The Causes and Effects of
The Great Depression In America
Few Americans in the first months of 1929 saw any reason to question the strength and stability of the nation's economy. Most agreed with their new president that the booming prosperity of the years just past would not only continue but increase, and that dramatic social progress would follow in its wake. "We in America today," Herbert Hoover had proclaimed in August 1928, "are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us."1
In mid-October, 1929, the average middle-class American saw ahead of ...view middle of the document...
In the autumn of 1929, the market began to fall apart. On October 21, stock prices dipped sharply, alarming those who had become accustomed to an uninterrupted upward progression. Two days later, after a brief recovery, an even more alarming decline began. J. P. Morgan and Company and other big bankers managed to stave off disaster for a while by conspicuously buying up stocks to restore public confidence. But on October 29, all the efforts to save the market failed. "Black Tuesday," as it became known, saw a devastating panic. Sixteen million shares of stock were traded; the industrial index dropped 43 points; stocks in many companies became virtually worthless. In the weeks that followed, the market continued to decline, with losses in October totaling $16 billion. Despite occasional hopeful signs of a turnaround, the market remained deeply depressed for more than four years and did not fully recover for more than a decade.4
The sudden financial collapse in 1929 came as an especially severe shock because it followed so closely a period in which the New Era seemed to be performing another series of economic miracles. In particular, the nation was experiencing in 1929 a spectacular boom in the stock market.5
In February 1928, stock prices began a steady ascent that continued, with only a few temporary lapses, for a year and a half. By the autumn of that year, the market had become a national obsession, attracting the attention not only of the wealthy, but of millions of people of modest means. Many brokerage firms gave added encouragement to the speculative mania by offering absurdly easy credit to purchasers of stocks.
It was not hard to understand why so many Americans flocked to invest in the market. Stocks seemed to provide a certain avenue to quick and easy wealth. Between May 1928 and September 1929, the average price of stocks rose more than 40 percent. The stocks of the major industrials, the stocks that are used to determine the Dow Jones Industrial Average, doubled in value in that same period. Trading mushroomed from two or three million shares a day to more than five million, and at times to as many as ten or twelve million. There was, in short, a widespread speculative fever that grew steadily more intense. A few economists warned that the boom could not continue, that the prices of stocks had ceased to bear any relation to the earning power of the corporations that were issuing them. But most Americans refused to listen.6
The depression of the stock market impressed the general public with the idea that it would depress general business. Because of a psychological consequence, it did, but it should not have. There are 120,000,000 persons in the country and at the maximum not more than 10,000,000 were involved in stock market transactions. The remaining 110,000,000 persons suffered no loss.
The bulk of the population may not have suffered the loss of stock investments, but there were plenty of other ways to...