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The Great Depression was a difficult, life-altering period in the United States when millions of people struggled to find work and get by. Despite the tough times, the average life spans of Americans actually increased.
In fact, historical research shows that during the 20th century, increases in U.S. mortality often occurred during times of economic prosperity, while decreases occurred during economic depressions or recessions.
In the first few years after the 1929 stock market crash, the only major cause of death that increased was suicide, says José A. Tapia Granados, a professor of politics at Drexel University and co-author of a 2009 research paper in PNAS about life and death during the Great Depression. While suicides went up, Tapia found that deaths from cardiovascular and renal diseases stabilized between 1930 and 1932, the worst years of the depression. Traffic deaths dropped in 1932. Deaths from tuberculosis, the flu and pneumonia also declined.
READ MORE: How Apples Became a Weapon Against the Great Depression
As a result, the average U.S. life expectancy rose from about 57 in 1929 to 63 in 1933. In both decades, people of color had a lower life average expectancy than white people. Yet when the depression hit, the average life expectancy for people of color rose more quickly than that of whites, increasing by about eight years from 1929 to 1933.
Less Traffic, Smoking With Poor Economy
There are no firm answers as to why Americans lived longer during the worst years of the depression, but scholars have made some suggestions. Take traffic deaths: Car use increased during the 1920s, and with it, so too did traffic-related deaths. One possible explanation for their decline in the 1930s is that, with higher rates of unemployment, there were just fewer people on the road. Fewer people could afford to own cars, too—as demonstrated by a famous picture (above) of a man trying to sell his car after losing his money on the stock market.
There’s also research suggesting that during U.S. economic expansions, people smoke more, experience more stress and get less sleep. All these factors can have a negative impact on health. This could apply not just to the Great Depression, but other economic downturns in the 20th century. In 2018, Tapia co-authored another paper in the American Journal of Epidemiology that looked at data from 1985 to 2011, a period that covered three recessions.
“What we found in this paper is that a number of things that are usually thought about unemployed people—well, apparently they are not true,” he says. Although the unemployed people in the study had higher levels of depression, they had lower blood pressure on average. They also did not smoke or drink more than employed people. In fact, Tapia notes that cigarette sales have historically risen when the economy is doing well and declined when it is not.
READ MORE: Mobster Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression
Longer life expectancy during periods of economic decline was noted as early as the 1920s, when William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas made this observation using American and British data. In 1977, Joseph Eyer revived this theory with a sensationally-titled paper, “Prosperity as a Cause of Death.” Today, scholars have seen similar trends in Europe, and there is some debate as to what this means.
Economy's Effect on Lifespans Could Reflect a 'Lag'
One argument is that a rise and fall of mortality with the economy reflects a “lag” in effects on people’s health. In this scenario, death rates would be higher in a good economy because of the poor health conditions people experienced during a previous recession. And in turn, mortality would be lower in a bad economy because of the good conditions people experienced during the previous economic expansion.
Research has also pointed out that a “good” economy doesn’t mean living conditions are “good” for everyone. Increased economic productivity often creates more pollution, which harms those who have the least access to health services and safe housing. Infants in particular are susceptible to poor environmental conditions; so higher levels of factors like air pollution can increase infant mortality.
There are no simple answers as to why the average lifespan increased during the Great Depression, or why U.S. mortality has continued to rise and fall with the economy. But it does counter assumptions that as the economy goes, so goes the health of a nation.
READ MORE: 10 Ways Americans Had Fun During the Great Depression
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During the Great Depression People Actually Lived Longer - HISTORY
After more than half a century, images of the Great Depression remain firmly etched in the American psyche: breadlines, soup kitchens, tin-can shanties and tar-paper shacks known as "Hoovervilles," penniless men and women selling apples on street corners, and gray battalions of Arkies and Okies packed into Model A Fords heading to California.
The collapse was staggering in its dimensions. Unemployment jumped from less than 3 million in 1929 to 4 million in 1930, to 8 million in 1931, and to 12 1/2 million in 1932. In that year, a quarter of the nation's families did not have a single employed wage earner. Even those fortunate enough to have jobs suffered drastic pay cuts and reductions in working hours. Only one company in ten failed to cut pay, and in 1932, three-quarters of all workers were on part-time schedules, averaging just 60 percent of the normal work week.
The economic collapse was terrifying in its scope and impact. By 1933, average family income had tumbled 40 percent, from $2,300 in 1929 to just $1,500 four years later. In the Pennsylvania coal fields, three or four families crowded together in one-room shacks and lived on wild weeds. In Arkansas, families were found inhabiting caves. In Oakland, California, whole families lived in sewer pipes.
Vagrancy shot up as many families were evicted from their homes for nonpayment of rent. The Southern Pacific Railroad boasted that it threw 683,000 vagrants off its trains in 1931. Free public flophouses and missions in Los Angeles provided beds for 200,000 of the uprooted.
To save money, families neglected medical and dental care. Many families sought to cope by planting gardens, canning food, buying used bread, and using cardboard and cotton for shoe soles. Despite a steep decline in food prices, many families did without milk or meat. In New York City, milk consumption declined by a million gallons a day.
President Herbert Hoover declared, "Nobody is actually starving. The hoboes are better fed than they have ever been." But in New York City in 1931, there were 20 known cases of starvation in 1934, there were 110 deaths caused by hunger. There were so many accounts of people starving in New York that the West African nation of Cameroon sent $3.77 in relief.
