Experience the 20th century through the eyes and ears of those who lived through it via original documents, literature and multimedia.

Aside from war, the Great Depression was perhaps the darkest chapter in 20th century American history. It profoundly affected our nation and culture in ways not seen since.

Bread lines, soup kitchens, bank runs and more. Life in the city was hard and there was no easy way out.

Although most farm families had access to a steadier supply of food, they suffered from their own set of circumstances.





When I was a small child in the 1960s, I would often hear those of my parents' and grandparents' generation speak of the extreme hardship and frustration they endured during the Great Depression years of the 1930s. For them, that era was recent history, and they could still feel the sting of those uncertain and challenging times. Those of us who were born after World War II have never faced such a prolonged period of hopelessness and despair. Nothing in our experience can compare. It is my hope that through this Spotlight feature those of later generations can gain an understanding of what the Depression years meant to America, how our forebears dealt with the extreme challenges of the time, and the changes the experience brought to our nation and our culture


Although many point to the stock market crash of October 1929 when asked to explain the cause of the Great Depression, that cataclysmic event was more a symptom of the coming disaster than a cause. In fact, there were a great number of economic, political and other factors that combined in just the right way to create a perfect storm at that point in our history. If just some of those factors had been avoided, the economy may have merely entered a period of correction manifested as a moderate recession rather than the deepest depression our nation has ever known.

The seeds of calamity may have been planted in the economic boom many technological advances of the post World War I era of the 1920s. Without the burden of supporting a large military force in Europe, American farmers were producing more than enough food to feed the nation. Newly popular consumer goods such as radio, refrigerators, washing machines and better, faster automobiles were produced in record numbers, bringing down the prices of these goods to levels at which they were affordable to middle class American families.

This was also the age in which consumer credit became an entrenched element of American culture. Those much sought after appliances could be had for only five dollars down and five dollars a month. A construction boom and development of less inexpensive building materials and methods brought more affordable housing to the masses. Banks and other financial institutions made mortgages available to millions of people who would never have been able to pay cash for a roof over their heads. With the manufacturing and other industries booming, which put more money into the pockets and bank accounts of most Americans and a shorter average work week, there was extra time and money for entertainment and recreation. It appeared that America's time had arrived.

This was also the age in which middle class Americans discovered the stock market. Long an important economic tool of the wealthy, the increase in disposable income, coupled with rapidly rising stock prices fueled by record industrial output was suddenly an attractive option for those hoping to move upward in society. This trend went well for a while. Large numbers of investors meant that companies could expand and produce even more of the goods we craved. Soon, people were taking out loans to provide money for stock investments. Consumer debt soon increased significantly, although virtually all these investors were convinced that the boom would last forever.

However, one consequence of the rapid increase in stock prices was that the stocks, due to forces of supply and demand, were soon worth more than the economic health and real earnings of the companies could justify. The runaway gravy train was fueled by pure speculation and dreams. Toward the end of the decade, the bubble showed signs of stress. There were downturns in the market, but all were sure that those signs were a temporary adjustment. There was no need to worry. But, in reality, there was much to worry about. The economy couldn't last for long if it was propped up by air and promises.

Another significant factor developed as a result of rapid growth in our urban areas. The growth of industry meant that there were many new jobs in the cities. Millions of Americans left farms and small towns in the South and West to seek better wages in the factories. However, the increase in city population meant that much more infrastructure was required to provide for all the people. Public services and utilities could not keep up with the inflow of migrants. As a result, many of American's cities became overcrowded and unhealthy.

When the bubble finally burst, there was not enough real wealth to run the country. Banks were faced with massive debt they could not collect. Soon, panic ensued and worried investors rushed to the banks to try to withdraw their deposits before cash reserves were depleted, resulting in the famous "bank runs" common to the early Depression years .Citizens owed much more money than they could make. Manufacturers suddenly had warehouses full of goods they couldn't sell. Prices fell and companies across the nation cut production and laid off millions of workers. The storm had arrived.

BANK RUN -- Hundreds of depositors descend upon a bank to withdraw their savings before the money runs out.


Many people blamed President Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression. This view persists even to the present day. However, I believe that is one considers the facts at hand and the perspective of the time, that assertion may be less than fair. In this age, government has hesitant to interfere in the affairs of business, viewing the two as separate spheres of influence. In addition, America possessed a strong work ethic and many were extremely hesitant to "go on the dole". President Hoover was of the opinion that the best way to get the economy going was to provide loans and other assistance to industry so that companies could rehire America's workers and produce more real wealth. Many scoff at this "trickle down" theory, but there was some rebound in the stock market in early 1930 and wages held steady through the end of the year. Whether or not this approach was appropriate may be debated at some length without reaching a definite conclusion. It can't be known if the result of these policies might have been different if given more time. In any case, things didn't get much better.

The Great Depression came on gradually, but by the end of 1930 unemployment had risen to 9% and banks began to fail. The collapsed escalated during the next two years, and by the end of 1932 unemployment was 23%, prices were falling and thousands of banks had closed. It was in this atmosphere that the American people decided that a change of course was in order, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered that change.

In his inaugural address, Roosevelt assured Americans that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself", asked Congress for extraordinary powers to deal with the crisis and closed all the banks for an extended holiday. There was hope in the air, but it remained to be seen whether the new president's approach would prove to be any more effective than the last.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivers his first inaugural address.


A recording of President Roosevelt's first inaugural address, delivered on 4 March 1933. This was the speech in which he declared that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself", a slogan that is remembered at repeated even today.

Headline announcing the Great Stock Market Crash of October 1929.


Eager to establish a rapport with the public, President Roosevelt used the growing medium of radio to reach out through a series of broadcasts called "Fireside Chats". This tactic proved successful, resulting in widespread support for the new president and his policies. The first chat occurred just eight days after his inauguration, on 12 March 1933. Roosevelt took this opportunity to explain his decision to institute the weeklong closure of the nation's banks and to announce that they would be reopening the next day.

The term "fireside chat" was first used by radio announcer Robert Trout as he introduced the first broadcast. The phrase was meant to create a friendly, intimate atmosphere and help promote trust and understanding. The broadcasts continued throughout Roosevelt's presidency and were later used to reassure the American people during the dark days of World War II.


This is the first of many broadcasts by President Roosevelt to reassure the American people during the Great Depression and World War II. This program, from 12 March 1933, the president explained the causes of the banking crisis and his decision to close the banks.