” Labor History 8 (Fall 1967): 300–315.

                                                        (74.) Penny Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), chapter 1; and Peter Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994).

                                                        (75.) Robert Korstad, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

                                                        (76.) Green, The World of the Worker, 149; and Howard Kester and Alex Lichtenstein, Revolt Among the Sharecroppers (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997).

                                                        (77.) Erik S. Gellman and Jarod H. Roll, The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor’s Southern Prophets in New Deal America (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2011); Louis Cantor, Prologue to the Protest Movement: The Missouri Sharecropper Roadside Demonstrations of 1939 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1969); and Nan Woodruff, American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

                                                        (78.) Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History 75, no. 3 (December 1988): 786–811; Michael K. Honey, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993); and Ruth Needleman, Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: The Struggle for Democratic Unionism (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2003).

                                                        (79.) Green, The World of the Worker, 149; Lois Scharf, To Work and To Wed: Female Employment, Feminism, and the Great Depression (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980); and Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

                                                        (80.) Erik S. Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Beth Tompkins Bates, “A New Crowd Challenges the Agenda of the Old Guard in the NAACP, 1933–1941,” American Historical Review 102, no. 2 (April 1997): 340–377; and Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

                                                        (81.) Paul Stephen Hudson, “A Call for ‘Bold Persistent Experimentation’: FDR’s Oglethorpe University Commencement Address, 1932,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 78 (Summer 1994): 361–375; and William Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940 (New York: Harper and Row, 1963).

                                                        (82.) Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York: Knopf, 1982); Kevin Starr, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), chapters 5–6; and Edwin Amenta, When Movements Matter: The Townsend Plan and the Rise of Social Security (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

                                                        (83.) On various aspects of Depression-era culture, see, for instance, David Peeler, Hope Among Us Yet: Social Criticism and Social Solace in Depression America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987); Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Hopes and Ashes: The Birth of Modern Times, 1929–1939 (New York: Free Press, 1986); Terry A. Cooney, Balancing Acts: American Thought and Culture in the 1930s (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995); Bill Mullen and Sherry Lee Linkon, Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996); and Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009).

                                                        (84.) David A. Taylor, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (Hoboken, NJ, 2009), 35–37, 42–52, quote from 50.

                                                        (85.) Taylor, Soul of a People, 177–182.

                                                        (86.) Linda Gordon, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009), part 3.

                                                        (87.) On superheroes during the Depression, see Jeffrey K. Johnson, Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Co., 2012), 7–20. On the Blakely Mine Disaster, see Robert S. McElvaine, The Depression and New Deal: A History in Documents (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 140–141.

                                                        (88.) On commercial films in general and specifically, screwball comedies, which are frequently associated with Frank Capra, see Andrew Bergman, We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films (New York: New York University Press, 1971).

                                                        (89.) Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (New York: MacMillan Company, 1936); and Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow, 180–186, 261.

                                                        (90.) Denning, The Cultural Front; and Brian Dolinar, The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012).

                                                        (91.) Cooney, Balancing Acts, 6.

                                                        (92.) Marquis, Hopes and Ashes, 202–211; and “The Iconography of Hope: The 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair,” America in the 1930s, American Studies at the University of Virginia.

                                                        (93.) John Maynard Keynes, The Essential Keynes, with an introduction and edited by Robert Skidelsky (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), xv.

                                                        (94.) John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1936). On the general influence of Keynes, as well as his theories of the “mature economy,” see Brinkley, The End of Reform, especially 131–135, 232–235. In this theory, economies slowed when population rates either declined or plateaued. This situation could not sustain growth without government stimulus. For further reading on Keynes and American policy, see Rauchway, The Money Makers; and Herbert Stein, The Fiscal Revolution in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).

                                                        (95.) Friedman and Schwartz, The Great Contraction, 1929–1933.

                                                        (97.) Temin, Lessons from the Great Depression; Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929–1939; and Eichengreen, Golden Fetters.

                                                        (98.) Temin, Lessons from the Great Depression, 6–9; Hill, Democracies in Crisis, 69; and Eichengreen, Golden Fetters, 12–26.

                                                        (99.) Morris, A Rabble of Dead Money.