The Depression had a powerful impact on families. It forced couples to delay marriage and drove the birthrate below the replacement level for the first time in American history. The divorce rate fell, for the simple fact that many couples could not afford to maintain separate households or to pay legal fees. Still, rates of desertion soared. By 1940, there were 1.5 million married women living apart from their husbands. More than 200,000 vagrant children wandered the country as a result of the break-up of their families.
The Depression inflicted a heavy psychological toll on jobless men. With no wages to punctuate their ability, many men lost power as primary decision makers. Large numbers of men lost self-respect, became immobilized and stopped looking for work, while others turned to alcohol or became self-destructive or abusive to their families.
In contrast to men, many women saw their status rise during the Depression. To supplement the family income, married women entered the work force in large numbers. Although most women worked in menial occupations, the fact that they were employed and bringing home paychecks elevated their position within the family and gave them a say in family decisions.
Despite the hardships it inflicted, the Great Depression drew some families closer together. As one observer noted: "Many a family has lost its automobile and found its soul." Families had to devise strategies for getting through hard times because their survival depended on it. They pooled their incomes, moved in with relatives in order to cut expenses, bought day-old bread, and did without. Many families drew comfort from their religion, sustained by the hope things would turn out well in the end others placed their faith in themselves, in their own dogged determination to survive that so impressed observers like Woody Guthrie. Many Americans, however, no longer believed that the problems could be solved by people acting alone or through voluntary associations. Increasingly, they looked to the federal government for help.
Great Depression in AlabamaForest Restoration The Great Depression was a sustained, national economic recession that shaped the lives of all Alabamians. Although the U.S. stock market crash of October 1929 is often seen as the beginning of the Great Depression, in Alabama and elsewhere, the crash exacerbated an already existing decline in agriculture that had begun much earlier in the decade and spread statewide to cities and industries thereafter. The Depression's impact on Alabama lasted throughout the 1930s and, for some Alabamians, into the early 1940s, which was longer than the nation as a whole. So dire was Alabama's situation during these years that it drew the interest of Fortune magazine, which sent author James Agee and photographer Walker Evans to Alabama in 1936. Their work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, would become the iconic study of Alabamians' experiences during the Depression. The era reshaped the state's political, economic, and social traditions, highlighted the economic inequalities associated with industrial work, and challenged Alabama's long-standing social and racial hierarchies, even encouraging some Alabamians, black and white, to push for basic civil rights. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal provided relief for many facing dire poverty, but the Depression truly ended only with the economic boom that followed the state's mobilization because of World War II. Tengle Children in Hale County In the years after the Civil War, Alabamians, like many southerners, lived on the edge of poverty, a result of the disruption of the plantation economy and the subsequent rise of widespread sharecropping and farm tenancy, low-wage industry, and a lackluster economy. The devastation of cotton crops by the spread of the boll weevil and a decline in cotton prices because of international competition further depressed the state's economy by the 1920s. Alabama's farm families experienced the first pangs of Depression when cotton prices plummeted. The commodity began its fall in early 1921, from a high of 35 cents per pound to less than 5 cents per pound by 1932. Unable to make a living on cotton, some farmers left to find work in cities. Others fell deeper into debt and tenancy. Between 1920 and 1930, the number of landowners fell from around 96,000 to 75,000, a decline that was harsher for white farmers than black farmers. In fact, black ownership of land increased slightly during the latter 1920s, a result of falling land prices and African Americans returning to the South in a brief reverse of the Great Migration. Black farmers still tended to own smaller, less profitable farms than white owners, however. Nevertheless, the number of tenant farmers increased universally, from 148,000 to 166,000 over the course of the decade. Furthermore, between 1920 and 1930, the average farm size shrank from 75 to 68 acres and dropped in value from $3,803 to $2,375 and the percentage of farms worked by tenants increased from 58 percent to 65 percent another sign of worsening times prior to the Depression. Gadsden Textile Strike The general economic decline of the 1920s and the Depression also affected the textile industry. Several mills shuttered in the face of economic hardship. Huntsville's Dallas Mill, for instance, went from a profit of almost $800,000 in 1920 to losses of almost $280,000 just a decade later. Nevertheless, Alabama's textile industry weathered the Depression better than iron and steel, timber, or mining. Mill owners proved remarkably resilient in the face of the economic downturn they cut workers' pay, lengthened hours, and took advantage of increasing unemployment to hire men, women, and children willing to work for very low wages. Between 1929 and 1935, textile mills lost only 4,300 jobs, and then recovered dramatically after 1936 to outpace other state industries. The greatest challenge to textiles during the 1930s was not the Depression itself, but a massive strike that began in Gadsden in 1934 and spread to mills across the East Coast as workers protested mill owners' efforts to avoid new regulations put in place during the New Deal. Family in Mobile during the Great Depression Although Birmingham became a national symbol of urban suffering, both Mobile and Montgomery experienced hardships as well. In Mobile, traffic declined at the port, leading to shortages across the city. As retail sales and trade fell by tens of millions of dollars, about 10 percent of adults in the city were on relief and city services shrank. In Montgomery, defense employment at Maxwell Field (now Maxwell Air Force Base) buoyed the city, but residents cut spending, particularly on unnecessary items. Throughout the state, cities and counties often paid teachers and other government workers in IOUs and "warrants," slips of paper that were supposed to be redeemable