Digital History
Digital History ID 3826

The Great Depression and the New Deal

Interpreting Primary Sources

I want to tell you about an experience we had in Philadelphia when our private funds were exhausted and before public funds become available....

One woman said she borrowed 50 cents from a friend and bought stale bread for 3 and a half cents per loaf, and that is all they had for eleven days except for one or two meals....One woman went along the docks and picked up vegetables that fell from the wagons. Sometimes the fish vendors gave her fish at the end of the day. On two different occasions this family was without food for a day and a half....Another family did not have food for two days. Then the husband went out and gathered dandelions and the family lived on them.

Senate Committee on Manufactures, 1932

  25 year old waitress 43 year old housewife 54 year old molder
Chief need Money Money Money
Meaning of money Joys the rich have Chance to educate children No more relief orders
Chief fear Loss of job Poverty Things will never get better
Does government owe you a living? No No Thinks U.S. owes all a job
Who is responsible for Depression? The bankers and building and loan men Drift away from church Capitalism's greed
Would you farm if you had land? Yes, if I knew how No No
Has religion helped you? When things were worst Almost by itself No
Do you want government to plan the future? Thinks government can plan without restricting Will abide by the plan that offers a better day Wants help not advice

Columbus, Ohio, Citizen, 1934

The proposals of our opponents will endanger or destroy our system....I especially emphasize that promise to promote "employment for all surplus labor at all times." At first I could not believe that anyone would be so cruel as to hold out a hope so absolutely impossible of realization to these 10,000,000 who are unemployed....If it were possible to give this employment to 10,000,000 people by the government, it would cost upwards of $9,000,000,000 a year....It would pull down the employment of those who are still at work by the high taxes and the demoralization of credit upon which their employment is dependent....It would mean the growth of a fearful bureaucracy which, once established, could never be dislodged.

Herbert Hoover, 1932

We have two problems: first, to meet the immediate distress; second, to build up on a basis of permanent employment. As to "immediate relief," the first principle is that this nation...owes a positive duty that no citizen shall be permitted to starve....In addition to providing emergency relief, the Federal Government should and must provide temporary work wherever that is possible. You and I know that in the national forests, on flood prevention, and on the development of waterway projects....tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of our unemployed citizens can be given at least temporary employment....Finally...we call for a coordinated system of employment exchanges, the advance planning of public works, and unemployment reserves.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932

It is impossible for the United States to preserve itself as a republic or as a democracy when 600 families own more of this nation's wealth--in fact, twice as much--as all the balance of the people put together....Here is the whole sum and substance of the share-our-wealth movement:

1. Every family to be furnished by the government a homestead allowance, free of debt, of not less than one-third the average family wealth of the country....No person to have a fortune of more than l00 to 300 times the average family fortune....

2. The yearly income of every family shall be not less than one-third of the average family income....No yearly income shall be allowed to any person larger than from l00 to 300 times the size of the average family income....

3. To limit or regulate the hours of work to such an extent as to prevent overproduction....

4. An old-age pension to the persons of 60....

7. Education and training for all children to be equal in opportunity in all schools, colleges, universities, and other institutions for training in the professions and vocations of life; to be regulated on the capacity of children to learn, and not on the ability of parents to pay the costs.

Huey Long

Questions To Think About

1. What caused the Great Depression? Was it an historical aberration or was it a predictable outcome of the kind of economic system that existed in the United States until the l930s?

2. Describe the human toll of the Great Depression.

3. What did people think caused of the Depression?

4. Why did President Hoover resist taking radical steps to solve the Depression?

5. What solutions did Franklin Roosevelt and Huey Long offer to the Depression?

6. How effective were New Deal economic policies in solving the problems of the Depression?

The American Economy During the 1920s

Interpreting Statistics

Cars on the Road

  passenger and commercial vehicles
registered in US
passenger and commercial vehicles
produced in US
1900 8,000 4,000
1905 79,000 25,000
1910 469,000 187,000
1915 2,491,000 970,000
1920 9,239,000 2,227,000
1922 12,274,000 2,544,000
1923 15,102,000 4,034,000
1924 17,613,000 3,603,000
1925 20,069,000 4,266,000
1926 22,200,000 4,301,000
1927 23,303,000 3,402,000
1928 24,689,000 4,358,000
1929 26,705,000 5,337,000
1930 26,750,000 3,362,000
1931 26,094,000 2,380,000
1932 24,391,000 1,332,000
1933 24,159,000 1,890,000
1934 25,262,000 2,736,000
1935 26,546,000 3,971,000
1936 28,507,000 4,461,000
1937 30,059,000 4,820,000
1938 29,814,000 2,509,000
1939 31,010,000 3,589,000
1940 4,472,000

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Source: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1975.
Statistical Abstracts, 1901 - 1950, U.S. Census Bureau

For more information, see:

Number of Radios
  Households with Radio Sets Percentage of All Households Radio Sets Produced Average Receiver Cost Radio Stations (AM) Population of the US
1920           106.5 million
1921         1 108.5 million
1922 60,000 0.2% 100,000 $50 30 110.0 million
1925 2,750,000 10.1% 2,000,000 $83 571 115.8 million
1930 13,750,000 45.8% 3,789,000 $78 618 123.2 million
1935 21,246,000 67.3% 6,030,000 $55 623 127.4 million
1940 28,500,000 81.1% 11,831,000 $38 847 132.1 million


Sales of Radios
1922 $60 million 
1923 $136 million
1924 $358 million
1925 $430 million
1926 $506 million
1927 $427 million

$651 million

1929 $843 million

Source: Douglas, George H. The early years of radio broadcasting. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1987.

For more information about radio in the 1920s, see:

Wage Levels and the Price of a Ford Model T
  Average Earnings  Price of a Model T 
1912 $592 $600
1914 $627 $490
1916 $708 $360
1924 $1,303 $290

For more information about Model T prices, see:

Stock Prices
  Sep. 3, 1929  Nov. 13, 1929  1932 Low 
American Telephone  304 197 1/4 70 1/4
General Electric 396 1/4 168 1/2 34
General Motors  72 3/4 36 7 5/8
New York Central 256 3/8 160 8 3/4
Radio 101 26 2 1/2
U.S. Steel  261 150 21 1/4

Index of Stock Prices
1926 176
1927 245
1928 331
1929   210
1932 30

Share of Disposable Income Going to the Richest 5 %
1920 24 %
1921 29 %
1922 29 %
1923 27 %
1924 29 %
1925 31 %
1926 31 %
1927 32

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