Following the collapse of the stock market in 1929, the American economy went into a free fall that lasted for an entire decade. This economic collapse, which eventually grew to include every economy in the world, was known as the Great Depression (1929–41). Across the economy, the market for American goods dried up. America had become the most powerful economy in the world on the strength of its industrial manufacturing, but by the 1930s demand for rail products, steel, and textiles had virtually disappeared. The nation's leading industry, the automobile industry, shrank during the decade as several small, independent carmakers were forced to close. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler were the largest automobile manufacturers, supplying nearly 75 percent of the automobiles sold at the beginning of the decade and about 90 percent by the end. In the automobile industry as well as in other manufacturing industries, more and more workers were let go. Unemployment began to climb in the Midwest where most of the manufacturing companies were centered.
Workers during this decade tried to combat job insecurity and poor wages by organizing into unions and striking. Some of the most violent, and deadly, strikes in American history occurred during the 1930s. Unlike the peaceful demonstrations of the late twentieth century, these strikes were vigorously opposed by employers. Companies would hire strong-arm tough guys to protect their property and to intimidate workers. In some cases, even the police would physically struggle with strikers. One of the bloodiest conflicts between labor and management was in Harlan County, Kentucky, and lasted the entire decade. Two-thirds of the county's workers were employed by coal companies. The Depression reduced wages and eliminated jobs, making workers worry about their future. More than two hundred children died from 1929 through 1931 in the county. Coal miners unionized and began to battle with coal companies for their livelihoods. Both the miners and the company guards used guns to intimidate the other side. The decade-long battle— filled with bombings, shootings, and fistfights—ended with a strike that the federal government had to end.
In addition to the hardships suffered by workers and the unemployed, farmers also grew desperate during the 1930s. Crop prices fell and banks foreclosed on farms. To try to raise enough money to save their farms, farmers grew more crops, which drove crop prices further down. To make matters worse, there was a long drought, which rendered farmland into unusable "dust bowls" and literally ruined many farms. Many farmers forced off their land in Oklahoma journeyed westward, seeking a better life in California. The plight of these "Okies" was described in the novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck (1902–1968).
Though industrial business in America suffered, new companies that made consumer products began to flourish. New products included Alka-Seltzer, ballpoint pens, Clairol hair coloring, and Fisher-Price toys. The economic supports of the New Deal—a set of government programs designed to stimulate the economy—paved the way for more and more of these consumer products to dominate the economy in the coming decades.