for cash once the economy improved. Many doctors, lawyers, and other professionals were paid with food, goods, and labor. Prohibition Notions of government thrift played an important role in the 1930 election of Benjamin Meek Miller as governor. Miller promised to reign in government spending in the state (his nickname was "Old Economy"), but once he took office, he found that the worsening Depression combined with a failure of voluntary assistance placed new demands on the state treasury. With declining income, unpaid teachers threatened to strike, and the governor implemented a state income tax, borrowed nearly $500,000 to fund relief efforts, and backed legislation to raise borrowing limits, but his efforts fell short, and many localities closed schools or reduced hours. In hopes of reducing costs, Miller, a committed prohibitionist, also disbanded the state's Law Enforcement Department, whose main task was upholding Prohibition. This indifference, combined with a nationwide push to repeal Prohibition as a means of answering the Depression, led Alabama to join the rest of the nation in approving the 21st Amendment in 1933. Miller also took the first steps to establish the Alabama Relief Administration (ARA), a state-run public relief agency that played an important role in distributing New Deal money. Yet the benefits of state relief were limited in the early 1930s the ARA often favored non-union, skilled laborers and disregarded working-class and poor white and black Alabamians as undeserving of funds. These people, in turn, sought relief among their families and communities and, increasingly, from the federal government, particularly the provisions of New Deal agencies. Pres. Roosevelt often had to encourage Miller to spend more of the money the state received for aid. Striking Mine Workers Most Alabamians looked to Miller and later Roosevelt for help, but a few sought out unconventional political solutions. In 1930, the American Communist Party established a branch in Birmingham and found a receptive audience for more radical changes to the failing economy. The group published a newsletter called the Southern Worker that was aimed at the agricultural and industrial workers of the South and established connections with organized labor in the city's mines and mills and with marginalized farmers in the surrounding countryside. In response to the growing Communist presence and labor unrest in the mills and fields, Birmingham passed an "anti-sedition" law that punished citizens who were critical of the American government and employed a "red squad" of police officers tasked with rooting out Communist sympathizers. Joseph Gelders, a physics professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, and a well-known advocate of workers' rights and civil liberties, was kidnapped and beaten for supposed connections to the party during the minor "red scare" that followed. Although not as extensive as the panics of 1919 and the 1950s, the Depression-era scare resulted in a number of arrests, acts of violence, and a notable increase in the activity of the Ku Klux Klan, which saw a minor resurgence on anti-labor and anti-Communist rhetoric. Roosevelt Visits Wilson Dam Beginning in 1933, the arrival of New Deal programs alleviated some of the worst aspects of the Depression. Just as importantly, New Deal programs continued the political and social dislocations begun during the Depression. In 1934, Alabama voters returned to office former governor and notable progressive David Bibb Graves, who became the face of the state's efforts to combat the economic crisis. Graves also signaled an important political change as populist Democrats focused their efforts on economic improvement, even if that meant limited cooperation with federal policies and fewer appeals to white supremacy. In a state and region where poverty was a fact of life for many, even during times of national prosperity, the Great Depression brought national attention to the plight of many Alabamians and forced the state's leaders to play a greater role in providing for the many less fortunate.
Alabama's economy began to recover only after the advent of the World War II defense buildup, though the effects of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the war caused major changes and dislocations. Agriculture shifted from small farms and tenancy to fewer and larger farms, wage laborers, and mechanization. The number of tenants decreased sharply because of the availability of good-paying war work, even as mechanization increased as a result of New Deal subsidy payments and industrialization. Wartime plants and facilities in Huntsville, Gadsden, and Childersburg, and increased demand for iron and steel from Birmingham and ships from Mobile led to an employment boom as many Alabamians migrated from field to factory. Huntsville saw employment skyrocket from 133 total workers in 1939 to more than 11,000 in just five years at its two arsenals and ordnance depot alone. By 1940, the state's unemployment rate had dropped to 6.6 percent, a combination of defense employment, holdover employment on public relief, and incentives for aging workers to retire. Even Birmingham, the "hardest hit" city, had reduced unemployment to a manageable 10.9 percent. As the state joined the national defense effort, the economic effects of the Depression began to recede, even as its political, social, and personal legacy continued to shape the lives of Alabamians for years to come.
Brown, James Seay Jr., ed. Up Before Daylight: Life Histories from the Alabama Writers' Project, 1938-1939. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1982.
3 Answers 3
According to my quick reading of the Life and death during the Great Depression by José A. Tapia Granadosa and Ana V. Diez Roux, the only noticeable increase of mortality was suicide, with a noticeable decline of mortality in every other category.
It's interesting that this paper was written in 2009, before the (shall we say) sensationalist Russian claim of 7 million deaths.
According also to Michael Mosley, life expectancy actually rose through the Great Depression. In his Horizon programme Eat, Fast and Live Longer he claims
From 1929 to 1933, in the darkest years of the great depression when people were eating far less, life expectancy increased by 6 years.
Health researchers collected data on causes of death in 114 U.S. cities during the Great Depression. Their findings confirm the impressions of many observers in the 1930s, mortality did not increase during the Great Depression:
They include a table that shows trends in death rates per 100,000 population. Starvation does not appear on the list, nor does it rate a mention in the article. The researchers do acknowledge that malnutrition led to decreased health during the Depression, but not to increased mortality. Malnutrition was a widespread problem, starvation was not.
