Iconic images from economic recessions in U.S. history

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September 4, 2020
Cate Gillon // Getty Images

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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U.S. Library of Congress // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Library of Congress

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.

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New York Public Library // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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New York Public Library // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG // Getty Images

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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Dorothea Lange // Library of Congress

Migrant Mother

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.

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U.S. National Archives // Wikimedia Commons

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.

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U.S. Library of Congress // Wikimedia Commons

Migrant family

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.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

Unemployed protests

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.

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Dorothea Lange // Library of Congress

Mississippi sharecropper

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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Social Security Administration // Wikimedia Commons

Run on American Union Bank

It’s a common Depression-era scene: panicked depositors trying to retrieve their life savings from failing banks in the days before FDIC insurance. Bank runs continued for two years after this famous 1931 photograph depicting a 1931 run on the failed American Union Bank.

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Keystone // Getty Images

Black Tuesday

Oct. 29, 1929, will forever be known as Black Tuesday. The previous decade saw stock prices inflating far beyond their actual value as wild speculation fueled reckless trading in the "Roaring Twenties." On this fateful day, it all came tumbling down, wiping out billions of dollars in profits and bankrupting thousands of investors in a single day.

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U.S. Library of Congress // Wikimedia Commons

Protest at the Bank of the United States

The first major bank collapse during the Great Depression took place at the Bronx branch of the Bank of the United States. As rumors swirled that the bank was liquidating, 20,000 panicked people stormed the bank to withdraw their money. When the bank went bust, 3,000 broke depositors protested their losses.

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Dorothea Lange // Library of Congress

Shanty town

During the Depression, makeshift shanty towns sprung up to accommodate poverty-stricken Americans rendered homeless by eviction and foreclosure. Called "Hoovervilles," a pejorative inspired by the president who originally presided over the Depression, shanty towns were dirty, dangerous, and packed. This iconic photograph depicts a poor mother and her children living in a shanty in Elm Grove, Oklahoma.

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U.S. National Archives // Wikimedia Commons

Hitler rising

European fascists, most notably Adolf Hitler, rose out of obscurity by taking advantage of the anger, resentment and hunger for change stoked by the Great Depression. Not only did Hitler capitalize on the hopes and fears of hordes of unemployed Germans, he offered a convenient scapegoat for all their problems: their Jewish neighbors.

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U.S. Department of Agriculture // Wikimedia Commons

The Dust Bowl

For farmers across the Great Plains, the Depression was only half of an economic one-two punch that crippled American agriculture. The other half was the Dust Bowl, an environmental catastrophe caused partly by policy and partly by nature. As this picture of buried farm equipment in South Dakota shows, billions of tons of once-fertile soil literally turned to dust, sweeping across the plains in massive storms that destroyed farms, caused crops to fail and killed farm animals and people.

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U.S. Library of Congress // Wikimedia Commons

Woody Guthrie

No musician is more closely associated with American folk music than Woody Guthrie, whose ballads, protest songs and satire influenced future stars like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Nicknamed the "Dust Bowl Troubadour," Guthrie was born in Oklahoma and lived in Texas, two states devastated by the combined effects of the Depression and Dust Bowl. Guthrie's music criticized government policy and the financial interests that helped steer it while championing impoverished Americans and highlighting the impact of the catastrophe they endured.

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Three Lions // Getty Images

Black blizzard

The combination of high winds, extended drought and years of irresponsible farming sent billions of tons of ruined topsoil into the air. Massive dust storms, nicknamed black blizzards, rose thousands of feet high and tore through the Midwest, blotting out the sun and eventually spreading as far east as New York City and Washington D.C.

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Arthur Siegel // Library of Congress

African American exodus

Six million black Americans between 1916 and 1970 fled their homes in the South for the relative freedom and economic opportunity in other parts of the country. Pushed by the double prod of racism and poverty, much of what is known as the Great Migration took place during times of economic recession. These uprooted individuals found few warm welcomes as they made their way to Northern cities, where many white residents resented the new competition for jobs and housing.

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Lewis Hine // U.S. National Archives

Back to work

When Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1933, he took swift action to counter the effects of the Great Depression. His so-called New Deal resulted in some of America's greatest and most enduring social programs while creating massive public works projects that put millions of unemployed Americans back to work.

