Income Inequality A Chilling History

ecomomy 1930s income inequality

Depressing news- income inequality in America isn’t new.

Frigid winters during the Great Depression could be particularly cruel as the chasm between the toasty haves and the chilly have not’s grew wider.

Decked out in their luxurious Russian Lynx or Persian lamb fur coats, harsh winter was no problem at all for the well-to-do; struggling to pay for the winter coal delivery was a problem for many.


Soup Kitchen 1930's

As income inequality becomes the defining issue in this country today, the stark division seen in Depression era advertising seems oddly familiar.

While hardship, hunger and human despair was haunting much of the country in 1930,  the fortunate  1% were apparently  living life large.

As banks were failing, home evictions rising, and breadlines at soup kitchens lengthening, winter meant only one thing to those with deep pockets – a winter vacation.

How the Wealthy Weathered Winter

vintage illustration winter skiing car studebaker

Vintage advertisement Studebaker Cars 1930 Lake Placid
“How significant, then, that so many of these play-bound motor cars should be Studebaker’s smart straight Eights.

Although it was the height of the Depression it was also, we learn in a December 1930 ad,  “the height of the winter sports season” where  Lake Placid attracted an elite selection of ski bunny swells.

Arriving at the plush resort in the Adirondack Mountains of N.Y. in their snazzy Studebaker Eights announced to the world they had arrived.

Clearly these play-bound fat cats schussing down the slopes as the economy spiraled downward, were part of the elite. That this ad ran in “Good Housekeeping” alongside helpful articles suggesting “budget saving meal tips” seems mind-boggling.

vintage illustration skiers 1930

While everything was falling – industrial output, unemployment, wages, prices and human spirits, the rich need only worry about accidentally falling during a ski run.

“Flashing down the snow buttressed highways from Au Sable Forks toward Lake Placid, ride mainly those of means and discernment,” the ad explains as if it needed explaining, to those counting their every penny.

At a time when men re-sharpened and reused old razor blades and used 25 watt light bulbs to save electricity, few but those of means could afford a new car. When a Ford costing  $495 was a pipe dream,  a basic Studebaker starting at $1,395 was unthinkable.

Vintage Chrysler Imperial advertisement 1930

Vintage Chrysler Imperial advertisement 1930
For sheer luxury, the Chrysler Imperial Eights costing $ 3595 were ” everything the word “‘Imperial’ signifies…as the dictionary says ‘fit for an emperor; magnificent; imposing; superior in size or quality.”

“Even if you have your own chauffeur,” this Chrysler Imperial ad informs us, “you will want to do the driving.”

As rampant unemployment and poverty became more and more common, the wealthy lived in a world that remained insular, arrogant, and out of touch.

Sound familiar?

vintage illustration 1930 wealthy country club retro helicopter

Perfect for the country club set was their own personal Pitcairn Autogiro, a precursor to the helicopter. This 1930 ad entices the reader : “Open areas surrounding almost any country club offer room for the owner of a Pitcairn Autogiro to fly directly to his golf game. The practicality of such use has long ago been demonstrated by those owners of the Pitcairn Autogiro who have flown to football games, race tracks, hunt meets and other social gatherings.”


NY Apple Sellers Depression 1930

The folks in these advertisements, these owners of fine country homes, town houses and yachts,  seem oblivious to the crumbling economy around them.

But then again so did their President.

In his December 2, 1930 message to Congress an optimistic  but delusional President Herbert Hoover  said “…that the fundamental strength of the economy is unimpaired.”

That December as the International Apple Shippers Association faced with a surplus of apples decided to sell them on credit to jobless men for resale at 5 cents each, the wealthy began packing their Louis Vuitton steamer trunks for their winter cruises.

Goodbye to All That

vintage illustration travelers on cruises french line 1930

Vintage Ad French Line Cruise Ships 1930
Naturally every need would be taken care of: “Bronzed and mustachioed tars whose Breton forefathers saw America before Columbus…well trained English-speaking servants within call…all is well-ordered for these fortunate travelers.”

For those less sports-inclined, a winter cruise was a  brilliant escape from harsh winter.

“Say Goodbye to All That,”  cheers on the headline in this 1930 ad for French Line Cruises.

A sumptuous liner with its spacious salons and charming staterooms where nothing is lacking, would take you far away from  wretchedness and misery and all that!

“Rackets and riveters cross town traffic and subways brownstone fronts with basement entrances conferences and conventions aren’t you fed up with them all?” the reader of the ad is asked.

Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

Depression era scenes Unemplyed Apple sellers and wealthy couple and their car

Who needed to be reminded of desperate men  in threadbare suits  selling apples on the street corner, hoboes and Hoovervilles?

“Now is the time when executives come back from lunch wondering why nothing tastes good anymore. Now is the time also when smart people give themselves a taste of good salt air and  few weeks abroad,” tempts the French Line advertisement.

Assuming the reader of this ad which appeared in “Fortune” magazine has a chauffeur the copy  goes on to say:

Seymour they say, ‘get out the trunks. We’re off on the vast deep’.. And presto! The moment they set foot on deck they’re in  France!

Ask your travel agent about voyaging on France afloat…and as the skyline vanishes from view wave your hand sniff in the salt breeze and say Goodbye to all that!


Little White Lies

vintage illustration man dreaming of Jobs 1930s

President Hoovers first reaction to the slump which followed the crash in October 1929 had been to treat it as a psychological disorder. He had chosen the word “Depression” because it sounded less frightening than “panic or “crisis”.
By the end of 1930 and unemployment rose sharply passing 4 million, meant a great deal of people were indeed “depressed.”

A secure job. a warm home, and food on the table; many during the Depression had already said goodbye to all that.

For members of the well-heeled class everything was aces!

Especially if you listened to one of their own, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon the banker, businessman, industrialist, and member of the prestigious and wealthy  Mellon family.

In the same year these ads ran, Mellon responded to the dire economic times commenting: ”I see nothing in the present situation that is either menacing or warrants pessimism. During the winter months there may be some slackness or unemployment, but hardly more than at this season each year.”

That dynamic duo of Wall Street and Washington  was personified by Andrew Mellon.

Regarded in the roaring 20s  as the greatest Secretary of the Treasury since Alexander Hamilton, only one year after the crash he was mocked by middle-class children chanting:

Mellon pulled the whistle

Hoover rang the bell

Wall Street gave the signal

And the country went to hell


PostScript 2019

File This Under Let Them Eat Cake Department- The disconnect today between the have and have nots was brought into sharp relief when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross commented he didn’t understand why unpaid government workers are going to homeless shelters and food banks rather than taking out loans to pay their bills.


Copyright (©) 2019 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved



  1. Insightful and nicely-written article–thank you. Ironically, one of my homeless friends has the last name Mellon–

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very well-written piece. Income inequality is indeed a problem for the ages but stats show that it is getting worse and worse. The whole economic system is set up so that you make money by owning money and you have to pay up to be poor. I wrote an article recently about whether there’s a link between income inequality (measured using gini coefficient) and happiness (using cantril ladder). Even if the link doesn’t hold up, there is no doubt in my mind that less income inequality means better quality of life for the majority. Great article!


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