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The Great Depression and the Fall and Rise of America
By Marc Favreau
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Crash tells the story of the Great Depression, from the sweeping fallout of the market collapse to the more personal stories of those caught up in the aftermath. Packed with photographs, primary documents, and firsthand accounts, Crash shines a spotlight on pivotal moments and figures across ethnic, gender, racial, social, and geographic divides, reflecting many different experiences of one of the most turbulent decades in American history. Marc Favreau’s meticulous research, vivid prose, and extensive back matter paints a thorough picture of how the country we live in today was built in response to the widespread poverty, insecurity, and fear of the 1930s.
We lived in a shack by the railroad tracks in Phoenix. It was so bad that they couldn’t rent it to someone else, so they didn’t even charge us rent. We scrounged for food, I’ll tell you we scrounged for food.
—WILLIAM WIGHT, DESCRIBING LIFE IN THE EARLY 1930S
The worst calamity ever to strike the United States of America was not an explosion, a plague, an earthquake, or even the invasion of a foreign army. It wasn’t really even an “event.” It didn’t happen suddenly, or all at once; rather, it was like an avalanche on a snow-covered mountain, one that begins quietly, accelerates quickly, and soon swallows everything in its path. Not everyone noticed what was happening at first, and some people who did notice—for example, US president Herbert Hoover, who took office in March 1929—denied what was really going on. By then, it was much too late.
You couldn’t point to it, see it, or touch it. But few people in the United States of America escaped its effects. Although most people have forgotten about it today, the Great Depression of the 1930s turned an entire generation of Americans upside down.
The word depression has different meanings. It comes from the Latin for “pressing down” and is often used to describe a kind of mental illness, when someone suffers from a gloomy view of the world and of the future. These definitions are close cousins to the term that describes what happened to the US economy in the 1930s.
The Great Depression was a severe economic downturn, or “slump.” The US economy had gone through sharp economic downturns—and even several depressions—before the 1930s. The Great Depression was different, both more destructive and longer-lasting than any other.
As the new year dawned in 1930, the effects of the Crash on Wall Street caught up with people living on Main Streets from Oakland, California, to Wilmington, Delaware. The US economy, for the first time in memory, was grinding to halt.
A vicious circle closed in on itself, as fewer people working meant less money spent on the things that factories made, causing factories to reduce production or close altogether—leading to more layoffs, month after month. Big numbers tell part of this story: Barely nine months after Black Tuesday, the number of people out of work in the United States had tripled. General Motors, one of the largest companies in the United States, employed 260,000 men and women in 1929; eighteen months after the Crash, the company had laid off more than 100,000 of these workers. Detroit, home to the biggest auto manufacturers in the world, was especially hard hit: In 1930, the city produced two million fewer cars than it had in 1929. Ford Motor Company closed its River Rouge plant in Detroit, throwing 60,000 people out of work. In Chicago, the unemployment rate—the percentage of people who wanted to work but could not find jobs—approached 50 percent. By 1932, roughly one-quarter of all American workers had lost their jobs.
James Franco was a teenager when the stock market crash rocked New York City. But he and his family lived far away, in San Diego, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “I remember the paperboys screaming about the stock market crash and that sort of thing,” James said, “but it just went in one ear and out the other… I could care less what was happening on Wall Street, or knew less.”
James and his family had emigrated from Greece in the 1920s, when he was only seven years old. They knew what it meant to be poor; his father had scraped by as a fisherman in Greece, and had moved the family to America in search of a better life.
The Francos prospered in California. James tasted ice cream for the first time when he was eleven years old—he couldn’t believe the “almost miraculous environment” that he found himself in. His father owned a wholesale fish market that sold seafood to restaurants in San Diego. They weren’t rich but they enjoyed a comfortable, stable life in their adopted country.
The first aftershocks of the Crash caught up with the Franco family in the spring of 1930. With each passing week, the number of people in San Diego eating out at restaurants dwindled, and that meant restaurants stopped buying fish from the Francos’ family business. James’s father soon felt the pinch, and “he couldn’t pay his own bills so that was it,” James remembered. By June, his dad was back to working as a fisherman—the very job he had left Greece to escape.
But it wasn’t until late that summer, when he asked his father a simple question, that the full truth of his family’s predicament became clear. “I remember one day approaching my dad and asking him for seventy-five cents that I needed,” Franco recalled later. “He had a strange look in his eyes I had never seen before—a kind of agonizing look. And he said… ‘Well there’s no more money, Jimmy… all we have now is to worry about how we are going to eat…”
It was a devastating descent for the Franco family. “I could read the expression of agony in my parents’ eyes,” James recalled, “and really realize that a way of life had suddenly ended.”
Like millions of families all over America, the Francos now lived in a world of uncertainty and fear, as bills piled up and income shrank. James came home from school one day to find a sign posted in his front yard. Because his mother could not read English, she had waited for James to explain it to her. The note contained a terrifying message: “We were actually going to be evicted and thrown in the streets.”
