Values, Effects of the Great Depression on

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The Great Depression precipitated a significant, albeit not lasting, change in the predominant values in the United States. To understand the nature of this shift in values, it is first necessary to examine what "traditional American values" had been and what had happened to them earlier in the twentieth century, particularly in the 1920s.


It is a commonplace that Americans are a very individualistic people. This is certainly true in many respects, but leaving it at that is misleading. There had always been a strong strain of community operating alongside American individualism. From John Winthrop's shipboard sermon, "A Modell of Christian Charity," to his fellow Puritans before their arrival in Massachusetts in 1630 ("Wee must beare one anothers burthens. We must not looke onely on our owne things, but allsoe on the things of our brethren") to Herbert Hoover's 1922 book American Individualism, which stressed the idea of voluntary cooperation rather than "rugged individualism," Americans had been urged to think of others as well as themselves. The American ideal—though certainly not always the practice—had been what might be termed "cooperative individualism." The insightful French observer of American practices, Alexis de Tocqueville, had seen in the 1830s that American democracy tended to produce an emphasis on conformity that counteracted the self-centered acquisitive individualism that other aspects of the American experience, such as the abundance of resources, encouraged.

The values that Winthrop had called for in 1630 and Tocqueville had observed in the 1830s enjoyed a revival under the impact of the Depression in the 1930s. Such cooperative values had to be resuscitated, rather than continued, because changes in the economy had gone a long way toward undermining them. This was true not only of the value placed on community, but also of such other long-established American values as frugality and deferred gratification. Americans had traditionally been future-oriented, confident in the progressive view that today's sacrifices would be rewarded by a better future for their children and grandchildren.

Such values were fine for the first three hundred or so years after the initial English settlement in North America, but during the twentieth century the demand for mass consumption to soak up the products of mass production necessitated a reversal of many time-honored values. Most traditional values had to be jettisoned if people were to be persuaded to buy more and more, indulge themselves, go into debt to consume, and stop thinking about tomorrow. The ironic subversives who directed the attack on traditional values were the putatively conservative leaders of business and industry. Their agents were advertisers, who, beginning at an extraordinary level in the 1920s, used their considerable persuasive skills to woo Americans away from the values preached by Benjamin Franklin into a self-centered, highly individualistic, live-for-the-moment life oriented toward the consumption of products purchased in the marketplace.


Having been beguiled by the sirens of the good life as measured by the accumulation of things, large numbers of Americans in the 1920s went into debt to purchase such consumer goods as automobiles, radios, and household appliances. A debtor tends to move away from a future orientation and concentrate on the present. Yet most of the Americans who were won over to the consumption ethic in the 1920s had been brought up on the traditional values, to which much lip service was still being paid, even as the reality was that they were being abandoned. Many Americans were, therefore, not entirely comfortable with the new practices.

The Depression caused Americans who had bought into the radical new values based on consumption to step back and reconsider them. The collapse of an economy based on consumption and hyper-individualism was seen by many as chastisement for having allowed themselves to be enticed away from the older ways that, deep down, they still believed were right. Tennessee Williams nicely captured this feeling when he had the narrator of his 1945 play, The Glass Menagerie, refer to the 1930s as a time when middle-class Americans, whose "eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes," in the 1920s "were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy."

A major aspect of the modern view of the world as a marketplace that had been gaining so much ground in the 1920s is that morality has and should have no bearing on the operation of the economy, which is viewed as a constant struggle among unconnected individuals pursuing their own self-interest. This outlook was quite different from the traditional one, in which the common good was seen as the foremost goal and economic decisions were supposed to be made in light of moral considerations. (Of course this ideal often had failed to be matched by reality, but it had remained the ideal.) After the marketplace economy fell apart in 1929 and the years following, growing numbers of Americans appear to have abandoned their flirtation with the idea of an amoral economy and turned back to the traditional values that took account of the social consequences of individual actions.

