How To Understand the Effects of the Great Depression

The Great Depression was a national and, in some respects, international catastrophe that paralyzed our society for nearly a decade. As Americans reflect on the history of the last century, they cannot help but center on the Great Depression as either an era which they endured or out of which they were born. Knowing how to understand the effects of the Great Depression can lead Americans to a fuller comprehension of the source of many of their attitudes and values. Here are a few good sources that can lead to a better understanding of the effects of the Great Depression.

  1. Senior Citizens Perhaps the most enjoyable and non-academic approach to understanding the effects of the Great Depression is to talk to seniors. Anyone born in 1925 or earlier is likely to have many recollections of how America's trying times affected him or her individually and the society in general.

    Collectively, senior citizens are an incredible storehouse of real personal experiences accumulated during the years of the Great Depression. In a group of senior citizens, you may find individuals who can remember soup kitchens, breadlines, men selling apples and children dressed in rags. Some may have memories tied to specific areas of the country like New York City, Washington, D. C. or one of the Dust Bowl states like Oklahoma or Kansas. Listeners need to remember, of course, that oral traditions are always subject to exaggeration and the individual prejudices of the one sharing the memory. Such memories, while valuable, need to be balanced against other resources.

  2. Primary Sources If you want to take your search for understanding the effects of the Great Depression a step further, you will benefit from written primary sources. These are books written by eyewitnesses who actually watched the Great Depression unfold around them.

    One such source is Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel. It is a well-known history that documents life during the unbelievably hard times of the Depression written by one who experienced them firsthand.

    A more technical source that can help readers to understand the effects of the Great Depression is a book entitled Reflections on the Great Depression. This book is actually a collection of interviews conducted by Randall E. Parker. Well-known economists who lived during Depression times, including such luminaries as Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman, are among the eleven reliable contributors who delve into the economic effects felt during the Great Depression.

  3. Secondary Sources Not everyone who has something important to say about the effects of the Great Depression was born in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Some in-depth analysis is provided in secondary sources that address the effects of the Great Depression. These are books written by people who did not experience the Depression directly but learned about it through other sources. An outstanding secondary source on the Great Depression is Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War. Written by Stanford University American History Professor David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear won a Pulitzer Prize for its author.

    Also helpful to those wishing to understand the effects of the Great Depression is The Great Depression: America in the 1930s by T. H. Watkins. This book not only discusses the effects of the Depression but it helps to make those effects come to life by including more than 150 pictures taken during the 1930s.

  4. Video Sources If reading really isn't your thing but you still have curiosity regarding the effects of the Great Depression, you can satisfy your interest with the help of PBS. The well-known PBS offering, "The American Experience" included a series of seven episodes which centered on the Great Depression. Videos of each of the seven episodes can be found in many public libraries and borrowed for free.

    The best part of watching this series is that you can replay the sections that interest you most at will and skip over what you consider of lesser import. As with most PBS presentations, the Great Depression series is well-researched and loaded with footage you are unlikely to encounter elsewhere.

  5. Online It's easy to track more information about the effects of the Great Depression by going online. An excellent online resource is available at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This site provides a world view of the Great Depression, using maps to display the regional effects. Here you can also find an amazing photo essay that furnishes images that will help you to envision the real flesh and blood effects of the Great Depression.

    Those who really have a lot of time to devote to understanding the Great Depression will enjoy views from the files of the U. S. Library of Congress. This site allows you to access some 164,000 black and white photos and 1600 color pictures that show the ravages inflicted by the Great Depression as well as the incredible will of an afflicted people to survive.

Those who want to understand the effects of the Great Depression need to use as many types of resources as possible and carefully weigh one against another. Remember that each type of resource has something to add to the complete picture, but none should be the sole source of understanding.


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