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Sophie Lefebvre, Junior Fellow, Science, Technology & Business Division
Natalie Burclaff, Business Reference Specialist, Science, Technology & Business Division
Note: Created as part of the Junior Fellows 2020 program.
Created: May 11, 2020
Last Updated: September 14, 2020
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At the height of the 1920s, average Americans spent more and more of their disposable income on major durable consumer goods.1 The U.S. consumer economy and stock market was booming throughout the 'Roaring Twenties,' with stocks reaching their highest point in September 1929.2 The advertising industry grew to match. By the end of the 1920s, an increasingly sophisticated advertising industry had integrated new techniques in retail, credit, sales management, and consumer research into the marketing process. Marketing efforts accelerated to match businesses' rapid introduction of new products and services to satisfy consumer markets.3
Many associate the Great Depression with the stock market crash in October 1929, but the economy started contracting in August of that year, beginning an economic downturn that lasted 43 months until March 1933.4 By the end of 1933, production had decreased dramatically and real GDP fell 29%.5 Consumer expenditures decreased from $77.5 billion in 1929 to $45.9 billion in 1933.6 Buying on credit or using installment plans had been normalized in the 1920s, but the market crash in October 1929 resulted in a sharp drop in the number of consumers purchasing on credit by 1930, while households focused on paying off their existing debts.7
Advertising spending, which had reached a high of $2.8 billion in 1929, plummeted to $1.3 billion.8 Automotive, department store, dime store, and mail order sales declined drastically by January of 1930 as America entered the Great Depression.9 Despite the overall reduced spending in the advertising industry, circulation of newspapers and periodicals were higher than ever and the annual amount spent on radio advertising in 1930 was seven times more than it had been in 1927.10 Advertisers pivoted messaging to focus on themes of thrift, patriotism, and fear of humiliation. They used testimonials, the "hard sell," product placement, and sponsorships to convince buyers to spend.
This guide provides primary and secondary sources that examine marketing efforts, focusing heavily on the advertising industry, from 1929 to 1933. The Great Depression is comprised of two economic downturns, from August 1929 to March 1933, and May 1937 to June 1938.11 This guide focuses on the first downturn, which was longer and more severe, and took place during Herbert Hoover's presidency, ending with Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration. Examples of advertising campaigns, government regulations, and marketing agencies are included, along with resources for further research. Topical pages of the guide highlight resources related to more specific areas of interest, such as race and gender in advertising, radio advertising, and consumer protection groups.
Part of the Science, Technology & Business Division at the Library of Congress, Business Reference Services is the starting point for conducting research at the Library of Congress in the subject areas of business and economics. Here, reference specialists in specific subject areas of business assist patrons in formulating search strategies and gaining access to the information and materials contained in the Library's rich collections of business and economics materials.