A few comments about the table. First, death due to disease generally did not increase during the period, so the researchers are not misclassifying "death due to malnutrition" to "death due to disease." Second, note that in the table they even break out diseases like Smallpox, responsible for death rates under 1 in 100,000. This generally implies that starvation would have been responsible for deaths at an equivalent or lower rate.
This study confirms other studies that find, for example, that the infant mortality rate consistently declined across the 1930s:
The caveat is that this study is based on urban populations, and certain rural populations may have experienced more severe poverty. But the overall message is that deaths due to starvation would have been rare throughout this period. My admittedly very ballpark extrapolation from these data is that we might find a rate in the thousands per year before the New Deal agencies got up and running:
Importantly, this study shows that economic crisis does not guarantee a mortality crisis, but instead reinforces the notion that what crucially matters is how governments respond and whether protective social and public health policies are in place both during and in advance of economic shocks
Sources: David Stuckler, Christopher Meissner, Price Fishback, Sanjay Basu, Martin McKee. 2011. "Banking crises and mortality during the Great Depression: evidence from US urban populations, 1929-1937." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. (link)
Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles
Their horses splashed through iced-over creeks. Librarians rode up into the Kentucky mountains, their saddlebags stuffed with books, doling out reading material to isolated rural people. The Great Depression had plunged the nation into poverty, and Kentucky—a poor state made even poorer by a paralyzed national economy—was among the hardest hit.
The Pack Horse Library initiative, which sent librarians deep into Appalachia, was one of the New Deal’s most unique plans. The project, as implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), distributed reading material to the people who lived in the craggy, 10,000-square-mile portion of eastern Kentucky. The state already trailed its neighbors in electricity and highways. And during the Depression, food, education and economic opportunity were even scarcer for Appalachians.
They also lacked books: In 1930, up to 31 percent of people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read. Residents wanted to learn, notes historian Donald C. Boyd. Coal and railroads, poised to industrialize eastern Kentucky, loomed large in the minds of many Appalachians who were ready to take part in the hoped prosperity that would bring. "Workers viewed the sudden economic changes as a threat to their survival and literacy as a means of escape from a vicious economic trap," writes Boyd.
This presented a challenge: In 1935, Kentucky only circulated one book per capita compared to the American Library Association standard of five to ten, writes historian Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer,. It was "a distressing picture of library conditions and needs in Kentucky," wrote Lena Nofcier, who chaired library services for the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers at the time.
There had been previous attempts to get books into the remote region. In 1913, a Kentuckian named May Stafford solicited money to take books to rural people on horseback, but her project only lasted one year. Local Berea College sent a horse-drawn book wagon into the mountains in the late teens and early 1920s. But that program had long since ended by 1934, when the first WPA-sponsored packhorse library was formed in Leslie County.
Unlike many New Deal projects, the packhorse plan required help from locals. "Libraries" were housed any in facility that would step up, from churches to post offices. Librarians manned these outposts, giving books to carriers who then climbed aboard their mules or horses, panniers loaded with books, and headed into the hills. They took their job as seriously as mail carriers and crossed streams in wintry conditions, feet frozen in the stirrups.
Carriers rode out at least twice a month, with each route covering 100 to 120 miles a week. Nan Milan, who carried books in an eight-mile radius from the Pine Mountain Settlement School, a boarding school for mountain children, joked that the horses she rode had shorter legs on one side than the other so that they wouldn't slide off of the steep mountain paths. Riders used their own horses or mules-—the Pine Mountain group had a horse named Sunny Jim—or leased them from neighbors. They earned $28 a month—around $495 in modern dollars.
The books and magazines they carried usually came from outside donations. Nofcier requested them through the local parent-teacher association. She traveled around the state, asking people in more affluent and accessible regions to help their fellow Kentuckians in Appalachia. She asked for everything: books, magazines, Sunday school materials, textbooks. Once the precious books were in a library’s collection, librarians did everything they could to preserve them. They repaired books, repurposing old Christmas cards as bookmarks so people would be less likely to dog-ear pages.
Soon, word of the campaign spread, and books came from half of the states in the country. A Kentuckian who had moved to California sent 500 books as a memorial to his mother. One Pittsburgh benefactor collected reading material and told a reporter stories she'd heard from packhorse librarians. "Let the book lady leave us something to read on Sundays and at night when we get through hoeing the corn," one child asked, she said. Others sacrificed to help the project, saving pennies for a drive to replenish book stocks and buy four miniature hand-cranked movie machines.
When materials became too worn to circulate, librarians made them into new books. They pasted stories and pictures from the worn books into binders, turning them into new reading material. Recipes, also pasted into binders and circulated throughout the mountains, proved so popular that Kentuckians started scrapbooks of quilt patterns, too.
In 1936, packhorse librarians served 50,000 families, and, by 1937, 155 public schools. Children loved the program many mountain schools didn't have libraries, and since they were so far from public libraries, most students had never checked out a book. "'Bring me a book to read,' is the cry of every child as he runs to meet the librarian with whom he has become acquainted," wrote one Pack Horse Library supervisor. "Not a certain book, but any kind of book. The child has read none of them."