Viewed from the perspective of the next century, what is most striking about the shift in values in the 1930s is that the decade stands out as the only time in the twentieth century during which the seemingly inexorable thrust of the modern world toward the acquisitive individualism and present-mindedness—and concomitant social disintegration—dictated by the consumption-based economy was temporarily reversed. In reaction to the disaster into which the abandonment of older values seemed to have led them, large numbers of Americans turned against greed and excessive individualism and returned more to such ideals as prudence, deferred gratification, future-orientation, cooperation, and community—ideals that had fallen into disuse in the prosperous 1920s.


Among the more striking changes in values evident during the Depression was a turnaround in the viewpoint on small communities expressed in the culture. Small towns had often been castigated in the 1920s, for example, in the novels of Sinclair Lewis. After the collapse, however, there was a growing trend toward appreciation of the sense of place and belonging associated with such communities (although usually not in a completely uncritical way). This movement in attitudes is evident in the films of Frank Capra and John Ford, in Thornton Wilder's play Our Town (1938), the 1939 film classics The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, and Norman Rockwell's paintings of scenes of small-town life that appeared in the Saturday EveningPost, among many other cultural products of the era.

Others of the decade's altered values were also reflected in the popular culture of the Depression years. The gangster film genre that became so popular often (as in the 1930 film Little Caesar) linked greedy gangsters with businessmen and suggested in ways subtle and not-so-subtle that the latter—men who had often been revered in the twenties—were little more than greedy criminals themselves. And the whole range of social values and cooperation can be seen in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). "Use' ta be the fambly was fust," Ma Joad says of those people who feel obliged to help. "It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do."


One of the paradoxes of the Depression era is that at the same time that many men felt that their manhood was threatened by unemployment and their inability to fulfill the traditional male role of provider, there was a decided move away from the highly competitive, every-man-for-himself economic system, which was generally perceived as being essentially masculine. The emphasis on community, sharing, cooperation, interdependence, and compassion that was evident in so many quarters during the Depression has generally been seen as a more female approach to the world.

A possible explanation for the willingness of men during the Depression to accept values associated with women is that their loss of position put them in the accustomed place of women in society: dominated, powerless—on the bottom. While the feeling that he was in this position was likely to threaten a man's self image as a "real man," it was also likely to produce a general outlook more suited to such a diminished status in society. In any case, the putatively more male approach that had held sway in the twenties had been discredited, so another set of values would seem to be worth a try.


One of the major reasons for the popularity of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal was that their outlook and policies seemed to match the resurgent values of cooperative individualism that were so widely re-embraced by Americans during the Depression years.

Having bought into the promises that a free market from which government restraints were lifted would produce the common good and having experienced instead what might be termed the "common bad" of the Depression, many Americans were ready to accept the re-imposition of limits. The New Deal did just that. In his first inaugural address in March 1933, Franklin Roosevelt castigated "a generation of self-seekers" and pledged to restore "ancient truths" by applying "social values more noble than mere monetary profit." The American people, the new president declared, "now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence with each other."

On all these counts and many more, Roosevelt was giving voice to the values that had made a comeback among the American people. In his speech accepting the 1936 Democratic presidential nomination, Roosevelt captured the resurgent values of the Depression years and his government's embrace of them in a single sentence: "Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government caught in the ice of its own indifference."


The revived values of a more cooperative individualism that took hold under the impact of the Great Depression and the accompanying rejection of consumption-based acquisitive individualism did not long survive a return to prosperity. The modern world's—and especially modern America's—rush toward the social disintegration demanded by the consumption-based marketplace economy accelerated in the post-World War II years. In those years, little has stood in the way of the rapid advance of the present-minded, self-indulgent consumerism that characterized most of the twentieth century. Remnants of the values of the Great Depression and the government programs and policies that reflected them have provided most of the few checks that still exist on the all-conquering marketplace values of the modern world.



McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America,1929–1941. 1984, 1993.

McElvaine, Robert S. Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and theCourse of History. 2001.

Pells, Richard H. Radical Visions and American Dreams:Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years. 1973.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. 1939.

Terkel, Studs. Hard Times: An Oral History of the GreatDepression. 1970.

Robert S. McElvaine