Though most Americans are aware of the Great Depression of 1929,
which may well be “the most serious problem facing our free enterprise
economic system”, few know of the many Americans who lost their homes,
life savings and jobs. This paper briefly states the causes of the
depression and summarizes the vast problems Americans faced during the
eleven years of its span. This paper primarily focuses on what life
was like for farmers during the time of the Depression, as portrayed
in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and tells what the government
did to end the Depression.
In the 1920’s, after World War 1, danger signals were apparent
that a great Depression was coming. A major cause of the Depression
was that the pay of workers did not increase at all. Because of this,
they couldn’t afford manufactured goods. While the factories were
still manufacturing goods, Americans weren’t able to afford them and
the factories made no money (Drewry and O’connor 559).
Another major cause related to farmers. Farmers weren’t doing to
well because they were producing more crops and farm products than
could be sold at high prices. Therefore, they made a very small
profit. This insufficient profit wouldn’t allow the farmers to
purchase new machinery and because of this they couldn’t produce goods
quick enough (Drewry and O’connor 559).
A new plan was created called the installment plan. This plan was
established because many Americans didn’t have enough money to buy
goods and services that were needed or wanted. The installment plan
stated that people could buy products on credit and make monthly
payments. The one major problem with this idea was that people soon
found out that they couldn’t afford to make the monthly payment(Drewry
and O’connor 559).
In 1929 the stock market crashed. Many Americans purchased stocks
because they were certain of the economy. People started selling
their stocks at a fast pace; over sixteen million stocks were sold!
Numerous stock prices dropped to fraction of their value. Banks lost
money from the stock market and from Americans who couldn’t pay back
loans. Many factories lost money and went out of business because of
this great tragedy (Drewry and O’connor
By the 1930’s, thirteen million workers lost their jobs which is
25 percent of all workers. The blacks and unskilled workers were
always the first to be fired. Farmers had no money and weren’t
capable of paying their mortgages. Americans traveled throughout the
country looking for a place to work to support themselves and their
family (Drewry and O’connor 560-561). John Steinbeck, born in 1902,
grew up during the Depression near the fertile Salinas Valley and
wrote many books of fiction based on his background and experiences
during that time and area of the country. One of his great works would
be the Grapes of Wrath In this book, Steinbeck describes the farmers
plight during the Great Depression and drought. When the rains failed
to come, the grass began to disappear. As the farmers watched their
plants turn brown and the dirt slowly turn to dust they began to fear
what was to come. In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in
dry little streams. As the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves
of the young corn became less stiff and erect; then it was June and
the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves
widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged
back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and
every day the earth paled. (qtd. Steinbeck 2-3). The farmers worst
fears were realized when their corn and other crops began to die. The
dust became so bad they had to cover their mouths with handkerchiefs
so they could breath (Steinbeck 3- When the drought hit the Great
Plains and the soil turned to dust, many farmers moved to California
because they could no longer farm their land(Drewry and O’Connor 561).
The drought began to affect other parts of the country. In 1930,
Virginia’s belt of fertile land dried up. Ponds, streams, and springs
all dried up and the great Mississippi River water level sank lower
than ever recorded. Small farmers every-where began to feel the
drought. Their small gardens were ruined and their corn crop was cut
almost down to nothing. The hay and grass needed to feed their
livestock was no longer available. They now faced a major problem -how
to feed their livestock. The silos were rapidly emptying and the barns
in many cases were empty. The farmers were terrified that the
government feed loans wouldn’t be available to keep the livestock from
dying. In many cases, the Red Cross was making allowances for feed to
keep alive livestock (Meltzer 121). The small farmers of fruit trees
and vegetable plants depended on others who ran canneries to bottle
and can their produce. The people they depended upon were the same
people that hired scientists to experiment on the fruits and
vegetables to come up with better tasting and yielding produce. Thus
the small farmers were dependent on these same rich landowners for
almost everything. They couldn’t harvest their produce on their own
so they sold it to the rich landowners and thus made very little money
on their produce (Steinbeck 444-447). The farmers found themselves in
debt caused by the purchase of land, tools, animals and other items
bought on credit. This credit was due to the bank and when the
farmers found them- selves unable to repay the debts the bank took
away everything they had – their land, homes, animals and equipment.
