Boom to Bust A photographic story of the tragic downfall of the 1920's economy

A Visual Essay: Compiled by Joelle Nutter

Includes snapshots of the struggles of many groups in the transition from prosperity to struggle.

Home Life: from fortune to forfeit

Pictures hooverville with shelters made of found scraps.

Hoovervilles truly defined home life of the Great depression. Many lower middle class people were swept from their stability by the failing economy, and all demographics could be found in a Hooverville, or shantytown, to which they were sometimes referred. Those who were barely scraping by before the 30's were not able to keep their homes. Instead they lived in groups on the outskirts of cities. These homeless villages took their name at a time when President Herbert Hoover was despised, and many did all they could to rake his name through the mud. The shelters of a Hooverville were made of found scraps such as cardboard, wood, newspapers, glass, and other types of trash.

Home life of the young white man

Top row: CCC workers work and relax in sleeping barracks. Second and third row: men board and relax on trains, "riding the rails."

Despite the attention and attempt at relief, many young men had difficulty finding work. Some turned to living in homelessness in groups "riding the rails." These men traveled illegally across the country as stowaways on trains. they frequently faced harsh violence from police officers, some thrown off moving locomotives. Despite hard times, some tell stories of generosity from town to town . Jim Sheridan spoke in an interview with Studs Terkel, "Go to different grocers and give a tale of woe. They would give is sausage or bread or meat or canned goods. Then we'd go back to the railroad yard, the jungle, where we'd build a little fire and cook it up in the cans...There was more camaraderie than there is now." FDR saw these struggling men and thought how their illegal activity could wreck havoc on communities and business, especially the railroads. He then established new deal programs of work camps, like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It gave jobs to single young men doing physical work like filling sandbags and other disaster preparation. It provided money for the men working, but most of their paycheck was sent back to their families. Although the CCC work camps may not have been as adventurous as riding the rails, they were able to make an income, and offered shelter in barrack type housing.

Diverse needy turned away from releif

Pictured her are strictly white men receiving relief from private charity. This was the only income of meals for some, so turning away women and african americans was truly cruel.

During the period of the downward spiral when Hoover was president, many families relied on soup kitchens and privately run charities for their next meal. By this point, almost no economic relief was coming from the government. This lack of regulation brought extra struggle to certain demographics. African Americans were regularly turned away from soup kitchens, as were women. White males were prioritized, and anyone else in need were ridiculed for selfishness and taking away from the hard working or struggling men.

Home Life For Women Brings struggle and toil.

Abandonment rates increased in this decade: a wealthy couple juxtaposed to a struggling single mother. Women's list of chores increased to "make-do." Many began to sew their own clothes. In the 20's the majority of americans purchased the new innovation of the washer machine, but by the 30's many sold their innovation to be able to keep their homes. This meant returning to hand washing garments.

Home life for women brought sure difficulty and increased toil. Prior to the '30's, many young women argued with their parents over their choice of provocative clothing and flapper like behavior. Additionally, curfews were a main source of disagreements between 43% of daughters and parents in the Twenties. During the depression however, families need not worry about daughters returning late into the night. In order to decrease spending, families called for their women to take up the burden of private budgets. Most working and middle class families took a pay cut in the depression, but they were able to keep their houses. Girls would no longer fight about curfews, because there were just enough hours in a day to tend to the home. Chores took over life,especially washing, as many people had to sell their washing machines and other innovations in order to keep their homes. The number of chores increased for spending reasons, in order to "make do." The women of a family were placed with the burden of baking homemade bread, stretching meals, being creative with cheaper ingredients, and sewing clothes at home.

Home Life For African Americans follow trends.

African americans pictured packing a car to move from south, likely to a northern city. Some captured walking a busy street of an african american ghetto, likely Harlem, NY.

African american home life seemed to remain constant throughout the era. Black ghettos in cities continued to grow, although land growth plateaued. The growth of Harlem, the New York African American Ghetto, likely jump started the social movement of the Harlem renaissance. However, this density and closeness likely increased racial tensions within cities. A surprising change in home life, was that as the prices for cotton dropped with disappearing European markets, sharecroppers were kicked off of land. A combination of that and searching for better opportunities likely caused so many to migrate to northern cities.

