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.





People in the large urban centers of America were affected much more than small town and rural citizens. The big cities were much more dependent upon manufacturing and other large scale industries than more sparsely populated areas. In addition, cities were dependent upon outside sources for food, water and other necessities of life. Those living in inner city tenements and apartment buildings did not have the luxury of growing even a small portion of their food. They didn't have the opportunity to supplement their diet with game and other products of the countryside. City dwellers were much more likely to rent their abodes, and a lack of income meant eviction and the possibility of life in the street. Those who were lucky enough to move in with friends and relatives did so. Often, six or more people would be crammed into a small two bedroom house or apartment. Even then, there was a constant worry about how to pay the utility and grocery bills. There was very little credit available in these days. Terms were strictly cash on the barrel head.

Soup kitchens such as this one were operated by religious and other charitable associations to help feed the hungry.


As the number of hungry people in the cities increased, religious and other charitable associations began opening facilities at storefront locations in inner city areas to help alleviate hunger and malnutrition. Generally, the menu was limited to soup and bread. Soup was an economical choice because it could be diluted, if necessary, to serve a greater number of people. For many, these so called "soup kitchens" provided the only nourishment to be had all day.

In Chicago, the biggest soup kitchen was run by Al Capone, a famous gangster who made a fortune running illegal liquor during prohibition and participating in other criminal activities. It is said that Capone's kitchen served thousands of needy citizens each day. As a result, he gained a much more positive reputation among the local populace and was viewed as a saviour by many in the community.

In the early Depression years, virtually all of the soup kitchens were run by private individuals and non-profit organizations. However, some local and state governments stepped up and provided some facilities toward the middle of the decade when it became evident that the hard times would not end soon.

Some success was seen in programs such as the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, which operated from the premise that the vast surplus of farm products, which weren't sold because of the lack of money, could be diverted to help feed the hungry in the cities. This food was distributed both directly to consumers and by provisioning school lunch programs. Later in the decade, the federal government initiated the first food stamp program, which provided an opportunity for families to get food at markets. This is one of the government depression relief programs that never went away. Surpluses are still routinely distributed to food banks and assistance programs.

Men lined up outside of gangster Al Capone's famous soup kitchen in Chicago.

Inside one of the markets that accepted food stamps in the late 1930s.

The federal government initiated its first food stamp program to help alleviate hunger in the cities.


This short documentary film, which chronicles the evolution of urban areas from earlier times, addresses the plight of city dwellers suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. It also offers hope for the future through planned communities such as Columbia Maryland, a newly built suburban development that emphasizes greenbelts and open areas.


Families were hit especially hard by the Great Depression. It was often necessary for one parent to leave the family home and travel in search of work. Unemployed and penniless relatives sometimes were taken in to already crowded households, adding to the misery and difficulty of keeping everyone clothed and fed. Children, especially the very young, were unable to understand what was happening to them and why their lives had changed so drastically. In some case, entire families were turned out of their homes to wander the country in search of food and shelter. Throughout the decade, marriage and birth rates declined and divorce rates rose. Men, who were used to thinking of themselves as breadwinners, were filled with feelings of failure. Many took to drink to try to soften the pain.

That is not to say that all American families became dysfunctional during this time. Some faced hard times with determination and courage, and drew upon the strength of family bonds to hold things together. In this way they were able to maintain a somewhat harmonious home atmosphere, even with the wolf at their door.

Traditional gender roles were challenged as well. It became necessary for many married women to take whatever work was available to help keep their households together. With wages continually falling and fewer jobs available each year, men and women alike were often forced to accept jobs that they would have never dreamed they would take. In some cities, particularly in New York, adults and children alike were reduced to selling apples on the sidewalks.

Life was pretty bleak for many big city residents.


As the number of those without shelter rose significantly during the first years of the decade, makeshift dwellings of scrap lumber and other salvaged material appeared on whatever vacant land could be found in and around the cities. Dubbed "Hoovervilles" because of the widespread belief that President Hoover wasn't concerned with providing relief to the people, these shanty towns became an iconic symbol of the era.

Although some have drawn a parallel between these communities and the homeless encampments of the present day, there were some marked differences. Hooverville residents tried to locate their homes near rivers or sources of water. Many grew small gardens near their shacks to provide at least a small amount of food. Some were able to furnish their humble abodes with tables and chairs from their former homes. One privately funded community in St Louis had an unofficial elected mayor and its citizens organized churches and other community associations. Most Hooverville residents were more than willing to work and would take whatever employment was available.

Although attempts were made to make the best of a bad situation, these communities were unsanitary and unhealthy. Some local governments fought against the shanty towns by evicting residents and clearing away the dwellings. Others, mindful of the fact that these people were there out of necessity rather than choice, reacted with an unofficial policy of tolerance.

One famous Hooverville was erected in Washington DC in the summer of 1932 by members of the so-called "Bonus Army", a mass of more than thirty thousand World War I veterans who marched to the nation's capital from across the nation to demand early payment of bonus certificates authorized by Congress in 1924 and made payable in 1945. The veterans held daily marches in support of their cause and lobbied Congress for action. A bill introduced in the House of Representatives to provide early payment of the bonuses passed, but was defeated in the Senate.

After attempts to convince the protesters to leave were unsuccessful, US Attorney General William D Mitchell ordered the veterans to disperse. When that order was ignored, President Hoover sent two Army units, led by General Douglas MacArthur and Major George S Patton, to clear the area. The resulting action left 55 veterans wounded. After the community was cleared, the Army set fire to the structures.

In contrast, a second demonstration the following year was treated much differently. Newly minted President Roosevelt, provided the marchers with a campsite in Virginia and three meals a day. Although attempts were made to negotiated with the protesters, this new Bonus Army went away empty handed as well.

The majority of these makeshift communities lasted throughout the decade, although there was some marginal relief in most areas in the later years. Most were emptied and destroyed by the early 1940s.

A Hooverville resident working on his makeshift cabin.