1. A cotton sharecropper with his family at their home in Hale County, Alabama, 1935.
Nobody could tell exactly when it began and nobody could predict when it would end. At the outset, they didn’t even call it a depression. At worst it was a recession, a brief slump, a “correction” in the market, a glitch in the rising curve of prosperity.
Only when the full import of those heartbreaking years sank in did it become the Great Depression – Great because there had been no other remotely like it.
In retrospect, we see it as a whole – as a neat decade tucked in between the Roaring Twenties and the Second World War, perhaps the most significant ten years in American history, a watershed era that perhaps scarred and transformed the nation.
But it hasn’t been easy for later generations to comprehend its devastating impact. The Great Depression lies just over the hill of memory; after all, it has been such a long time.
The Great Depression began in August 1929, when the economic expansion of the Roaring Twenties came to an end. A series of financial crises punctuated the contraction. These crises included a stock market crash in 1929, a series of regional banking panics in 1930 and 1931, and a series of national and international financial crises from 1931 through 1933.
The downturn hit bottom in March 1933, when the commercial banking system collapsed and President Roosevelt declared a national banking holiday. Between 1929 and 1932, worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) fell by an estimated 15%. By comparison, worldwide GDP fell by less than 1% from 2008 to 2009 during the Great Recession.