20's bring a clash between city and rural values

Evolution versus religion is shown in a newspaper article on the verdict of William jennings bryan as well as a couple dating and engaging in PDA, compared to a lady dressed conservatively, ready for courtship.

The 1920's brought with it tension between cities and rural areas. Just recently, the amount of people living in cities had grown to just over half of the country's population. This tension stemmed from the clash of the values of modernism and traditionalism. Traditionalists believed in conservative dress. Women were not to show too much skin. They also valued religion, supported prohibition and detested youth fads. Modernists, on the other hand embraced the newly accepted culture. Modernists dated, cut their hair short, and drank illegally in speakeasies. The clash was not just between areas of the nation, but inside homes and families. There was much tension between the youth and conservative adults. The latter were angered at youth fads such as flagpole sitting. Teen culture surrounded clubs, sports, music, movies, and whatever was popular. In order to protect their children from these ways, traditionalist families campaigned for censorship in libraries and movies. The pulled immoral books off of shelves, and promulgated movie producers a code that banned long kisses and positive portrayals of casual sex. Overall, traditionalist and modernist values caused friction on the 1920's. The emotion of the decade is best described in an Edna ST. Vincent Millay in her poem: "My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; but ah my foes, and oh my friends- it gives a lovely light."


flappers dance in the 1920's

Wets v Drys

Supporters of prohibition pour out alcoholic beverages (left). Those who wanted to drink, did, in illegal bars known as speakeasy (right).

The Twenties brought with it the debate of the legality of alcohol. Drys pointed out that alcohol consumption was taking up a large portion of poor families' paychecks, and making it illegal would deny access for those men, most of which would grow violent and abuse their wives from drunkenness. Drys thought that banning alcohol would strengthen the morality of another demographic. Opponents argued that the amendment is unconstitutional for the same reason. They say that the government has no right to legislate morality. Additionally, deeply religious people such as Massachusetts Senator David Walsh believed that the law was immoral in the first place. He disagrees with the christian argument for prohibition, because Jesus's first miracle was to turn water into wine. Either way, those who wanted to drink in the 20's did anyway. Bootleggers brought alcohol to speakeasies, where it was open to the public.

Young women lack time and money for fashion and leisure.

Two flapper women smoke, a ragged woman cares for three children, and a teen aged girl takes part in chores, namely cooking.

Where once females were able to spend time and money on the hobbies of fashion and social rebellion, they are now burdened with much responsibility of chores and finding creative ways to keep spending low. There is little acceptance of rebellion when most women aren't able to participate. Flapper fashion was provocative for its time, and was not functional for women's new role of home budget maker. There was little time to smoke and party when so much had to be done.

Radio dominates in all demographics

A family and couple tunes into listen to radio (left) Performers broadcast a show through radio (right).

Radio remained the dominant form of entertainment and leisure. It was popular among women and men, and people of all races. This was likely because of free listening.

Struggles of the Great Depression focused attention on poor white people, and off of rich African Americans.

Langston hughes (left) types up a poem on a typewriter. A famous painting of the Harlem Renaissance depicts the roar of the decade (center). Louis Armstrong lays a jazz piece on his trumpet (right)

The 1920's had dawned an age of the "New Negro," but the depression distracted from their success. Jazz artists continued to do well, as they performed on radios where listening was widespread, due to it being free. Americans continued their consumption of music, turning to jazz ad dance as comfort in dark times. Great literary works like those of Langston Hughes (left) were recognized, but not the center of culture in new York any longer. There was no reason to envy African american culture, because they had that the depression the hardest, and many lost all wealth to the crash.

Economy by the numbers

A chart representing the stock market boom and sudden crash.

Roaring twenties boom

Here, men work hard putting together parts on an assembly line.

The 1920's economy revolved around the ideal of the decade, consumerism. Consumerism is when people associate happiness with consumption or purchasing. The more wealth you have, the more money you spend, and the happier you are. These values were a result of a post WWI society. The manufacturing industry had to transition from producing war goods to producing consumer goods. An upward spiral resulted, as more people purchased goods, companies gained more money. They were then able to pay their workers higher wages, and hire more people. Therefore, more of the population was able to buy more goods and the economy continues to grow. The problem was, that in order to support their high consumption, many families bought on credit. A "buy now pay later" system was implemented in most stores. The problems in the economy came when the stock market crashed, as people found out how many stocks were likely overvalued, and many sold all at once. More people had less money, and less trust in the economy. They stopped buying as many goods, and as a result, production slowed and more people were laid off, etc. The stock market crash of 1920 may not have caused the great depression, but it was an accurate display of the state to the nation, and it sparked a panic that started a downward spiral.