"The mountain people loved Mark Twain," says Kathi Appelt, who co-wrote a middle-grade book about the librarians with Schmitzer, in a 2002 radio interview. "One of the most popular books…was Robinson Crusoe.” Since so many adults could not read, she noted, illustrated books were among the most beloved. Illiterate adults relied on their literate children to help decipher them.
Ethel Perryman supervised women's and professional projects at London, Kentucky during the WPA years. "Some of the folks who want books live back in the mountains, and they use the creek beds for travel as there are no roads to their places, " she wrote to the president of Kentucky's PTA. “They carry books to isolated rural schools and community centers, picking up and replenishing book stocks as they go so that the entire number of books circulate through the county "
The system had some challenges, Schmitzer writes: Roads could be impassable, and one librarian had to hike her 18-mile route when her mule died. Some mountain families initially resisted the librarians, suspicious of outsiders riding in with unknown materials. In a bid to earn their trust, carriers would read Bible passages aloud. Many had only heard them through oral tradition, and the idea that the packhorse librarians could offer access to the Bible cast a positive light on their other materials. (Boyd’s research is also integral to understanding these challenges)
"Down Hell-for-Sartin Creek they start to deliver readin' books to fifty-seven communities," read one 1935 newspaper caption underneath a picture of riders. "The intelligence of the Kentucky mountaineer is keen," wrote a contemporary reporter. "All that has ever been said about him to the contrary notwithstanding, he is honest, truthful, and God-fearing, but bred to peculiar beliefs which are the basis of one of the most fascinating chapters in American Folklore. He grasped and clung to the Pack Horse Library idea with all the tenacity of one starved for learning."
The Pack Horse Library ended in 1943 after Franklin Roosevelt ordered the end of the WPA. The new war effort was putting people back to work, so WPA projects—including the Pack Horse Library—tapered off. That marked the end of horse-delivered books in Kentucky, but by 1946, motorized bookmobiles were on the move. Once again, books rode into the mountains, and, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Kentucky’s public libraries had 75 bookmobiles in 2014—the largest number in the nation.
About Eliza McGraw
Eliza McGraw is the author of Here Comes Exterminator! which is about the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner. She lives in Washington.
This Is What It Was Like To Grow Up During The Great Depression
The Great Depression was the “deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in the history of the Western industrialized world.” Today, the devastation of the Depression feels safely cushioned by history and the New Deal acronyms I could never remember in social studies. But in this moment of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, a moment which will certainly be copied down in history books, it bears remembering that history is made up of stories—our own stories. My grandmother grew up the youngest of seven first-generation children in Chicago during the Great Depression. Her father and older siblings waited in lines every day for temp work that would earn mere cents. Finding enough food was a daily challenge.
In 2009, the Ohio Department of Aging solicited stories from those who had lived through the Great Depression. Coming off of the 2008 financial crisis it seemed, I think, a last chance to learn something from the generation who lived through the Great Depression as they reached their 80s and 90s. The stories are highly varied some tell of parents struggling to feed their children some of difficulty in finding secure employment some of insufficient supplies for school. For many, that was the reality. It is the narrative of the Depression we are most familiar with, but of course, there are many.
Berkley Bedell was born in 1921 in Northwest Iowa. The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939—Bedell was 8 to 18 years old throughout its duration. He is a six-term congressman, the first-ever National Small Business Person of the Year award recipient, and a published author. I am lucky that he also happens to be a friend of my grandfather’s. When I spoke to Bedell over the phone, I’d already had a chance to look through his book, Revenue Matters: Tax the Rich and Restore Democracy to Save the Nation in which shares his politics and gives some of his background, including the fact that he started his award-winning business during the Great Depression.
In 1936, when Bedell was 15, still in high school and three years away from the end of the Depression, he started his fishing business, Berkley and Company, with $50 he had saved from a paper route. He spent roughly half on supplies to make fishing flies and fishing leaders and the other half on an advertisement. By the time he graduated high school in 1939, he had three women working for him for 15 cents an hour each. He promoted his business by traveling the Midwest taking orders. As he recounts in Revenue Matters, “I traveled over 3,000 miles and spent less than $50 for the entire trip—for 20-cents-per-gallon gasoline, 5-cent milk, and 5-cent bread.” The same business that Bedell started with $50 during the Depression would go on to win him the first ever National Small Businessman of the Year award from President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and it is today a prominent fishing supply company.
I asked him whether he thought, in hindsight, that the Depression affected his business, and he told me that because he had such a small part of the total industry at the time, he was lucky to be unaffected. Instead, those that had to pay employee salaries and pay for their storefronts were more severely impacted. At the time, he didn’t realize what a tremendous opportunity he had. While his competitors struggled in tough economic times, Bedell had no overhead costs—he operated out of his parents’ house and the 15 cents per hour he paid his employees was not regulated by a minimum wage. The women working for him were just glad to have the money.
Bedell grew up in a rural community 500 miles away from Chicago (where my grandma’s family was struggling to survive) and 1,300 miles away from Wall Street where the stock market crash spelled nationwide economic decline. “In rural communities, people did not go hungry, did not lack shelter,” he said. He knows that times were hard, that people were poor, but he told me how much less people needed at the time. In Revenue Matters he says, “Most everyone was relatively poor by today’s standards, but we worked together with what we had and life was good.”