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David Falconer // U.S. National Archives

Gas lines

From 1973 to 1974, Arab nations punished the United States with an oil embargo for the latter's support of Israel during the Arab-Israeli war. The result was an economic crisis symbolized by long lines at the gas pump: the result of steep shortages and rationing of fuel.

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David Falconer // U.S. National Archives

The gas flag

As the oil crisis raged on, America's over-reliance on foreign petroleum was revealed and a global shift in power to Middle Eastern oil countries took place. Gas flags, which let drivers know the status of their local gas stations, became familiar sights across the country.

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John Fekner // Wikimedia Commons

Broken promises

Years of economic neglect, “white flight” to the suburbs, and an economic recession by the early 1980s turned many of America's once-thriving urban centers into largely abandoned, rubble-strewn shells. Many of the people who remained in inner cities were the poorest residents, unable to escape the dysfunctional magnets for drugs and crime that their neighborhoods had become. No place in America epitomized urban decay like the South Bronx in New York City, where arson and lawlessness swept across vast swaths of abandoned neighborhoods—like the one where this photo was taken in 1980.

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Roger Hsu // Flickr

Black Monday

This photograph of stressed-out traders on Wall Street captured the mood of Oct. 19, 1987, known today as Black Monday. It was the day the Dow lost 22% of its value as stock markets crashed in New York City, Hong Kong, Tokyo and beyond.

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Chris Hondros/Newsmakers // Getty Images

The bubble bursts

The 1990s were characterized by economic prosperity and technological innovation, which culminated in the dawn of the digital age. Tiny startups turned investors into overnight millionaires as wild speculation inflated the value of internet-based "dot-com" companies. The bubble burst in 2000 when the Nasdaq lost 78% of its value and the U.S. was plunged into a steep recession.

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Mark Wilson // Getty Images

The Enron hearings

The first years of the new millennium witnessed a rash of corporate scandals, revealing the type of white-collar greed and lawlessness that would ignite the Great Recession. The largest and most egregious of them all was Enron, a Wall Street darling with seemingly boundless profits that turned out to be a mirage created by crooked accounting, dishonest financial reporting, and political cover purchased with campaign donations.

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Nesster // Flickr

Recession special

The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression swept across America and the world in 2008. The real estate market collapsed, as did the investment banks and insurance firms that traded mortgage debt as legitimate securities. Although America learned Wall Street had knowingly gambled with the nation's economy (often in cahoots with the very regulators tasked with overseeing them), not a single banker ever went to prison for their roles in the crisis. Meanwhile, countless people sought ways to cobble together a living any way they could.

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Jeff Turner // Flickr

Foreclosure

The most enduring hallmark of the Great Recession was an avalanche of foreclosures that impacted nearly every corner of America. Lenders issued subprime mortgages to borrowers who couldn't afford them. These loans, which were packaged and traded as honest securities, came with confusing and volatile interest structures, which quickly rendered millions of homeowners unable to pay mortgages that exceeded the value of their homes.

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TIM SLOAN/AFP // Getty Images

Bailout

While millions of Americans were left hanging and homeless, the banks and insurance companies that caused the crisis were deemed "too big to fail." They received hundreds of billions of dollars in publicly funded bailout money, with many of Wall Street's guiltiest culprits actually receiving bonuses. In this now-famous picture, President George W. Bush discusses emergency bailouts with members of Congress.

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Mike Fleshman // Wikimedia Commons

Occupy Wall Street

In the wake of the 2008 recession, a wave of public outrage culminated in the Occupy Wall Street movement—a mass protest against large corporations and government collusion within the financial industry. This leaderless movement sought to indict what they deemed as a system that rigged America's wealth-generating institutions in favor of the richest people on Earth.

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Spencer Platt // Getty Images

COVID-19 downturn

In the wake of a rare, devastating airborne pandemic, global markets have come to a virtual halt. Vast businesses are shuttered, workforces are remaining at home, and a recession is imminent. The S&P 500 in the U.S. dropped 12.5% in March, the biggest one-month decline since 2008. The New York Times’ Peter S. Goodman wrote April 1: “[F]ears are growing that the downturn could be far more punishing and long lasting than initially feared—potentially enduring into next year, and even beyond—as governments intensify restrictions on business to halt the spread of the pandemic, and as fear of the virus reconfigures the very concept of public space, impeding consumer-led economic growth.”

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