How bad was the Depression?

I’m finding it hard to find any real statistics. I remember someone telling me that at the worst point in 1933 the construction industry was down by 33%, which didn’t sound nearly as awful as I would have thought. But I can’t find anything to back it up.

And I’ve heard all sorts of anecdotal data, which is mostly positive. For instance, the story is that in both my mother’s family and my father’s family, no one was ever out of a job for long. But that’s just anecdotal evidence, and maybe just mythology.

Any links to solid empirical data would be appreciated.

This site gives some figures. Short recap: it was bad. It also depended on who you are – if you were Black, it was much worse than if you were white – or your location.

Lots of banks (9000, according to some sources) failed in the Crash, taking people’s savings with them. Also, mortgages were usually only for five years; homeowners had to refinance when the mortgage came due. Since there were no banks giving credit, lots of people lost their homes (even assuming they could make the payments, they couldn’t refinance with no bank available to do it).

Banks got into the trouble because they invested their money in the stock market; when it crashed, there was no money for depositors. This was made illegal until a few years ago and, since it was a major cause of the current mess, it may be made illegal again.

And the apple sellers on the streetcorners were no myth. You could buy a box of applies for a dollar and sell them for a nickel. You could make a profit if you sold the entire box.

But, like any financial panic, it all depended on who you were. My grandfather managed to keep his store afloat during the 30s, so they could tighten their belts and get by. It helped that the local bank remained solvent.

I’m sure wiki would give you lots of stats. If you are interested, you might look for or read Studs Terkel’s book “Hard Times” which interviews the effect of the depression from folks from all walks of life, poor, rich, white, black, yada, yada. A fascinating book.

Thanks for the responses so far.

Interesting that as of now we have 207 views and only two responses. Looks like a high ratio to me. Lots of interest, little information to share.

Re: the two responses…I appreciate your taking the time to answer my question. Unfortunately it seems like it’s hard to find real statistical data. I naively thought that the links would come pouring in for all sorts of web sites showing statistics for everything under the sun during the 1930s. For all the talk about how bad that time was, you’d think there be lots of info available.

And it’s a sign of my trust in dopers that if the answer doesn’t come up here then it’s just not available.

Let’s give it a few more days.

This page has a timeline of the Great Depression with a lot of data. Scroll down to the bottom for a chart of the economic indicators.

How did they make money? VOLUME!

I didn’t see anything on the link you gave that indicated blacks suffered much more than whites. Do you have another cite?

My parents (now deceased) were born in 1920 and 1923. My mom lived in Council Bluffs Iowa, and my dad in Chicago. Mom’s dad was a postman, dad’s dad was a cop. Neither lost his job, nor did they lose their homes. Mom and dad said their families were poor-ish, just because cops and postmen didn’t make a ton of money, but not particularly due to the depression.

The article RealityChuck linked to said that one third of the non-farm workers in the country lost their jobs. That’s a huge number. To give a comparison the current unemployment rate is 6.1%.

Also keep in mind that there was very little “safety net” back then. If you lost your job and your bank account (and millions of people did) then you had essentially nothing. There was virtually no welfare or food stamps or medicare or social security. If you didn’t have a job, you went out on the street and started begging.

Or thieving.

I viewed because I was interested in the answer to the OP, and not because I have any usefull data. The views/posts comparison can be a misleading one, I think.

My granddad was born in 1918. His family (scottish, Massachusetts and New Hampshire) were poor, but owned their home in the rural areas. (No power, kerosene lanterns, well water, hunting deer for food.)

In his view, the depression was a forge that tempered (and toughened) him, and he took great pride in being as self sufficient as possible (without being a farmer/rancher), and surviving it all.

I think this is an important point to remember when thinking about how bad the depression was, statistics aside. Even though current economic losses are grander, there’s also more security now.

If you’ve lost your house, your money and your job and there’s no support system for you, whatsoever, you’re pretty well screwed.

