The Great Depression was the most severe economic decline in modern history. Sparked by the stock market crash of 1929, the depression spanned much of the world and was one of the factors leading up to World War II. It permanently changed the role that the government took in the lives of American citizens and, in many ways, helped shape American life for the rest of the century. Keep reading to find what your life would have been like had you lived during the Great Depression.
30. You Could Finally Enjoy Alcohol Legally
In 1920, a new amendment to the United States constitution banned the sale of alcoholic beverages. The Roaring Twenties came to be defined by bootlegging and gang warfare as a result of Prohibition. The amendment was repealed in 1933, so after dealing with all of the stresses of the depression, people could at least enjoy a drink without breaking the law.
Herbert Hoover was the president when the stock market crashed in 1929. In March 1930, he declared that the worst of the depression had passed. In his honor, people who had lost their homes and had to live in shanty towns called their dilapidated dwellings “Hoovervilles.”
In addition to living in a Hooverville, you might have eaten Hoover stew, a name given to the soup that was distributed at the food kitchens that popped up across the country. Besides eating Hoover stew or a Hoover hog, a jack rabbit might have been a tasty meal. Nevertheless, you probably used a Hoover blanket, a newspaper that would not keep you warm.
When Wall Street crashed on October 29, 1929, the stock market lost $14 billion in just one day. Over that week, it lost a total of $30 billion. Millions of people lost all of their life savings and literally overnight went from wealth and prosperity to abject poverty. The Great Depression affected everyone; that is, rich people became poor, and those not-so-wealthy equally lost what little they did have left.
Immediately following the stock market crash, there were so many suicides in New York’s financial district that reportedly, one hotel clerk would ask patrons if they needed a room for sleeping or jumping. All across the country, suicide rates skyrocketed as people lost their homes, farms, jobs, savings, everything.
25. You May Have Destroyed All Assets to Prevent Future Loss
One sheep farmer reportedly had 3,000 sheep that he realized he would not make any profit off of at market. With no money to procure food for them, he decided that instead of watching them starve, he would kill them. He slit the throats of all 3,000 of his sheep and threw their carcasses into a canyon.
At the height of the Great Depression, from 1933-34, the unemployment rate soared above 25%. An additional 25% of those who were lucky enough to retain their jobs were only able to work part-time hours. With no money in circulation, farmers were no longer able to sell their goods.
As many as 50% of children who grew up during the Great Depression did not have enough food to eat, healthcare, or basic shelter. Many of them developed rickets, a preventable disease caused by malnutrition; today, rickets is rarely seen outside of the world’s poorest countries.
When Walt Disney produced “The Three Little Pigs” in 1933, when the Depression was at its worst, people saw it as symbolic of the fact that they had to learn to work together in order to survive. The Big Bad Wolf symbolized the Depression.
During the Roaring Twenties, society’s affluent partied as if they had an unlimited supply of money (just think of scenes from The Great Gatsby). During the Great Depression, though, people began going to the movies as a source of cheap entertainment. The film The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind became huge hits during the Great Depression.
Hobos were migrant workers who frequently did not have the money or means to find transportation from one place to the next. As such, they often jumped cars on the railroad. Tens of thousands of people were injured or killed in accidents related to jumping cars.
19. Your Farm Might Have Been Sold at a Penny Auction
When a farmer was in distress, neighbors often stepped in by auctioning the farm off at a meager rate, usually buying it themselves for a penny or just a few cents. That way, the farmer could quickly obtain the farm back. At least, that was the plan.
Chain letters first began during the Great Depression among people who were hoping to get rich quickly; the schemes were what we would today call a pyramid scheme. You can probably thank your grandparents for the annoying spam mail that you get today that promises the same thing.
The big gangs that had dominated cities during the Roaring Twenties had no trouble recruiting new people who were disaffected by the woes of the Great Depression. Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Ma Barker and her Boys all turned to crime during this period. They were often seen as Robin Hood-type figures.
FDR ran against the despised Herbert Hoover in the 1932 election, promising a “New Deal” for the American people. He won by a landslide, and his New Deal programs helped bring the country out of the Depression by providing jobs, incentives, and other government programs.
As part of the New Deal, people who had reached a certain age could claim social security benefits so that they could retire and a younger person take their jobs. New government jobs involved things like building roads and helping to develop the country’s infrastructure.
Many, many families lost their farms during the Great Depression. Recognizing the importance of agriculture and seeing how much fertile land was available in the territory of Alaska, part of FDR’s New Deal allowed hundreds of families to relocate to Alaska, where they could begin new farms.
Millions of children had to leave school during the 1930s, either because the schools themselves closed or because their families needed them to earn an income. Thousands of schools began operating with reduced hours. As many as 200,000 children were jumping railroad cars.
Instead of begging, which was seen as shameful and degrading, many people in urban areas resorted to selling apples on the street corners to try to earn a few pennies each day. In New York City alone, there were as many as 6,000 apple sellers.
In John Steinbeck’s classic novel about life during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, the family lost the farm and then headed to California, looking for work. The story was based on real-life Okies, migrants who had lost their farms – notably due to the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma and the economic pressures of the Depression – and traveled to California.
A special “Indian New Deal” was enacted to try to help Native Americans living on reservations, but for the most part, they remained desperately poor. One long-lasting benefit of the reforms, though, was that they were granted greater tribal autonomy through a reversal of the 1887 Dawes Severality Act.
Women who had entered the workforce faced discrimination, as they were often seen as taking jobs away from able-bodied men. Mexicans, who had long been working in the United States as farmers, were blamed for taking jobs away from Americans. Not much has changed.
As a result of the Great Depression, many couples chose to marry later than their parents had because they could not support themselves. The birth rate also dropped, as families could no longer provide for their children. In the poorest parts of Appalachia, children were so hungry that they would chew on their hands.
As much as 40% of the country was not affected by the Great Depression, and some businesses benefited. Oil tycoons in particular, such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, and their offspring were able to capitalize on the economic woes of others and thereby expand their businesses.
By 1936, the economic reforms implemented by FDR’s New Deal had turned the country around so much that the economic indicators, such as employment, were at the same level as they were before the Depression. He scaled back government spending, and the country fell back into decline.
There were challenges working people faced during the Great Depression, to say the least; those years were some of the essential reasons for the development of workers’ rights. Workers successfully managed to organize strikes and gain power through unions. Many laws were changed as Americans came to realize that workers were the strength of a democratic government.
Economic woes are one of the biggest reasons people turn to radical political ideologies. In 1929, Josef Stalin predicted that the communist party in the USA would lead a revolt to overturn the government. He was almost right – many people turned to communist ideology, thinking that it would reverse the Great Depression.
3. You Probably Pulled All Your Money Out of the Bank
In the weeks following the 1929 crash, people who were desperate to retain whatever money they had left withdrew all of their funds out of their banks. Economic analysts suggest that rather than the crash causing the depression, it was actually the runs on the banks that created it.
During the Roaring Twenties, women frequently wore expensive, glitzy dresses that showed off their wealth. During the Depression, though, fashions changed to accommodate those who no longer had any money. Accessories became important in the fashion industry during this time because people could dress up otherwise plain clothes for less money.
1. Maybe You Picked Cotton Like Johnny Cash and Others
Johnny Cash grew up in Arkansas during the Great Depression and recalled picking cotton from the time he was only five years old. Music was his favorite escape from the hardships of life during the time; he and his siblings often sang while they were working out in the fields.
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