That time, the Francos were able to cobble together enough money to hold on to their house. But life became filled with “small crises,” James recalled, such as “the day the gas was shut off [and] my mother had to cook in the backyard over an open fire.”
The Francos considered themselves lucky. They didn’t go hungry. They held the family together, under a single roof, through the worst days of the Depression.
As winter approached in 1930, more and more Americans were not so lucky. Money quickly ran out as the weeks and months ticked by, for the employed and unemployed alike. At first, people cut back on luxury items, skipping dinners at restaurants and having shoes repaired instead of buying a new pair. In Detroit, Michigan, movie theaters that could hold a thousand spectators sold no more than a few dozen tickets at a time. In Ypsilanti, Michigan, Virginia Davis-Brown’s father “went hunting almost every day for food and he would come home with squirrels and rabbits and raccoons.” She remembered that her mother, Helen, “would can anything that he brought home, so we would have enough food to carry us through in the winter, because there was no money.” Violet Krall, who grew up near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, took her lunch to school in those early days of the Depression. “Once,” she recalled, “as I was beginning to eat my egg salad sandwich, the girl in the seat next to mine said, ‘You must be rich.’ I asked her why she said that, and she said that they could not afford eggs.”
Far away from the big cities, there were reports of people eating wild berries and dandelions scavenged from fields, just to stay alive. In West Virginia, schoolteachers began to notice that their students looked thin and gaunt, and were unable to focus. A school administrator in Chicago worried that “every day we have children who come to school without breakfast and who state that they have nothing to eat in their homes.” In Texas, the strain of hunger during Vera Criswell’s pregnancy passed to her third daughter, born in June 1931, who suffered from severe digestive illnesses. “I didn’t have the food I should have when I was carrying her,” Criswell remembered, adding that her baby “was a direct product of the Depression.”
In some cases, gnawing hunger provoked acts of desperation. Farmers near the town of England, Arkansas, piled into their trucks on the morning of January 3, 1931, and staged a “food riot” in the center of town, threatening to break into the local grocery stores. One of these men, a farmer named Coney, offered this explanation to a reporter: “We all got pretty low on food here, and some was a-starvin’. Mebbe I was a little better fixed than most, ’cause we still had some food left. But when a woman comes over to me a-cryin’ and tells me her kids hain’t et’ nothin’ fer two days, and grabs me and says, ‘Coney, what are we a-goin’ to do?’ then somethin’ went up in my head. I just says, ‘Lady, you wait here. I’m a-goin’ to get some food.’”
Lines for bread and soup formed at mealtimes in nearly every city and town in 1931. In New York City, nearly one hundred thousand people got their daily meals from one of several hundred breadlines. And as the New-York Evening Post reported, every type of person could be found in need of free food: “There are laborers, carpenters, roofers, bakers, foremen, engineers, toolmakers, railroad workers, waiters, cooks, pantrymen, cigar makers, metal polishers, bricklayers, pipefitters, garage men, chauffeurs. There are common laborers, men with trades and men of the white collar class… shaved and equipped with clean linen.”
When not enough money could be scrounged together, some families were even forced to abandon their homes.
In 1928, a laborer in Cleveland, Ohio, named John Sparenga purchased a home for his family at 11413 Lardet Avenue, a tree-lined street of neat wooden houses with covered front porches. With steady work and a good income, Sparenga kept up monthly mortgage payments on the $8,300 home loan he had taken out from a local bank. In the 1920s, Cleveland had become the nation’s fifth-largest city, its huge steel and iron mills attracting thousands of new workers from all over the world, including many from Poland, Ukraine, Germany, Italy, and Hungary (where John’s parents had immigrated from in the late nineteenth century). New neighborhoods, like the one on Lardet Avenue, sprung up all over the city, and for the first time, ordinary people like the Sparengas were able to taste success and comfort in America.
By 1930, Cleveland’s mills and factories sputtered amid the first shocks of the economic slump. John Sparenga lost his job that year, and he soon fell behind on his house payments. Three years later, in 1933, he could barely afford to feed his family and was depending almost completely on donations from a local charity. Finally, the bank foreclosed on his property and moved to evict John, his wife, and their four children. On a hot summer morning, on July 28, sheriff’s deputies showed up at the Sparengas’ door to carry their furniture and other belongings out onto the street.
The Sparenga family’s eviction was too much for their neighbors, who knew that any of them might suffer the same fate. A crowd formed to stop the deputies from carrying out the eviction. Bricks and bottles flew. By the end of the day, as word spread throughout the city, 5,000 angry people surrounded the house, scuffling and battling with more than 150 police officers. The police used tear gas and fire hoses against the demonstrators, who fell back and then regrouped four times throughout the night. A newspaper reporter covering the scene wrote that “this is a crowd that won’t scatter, a crowd that is strangely grim and determined.”