Bedell explained how, without television, kids made their own fun and played outside. People lived a more active lifestyle. “Humanity has made great advances in science, technology. Life is much easier, but I’m not sure it’s better.” He noted that his experience was atypical in many ways. He started what would become a very successful business. His father was an attorney and made more money than most. Given Bedell’s relative wealth during the Depression, it would be tempting to think that he was an outlier in his belief that life was better in the early 20 th century, but responses from the Ohio Department of Aging’s survey show that many who lived during the Great Depression agree with his assessment. In the same paragraph that respondents detailed their hardships, they lamented that modernity—internet, TV, exorbitant wealth—has come at the cost of self-sufficiency, generosity, and simplicity.
Bedell acknowledges the possibility that he’s being nostalgic, but he’s quick to point out the problems we face today that weren’t a concern during his childhood: climate change, the threat of nuclear war, the breakdown of political parties. When I asked how the economy eventually turned around, he told me that when the government intervened to create jobs, the economy started to recover. He credited the programs Franklin D. Roosevelt created to provide jobs (collectively what would become The New Deal), but said that the economy did not fully recover until after World War II, when the war effort stimulated the economy. He believes that government intervention is again key to our economic future. He believes in redistributing wealth and power by taxing the wealthy and eliminating corporate America’s political sway—lessons he’s learned since he was 15, starting his own business and watching as the country emerged from the Great Depression.
When I initially told Bedell that I wanted to share a firsthand account of what it was like to live through the Great Depression, he asked if he could give me some advice, as a writer and as someone “who’s lived in the world longer than most.” In so many words, he suggested that I not rely on a narrative I was expecting to hear. “From what I’ve seen,” he told me, “it’s worse today.”
In the current political climate, it’s easy to be nostalgic for a simpler time—I wish that the election of a new candidate did not bring up worries for the planet’s safety, for people of color’s safety, for the safety of programs and organizations that so many rely on.
That said, at the start of the Great Depression, women had only earned the right to vote nine years earlier schools wouldn’t be legally desegregated for another 25 years and the polio vaccine was still 26 years from approved use. It was a time when you could start a business with $50 in your pocket, before getting your college degree, but also an era fraught with financial hardship that left many Americans starving and without work. There are lessons to be learned from the Great Depression—nearly 80 years later, Bedell still believes strongly in equal distribution of wealth. And given the events of the last few weeks, I am hopeful that we can learn lessons from the past without forfeiting the progress we’ve made, without forgetting that we still have so much work left to do.
Survivors Of The Great Depression Tell Their Stories
Dusko Condic grew up in Bridgeport, on Chicago's south side, in a family of eight children. His mother was a widow. He says growing up in poverty during the Great Depression made him a stronger person. Neenah Ellis for NPR hide caption
Dusko Condic grew up in Bridgeport, on Chicago's south side, in a family of eight children. His mother was a widow. He says growing up in poverty during the Great Depression made him a stronger person.
Les Orear, president emeritus of the Illinois Labor History Society, gives a tour of the society's downtown museum. He is 97. Neenah Ellis for NPR hide caption
Les Orear, president emeritus of the Illinois Labor History Society, gives a tour of the society's downtown museum. He is 97.
Giggi Cortese, 81, has lived in Bridgeport all her life. Growing up during the Great Depression was hard, she says, but she drew strength from her family, friends and St. Jerome Catholic Church. Neenah Ellis for NPR hide caption
Giggi Cortese, 81, has lived in Bridgeport all her life. Growing up during the Great Depression was hard, she says, but she drew strength from her family, friends and St. Jerome Catholic Church.
The Great Depression of the 1930s is on peoples' minds these days. If you have family members who lived through it, you may hear their stories at the dinner table this Thanksgiving.
It was a period of protests and hunger marches — and unionism spread like wildfire — but many people suffered quietly, ashamed of their poverty. No matter what their situation, the Great Depression changed those in the generation that survived it.
During those years, Chicago was especially hard-hit. Unemployment was as high as 40 percent in some neighborhoods. The city was more segregated than it is now.
Wanda Bridgeforth, who is from the Bronzeville area known as the "Black Metropolis," says she has rich memories of those years. It was a fairly affluent neighborhood — jazz great Louis Armstrong lived there, and so did Ida B. Wells — until hard times came.
"In the Depression, the men could not get jobs, and especially the black men," Bridgeforth says. "Here was my father with a degree in chemistry, and he could not get a job."
Bridgeforth's father was humiliated, she says. He fell apart, so her mother took what work she could find as a live-in domestic worker. Bridgeforth, who was in grade school, was boarded out.
"She told me that this is the way it has to be," Bridgeforth says. "So we either do it and survive, or don't do it and don't survive."
Bridgeforth was sent to live with relatives and sometimes with strangers.
"One house we lived in — there were 19 of us in a six-room house," she says.
Bridgeforth did learn to share and cooperate, she says, but so many years going without left a mark on her.
"The kids do say that I'm a pack rat," she says. "And they say, 'Well, what are you going to use this for?' and I say, 'I don't know, but I'm going to use it.' "
Surviving Winters Near Lake Michigan
In Chicago's oldest Mexican neighborhood, near Lake Michigan in South Chicago, Henry Martinez says the winters were so cold, they huddled around the potbelly stove.
Martinez's parents had 13 children, and they lived hand-to-mouth in a flat with shared bathrooms.
