Iconic images from economic recessions in US history
America spent nearly one-quarter of the 20th century in some form of an economic recession. Some of these contractions are the natural result of the economy's ebbs and flows. Other times, as in the 2008 recession, an economic downturn is the result of external factors. Throughout the country's history, recessions have been caused by everything from global circumstances and environmental calamities to war and the dissolution of artificial "bubbles" created by speculation around industries such as real estate or technology.
In 2020, that circumstance is a public health emergency. COVID-19 has forced the planet to reckon with the stark reality of a pandemic grinding the global economy to a halt. As government officials and civilians around the world have worked to slow the spread of an airborne virus, businesses have been shuttered and stock markets have mirrored societal panic and fear. Harvard economist Kenneth S. Rogoff told the New York Times’ Peter S. Goodman, “This is already shaping up as the deepest dive on record for the global economy for over 100 years. Everything depends on how long it lasts, but if this goes on for a long time, it’s certainly going to be the mother of all financial crises.”
One of the greatest weapons a person has in times of adversity is artistic expression. So it follows that some of the most iconic images in history are those that captured the anger, austerity, and hopelessness that human beings endure in times of financial crises. Even before the invention of the camera, artists used their talents to enshrine bank runs, protests, and political events surrounding destructive recessions.
These 31 photos chronicle some of the most trying times in the history of the American economy. Some profile despair, others show optimism and resilience, but every one of these images captures a moment in time when financial circumstances collided with everyday individuals. Read on for the stories behind these iconic images.
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Run on Seamen's Savings Bank
Harper's Weekly printed a wood engraving on Halloween day in 1857 depicting a frenzied run on Seamen's Savings Bank, an event that signaled the start of the Panic of 1857. The worst economic downturn in a generation, the panic was fueled by a convergence of several factors that led to the failure of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company—the first domino of many to fall in a series of bankruptcies and corporate failures.
Run on the Fourth National Bank
It's difficult to overstate the reach of the railroad industry in the decade following the Civil War. Four years after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, a company that was heavily invested in a second coast-to-coast railway project collapsed and declared bankruptcy. This triggered a chain of events that led to the failure of 89 railroads and 18,000 associated businesses. Known as the Panic of 1873, it triggered economic bedlam and chaotic bank runs, like this one depicted in Harper's Weekly on Oct. 4 of that year.
Panic of 1907
The first major economic crisis of the 20th century was the Panic of 1907, which exposed gaping vulnerabilities of the New York-based trust companies that were directly tied to banks and equity markets of the era. The recession the panic triggered, in both its causes and effects, bore a disturbing resemblance to an economic crisis that would engulf the country and the world almost exactly a century later. This image, which depicts panicked investors converging on Wall Street, defined the crisis.
Stock Exchange Floor
Another image, published in 1908, depicted a sparsely populated New York Stock Exchange floor littered with trading slips after a day consumed by frantic selloffs. The Panic of 1907 was triggered by a failed attempt to corner the copper market, which triggered a stock market crash that was the worst in history until the Great Depression.
Harding's front porch campaign
In 1920, Warren G. Harding won the presidency in a landslide that was unprecedented up to that point. Harding, who was best known for giving speeches from his home's specially designed front porch, used his "front porch campaigns" to focus on the daunting 1920-21 recession, which was triggered by excessive World War I spending.
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Few images have captured the human face of an economic calamity more perfectly than Dorothea Lange's famous "Migrant Mother" photo, which represents the suffering that came with the worst economic crisis in modern world history: the Great Depression. The image depicted Florence Thompson, an out-of-work widow, who relocated to California along with swarms of other desperately poor people. Her defeated, anxious stare became the human embodiment of the despondence that defined the era.
Al Capone's soup kitchen
During the Great Depression, bread and soup lines were a common sight across the country, which was wracked by widespread unemployment and hunger. One of them was operated by a man who was not lacking for food, money or work: legendary gangster Al Capone, who made a fortune as a Prohibition bootlegger.
Another Dorothea Lange photo captured a scene that had become commonplace during the depression—migrant families heading west on rickety wagons in search of jobs. As the catastrophe expanded, roads became crowded with vagabond families, who often encountered resistance from residents who didn't welcome their presence or competition for jobs. Mexican immigrants, like those depicted here, were hit especially hard.
Poor, unemployed, desperate and hungry, hordes of out-of-work men staged protests demanding their government do something to ease their families' suffering during the Great Depression. Jobs protests, like this one in Boston, became commonplace as people struggled to get by.
Few populations suffered more during the Great Depression than African Americans in the South, who were violently discriminated against. Their struggles during that era began black Americans’ political shift from being largely Republican—the party of Lincoln—to becoming a central component of the Democratic base. This Dorothea Lange photo captures the despair of a black Depression-era sharecropper in Hinds County, Mississippi.
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