Christmas During the First “Great Depression”

By Thomas F. Schwartz

At the end of a bruising 1932 campaign, Hoover travelled to Iowa where he gave a series of speeches in early October.  While much of the content focused on issues of the day, Hoover also used the opportunity to reminisce about his early youth in Iowa.  Hoover reminded his audience that his birth coincided with another “Great Depression” that was also more widely known as the Panic of 1873.  Global in scope and varying in length and severity from country to country, it began in October 1873 in the United States and ran until March of 1879.  Economic historian John Steele Gordon described the impact:

“The depressions of this time began to reach ever deeper into the American economy because a much larger percentage of the working population had become dependent on regular wages and national markets.  Subsistence farmers who sold their surpluses locally could weather financial depressions fairly easily.  Industrial workers and farmers who borrowed from banks on crops in the ground and sold to large grain companies could not.”

Sympathizers from all over Iowa demonstrate prior to President Hoover's arrival in Des Moines, IA,
Sympathizers from all over Iowa demonstrate prior to President Hoover’s arrival in Des Moines, IA,

Born on August 10, 1874, Hoover grew up in the midst of this economic maelstrom.  He used the comparison of the economic downturn of his youth with that of 1932. Speaking to a crowd at the Des Moines Coliseum on October 4, 1932, Hoover stated:

 “It was in this community, in this State I came in contact with my first economic depression.  I was born in the midst of the terrible time of the seventies, with their poverty and their difficulties.  And only in that period has our Nation had to meet a situation in any degree comparable with that with which we now contend.  That was the economic storm which broke upon us when the aftermath of the Civil War coincided with the wars of Europe.  But in those days agriculture and industry were less dependent upon each other, and there was far less interdependence amongst the nations of the world, and thus the violence of the storm in human suffering and loss was infinitely less disastrous.

Not that I would suggest that at that age I knew what an economic depression was or that I had ever heard the words, but I do vividly recollect a Christmas upon that farm when the sole resources of joy were popcorn balls, sorghum, and hickory nuts; when for a flock of disappointed children there were no store toys, no store clothes; when it was carefully explained that because of the hard times everything must be saved for the mortgage.  The word ‘mortgage’ became for me a dreaded and haunting fear from that day to this.”

In his memoirs, Hoover leaves out this element of want replacing it with childhood joy, not disappointment.  Choosing to emphasize the positive and uplifting memories of his youth for his memoirs does not obscure his 1932 recognition that some Christmases were more joyful than others.

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