What do we know about the

Great Depression?

Looking back as historians we have several types of evidence that we can bring together to understand how the people of the United States responded to the Great Depression in 1929. In textbooks, the catastrophic suddenness of its arrival is represented by the crash of the stock market; its longer term financial shadow is remembered in the collapse of local economies because local financial institutions run out of money to lend to people.

Follow the steps below to learn about the impact of the Great Depression through first-hand accounts and the iconic film “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

Marriner Eccles. Credit: Library of Congress

Read the transcript of an interview with Eccles who had to calm his panicked customers

What was it like to experience a bank run?

“The crowd in the bank was as taut as it was tense.” We had “to remain open so long as there were people who wanted to get their money.”

What is a “bank run”? This occurs when a large scale public panic leads larger numbers of people to withdraw their savings from a bank, causing it to run out of money. Utah banker Marriner Eccles, who later chaired the federal reserve system under President Roosevelt, details his experience during a bank run in 1931. 

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A newly elected president speaks about his plans

We can also learn about these events by examining what newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt told the American people and by what his administration actually did.

President Roosevelt, 1932
Listen to President Roosevelt’s Fireside chat

Watch this scene from It’s a Wonderful Life

The scene above is from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” that was produced and directed by Frank Capra and based on the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern.  

Scenes and Memories

If we are going to understand how experiences that once caused not only pain but also conflict that over time was seen as unifying and transcending politics, we can also turn to popular motion pictures, especially those which have demonstrated a durable popularity over time. As we try to understand the long-term cultural impact of the Great Depression in the United States, consider the scene from the popular Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life”.


Compelling Questions

What can these different kinds of evidence tell us?  First, by looking at the words and ideas that recur across the texts, we can identify values that were held in common and were mobilized to understand and then end the crisis. Please answer the questions below. 

  1. What do these three scenes from different kinds of historical evidence share in common—in terms of language, attitude or approach?
  2. What do the similarities or continuities between these scenes tell us about the cultural values that can unify Americans in a time of crisis?

There are No ‘Perfect’ Sources; What do these  scenes and testimonies leave out?

Every source represents a point of view and no vantage point can take in the entire scope or understanding of any event. Absence from the record can also reflect some self-imposed limits within which members of a society have chosen or feel they must work within. 

St. Luke Penny Savings Bank,
Maggie L Walker National Historic Site

If we carefully inspect these records, we have an obligation to note those things that might be missing here that we know from other sources (textbooks, for instance) were nonetheless part of the historical action elsewhere.  All of these sources exclusively feature the experiences and the words of “white” people.

As a final step, read this section about underrepresented communities and their experiences during this time.