In the end, the police pushed the protesters back. The Sparenga family lost their home, and there is no record of where they ended up.
The Sparengas were not an isolated case. Everywhere, adult children moved in with their parents, families doubled up to share expenses, or children were sent to live with grandparents. Lacking enough money to pay their rents, Americans moved into cars, caves, or makeshift shacks built of any scraps they could find. Stella Dean’s family of four lived in a truck, traveling from town to town in search of food and work. “You don’t know what the heat is like in the Southwest until you’ve been out there cooped up in a truck on the road in the summer,” she recalled. “The dust out on the fields glimmer with the glare of the sun until your eyeballs burned just to look at it, and after a while it all’d look like an endless lake.” Mary Owsley of Oklahoma City knew of one family, “a man and a woman and seven children lived in a hole in the ground. You’d be surprised how nice it was, how nice they kept it. They had chairs and tables and beds back up in that hole. And they had the dirt all braced up there, just like a cave.”
As a last, desperate measure, some people simply walked away. “Hoboes” became a common sight on street corners and back alleys across the country. The term originated in California in the 1890s but entered everyday language during the Depression (possibly as an abbreviation of “homeless boy” or “homeward bound”). Hoboes were simply men, women, and thousands upon thousands of children, looking for work and shelter, riding on freight trains and sleeping in open fields and on roadsides all over the United States.
In Michigan, Virginia Davis-Brown remembered “men who walked up Michigan Avenue coming from Chicago and going to Detroit that had no food and they would stop at certain houses. My mother always had an egg sandwich for them and they always said, ‘thank you,’ and wanted to help. Sometimes they’d see if they could help do something around the house to pay for what they had received and then they would continue on their way.” For the most part, a hobo’s goal was always the same: a day’s work, a little bit of money socked away for family back home, sometimes even a hot meal. It’s likely that several million Americans wandered far away from home in the early years of the Depression, in search of work.
The most popular song of 1931 was “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” by songwriter Yip Harburg and composer Jay Gorney. Describing the life of a homeless drifter who was once “always there right on the job,” the song captured a hard truth of that year: In 1931, hoboes were a living sign that communities were unraveling.
Surviving the loss of a job or clinging to a home often depended on one thing: a savings account at a bank. During the boom years of the 1920s, many people had set aside extra money, either for retirement or to tide them over during lean times. For these people, the Depression’s final blow was also its most devastating.
Even before the Crash, American banks were shaky institutions. Most did not have enough money in their vaults to cover what they owed to all of their depositors at any given time. Normally this system worked. But when rumors began to circulate that the banks were on the verge of collapsing, account holders stampeded to local banks to collect their money, in what became known as “bank runs.” In many cases, the money simply wasn’t there.
The first bank to collapse was the National Bank of Kentucky in Louisville, which abruptly locked its doors on November 17, 1930. The news spread like an electric charge, and panicked depositors withdrew money from banks all across the state and beyond.
Raymond Tarver of Dublin, Georgia, worked at the First National Bank, one of the biggest businesses in town. Before the Depression, Tarver considered himself a success story. He and his wife “really began at the bottom,” he said, living with his parents, saving their pennies, and growing vegetables in their spare time to sell for extra money. Eventually Tarver earned enough at his bank job to afford his own home, along with a Ford Model T. He kept his extra earnings in a savings account at First National Bank.
One morning, an unexpected phone call interrupted the Tarver family breakfast. It was a fellow employee from the bank, with panic in his voice.
“Tarver, have you heard the news?”
The First National Bank had locked its doors. Nobody knew what was going on, but—with news of bank runs all over the state—Tarver feared the worst.
Tarver rushed into town, “and, sure enough,” he recalled, “in front of the bank there stood a crowd of employees, as blank expressions on their faces as I’ve ever seen.”
First National was not only a pillar of the Dublin community but was one of the last banks standing in town, after a series of bank runs earlier that year. “Everybody thought their money was safe,” according to Tarver. And for him, it was a double blow: Both his savings and his job were on the line.
“We worked on at the bank, trying to get things in shape,” Tarver recalled, “with no hopes deep down in our hearts of ever opening up again.” Layoff notices arrived one by one, and Tarver’s came a few days later. “My job was gone and my savings too.”
It was a terrible time in Dublin. Tarver remembered that “there were thousands who went down during the panic—lost fortunes, homes, businesses, and in fact everything.”
For ordinary people, from Dublin, Georgia, to Detroit, Michigan, a bank failure was a shattering experience. When a bank went out of business, its depositors had no recourse; they simply lost their money. At the shuttered Binga State Bank on the South Side of Chicago, a mostly African American neighborhood, the Chicago Defender
- Praise for Crash:
- On Sale
- Apr 10, 2018
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers