These Photos From the Great Depression Tell a Harrowing Story

Dust Bowl Dallas South Dakota 1936 image Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anyone that took a high school social studies class knows at least cursory details about the Great Depression.

There was a stock market crash. Unemployment skyrocketed. People lost their homes and their farms. The Dust Bowl forced thousands to relocate.

To say that it was a difficult time for Americans is an understatement.

But there's a difference between knowing a few things about the era and understanding the feelings of utter desperation that gripped Americans far and wide.

These images tell those stories and show how harrowing the Great Depression really was.

The Market Crashes

Crowd outside nyse image By US-gov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On October 29, 1929, known infamously as Black Tuesday, the New York Stock Exchange crashed.

After losing more than $25 billion over the course of the fall of 1929 (about $319 billion in today's money), panic about the stability of the market set in.

In the image above, a solemn crowd gathered outside the Exchange at the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street in New York City as news of the crash unfolded.

The Rise of the Bank Runs

American union bank image Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Having lost confidence in financial institutions after the 1929 crash, Americans flocked to banks to withdraw their money before the bank failed.

The first bank runs occurred in 1930 and persisted through 1933, when the federal government, under the leadership of President Roosevelt, worked to calm fears about the banking industry.

Nevertheless, hundreds of banks closed in the early 1930s, with billions of dollars withdrawn from their coffers by panicked customers.

The image above captures that panicked tone, as hundreds of people gathered outside the soon-to-fail American Union Bank in New York.

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Unemployment Rises

937px Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone 02 1931 NARA 541927 image By Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The crash of the stock market didn't just usher in a panic through the country's banking industry; it also marked the beginning of a sharp rise in unemployment.

In fact, before Black Tuesday, nationwide unemployment stood at just 3 percent.

But in the depths of the Great Depression, 25 percent of American workers were without a job.

The men in the image above are shown waiting in line for free coffee and doughnuts at a Chicago shop opened by none other than Al Capone.

The Empire state building image By Daniel Ahmad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Desperate to support their families, many men found work on public projects.

Above, workers are seen at the site of the Empire State Building, which was built between March 17, 1930, and May 1, 1931.

Even though they were earning a paycheck, men that worked on such large construction projects faced dangers to life and limb at virtually every turn.

The Dust Bowl Causes More Havoc

Dust Bowl Dallas South Dakota 1936 image Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After a long period of drought and decades of farming practices that tore up the topsoil of the Central Plains, the nation found itself facing a new crisis - the Dust Bowl.

Amidst the troubles of the Great Depression, farmers and residents throughout the middle portion of the country - particularly Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and New Mexico - faced dust storm after dust storm, as topsoil was lifted toward the heavens by the prairie winds and deposited in amounts so vast that it virtually buried some areas.

There were three different waves of storms, one in 1934, another in 1936, and another from 1939-1940, each reducing visibility to less than one meter and depositing dust as far east as New York City.

800px Dust storm Texas 1935 image By Credit: NOAA George E. Marsh Album [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some storms were so severe that they were referred to as "Black Blizzards," one of which was caught on camera in the photo above, taken in Stratford, Texas in 1935.

 Broke baby sick and car trouble Dorothea Langes photo of a Missouri family of five in the vicinity of Tracy California image Dorothea Lange [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

A primary effect of the Dust Bowl was the forced migration of thousands of farmers whose land simply blew away in the wind.

Throughout the Dust Bowl, more than 500,000 people were displaced from Oklahoma, Texas, and the surrounding regions, many of whom went west looking for work and a place to live.

Dorothea Lange, a famed photographer, documented this migration with her camera, capturing hundreds of images, including the one above of a Missouri family stuck on the side of the road after their car broke down near Tracy, California.

591px Lange MigrantMother02 image Dorothea Lange [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps Lange's most iconic photo, however, is the one above of a desperately poor mother, Florence Owens Thompson.

The look on Thompson's face says it all about how Americans felt during the Great Depression.

There was a palpable concern in the air as millions lost their jobs, lost their homes, and worried about how they would support their families.

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Health Concerns Abound

Public Health nursing image By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

With so many people out of work and without a place to live, public health became a grave concern.

People lived in absolute poverty, with conditions that were unimaginable.

Homes were made out of just about anything - cars, tents, and even what appears to be an old abandoned rail car.

Hoooverville willamette image Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

More famously, large homeless encampments began to crop up near urban areas.

Called Hoovervilles - in "honor" of President Herbert Hoover, who was in office when the Great Depression began - were unsanitary and hotbeds for the spread of disease.

The shantytown shown in the image above was on the banks of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon.

Down and out on New York pier image By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum: photo by Lewis W. Hine. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And that's how it went for Americans in the 1930s - job insecurity, homelessness, hunger, and poverty on a scale that has not been seen since.

Though the federal government made strides in pulling the nation out of the Great Depression with President Roosevelt's New Deal Programs, it was actually another terrible event that would jumpstart the U.S. economy and finally bring the nation out of the Depression.

That event was World War II.

Via Wikipedia (1), Wikipedia (2), Buzzfeed, and ThoughtCo

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