Left: Unemployed Toledoans lining up for food, 1932.
Signs of a weakening economy manifested themselves in Toledo well before the stock market crash of 1929, in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost over 50% of its valuation. Black Thursday, however, was not a root cause of the Great Depression, but rather a bellwether of a deepening world economic crisis.
On the week that news of the crash first reached readers of the Toledo Blade, ominous signs of an economic downturn were evident. Auto dealers were running desperate-sounding ads in the hope of spurring a backlog of inventory, and the futures markets for such commodities as steel had been in decline for many months.
The Blade had begun to use the word “depression” to describe economic conditions as early as July 1930, although the editorial staff continued to downplay signs of trouble well into 1931. Paul Block, editor and publisher of the Blade, frequently exhorted readers to avoid negative thinking, as well as to do their civic duty by increasing their consumer purchases.
Unemployment began to quickly rise in Toledo by 1931. The Merchants and Manufacturers Association estimated in 1930 that as many as 18,000 Toledo workers were jobless. The Toledo Blade reported that there were 15,000 unemployed workers in October 1930; this, of course, does not include the many thousands of under-employed workers who scraped by on any available part-time work. The federal government did not begin to keep systematic statistics on unemployment until 1948, and estimates vary as to the extent of the problem in Toledo as the Great Depression worsened. However, conservative estimates put unemployment in Toledo at 25% in 1932, and as high as 50% in 1933, considered by most economists to be the national trough of the Great Depression in the United States.
Left: Hooverville on the Maumee, 1933.
As a center of manufacturing, Toledo suffered the fate of many American urban areas in the Midwest; industrial areas had some of the highest rates of unemployment during the Great Depression. As a region, the Midwest experienced job losses in the industrial sectors of nearly 40% by 1933. The Toledo Blade reported that 25,000 meals were served at an aid facility set up in September 1931 at the Terminal Building. By 1933, nearly 60,000 residents turned to the city of Toledo for food; the cost of the emergency assistance reached $1.7 million.
The large number of unemployed Toledo workers contributed to labor unrest during the years of the Great Depression. While the 1934 Auto-Lite strike, which was a seminal moment in American labor history, had its roots in wage and working condition disputes, hundreds of unemployed Toledoans joined the striking workers on the picket lines in May 1934. The Ohio National Guard was ordered in to Toledo to advance on the assembled protestors, and on May 24 the Guard opened fire on the group, killing two men and injuring hundreds of other activists.
While FDR’s New Deal policies helped reduce unemployment, they were by no means a complete cure. By 1940 the jobless rate in Ohio remained at 15.9%, many times the level of “normal” unemployment touted by mainstream economists. Only the onset of the Second World War, with the accompanying demand for war matériel, would finally get Toledoans back to work.
Above photos courtesy of Toledo-Lucas County Public Library's fine image database, "Images in Time."
This essay is an excerpt of research I recently completed for a fiction writer.