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Great Depression: An Introduction

The Great Depression: An Introduction


Farmers whose topsoil blew away joined the sod caravans of "Okies" on Route 66 to California, 1935Courtesy the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers
Courtesy the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

The Great Depression, the start of which historians usually associate with The Stock Market Crash of 1929, threatened all three of America’s major institutional sectors. Writers and intellectuals in leading U.S. magazines openly and seriously discussed alternative institutional arrangements. Public opinion of the business sector reached all time lows; bankers were derisively referred to as “banksters.” Thousands of banks all over the nation were forced to suspend business operations, going on “bank holidays.” Reflecting lost public confidence in the banking system, Americans hid their cash under mattresses and in socks. Family fortunes were lost; suicides were noted in newspapers. Labor strikes took place nationwide. People could not buy such staples as milk and bread. Because they could not afford gasoline, thousands of Americans abandoned their automobiles and trucks. At the peak of the Depression, 25 % of the American labor force found itself unemployed. As the Dean of the Harvard Business School observed, capitalism itself was on trial.

The public looked to the other two major institutional sectors, government and private voluntary associations, for assistance. The latter, often called private nonprofit organizations, were overwhelmed with requests for relief. Organizations such as the YMCA, YWCA, the Salvation Army, soup kitchens, and local churches could not keep up in their traditional relief roles in American social welfare. They simply did not have the resources to meet the massive public need created by the economic depression.

Courtesy the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers
Courtesy the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

Government fared just as badly. State governments, the other traditional provider of social welfare services along with private voluntary associations in the United States, faced bankruptcy throughout the country. Farmers, the source of the American food supply, threatened nationwide strikes if government did not step in to stop farm foreclosures. American leaders watched as seven Latin American governments were overthrown. Many, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, worried about the future of American democracy. (Alter, 2006)


Source: Jonathan Alter (2006). The Defining Moment. New York: Simon & Schuster.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Alter, J. (2006). The defining moment. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. Retrieved [date retrieved] from  /eras/great-depression-an-introduction/.

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