When the banks took over, they went in with tractors and destroyed
everything on the farms which included their homes and barns. This is
best por- trayed in Steinbeck’s description of how the tractors
destroyed everything in its way. “The iron guard bit into the house
corner, crumbled the wall, and wrenched the little house from its
foundation, crushed like a bug (50).
“In the little houses the tenant people sifted their belongings
and the belongings of their father and of their grandfathers”
(Steinbeck 111). This describes how after many generations of farming
on their land these people had to gather their property and memories
and then try to sell whatever they could. The farmers were so
desperate for money that they had to sell for literally
pennies.Steinbeck describes the desperate conversation of a farmer to
a persepective buyer “Well, take it-all junk-and give me five dollars.
You’re not buying only junk, you’re buying junked lives” (Steinbeck
The desperation for work and money became so bad that they were
willing to work for as little as was offered just so they could have
some sort of job and make any amount of money. Soon it was a fight
for life or death (Steinbeck). In a desperate search for a job
farmers moved themselves and their families all over the country. As
people wandered the country looking for work they were unable to live
in one place. Large numbers of homeless people led to Hoovervilles.
The farmers and their families had to build homes out of anything
that they could acquire as Steinbeck describes “The south wall was
made of three sheets of rusy corrugated iron, the east a square of
moldy carpet tacked between two board, the north wall a strip of
roofing paper and a strip of tattered canvas, and the west wall six
pieces of gunny sacking”(Steinbeck 310-311). The homes were usually
near water source so they could have water to drink from, cook and
wash their clothing (Steinbeck 311).
To cut down the number of people seeking jobs or needing help, the
government decided to try to come up with some sort of relief. Among
other things, they limited immigration, returned hundreds of Mexicans
living here,and sought other methods to help the farmers. Hoover’s
Federal Farm Board urged farmers to plant less so that prices would go
up but there was no encouragement to do so.From 1920 to 1932 farm
production did drop 6 percent but prices fell ten times as much-by 63
percent. Farmers watched prices hit new lows-15 cents for corn, 5
cents for cotton and wool, hogs and sugar 3 cents, and beef 2.5
cents(Meltzer 123). With farm prices so low, most farmers, living
under the fear of their mortgages, knew that sooner or later they will
lose everything. In 1932 the farmers declared a holiday on selling.
They picketed roads asking people to join the. They gave away free
milk to the poor and unemployed rather then let it spoil because they
refused to sell it. A thirty-day holiday on farm selling was begun
August 8 and extended indefinitely(Meltzer 125). In December 1932, 250
farmers from twenty-six states gathered together for a Farmers
National Relief Conference. They announced that they demand relief
from creditors who threaten to sweep them from their homes and
In May 1933, the Agricultural Ajustment Act was passed. The aim
of this act was to raise the farm prices by growing less. The farmers
were paid not to use all the land to plant crops. The money came from
tax on millers, meat packers, and other food industries. In June of
that same year the Farm Credit Act was passed. This act helped
farmers get low interest loans. With this act, farmers wouldn’t lose
their farms to the banks that held the mortgages. The farmers who
lost their farms already would also receive low interest loans(Drewry
and O’connor 569).
The Great Depression was the end result of World War I. It
affected the rich and poor alike, factory workers and farmers, bankers
and stockbrokers. In short, it affected everyone; no one was left
untouched. But of all the people hurt, farmers were the worst off.
John Steinbeck chose to write about farmers hoping that Americans
would recognize their plight and correct the situation. The Great
Depression is known to be the worst economic disaster in U. S.
history. For this reason, the Depression caused many people to change
their ideas about the government and economy.
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