"You wanted to take a bath, you heat up the water in these big cans," Martinez says. "It was always a challenge to keep warm — we hugged each other on the floor. We had little beds that open and close. When I think about it, it was horrible. It was horrible. And then the sanitation of the community — garbage was just put in the alley — and did that create a condition? Yes it did: TB [tuberculosis]. I know my sister came down with TB. Sometimes I like to block that out and just say, 'Thanks God you're here.' "
He thanks God but says the Catholic Church didn't do much to help his family back then. At 76, Martinez works as a community organizer trying to help his old neighborhood, which is still poor.
Downtown Chicago Before The Unions
In a downtown Chicago office, right next to the El tracks, Les Orear remembers an easier childhood. Orear, 97, is now president emeritus of the Illinois Labor History Society.
But in the 1920s, Orear's father was a newspaperman, and Orear was in college when the stock market crashed.
"Pretty soon I got a call that I'd have to come back to Chicago and help support my family," Orear says. "Hm!"
He got a job at the stockyards making 37.5 cents a day. Chicago was a hotbed of union organizing in the 1930s, and Orear dedicated himself to bringing in the union. He says it made him feel useful.
"It was a wonderful time for me because here I was this young fella, and radical ideas are coming nowadays, I feel like I'm in the cusp," Orear says. "I'm one of those that is giving leadership to the working force that's going into the union. . And it's going on all over the country. I'm not a lone warrior. I'm part of a vast machine."
But Orear has no memories of Thanksgiving or Christmas "whatsoever," he says.
"All of those holidays were so incidental," Orear says. "We in the yards did not have Christmas. We had Christmas off, but it was a day with no pay."
It was the same for Thanksgiving, and Orear says there were no vacations or benefits.
"It's hard now for young people — for anybody — to remember, that's the way the world worked in those days, before unions. That is the difference, kiddos."
Born To Immigrants In Bridgeport
Bridgeport, south of the Loop, is home to the White Sox. Church steeples sprout from this working class neighborhood of the Irish, Italians, Polish, Lithuanians, Chinese and Croatians of St. Jerome's Parish.
Many of them were born during the '20s to immigrant parents.
Giggi Besic Cortese, 81, has lived in the neighborhood all her life. She lives on a block full of two-story brick and frame houses with narrow sidewalks between them. She said boarders stayed upstairs, including a man named John Vuk who took her to the show every Sunday.
"Do you known how I survived those days?" Cortese asks. "[It] was going to the show every Sunday to see Shirley Temple, but [I] tell you, she was my inspiration to go on living. Honest to goodness, I couldn't wait till Sunday, and we would sit and wait for John Vuk to say, 'Come, ve go to the show, ve go to the show today.' You can certainly say that people had heart for one another — and if they were able to help, more often than not they did."
Dusko Condic, 77, who is also from the Bridgeport neighborhood, says his father died "a relatively young man," in his early 40s.
"He left eight of us," Condic says. "Unfortunately, we lost the house. I can remember to this day — and I become emotional when I think of it — literally being placed on the sidewalk [with] every last possession that my poor mother had because she wasn't able to supposedly pay the mortgage. And an incredible number of people came to my mothers' aid, literally wheeling wheelbarrows of coal to help warm the house."
Condic and his friends have a lot of good memories, too. They were children glued to the radio every Sunday.
"There's nothing they like better than gathering around the table and telling stories from the old days," Condic says. "Today, on Thanksgiving, their children and grandchildren might ask about the Great Depression they say, but they're pretty sure the kids don't really understand."
"My brother Mark has 10 kids, and somewhere along the line they tend to disregard the value of money," Condic says. " 'Oh, Dad, it's only money. So what, I can make more.' And on more than one occasion, he tells them, 'Hey kids, God heaven forbid if the Depression comes around again. I won't be opening up the window and jumping out, but I can see you guys doing it.' I think that's probably true."
There's grit in this generation of Chicagoans — and something of a swagger, too. The man who cries about his mother's struggles can boast in the face of today's catastrophe.
Says Condic: "Tomorrow I could lose everything, but somehow I'm not afraid. I really am not."
Daily life during the Great Depression
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Since the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, there have been a lot of news stories about how awful everything is. Never mind that most Americans enjoy the best standard of living of any culture in history, people still find things to complain about. Perhaps this is because people lack perspective. They don't realize what life was like in the past or what real hardship is.
The always-excellent Reading Through History channel on YouTube has a seven-minute video that takes us on a tour of what like was like for the typical American family during the Great Depression.
During the Great Depression, nearly one quarter of all Americans were unemployed. Even those who could find jobs struggled to get by. Wages were reduced by as much as 60% — but people were happy to have any sort of income.
The average take-home pay was about $17 per week (or around $900 per year), but many people made less. Prices were lower too, of course: a man's shirt cost about $1, a washing machine cost about $33 (or two weeks of take-home pay). During these lean times, families had to come up with creative ways to economize.
- To cut costs, it was common for extended families to live together. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents would crowed together. In some cases, different families would come together to share one household in order to save money.
- Because many families struggled to get by, certain common luxuries feel by the wayside. Many people stopped going to the barber, for instance, and started cutting hair at home. (When my family was struggling during the 1970s, we did this too.) Families also stopped going to the dentist and doctor.
- The reuse and recycling of clothing became common practice. Instead of throwing away a worn-out pair of shoes, people learned to patch them. Clothes were handed down from child to child (and person to person).
