In the decade leading up to World War II, there was a worldwide economic depression that is referred to as the Great Depression. When each country began to experience the poor economic conditions varied but it mainly began around 1930 and lasted the entire decade and into the early 1940s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. It is the benchmark for all economic downturns since. In the United States the Great Depression began when stock prices began to fall on September 3, 1929 but became a worldwide phenomenon on October 29, 1929 when the stock market crashed. This is known as Black Tuesday.
Crowd gathering at the intersection of Wall Street and Broad Street after the 1929 crash
The Great Depression devastated both rich and poor countries. Personal income, tax revenue, profits and prices dropped, while international trade plunged by more than 50%. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25%, and in some countries rose as high as 33%.
Portrait shows Florence Thompson with several of her children in a photograph known as “Migrant Mother”. The Library of Congress caption reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” In the 1930s, the FSA employed several photographers to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Many of the photographs can also be seen as propaganda images to support the U.S. government’s policy distributing support to the worst affected, poorer areas of the country. Lange’s image of a supposed migrant pea picker, Florence Owens Thompson, and her family has become an icon of resilience in the face of adversity. However, it is not universally accepted that Florence Thompson was a migrant pea picker. In the book Photographing Farmworkers in California (Stanford University Press, 2004), author Richard Steven Street asserts that some scholars believe Lange’s description of the print was “either vague or demonstrably inaccurate” and that Thompson was not a farmworker, but a Dust Bowl migrant. Nevertheless, if she was a “Dust Bowl migrant”, she would have left a farm as most potential Dust Bowl migrants typically did and then began her life as such. Thus any potential inaccuracy is virtually irrelevant. The child to the viewer’s right was Thompson’s daughter, Katherine (later Katherine McIntosh), 4 years old (Leonard, Tom, “Woman whose plight defined Great Depression warns tragedy will happen again “, article, The Daily Telegraph, December 4, 2008) Lange took this photograph with a Graflex camera on large format (4″x5”) negative film.
Cities all around the world were hit hard, especially those dependent on heavy industry. Construction was virtually halted in many countries. Farming and rural areas suffered as crop prices fell by approximately 60%.
Facing plummeting demand with few alternate sources of jobs, areas dependent on primary sector industries such as cash cropping, mining and logging suffered the most.
Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone
The storefront sign reads “Free Soup, Coffee and Doughnuts for the Unemployed.”
Some economies started to recover by the mid-1930s. In many countries, the negative effects of the Great Depression lasted until after the end of World War II.
There are many theories on the causes of the Great Depression and just as many on how it ended. One theory is that World War II ended the Great Depression. Whether the war had a large impact in recovery or not, it did reduce unemployment and the rearmament policies helped to stimulate economies.
You can read all about the Great Depression, causes and recovery theories at these resources: