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The Great Depression was caused by the 1929 stock market crash and plunged the entire country into poverty… right? Maybe not so much. In this episode of Misconceptions, host Justin Dodd busts some Depression-era myths.


0:00 Intro
1:35 The Great Depression Plunged Everyone into Poverty
3:09 The Stock Market Crash of 1929 Caused the Great Depression
5:46 Nobody Had Any Fun During the Great Depression
8:12 The Great Depression Mainly Inspired Gross Food
In 1930, while millions of Americans were struggling to make ends meet, baseball legend Babe Ruth was sitting pretty on a salary of $80,000. That’s more than $1.4 million in today’s money. He’d even gotten a $10,000 raise after the previous year. The Great Bambino didn’t suffer a Great Depression–related pay cut until 1932, when his salary fell to $75,000…and then to $52,000 in 1933…and then to $35,000 in 1934. So it’s not like Babe didn’t lose any money during the Depression. But he wasn’t exactly donning patch-covered pinstripes and sleeping in the dugout.

Hi, I’m Justin Dodd, and don’t get me wrong: The Great Depression was an utter nightmare. The U. S. unemployment rate skyrocketed from around 3 percent in 1929 to roughly 25 percent in 1933. It didn’t fall back below 10 percent until the early 1940s. Hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their homes. The shantytowns that sprung up to accommodate the destitute were nicknamed “Hoovervilles”—a jab at President Herbert Hoover, widely criticized for not doing enough to get the country back on its feet.

But it’s not true that no one had two pennies to rub together. That’s just one of several prevalent misconceptions about the Great Depression that I’m covering in this episode of Misconceptions—from what caused the crisis in the first place to the ick factor of Depression-era foods. Let’s get started.



Babe Ruth wasn’t the only person to prosper during the Depression. Some of these fortunate folks were entertainers: James Cagney, for example, stayed booked and busy through the 1930s in films like 1931’s The Public Enemy and 1933’s Footlight Parade. His first studio contract in 1930 netted him $350 a week; by 1935, it had jumped to $4500. Others were business people who focused on selling goods that everyone still needed even in tough times—like food. As Mississippi State University sociology professor Robert Boyd told Forbes, “During the Great Depression, many survivalist entrepreneurs in urban areas opened small grocery stores in their own homes or in abandoned storefronts…These entrepreneurs bought stocks of nonperishable food because, if they could not sell their goods, at least they and their family members could live off of the unsold inventory…”

In 1930, Michael J. Cullen and George Jenkins both quit their jobs at existing grocery stores to establish their own: In New York, Cullen left Kroger to found King Kullen Grocery Co., sometimes called America’s first supermarket. Down in Florida, 22-year-old Jenkins left Piggly Wiggly and opened the very first Publix. As one Florida man to another, George, thank you for your service.

And then there were, well, the criminals. John Dillinger and his merry band of burglars amassed some $500,000 in total from robbing a series of banks during the Depression. And he might’ve made more, if federal agents didn’t…you know...kill him in 1934.


Let’s rewind for a second to talk about what actually got us into this mess. It’s easy to blame it all on the stock market crash of October 1929. When stock prices started to track downward, people rushed to offload their stocks in a panic, which caused the prices to plummet even further. Billions of dollars’ worth of value disappeared over just a few days. But a crash like that doesn’t happen randomly, and saying that it “caused” the Great Depression is oversimplifying a complex topic that economists still debate to this day. Here are a couple other factors—one pre- and one post-crash—that deserve a mention.

First up: interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve. During the Roaring Twenties, the stock market experienced runaway growth in part because a lot of regular people got in on the investing game. They bought stocks with loan money—the idea being that they’d repay their loans with their stock market earnings. It was a risky business, and by the end of the decade the Fed was getting pretty nervous about the state of the market. So they raised interest rates in August of 1929, hoping that would slow the growth. It worked…a little too well.

As Gary Richardson, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, told, “They got the stock market to come down … But then it came down a lot, and it came down very quickly.” Another strain on the economy was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which raised tariffs on certain imported goods by an average of 20 percent by some estimates. Congress passed the bill in order to protect American-made products from foreign competition, but economists tried to compel President Hoover to veto it or risk tanking the global economy even further in the wake of the stock market crash. He did not heed the warning.

Needless to say, there were other factors that contributed to the Great Depression; it wasn’t a three-act economic play in which the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, the stock market crashed, and then the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act wrecked the global economy.  And it’s not that hard to find economists who argue one or more of those acts were largely irrelevant, instead bringing in any number of other things that were going on at the time. If you want examples, look at all the people in the comments yelling at us saying Smoot-Hawley had nothing to do with the Depression. Trust me, I just kicked an economist hornets nest. But that really helps the point I’m actually trying to make, which is that a decade-long depression didn’t have a single, sustaining cause—stock market crash or anything else. And even experts can’t agree what factors mattered and which ones didn’t.


Stars like James Cagney could hardly have been successful if nobody saw their movies. Though the film industry did take a serious hit during the Great Depression, theaters fought to stay open by slashing ticket prices, programming two-for-the-price-of-one double features, and doing giveaways. Roughly 60 to 80 million Americans still went to the movies on a weekly basis. The radio was another popular form of Depression-era entertainment. In 1930, about 40 percent of American households owned one. By the end of the decade, that figure had leapt to 83 percent.

People tuned in for baseball games, sitcoms, fireside chats with FDR—you name it. Husband-and-wife comedy duo Gracie Allen and George Burns kept listeners laughing, and the Wild West adventures of The Lone Ranger provided some much-needed escapism. Other pastimes were less about scripted content and more about—um, how do I put this?—sitting on a 250-foot-tall pole in Atlantic City for 49 days straight. That’s how Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly entertained the masses during the summer of 1930. And I do mean masses: Some 20,000 people showed up to witness the feat.

The most popular endurance activity from the era was the dance marathon. It started out in the 1920s as a simple, hours-long competition in which couples tried to outlast each other on the dance floor. But as the Depression progressed, dance marathons evolved into weeks-long spectacles that featured everything from foot races to mud wrestling. These extra events often functioned as elimination rounds; no longer were contestants just expected to dance ’til they dropped. Here’s how historian Carol Martin explained it in a 1987 article for The Drama Review: “Each elimination contest had different rules that put the contestants through their paces in unique ways. For example, the couples could be blindfolded, and/or taped or chained together to make everything more difficult. These ‘tortures’ were the icing on the cake for spectators who really wanted to ‘watch the weak ones fall by the wayside,’ as a popular advertisement slogan promised.”

Call it the 1930s version of The Amazing Race—complete with a cash prize. Dance marathon winners could net around $1000, not to mention the free meals they got throughout the competition. Which helps explain why so many people were willing to put themselves through such an exhausting and potentially embarrassing ordeal in the first place.


The Depression generated a lot of emphasis on food that ticked two boxes: It was cheap, and it would keep you full for as long as possible. Sure, that sometimes resulted in strange innovations—like Milkorno, a mixture comprising two-thirds cornmeal, and one-third powdered skim milk, and a little salt. It was created by home economics researchers at Cornell University in 1933 and marketed as a highly nutritious ingredient that belonged in basically any recipe. No noodles for your chop suey? Add Milkorno instead. As The San Francisco Examiner suggested in 1933, Milkorno could also “…be eaten plain as a cereal for breakfast or supper…" Thank you, but I will stick to my Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

One weird culinary mash-up was peanut butter–stuffed onions, which food historian Jane Ziegelman actually tried for herself while co-writing the book A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression. She told The New York Times that “It was surreal. Peanut butter has nothing to say to a baked onion.” That said, people had been shoving peanut butter into surprising places for years before the Depression. One recipe for peanut butter–stuffed tomatoes from 1919 calls for minced onions, chopped green peppers, and bread crumbs, all mixed together with tomato guts and peanut butter and spooned into the hollowed-out tomatoes.

And we even found a recipe for onions stuffed with peanut butter from 1918. So it’s not actually a Depression recipe at all. In other words, foul food existed long before the Depression—but more importantly, plenty of Depression dishes were far from disgusting. In a 2007 YouTube video, 91-year-old Clara Cannucciari whipped up a recipe from her childhood that she called “the poorman’s meal”: cubed potatoes pan-fried with onions and sliced hot dogs. “I got all the neighborhood kids coming here,” Clara said. “They come in and they say, ‘Can we have the poorman’s meal’?” I would also like to have the poorman’s meal, thank you very much. Many food products we still love today hit shelves during the Depression, from Ritz Crackers to Kraft mac and cheese. Candy in particular was all the rage: 3 Musketeers, PAYDAY, Snickers, 5th Avenue, and Krackel all debuted in the 1930s. And they weren’t necessarily considered dessert. Because candy bars were both filling and dirt-cheap, they were often positioned as meal replacements. See, Mom? I told you it was fine to eat candy for lunch.

Thanks for watching Misconceptions. If you have any ideas for a future video, drop them in the comments. There’s plenty more myths to bust. I’ll see you next time.