- For families that could afford it, Saturday evening was often spent shopping. People would browse the various shops downtown. Even if folks didn't have much money, they could still “window shop” and look at products they could dream of owning.
Radio was the most prevalent form of entertainment during the Great Depression. Radio had risen to prominence in the 1920s and became ubiquitous by the end of the 1930s. (Old-time radio is one of my favorite subjects. The first licensed commercial radio station in the U.S. started broadcasting in Pittsburgh on 02 November 1920. In the early years, radio broadcasts were free-wheeling and largely unsponsored. But by the 1930s, the format we're now familiar with from television was starting to settle into place.)
Board games were another popular pastime. Sorry and Monopoly were both released during the 1930s and became huge hits. (True story: When I was growing up during the 1970s, my parents elected not to have a TV. Most of my extended family didn't have television either. As a result, much of my childhood was spent listening to radio and playing boardgames with brothers, cousins, and friends — just as children in the 1930s might have done.)
I'm not saying that there aren't people who have it rough in modern America — there are always people who struggle! — but I think it's important to have some perspective before grousing about how awful the world is today.
The Great Depression People
Roosevelt held the presidency from 1934 to 1945, leading the United States through the Great Depression and World War II. His legislative program, the New Deal, greatly expanded the role of the federal government in American society.
At times, Roosevelt's New Deal incorporated watered-down elements of more radical political ideas that became popular during the Great Depression. Social Security was a less ambitious version of the Townsend Plan, while the largely symbolic 1935 "Wealth Tax" was clearly designed to co-opt supporters of Huey Long's Share the Wealth program.
Father Charles Coughlin (1891&ndash1979) was a Roman Catholic priest who became a national celebrity during the 1930s by hosting a popular radio broadcast.
By the middle of the 1930s, Coughlin attracted between 30 and 45 million listeners a week, making him one of America's most influential opinion-makers.
Coughlin started as a zealous supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, going so far as to call the New Deal, "Christ's Deal." Later, however, Coughlin became disenchanted with Roosevelt's leadership and began to espouse extreme right-wing views. By the late 1930s, he'd become an outright fascist sympathizer.
Huey P. Long
Huey P. Long (1893&ndash1935) was a charismatic Louisiana politician who served as both governor and U.S. senator in the early 1930s.
A popular&mdashif also, in the eyes of his critics at least, corrupt and demagogic&mdashpolitician, Long's career was cut short when he was assassinated inside the Louisiana statehouse in 1935. Long was also the inspiration for Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer prize-winning novel All the King's Men, published in 1946.
Long rose to national prominence during the Great Depression by becoming the country's most impassioned advocate of redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. More than 7 million Americans joined Long's Share Our Wealth clubs.
Fritz Kuhn (1896&ndash1951), a German-born immigrant to the United States, was the head of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund in the late 1930s.
The country's leading Nazi sympathizer, Kuhn called himself "America's Führer."
Under Kuhn's leadership, the German-American Bund sought to bring Nazi-style fascism to America. While Hitler certainly had his admirers in American society during the 1930s, the Bund was never successful at attracting support beyond the German ethnic community. In particular, Kuhn's virulent anti-Semitism may have been off-putting to potential American supporters.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884&ndash1962) was the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a world-renowned advocate of liberal causes in her own right. She became an early hero of the Civil Rights Movement, and was a lifelong advocate for the United Nations.
During her husband's presidency, Eleanor Roosevelt broke new ground for a First Lady by holding her own press conferences, traveling independently to all parts of the country, writing a syndicated newspaper column, and broadcasting radio addreses.
In so doing, she became something of a political leader in her own right, often staking out positions somewhat more liberal than those of her husband. After Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945, Eleanor continued to speak out as an influential spokesperson for liberal ideals until her own death in 1962.
Lorena Hickok (1893&ndash1968) was one of America's most prominent female journalists during the 1930s.
The only woman assigned to cover the Roosevelt campaign in 1932, Hickok struck up a very close relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, becoming the First Lady's most intimate friend and&mdashsome scholars believe&mdashperhaps her lesbian lover.
During Franklin Roosevelt's first term, Hickok left her journalism career to work as the administration's eyes on the ground, chronicling the conditions of everyday life in Depression-struck America. Traveling all across the country, she filed a series of reports sent to federal relief administrator Harry Hopkins, providing vivid descriptions of the miseries endured by the American people during the Great Depression.
Upton Sinclair (1878&ndash1968) was an author and socialist political activist. His best known work is The Jungle, a 1906 muckraking assault on the unsanitary and inhumane conditions in the meatpacking industry.
In 1934, Sinclair ran for governor of California on a utopian platform called End Poverty in California (EPIC), which called for unemployed citizens to work in state-sponsored collective factories and farms to produce goods for their own use.
Surprisingly, Sinclair won the Democratic primary on this radical platform before losing the general election to Republican Frank Merriam.
Dr. Francis Townsend (1867&ndash1960) was an American physician who devised the Townsend Plan, a popular proposal for state-funded old-age pensions.
The plan promised to end the Great Depression by opening up jobs for younger workers, while forcing seniors to spend more money in the consumer economy.
In the mid-1930s, Townsend rose from complete obscurity to become the leader of a political movement that claimed the support of more than 25 million Americans. The Roosevelt administration eventually adopted a more austere version of the Townsend Plan when it created the Social Security program.