The crash Oct. 29, 1929
Stocks Had Reached an All-Time High. Then Came a Day That Caused America to Tremble.

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The bread lines didn't form overnight. The banks didn't buckle all at once. And no one, despite urban legend, is known to have jumped out of a window in sorrow over financial ruin.

Instead, the worst would come later, sometimes months and even years after Oct. 29, 1929, "Black Tuesday." On that date -- 79 years ago today -- few people could conceive that an economic apocalypse was gathering, even as the ominous news soaked in. But the ripples would soon begin.

In 24 hours of trading, starting Oct. 28 and continuing into the next day, some 25 percent of the value of America's biggest companies vanished on the New York Stock Exchange. Coming on the heels of big losses a few days earlier, the reversal was stunning. Just six weeks before, stocks had reached their all-time high.

Still, it was possible at first to view the Crash of '29 as an isolated event. Most people hadn't shared in the rising prosperity after World War I, so most didn't lose money in the Crash. Only about 2 percent of households owned stocks, says historian David E. Kyvig, compared with about 50 percent who have direct or indirect investments in the market today.

A consumer culture was growing -- about 80 percent of households had a radio by the late 1920s -- but the middle class was still small. Soon, they would know. Slowly, in irregular waves, people across the country began to feel that things were different.

In New York, the Crash claimed its first victims within hours. The day after, smaller brokerages in the city folded, driven under by "margin" loans to clients who were wiped out. The undertow drew in a number of smaller banks, which in turn had lent money to the brokerages and to stock market players.

The first bread line appeared in New York in February 1930, according to historian William K. Klingaman. When the images of men lining up for a handout appeared in newspapers and newsreels, they shocked the rest of the nation, which until then had largely been spared. These men -- able-bodied, well-dressed -- didn't fit the stereotype of the destitute, he says.

"We lost everything," a New York clothing seller named Ben Isaacs recalled in Studs Terkel's 1970 oral history of the Depression, "Hard Times." "It was the time I could collect four, five hundred dollars a week [from customers with credit accounts]. After that, I couldn't collect fifteen, ten dollars a week. I was going around trying to collect enough money to keep my family going. It was impossible."

By the middle of 1930, though, the malaise had spread beyond Manhattan. Nine months after the Crash, the national unemployment rate had tripled, claiming more than 10 percent of the nation's 48 million workers. By the time Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in March 1933, the figure had risen to more than 25 percent.

Americans of that era still remember their first encounter with the Depression: The day the family switched from electric lighting to cheaper kerosene lanterns. The day that beans were on the dinner table instead of beef. The day that extended family members moved in. The day a relative arrived home, ashamed to report that he'd lost his job.

Neil Schaffner, the proprietor of an acting troupe that barnstormed small towns in Iowa during the 1920s and '30s, told Terkel about how his business seemed to freeze up all at once in early July 1930. "We had heard talk of hard times being back East," Schaffner says. "We couldn't see it. . . . All of a sudden, the plug was pulled out of the bathtub. I have a wife, a baby and a mother-in-law. All I've got to sell is my ability as an entertainer. But it appeared nobody had any money to buy. The audience had become benumbed."

Soup kitchens popped up within months, but didn't become "ubiquitous" in many cities until 1932, says Kyvig, author of "Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940." The demand was so overwhelming by then, he says, that church and private charities turned to increasingly strapped local governments to keep their programs going.

Kyvig, a professor at Northern Illinois University, says he stuns his students when he tells them what happened in Detroit, a particularly hard-hit city. Overwhelmed by demands from the needy, the city shut down its zoo in 1932 and slaughtered its animals to provide food.

* * *

The parallels between October 1929 and today are striking.

Although the contemporary economy is far larger and more complex than it was eight decades ago, consumers were deeply in debt then, too. The gap between rich and poor had widened, thanks in part to tax cuts for the wealthy. Amid it all, the stock market -- lightly regulated -- grew into a speculative bubble, driven to unsupportable highs by investors who used borrowed money to purchase shares.

One key difference, however, might have been psychological. In 1929, people didn't have the benefit of history and hindsight. There had been recessions, most recently in 1921 and 1907, but nothing suggested the scale of catastrophe that loomed. The Great Depression was unknown -- and perhaps even unthinkable.

"Virtually no one was talking about a depression," says Klingaman, author of "1929: The Year of the Great Crash." "It was an 'adjustment.' That was the word they used. You don't get a sense of urgency at all in late '29 or '30. People thought this was a normal part of the business cycle, that we'll come out the other end."

