It was the fall of 1929. Though the beginning of September saw a dramatic decline in stock prices, no one could have anticipated the consequences of such a drop. But by October 29, or "Black Tuesday," the U.S. stock market had completely crashed. What followed was an economic crisis unlike any that had come before—one that reverberated across the globe and throughout the 1930s. Money was tight, whether you were rich or poor. International trade dropped, while unemployment rates soared to frightening heights.
And yet, despite the hardship, people continued to lead their lives and fight the good fight. The following books about the Great Depression show us that some people even became heroes—from Plennie Wingo's record-breaking travels to a grandfather's secret acts of kindness. Others faced added obstacles like home-destroying dust storms, while an entire country saw a major overhaul of their culinary tradition. Whatever the case, the books below tell fascinating stories of courage, change, and corruption from 1929 to 1939, as the world fell into—and climbed out of—the Great Depression.
The Man Who Walked Backward
With almost everyone struggling to stay afloat, many Americans cooked up money-making schemes and sought out fame. Plennie Wingo of Abilene, Texas was one such individual—though his path to glory (and his means of getting there) was a bit unusual: In April of 1931, Plennie donned a pair of steel-heeled shoes, made postcards of himself, and began a backwards trek around the world. But in his quest to find sponsorships and a bankable name, this 36-year-old adventurer found so much more. From an unfortunate run-in with the law to the surprising kindnesses of strangers, Plennie’s journey across Steinbeck’s America—then to Hitler’s Germany, and beyond—was full of memorable experiences that paint a unique portrait of the Great Depression era.
The Great Depression held the U.S. in a firm grip from 1929 to 1939, all but depleting morale. The 1933 election of President Frank D. Roosevelt restored some stability, though full recovery still sat on the distant horizon—and with plenty of speed bumps blocking the pathway there. But while the decade was a tumultuous one, it also ushered in new traditions, pastimes, and inventions that forever changed American life. Since Yesterday brings readers into this transformative ten-year period, chronicling the nation's slow emergence from the shadows of its greatest economic downturn.
With Hard Times, Studs Terkel has captured an entire generation—using words straight from the mouths of Great Depression survivors. Here, you'll find the testimonies of everyone from hard-scrabble Okie farmers to major political players like C. Wright Patman and Hamilton Fish. The result is a rich and varied tapestry of human experience that is both an oral record of the 1930s and a tribute to the resilience of the American spirit.
Once in Golconda
Most stories of the Great Depression begin with the crash of 1929, but John Brooks’s “True Drama of Wall Street” goes back to the bull markets of the 1920s that preceded the crash. In the period between the World Wars, the American stock market seemed too big to fail, and investors and bankers were on top of the world.
How did so much prosperity turn so quickly to disaster? Brooks tells the story of Wall Street’s dizzying highs and tragic lows, using as his jumping-off point the legendary city of Golconda in India. According to the stories, anyone who passed through Golconda attained fantastic riches—at least, until the city ran out of wealth.
The Day the Bubble Burst
In the 1920s, Americans approached finance, business, and government policy with blind optimism. Nothing, as far as they were concerned, could ever go wrong. But the events of October 29, 1929 proved that these opinions were actually delusions, as the "untouchable" U.S. stock market came crashing down—and took the world economy with it. This New York Times bestseller profiles the powerful men behind the scenes—and the everyday citizens who suffered the consequences of their actions—to offer an engaging history of the Great Depression that doesn't feel like it's just been pulled from a dusty shelf.
Lords of Finance
Despite popular belief, the Great Depression can be traced back to individuals—four influential bankers, to be exact. This quartet included the Bank of England’s Montagu Norman, the French Émile Moreau, Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank, and Benjamin Strong from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In the devastating aftermath of World War I, these men prioritized the restoration of economic stability—and believed their success lay in reintroducing the gold standard. Finance expert Liaquat Ahamed's Pulitzer Prize-winning analysis examines how this decision led to the crash of 1929 (and the catastrophe that ensued), which also bears disturbing parallels to our own modern-day economic crises.
