Even though the current American recession has dragged on now for several years, it’s not a repeat of the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 until the beginning of World War II in 1941.
At the height of the Great Depression, unemployment stood at 25 percent (the rate now is nine percent).
There is one similarity, though. During the Great Depression, which hit bottom in 1933 and then began a recovery, a recession returned in 1938. Currently, after beginning to bounce back from our recession, we too are having a dip in the recovery.
By 1933, 11,000 of the nation’s 25,000 U.S. banks had failed. Nowadays, First Northern Bank headquartered in Dixon received a $17 million TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) loan from the federal government in 2009 after problems with some of the bank’s loans and investments.
I looked at several years of the archives on microfilm and online to gather snippets of what Dixon was like during the depression years.
In September, 1929, just before the stock market crash, a Tribune article mentioned that “One of the underlying reasons for the failure of so many country banks has been the existence of too many banks. … (Also,) the major share of the blame rests on those banks that have failed (due to) disregarding fundamental principles in loaning other people’s money.”
The devastating stock market crash that finally came about on Black Thursday in November, 1929 was mentioned soon after: “The collapse of stocks on Monday has taken the enthusiasm out of the next Thanksgiving day. George Gropp: ‘None of that Wall Street stock for me. Live stock is my stuff. When it comes to betting, I prefer elections, fights and ball games.”
A.D. Madden, a Dixon bank official, said soon after the crash, “The stock market slump has not hurt the banks. It has been a terrific blow to those who could not afford to lose, mainly speculators (using borrowed money). In the long run it will help the country, as the market was drawing money away from the farming interests and realty and other legitimate investments.”
However, some local agricultural businesses seemed unscathed by the crash, because Dixon’s Mace slaughterhouse and meat packing plant upped its output by 65 percent in 1929.
Editorializing in 1930, the Tribune said, “One reads about the general business depression being ‘largely psychological.’ That’s the stuff: Cover it up with a big word.”
In December 1930, the Northern Solano Savings Bank (which later became ) ran an ad saying, “This has been a year when profits have been less in practically every line of business.” Another of their ads at the time said, “Many people who have been putting their savings into stocks and other types of investments during the last three or four years are coming back to the banks with renewed appreciation of the value of these conservative institutions.”
Dixon’s Bank of America in October, 1930 ran a local ad saying, “Business leaders of the nation are unanimous in their optimism. Great days are coming, they say, days of unparalleled expansion, of still further development. You can’t keep a good country down.”
In 1932 there were only 722 marriage licenses issued in Solano County, compared with 947 the year before, as the depression deepened.
A Tribune headline in 1932 proclaimed, “People are tired of depression (and) want beer.” The national ban on alcoholic drinks was lifted the following year!
A regular feature of newspapers in the years since 2008 has been classified ads for foreclosures. The Tribune in 1933 was also full of such ads which look remarkably similar to today’s.
By this time, the depression had deepened and people worried about the solvency of the banks they kept their savings in. A short Tribune article in January, 1933 headlined “Vicious Rumors Must Be Stopped,” went on to say, “Vicious and unscrupulous remarks detrimental to all banking interests are being circulated throughout the Sacramento valley during the past ten days. These remarks are without the slightest foundation and the banking fraternity are (sic) now taking steps to run down the rumors, stop the practice, and prosecute the authors. In some communities, anonymous letters have been sent through the mail, and in others, the falsehoods have been circulated by word of mouth.” The article was probably trying to stem bank runs, in which too many worried people would rush a bank, wanting to withdraw all their money, eliminating the bank’s cash reserves and forcing it to close.
To deal with this threatening situation, a federal law was quickly passed temporarily closing every bank in the U.S. A front-page article in the Tribune in March, 1933 optimistically titled “Business On The Climb,” said, “Dixon banks opened Wednesday morning after nearly two weeks of (bank) holiday. … (However, there was a restriction) against releasing funds for hoarding. Money came back for re-deposit, some of it from safety boxes. Even a little gold came over the counters. … The bank openings was (sic) new life all over the country. When the Stock Exchanges were opened there was uptrend in most stocks. … During the interim, Dixon got along without a great deal of inconvenience, but the opening, nevertheless, had a stimulating effect. The country feels as if it has passed the big hole in the road.”
Also in 1933 a Tribune article addressed problems with the farm community. “Farmers of the state are demanding relief from the foreclosure situation, and, unless this comes from Congress, will make a demand on the (state) legislature. This is the statement just issued by the California Farm Bureau Federation which declares that farm groups in the Imperial Valley, (and the) San Joaquin and Sacramento (valleys) protest that pending foreclosures have brought a near crisis to large numbers of agriculturists. … (A Farm Bureau representative said), ‘Although no acts of violence have occurred in California, we have seen what has happened elsewhere in the country.’ … He declared that one-tenth of all the farmers in the United States have lost their farms during the past five years.”
In 1933, a Solano County Taxpayers League was formed to push for lower taxes, and the Tribune carried a PG&E ad responding to complaints of no electricity rate reductions.
A five-course chicken dinner could be had in Dixon for a mere 50 cents in 1933.
The Tribune in 1933 carried an article saying “… approximately 30,000 Mexicans and Negroes migrate to California agricultural districts yearly from similar districts in Arizona and Texas.”
The federal Civil Works Administration planned to hire 330 more Solano County jobless men in 1934 to work on projects in Vallejo, Vacaville and Benicia.
An article four years later talked about migrant workers: “The federal workers’ camp about two miles east of Winters now includes over 160 families … which is nearly equal to (the population of Winters) – and still growing, for as we left, in came another car with hanging fenders, an Oklahoma license plate, five children, and piled high with bedding, kitchen utensils, boxes, etc. … Campers are there from many states: Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Missouri, Washington, Utah, Ohio, a few from Kansas, but the largest number, of course, being Californians. … Only about 35 percent of the Camp are finding work in the farms. … The Camp is run under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
Dixon’s American Legion Auxiliary threw a Hard-Times Dance in 1937 which helped attendees forget the low price being offered for hogs, nothing being offered for prunes, dropping stock prices, the shrinking of government relief, the prospect of war, and tax bills. The hall was spruced up with greenery, corn, pumpkins, vines, and bales of straw for seats. A locally improvised orchestra played until 2 a.m. and the favored drink of the evening was apple cider from Sebastopol.
A Tribune writer in 1939 revealed that over the depression years, library book reading increased 60 percent as people sought out inexpensive forms of entertainment.
Certainly the current economic difficulties in the U.S. don’t match those of the Great Depression, but on the other hand, the American national debt has ballooned to astronomic proportions and countries around the world have become so tied together that an economic collapse in one country affects all the others.