The Great Depression


In the autumn of 1929, a crash of prices on Wall Street triggered a global economic contraction that would last for over a decade.  Join Active Minds for a look back at the Great Depression. We will examine the origins of the depression and its legacy as well as take a look at it through the lens of our current economic environment.

Key Lecture Points

  • Beginning in the fall of 1929, global economic contraction began to affect the United States adversely.  The Great Depression was a key event in 20th century US and world history. It affected the entire world’s economy, resulted in major changes in US banking and financial regulations still in effect today and contributed to the rise of Nazism and WWII.
  • The debate over the causes of and responses to the Great Depression were and continue to be vigorous.  At the core, the debate revolves around the extent to which any government (including the that of the US) ought to intervene in the economic cycle via job creation and other measures.  The Great Depression ravaged the US economy, leading to 25% unemployment and a corresponding shift politically with the election of Franklin Roosevelt.
  • Beginning in 1933, under Roosevelt, the US government responded to the effects of the Great Depression with the “New Deal”, a series of governmental programs designed to alleviate the impact of the Depression.  While unemployment was reduced as a result of the New Deal, the US economy still remained below levels it had hit prior to the crash.  It would be the US entry into WWII and the subsequent victory and post-war boom that would bring The Great Depression to an end.
  • The social impacts of the Great Depression cannot be overstated.  The economic contraction hit families and children particularly hard.  With schools closed due to underfunding, many children were forced into work in order to keep food on the table for the family as a whole.  Men, meanwhile looked for work wherever it might be, leaving mothers behind to care for the family, a desperate circumstance illustrated vividly by the photography of Dorothea Lange.
  • Notwithstanding the societal impacts, the art and culture that emerged from the Great Depression was and remains reflective of the courage and resiliency of the nation.  Artists like Duke Ellington and John Steinbeck produced works that were both reflective of the hard times and also beautiful in so doing.

Discussion Questions

  • What is different and what is similar about the circumstances leading up to the Great Depression and our current economic recession?
  • In what ways can a government act to prevent future economic downturns?
  • If you were alive during the Great Depression, what do you remember about it the most? If you weren’t alive then, what stories did your family tell about the Depression?
  • Although the Depression was a time of great hardship, there were also positive things that came out of this challenging time. What are some of the benefits?

More to Explore

  • Library of Congress Click here
  • National Archives Primary Sources & Teaching Activities Click here
  • Depression teenagers riding the rails (transcript) Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • The Great Depression: A Captivating Guide to the Worldwide Economic Depression that Began in the United States, Including the Wall Street Crash. Captivating History, 2018. 102 pages. The stock market crash of 1929 didn't cause the Great Depression by itself, but it is a powerful symbolic starting point to the greatest economic disaster of the twentieth century. The scale of the crisis demanded new ways of coping and new ideas about the role of government.
    Click here to order
  • Terkel, Studs. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. The New Press. 2005. 480 pages. Oral histories of men and women who experienced the Great Depression.
    Click here to order
  • Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Books. 2006 edition. Novel showing the hardships and desperation of migrant farm workers forced out of their homes by the Dust Bowl, seeking a new life in the farm fields of California.
    Click here to order