Saturday, March 4, 1933—Inauguration Day—was one of those raw March days when it seems that spring will never come. The thick layer of steel gray clouds sheathing the sky threatened rain, and a northwest wind whipped across Capitol Hill. Sunshine broke through on occasion, but it was dull and fleeting and did little to relieve the dreariness of that damp, chilly day.
Historians would later pinpoint that winter as the nadir of the Great Depression, but Americans hardly needed to be seers to realize that the economy could not get much worse. Thirty-eight states had closed their banks entirely, and everywhere else withdrawals were sharply curtailed. Outright bank failures numbered in the thousands annually. In those days before deposit insurance, one in four families lost their life savings. The economy was in full retreat, industrial production was half what it had been just four years earlier, and unemployment was an appalling 25 percent. Farmers were decimated after a decade of plummeting crop prices. Shantytowns of the dispossessed, sarcastically dubbed Hoovervilles, dotted the landscape, and breadlines stretched around many blocks. Homes were foreclosed, renters evicted, and signs of malnutrition among schoolchildren were increasingly evident. On Friday, March 3, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had been 86 percent off its wildly inflated pre-crash peak in September 1929. At the end of trading that day, the New York Stock Exchange announced that it would be closed indefinitely.[i] continue reading
[i] NYT, March 5, 1933; Conrad Black, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (New York: Public Affairs, 2003), 269; Stanley Lebergott, Americans, An Economic Record (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984), 447; Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 144; Edmund Wilson, Travels in Two Democracies (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936), 43.