It was still possible to see sunshine after Black Tuesday. The day after the Crash, the Washington Post carried a front-page story citing "98 leading businessmen" who insisted that the engine of American capitalism was still revving. "Our October sales are the largest on record," crowed R. E. Wood, president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., in the article. "While the shaking of public confidence may impair buying power somewhat in the next few months, I see no grounds for any real depression in business."

A few weeks later, the Economist magazine tut-tutted the doomsayers. "On the whole, the experts are agreed that there must be some setback, but there is not yet sufficient evidence to prove that it will be long or that it need go to the length of producing a general industrial depression," the magazine wrote. "If we are justified in assuming that the setback in American industry will only be temporary, we may look forward to steady development in 1930."

One commonly accepted notion about the time seems exaggerated, if not wholly false: The Crash didn't prompt tapped-out stock jockeys and bankers across the nation to jump out of buildings. Klingaman says some investors did kill themselves around this time, but their methods varied -- pistol shots, poisoning, asphyxiation by gas inhalation -- as did their locale. The jumper stereotype might have been popularized by Will Rogers, the folksy radio wit, who said, "When Wall Street took that tailspin, you had to stand in line to get a window to jump out of, and speculators were selling space for bodies in the East River."

* * *

After the Crash, the Dow Jones Industrial Average began to climb again. By mid-April of 1930, the average was within a few percentage points of the pre-Crash levels of early October. But then the index began to march downward again; by the time it bottomed out in July 1932, stocks had fallen an average of 89 percent from their peak.

It would take an entire generation, almost 25 years, for the market to recover fully.

Others say the Crash was an important blow to consumer confidence but dismiss the cause-and-effect argument. In the 1980s, the young Princeton economist Ben S. Bernanke made a persuasive case that an ordinary recession turned into the Great Depression only after the Federal Reserve and the Hoover administration failed to contain a series of unrelated events in late 1930 and early 1931. Bernanke today is chairman of the Fed, the institution leading international rescue efforts in the current crisis.

"The first point to be made is that the Depression was underway even before the Crash," says Robert S. McElvaine, author of "The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941."

The economy began to unravel in the summer of 1929, he says, as lending began to dry up and industrial production fell. Farm incomes had been badly battered throughout the 1920s, and took another hit with the onset of a prolonged drought in the Midwest starting about 1930.

Contrary to the depiction of Okies and Arkies fleeing to California in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," however, rural migration slowed during the 1930s, says McElvaine. "If you could stay on the farm, you did," he says. (In fact, many of those heading West weren't refugees from the Dust Bowl at all. The drought mostly affected farmers in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and a portion of Oklahoma.)

Perhaps even worse, by the late 1920s, consumers could no longer afford to buy what manufacturers were turning out, Kyvig says.

Wages had risen slowly during the decade, but consumption had grown much faster thanks to the widespread introduction of installment-plan financing, he says. Consumer items such as household appliances and radios, which banks once had been reluctant to finance (because the collateral could easily be spirited away), were now regularly being sold on credit offered by manufacturers and merchants.

Radio advertising and other new mass advertising techniques broke down traditional ideas about indebtedness, Kyvig says. Even the language changed, as advertisers told customers they were offering "credit," a much more seductive concept than a "loan."

The result is familiar to us now: People stretched themselves to their limits and beyond. By 1930, the consumer credit boom had run its course. Soon, inventories of unsold goods began to pile up, and companies started cutting production. That fed a downward cycle of job losses and manufacturing cuts.

President Herbert Hoover, who had been a successful businessman, tried to put the best face on the deteriorating conditions. In 1930 he began to refer to the economic decline as a "depression," a word that hadn't yet acquired its frightening connotation, McElvaine says. Depression suggested a slight dip and sounded less severe than "panic" or "crisis," two words that had been used to describe earlier economic breakdowns, he says.

Washington only seemed to make things worse, historians say. Rather than stimulating the economy with tax rebates and deficit spending -- two responses in our present crises -- Congress and President Hoover agreed to raise taxes to balance the federal budget. The Federal Reserve, meanwhile, tightened interest rates, starving the economy of money and deepening the economy's trouble.

Says Klingaman: "The image that stuck in my mind is when a snowstorm turns into a blizzard. The snow just keeps falling and piling up. You look out your window and you say, 'Oh, my God, it isn't stopping.' The bad news was like that. It just kept piling up."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company