The Worst Hard Time
As Americans buckled under the weight of the Great Depression, those on the Western High Plains were struck by another disaster: the Dust Bowl. Far more severe than any storm that had come before, these "black blizzards" were reminiscent of a biblical plague—killing both crops and people. In his National Book Award winner, Timothy Egan reveals the factors behind their intensity and frequency—likely a combination of the reckless farming practices and the wider economic collapse. But at its heart, The Worst Hard Time is an intimate portrayal of the men and women who saw their world fall apart and lived to tell the tale.
A Secret Gift
In 1933, the struggling residents of Canton, Ohio saw a peculiar ad in the newspaper: Would families write to one Mr. B. Virdot about their Great Depression experience in exchange for $10? In reality, Virdot's true name was Sam Stone, and he simply wanted to provide much-needed relief for the upcoming Christmas season. Seventy-five years later, Stone's grandson discovered the locals' responses in a suitcase, whereupon he set out to learn the stories behind them. His search not only unveiled the effects of his grandpa’s secret generosity, but of the man's secretly troubled youth. The entire investigation is recounted in this book—a unique and moving entry in the canon of Great Depression nonfiction.
Unlike so many accounts of the Great Depression, Little Heathens is one of joy, excitement, and family. Author Mildred Armstrong Kalish was just five years old when the economic devastation reached her grandparents' Iowa farm. While times were certainly difficult—and Kalish is nothing but honest when it comes to describing her family’s struggles—such hardship fostered a greater appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. Whether Kalish is recounting her earnest attempts at digging to China, the rigors of running a farm, or tasting honey straight from the beehive, “the Depression-era challenges and triumphs [have never been] so lovingly recounted” (Bookmarks Magazine).
A Square Meal
Even people's dinners couldn't escape the Great Depression! In Square Meal, Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe show readers how the era's political and economic strife trickled down into American kitchens and supermarkets. Most of the changes stemmed from the government's new role as food providers—a responsibility they didn’t assume with relish, but which ultimately shaped our speed-driven, convenience-obsessed, and science-based diet. The book also includes recipes and advertisements from the time, rounding out what is a fascinating look at the Great Depression's far-reaching legacy.
Dancing in the Dark
The Great Depression was, indeed, a dark time in America and all over the world, but it was also a time of great cultural inventiveness. As an escape from the harsh realities of life—and sometimes as a way to deal with or even embrace them—Americans turned to everything from vaudeville to the movies, from swing bands to art Deco design.
In Dancing in the Dark, Morris Dickstein, a professor emeritus of English and Theater at CUNY, paints a comprehensive picture of American culture during the dark days of the Great Depression—from musicals and screwball comedies to the shadows of the Dust Bowl. The Great Depression was a time of anxiety and suffering, but it was also a period of hope and surprising optimism, which Dickstein captures in his wide-ranging cultural survey.
The Great Crash 1929
Never once out of print since it was first published in 1955, John Kenneth Galbraith’s bracing, witty, and erudite record of rampant speculation and the resulting dire financial disaster unfortunately remains as relevant today as it was when he first wrote it. “Economic writings are seldom notable for their entertainment value,” Atlantic Monthly once said of Galbraith’s classic, “but this book is.”
As each new financial bubble is compared to the crash of 1929, Galbraith’s detailed and insightful look at what went wrong, newly updated with an introduction dealing with some more recent financial ups and downs, feels as topical in 2019 as it was upon its debut.
The Match King
Stepping away from big picture views of the Great Depression, The Match King paints a portrait of the kind of man who helped make it happen, even while he, himself, was a rare success story in the wake of the crash. So why did Ivar Kreuger commit suicide in 1932?
Frank Partnoy’s book is part biography, part economic treatise on a largely unknown and often misunderstood financial genius who created innovative financial products that wreaked havoc on the markets and prefigured many of the problems that our economy faces today. As a Swedish immigrant, Kreuger made his fortune raising money and loaning it to Europe in exchange for matchstick monopolies. The tactic made him rich, but at what cost?
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Featured photo of "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange: Wikipedia