                                                        (100.) Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian, “New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression: A General Equilibrium,” Journal of Political Economy 112, no. 4 (August 2004): 779–816. Many conservative writers adhere to theories advanced by conservative Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, a contemporary of Keynes. Some critics have focused on the role that high tariffs, such as Smoot-Hawley, played in the Depression. See, for example, Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 6–12, 95–99. Burton W. Folsom puts forth several conservative arguments regarding causation, including tariff policy, in New Deal or Raw Deal: How FDR’s Economic Legacy Has Damaged America (New York: Threshold Editions, 2008), 30–59. For an extended discussion of Smoot-Hawley and its role as a contributor to, not a cause of, the Depression’s onset, see Douglas Irwin, Peddling Protectionism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), especially 114–123, 142–143.

                                                        (101.) For overviews of various schools of thought on the roots of the Depression, see Garraty, The Great Depression, 2–25; Hill, Democracies in Crisis, 11–28; Bernstein, The Great Depression, 1–20; and Klein, “The Stock Market Crash of 1929,” 340–348.

                                                        (102.) Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?”; Eggertsson, “Great Expectations”; Rauchway, The Money Makers. Romer contends that an expansion of the money supply was largely responsible for economic growth in the mid- to late-1930s; Eggertsson argues that Roosevelt’s primary contribution was a successful effort to undermine an unquestioning commitment to the gold standard, a balanced budget, and small government; and Rauchway demonstrates a consistent Roosevelt effort to produce inflation, especially by manipulating monetary policies.

                                                        (103.) See, for instance, Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007) and The Return of Depression Economics (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009). Ben S. Bernanke, Essays on the Great Depression (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000) and The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its Aftermath (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015).

                                                        (104.) Kathryn Olmsted, Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (New York: The New Press, 2015); Elliott Rosen, The Republican Party in the Age of Roosevelt: Sources of Anti-Government Conservatism in the United States (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014); Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009); and Herbert Hoover, The Challenge to Liberty (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934).

                                                        (105.) Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 3 vols., 1956–1960); and Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940.

                                                        (106.) See Gregory, American Exodus; and Kusmer, “From Tramp to Transient.”

                                                        (107.) See, for example, James Green, “Working-Class Militancy in the Depression,” Radical America VI (Nov–Dec., 1972): 1–36; Honey, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights; and Zieger, The CIO; but also reassessments by historians such as Bruce Nelson, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002 edition).

                                                        (108.) Quote from Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (March 2005): 1245–1246. See also Kelley, Hammer and Hoe; and Korstad, Civil Rights Unionism. Also, for a critique of the Communist impact on these movements, see Eric Arnesen, “No ‘Graver Danger’: Black Anticommunism, the Communist Party, and the Race Question,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 3 (Winter 2006): 13–52.

                                                        (109.) Some prominent examples include Brinkley, Voices of Protest; Cohen, Making a New Deal; Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks; and Landon Storrs, Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers League, Women’s Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

                                                        (110.) See Fraser Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States from Depression to World War II (New York: Rutgers University Press, 1991); Randi Storch, Red Chicago: American Communist at Its Grassroots (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008); and Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917–1936 (Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 1998).

                                                        (111.) See Carroll, Odyssey of the American Lincoln Brigade; Denning, Cultural Front; and Von Eschen, Race Against Empire.

                                                        (112.) Beth Bates, Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow; Kelley, Hammer and Hoe; Korstad, Civil Rights Unionism; and Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

                                                        (113.) See Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark; Cohen, Making a New Deal; Bruce Lenthall, Radio’s America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), and especially Denning, The Cultural Front.

                                                        (114.) Hosen, The Great Depression and the New Deal.

                                                        (115.) Robert S. McElvaine, ed., Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man, 25th anniversary edition (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Robert Cohen, ed., Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); and Cathy D. Knepper, ed. Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters to Eleanor Roosevelt Through Depression and War (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004).

                                                        (116.) Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, eds. “Slaves of the Depression”: Workers’ Letters About Life on the Job (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).

                                                        (117.) George McJimsey, ed. Documentary History of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidency, 43 vols. (Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 2001); and Terkel, Hard Times; Roosevelt University Elizabeth Balanoff Labor Oral History Collection.

                                                        (118.) Richard Lowitt and Maurine Beasely, eds. One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickok Reports on the Great Depression (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981).

                                                        (119.) Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929) and Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1937).