Accessibility links

Breaking News

American History: Fear Takes Hold During the Great Depression

The son of a Depression-era refugee from Oklahoma who moved to California
The son of a Depression-era refugee from Oklahoma who moved to California

Or download MP3 (Right-click or option-click and save link)

BARBARA KLEIN: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English. I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember.

The stock market crash of nineteen twenty-nine marked the beginning of the worst economic crisis in American history. Millions of people lost their jobs. Thousands lost their homes.

During the next several years, a large part of the richest nation on earth learned what it meant to be poor.

Workers lost their jobs as factories closed. Business owners lost their stores and sometimes their homes. Farmers lost their land as they struggled with falling prices and natural disasters.

And Americans were not the only ones who suffered. This week in our series, we talk about the economic crisis that became the Great Depression.

(MUSIC “Creole Love Call”/Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra)

BARBARA KLEIN: One of America's greatest writers, John Steinbeck, described the depression this way:

"It was a terrible, troubled time. I can't think of any ten years in history when so much happened in so many directions. Violent change took place. Our country was shaped, our lives changed, our government rebuilt."

Steinbeck, winner of the nineteen sixty-two Nobel Prize in literature, said: "When the market fell, the factories, mines, and steelworks closed and then no one could buy anything, not even food."

STEVE EMBER: An unemployed auto worker in Detroit, Michigan, described the situation this way:

"Before daylight, we were on the way to the Chevrolet factory to look for work. The police were already there, waving us away from the office. They were saying, 'Nothing doing! No jobs! No jobs!' So now we were walking slowly through the falling snow to the employment office for the Dodge auto company. A big, well-fed man in a heavy overcoat stood at the door. 'No! No!' he said. There was no work."

One Texas farmer lost his farm and moved his family to California to look for work. "We can't send the children to school," he said, "because they have no clothes."

(MUSIC “Gloomy Sunday”/Billie Holiday)

BARBARA KLEIN: The economic crisis began with the stock market crash in October nineteen twenty-nine. For the first year, the economy fell very slowly. But it dropped sharply in nineteen thirty-one and nineteen thirty-two. And by the end of nineteen thirty-two, the economy collapsed almost completely.

During the three years following the stock market crash, the value of goods and services produced in America fell by almost half. The wealth of the average American dropped to a level lower than it had been twenty-five years earlier.

All the gains of the nineteen twenties were washed away.

Unemployment rose sharply. The number of workers looking for a job jumped from three percent to more than twenty-five percent in just four years. One of every three or four workers was looking for a job in nineteen thirty-two.

STEVE EMBER: Those employment numbers did not include farmers. The men and women who grew the nation's food suffered terribly during the Great Depression.

This was especially true in two states, Oklahoma and Texas. Farmers there were losing money because of falling prices for their crops. Then natural disaster struck. Year after year, little or no rain fell. The ground dried up. And then the wind blew away the earth in huge clouds of dust.

"All that dust made some of the farmers leave," one Oklahoma farmer remembered later. "But my family stayed. We fought to live. Despite all the dust and the wind, we were planting seeds. But we got no crops. We had five crop failures in five years."

(MUSIC “Mean Low Blues”/Blues Birdhead)

BARBARA KLEIN: Falling production. Rising unemployment. Men begging in the streets. But there was more to the Great Depression. At that time, the federal government did not guarantee the money that people put in banks. When people could not repay loans, banks began to close.

In nineteen twenty-nine, six hundred fifty-nine banks with total holdings of two-hundred-million dollars went out of business. The next year, two times that number failed. And the year after that, almost twice that number of banks went out of business. Millions of persons lost all their savings. They had no money left.

STEVE EMBER: The depression caused serious public health problems. Hospitals across the country were filled with sick people whose main illness was a lack of food. The health department in New York City found that one of every five of the city's children did not get enough food.

Ninety-nine percent of the children attending a school in a coal-mining area of the country reportedly were underweight. In some places, people died of hunger.

(MUSIC “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)”/Blind Willie Johnson)

STEVE EMBER: The quality of housing also fell. Families were forced to crowd into small houses or apartments to share costs. Many people had no homes at all. They slept on public streets, buses or trains.

One official in Chicago reported in nineteen thirty-one that several hundred women without homes were sleeping in city parks.

In a number of cities, people without homes built their houses from whatever materials they could find. They used empty boxes or pieces of metal to build shelters in open areas.

BARBARA KLEIN: People called these areas of little temporary houses "Hoovervilles." They blamed President Hoover for their situation. So, too, did the men forced to sleep in public parks at night. They covered themselves with pieces of paper. And they called the paper "Hoover blankets." People without money in their pants called their empty pockets "Hoover flags."

People blamed President Hoover because they thought he was not doing enough to help them. Hoover did take several actions to try to improve the economy. But he resisted proposals for the federal government to provide aid in a major way. And he refused to let the government spend more money than it earned.

Hoover told the nation: "Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive decision."

Many conservative Americans agreed with him. But not the millions of Americans who were hungry and tired of looking for a job. They accused Hoover of not caring about common citizens.

One congressman from Alabama said: "In the White House, we have a man more interested in the money of the rich than in the stomachs of the poor."

(MUSIC “I Surrender, Dear”/Red Norvo and His Swing Septet)

STEVE EMBER: On and on the Great Depression continued. Of course, some Americans were lucky. They kept their jobs. And they had enough money to enjoy the lower prices of most goods. Many people shared their earnings with friends in need.

Years later, John Steinbeck wrote: "It seems odd now to say that we rarely had a job. There just weren't any jobs." But, he continued, "Given the sea and the gardens, we did pretty well with a minimum of theft. We didn't have to steal much." Farmers could not sell their crops, he explained, so they gave away all the fruit and vegetables that people could carry home.

BARBARA KLEIN: Other Americans reacted to the crisis by leading protests against the economic policies of the Hoover administration. In nineteen thirty-two, a large group of former soldiers gathered in Washington to demand help.

More than eight thousand of them built the nation's largest Hooverville near the White House. Federal troops finally removed them by force and burned their shelters.

(MUSIC “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime”/Rudy Vallee)

Next week, we will look at how the Great Depression of the nineteen thirties affected other countries.


STEVE EMBER: This program was written by David Jarmul. I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein. You can find our series online with pictures, transcripts, MP3s, and podcasts at Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.


This is program #177