Great Depression bust

A struggling family poses for a photograph.

The Great Depression worsened as time went on. Unemployment rates began to climb as more and more companies went out of business. By 1933, a year considered the peak of the depression, the unemployment rate was 25%. In other words, 16 million workers were now out of a job and an income. The rates are even worse for African Americans. Unemployment was about 2 to 3 times higher for african americans, at around 60%. They were not always only laid off, but sometimes fired for their positions to be immediately replaced by white workers. Even those lucky enough to keep their jobs, likely took a paycut to do so. The downward spiral of the economy seemed it would continue on forever, until FDR's "New Deal" campaign sparked hope into american citizens.

Agricultural struggle: out of the frying pan and into the fire

Two farm homes were destroyed from large dust storm (top). A family and pet pose outside of an okieville shelter (bottom).

The 1920's were not a particularly easy time for farmers. The era following WWI brought hard times. Because of the supply of food needed for soldiers, as well as new foreign markets ue to destroyed european farmland, many families purchased new land to plant more crops. As the war ended and europe was in the process of reconstruction, farmers continued to produce at a rapid rate. They created a surplus which drove the price of produce down dramatically. Farmers did not make as much income, and many were foreclosed upon. Additionally, they did not rotate their crops, and planted varieties of plants that required much water in areas that received little rain. These factors were to blame for the dust bowl of the 30's. Drought dried up loose topsoil, which was then was blown away by huge gusts of wind. It contaminated the air, blanketed crops and destroyed new technologies. Even more people lost their farms to the dust bowl. After struggling for so long, many families decided that what was best for their family was to escape from the infertile land of the dust bowl and migrate to California. But there, perhaps, they struggled even more. Because so many were relocating to california, migrant farmers had much trouble finding work. A new kind of hooverville of dust bowl refugees formed called Okievilles. The residents were ridiculed and regularly discriminated against. The struggle of the "okies" were best explained in the song lyrics of Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi." "Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin out of that old dust bowl; They think they're going to a sugar bowl, but here's what they find; Now, the police at the part of entry say; You're number fourteen thousand for today."

"WE CAN DO IT!" to "How dare you steal work from men."

Rosie the riveter (top left) flexes for a WWI propaganda poster encouraging women to work. Women tend to machines in a factory (top right), and three women pose for a photo in nurse uniforms (bottom).

In the Booming 20's, the post WWII economy meant a lot of women stayed in work, even after their husbands returned from fighting. When the depression started, women laborers were the first to be laid off and the last to be hired. Even though abandonment rates were higher than ever, and many women had to make income for themselves and their families, female workers were chastised for stealing jobs from unemployed men. Men workers were priority. Though, some women were able to return to work in classically female careers, such as nursing, secretaries, house cleaning, and domestic help.

White male labor is prioritized

A man works on a machine in a factory.

Both African Americans and Women had to compete with the highest regarded labor: white

Reform for racial equality in the workforce ends abruptly

Miners of many races work alongside one another. African americans wait in line for charity food.

Where conditions were improving in the workforce for African Americans in the 1920's, the priority of white male labor meant African Americans were furthered lowered in society. If women were the first to be laid of and the last to be hired, African Americans were quite close next in line. Pictured above is a multiracial group of miners from the 20's (left), and many jobless African Americans lined up to receive relief (right). Because of this discrimination, the unemployment rate of African Americans reached 2-3 times greater than that of white men. About 60% of African American families were without income, and new deal relief was aimed at white men. They truly burdened the greatest struggle in the era.

Role of Government


The 1920's elect three consecutive conservatives

Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.