Anecdotally, the Depression was how I ended up being descended from a line of bootleggers on my mom’s side. My late maternal grandfather’s family had a furniture business that sold mostly on the installment plan, and suddenly nobody could afford their installments, but what was my family going to do, take back the furniture? Nobody else wanted to buy it, and they had nowhere to put it.

My maternal great-grandmother lost her husband in the 1918-19 flu epidemic, and was left with 5 girls to support and very little English. Family oral history says that she turned to manufacturing fine Kosher fruit liqueurs. Family oral history also says that everyone in the neighborhood knew about it, including Gentiles, but nobody ever turned her in.

(Both parts of the family were in Camden, New Jersey,)

My paternal grandparents were immigrants who came to the U.S. around 1910. It was bad enough that they went back to the old country with their four kids. Things weren’t any better over there, so they eventually came back.

My maternal grandparents lost their farm. My grandfather got work with a railroad, made enough to buy another farm…and lost that one, too.

My father told me that when he was in high school in Chicago, the city paid the teachers in scrip and this sitel seems to confirm it.

And this chart shows that the Dow Jones Industrial Average didn’t regain its pre-Depression value until 1954.

Grapes of wrath bad?

My grandfather was a Detroit cop. My grandmother was a schoolteacher. They eventually had 11 kids, with the first 6 being born in the 20’s and 30’s, plus they often had family members living with them that they supported. He was paid in scrip for at least part of that time. He also raised and sold hunting dogs. My mother said they never did without, although they certainly didn’t have a posh lifestyle. They had enough money for toys and candy and movies and punch cards (a sort of gambling game where you’d buy a punch and if you picked the right one you’d win a prize.). Once when my grandfather’s favorite lab Dinah got sick with jaundice and all she’d eat was salmon, they had enough money to feed her what she wanted, and for my grandfather to turn down $300 for the dog. $300 in the Depression was a lot of money! He also had Irish Water Spaniels, still a very rare and costly breed.


Thanks again for the interesting posts. Again it’s interesting how difficult it is to find statistics. SpolierVirgin’s link has the best stats so far, but it’s clearly arranged so as to make political points, :frowning: not just looking to present data.

I’ll keep checking back.

My grandmother told me a few stores about growing up during the depression:

  1. Her father stood in line at the bank even though he had just developed appendicitis. They would have lost everything if he did not. He almost died in the hospital later.

  2. Even though they were really poor, my great-grandfather always had a nickel in each pocket when he came home from work each day, every day. One for my grandmother and one for her sister. A nickel was the going rate for ice cream those days.

It’s on the link. Second paragraph.

Some numbers are at this site. It shows that personal savings dropped from $15.3 billion in 1929 to $2.3 billion in 1933. The numbers are bad, but as a percentage, that’s a shock. It also gives the figure of 25% of the work force was unemployed, and another 25% had salaries or hours cut.

The 25% figure is also confirmed here.

Farmers weren’t counted as part of the unemployment figures, and in many areas of the country, the whole decade was a horror story for them. To top off the financial problems, there were climate issues: the early 30s had some major droughts, causing farm foreclosures. Farmers left, the land went fallow, and the result was the dust bowl that made things even worse for those who were left. An account of how the Depression affected farmers is at the Living History Farm website.

And, yes, The Grapes of Wrath pretty much nailed how things were at the time. Time Magazine’s original review of the book makes that clear.

As for Hoovervilles, Here is how the unemployed lived.

Unfortunately, both sets of my grandparents passed away before I was born, but the story of my maternal grandparents living in Chicago was hardship. My grandfather owned two small clothing stores downtown, one on State Street and one on Michicgan Ave. Both went under during the Depression. I believe he eventually found work at a bottling plant.

I always stop and wonder what my life would be like now had I grown up in a family that owned businesses smack in the middle of the Loop. That was ground-floor family inheritance there, long gone now.