The 1920's executive branch saw three republicans enter office. Warren G Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert hoover. It makes sense that the republican party would succeed when the country's economy is booming, just as it makes sense to elect a democratic candidate while the country's people are in need. The decade started with Harding. He is remembered for his corruption, appointing close friends to cabinet positions, stealing tax dollars, and especially the "teapot dome" scandal, where he leased US oil fields to a friend. Harding died in office, and his successor, Coolidge, was greater admired by the public. Coolidge was publicly a traditionalist, but other than that, there is not much to note about him. He lacked compassion for the struggling agricultural industry, and thus did not pass legislation to help farmers. Coolidge did very little, and is known as "Silent Cal" for his press relations and tendency to speak very little even in corresponding with other leaders. Coolidge did not run for a second term.

Last was Herbert Hoover. He was an orphan, a self made millionaire, and continued Coolidge's response to the agricultural struggle: avoiding it. He passed a pollution act in his term, but he is most remembered for his failure in offering relief to americans coping with the great depression. Hoover was elected one year before the crash of 1929. The people elected a republican in good times, expecting that business would continue to grow and prosper. When the downward spiral began, Hoover stood by his republican values and offered no relief to the american people. Laissez-Faire policy remained in place, and he ordered business leaders to keep up production, wages, and prices, which they were not able to. Hoover also kept he federal budget balanced to limit spending, and attempted to stimulate trickle down economics by offering minimal aid to banks. All direct relief was to be conducted by private charities such as the red cross and churches, because Hoover did not wish to undermine the individualism of the 20's economy. By the end of his term, the name "Hoover" was synonymous with a plethora of bad things such as homeless villages. His administration was defined by disatisfaction of the american people. They craved hope in government and the future of the economy, and it could not be found in Hoover's reaction. The compassion and inspiration of FDR's New Deal was just the kind of inspiration voters hungered for.

New deal changes role of government.

FDR and a table of all new deal legislation and government run programs. He broadcast fireside chats directly to the american people on the radio.

The new deal changed the relationship of the legislative and executive branch. By working together, the administration was able to pass countless legislation for relief, recovery, and reform. Relief programs were meant to provide immediate aid to struggling families. Recovery programs were temporary and meant to boost the economy, for example, by providing jobs. Reform programs were meant to provide permanent safety nets so when the economy fails again, the effects would not be as drastic as those of the great depression. Additionally, the government now had a direct impact on people with programs like social security. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fireside chats were revolutionary as well. He talked directly to the citizens through a media in almost every home: the radio. He took immediate action in his presidency, starting with the bank holiday. FDR had his own critics though. Many claim that the new deal was unsuccessful, and that the economy only grew back to normal because of WWII, and not because of new deal programs. FDR supporters claim that Overall, FDR was a proactive president who worked hard and fast to build up the country from rock bottom. His methods and power were questioned, but history looks back on the new deal with gratefulness.

Gender equality reform slows dramatically.

Suffragists march for the right to vote, and FDR waves to crowds by his wife, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the 1920's the 19th amendment was passed, granting women the right to vote in all elections. This was a huge success for reformers such as Alice Paul. After, suffragists wanted more insurance of their freedoms, and they advocated for a new civil rights amendment for women. The great depression and new deal meant that the focus of legislation would be repairing the economy. The era of social reform through government was over. However, First lady Eleanor Roosevelt truly set a standard for future first ladies to come. She inspired the american people, and sparked resiliency and hope into women. Eleanor Roosevelt even influenced FDR to appoint more women to his cabinet positions.

Bonus Army

WWI veterans demand the bonuses promised to them for their service. The unemployed men search for any kind of income, like army pensions. The payments were due in 1945, but many wished to receive them earlier, to help them in their economic struggles.

Era not remembered for its African American progress.

Top Left: fdr's black cabinet appointees meet in the oval office. Bottom left: the KKK resurged in the 20's, dominating the Indiana state government. Right: a political cartoon on the horrific lynching of african americans.

The 1920's were not a perfect time for African Americans, despite some romanticize of the Harlem Renaissance movement. The KKK had re surged and taken over some state governments, especially that of Indiana. The 30's were confusing for African Americans, as they had little idea of FDR's political views on this subject. He had refuses to sign an anti-lynching bill, but also created the Black Cabinet, a part of the executive branch dealing with matters concerning African Americans.

In Conclusion

Boom to Bust

A visual essay composed and written by Joelle Nutter

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