Breadline

Full Program Description

Breadline
Economic depression triggers unemployment on a global scale
Original broadcast: Monday, June 1 at 9pm
(check local listings for re-broadcast dates)


In the 1920s, Americans were enjoying the fruits of a new prosperity as the country surged ahead in a post-war boom. Capitalism seemed to be delivering on its promise of prosperity for all -- boosting economies both at home and abroad. Then, on October 24, 1929, the unthinkable happened: The New York Stock Exchange crashed; banks failed; and commerce suffered a blow that would be felt 'round the world.

In Breadline, workers from the US, Chile, Britain, Belgium, and Scandinavia recall the desperation of Great Depression. They explain how bewilderment turned to anger and impatience for action. In search of solutions, some turned to communism, others to fascism. As a nation, the United States looked to the promise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. But the single enterprise that put most people back to work worldwide was the business of war -- the Second World War.

Breadline opens amid the "roaring '20s" in the US. New York stock broker Thomas Larkin recalls: "I think it was rank speculation. There were going to be two chickens in every pot. Everybody was going to have two automobiles and everybody and his uncle would be calling me up to buy stocks." In just four years, their shares roared up 400 percent. "They never asked what price they were going to pay, you just bought them and that was all."

No Help Wanted Until the Crash. Within months, the worst affected were not the big investors, but working people everywhere. New Yorker Bill Bailey remembers: "I couldn't find a job. I 'd get out and maybe hustle fifteen places a day -- banging on warehouse doors, stuff like that. Impossible. I ended up selling apples. It wasn't easy you know.... In New York City there was nothing that struck the imagination more than seeing a soup line of 500 people. Then two days later 1,000 people in the same line. And it kept on growing and growing."

Thousands of miles away from Wall Street the impact was just as sudden -- and just as devastating. Chilean copper mines dependent on trade with the United States closed down. Justo Ballesteros remembers: "After [the] crash on Wall Street, factories in the United States closed and they stopped buying. They stopped buying copper and all the raw materials produced here. This paralyzed the market here and, so, directly affected the entire working population. People were ruined, companies went bust. It was a crisis."

The slump was even more devastating for Chileans who produced nitrates, shipped to farmers all over the world as fertilizer. Claudia Montaņo-Dias lived in one of the Chilean desert's many nitrate towns: "The nitrate works was our daily bread, it was our security. There wasn't anything else. Where else were we going to work when the desert was so vast? One day in December [they started] sending people away. What could the poor people do? Just pick up their suitcases and accept whatever happened. Who could we turn to?" Belgian coalminers from the Borinage and British shipbuilders in Jarrow shared the plight of the Chileans. Jobs disappeared overnight. Yvonne Mouffe recognizes herself as a small child in an archival film of miners' living conditions shot in Belgium in 1930, and describes the scene in Breadline: "We slept on the floor. Some slept on the table with straw, the others slept on the floor. That's me, in the cradle because I'm ill. My father's turning the table round otherwise there isn't enough room. There were nine children. My mother is serving the potatoes. There are the potatoes, that's all we were given. How did we live like that?" Con Shiels, one of the last surviving "Jarrow Crusaders," remembers the desperation that drove him to join the 200-mile march to petition the House of Commons for aid: "We had to do something because the Government was turning a deaf ear to all our pleas."

While Britons at least had "the dole" -- six months of government-funded support -- Americans had no State-sponsored safety net. John Takman left Sweden for America in 1929, in search of the "land of opportunity;" instead, he found "misery all around. Thousands -- tens of thousands of people evicted from their apartments. Whole families. And old people sitting in rocking chairs on the sidewalk. Nowhere to go, no food, they could starve to death because there was no social security. There was no unemployment insurance. There was nothing."

Picture: Boxcar By 1932, more than thirteen million Americans -- twenty-five percent of the workforce -- were unemployed. Bill Bailey became a hobo, hitching lifts on freight trains as he traveled across the US in search of work. "I decided that I should head West. In that period of time, there was only one way to get around, and that was by railroad. By box car. Wherever you'd hear a rumor that a job was opening up, thousands would be sitting up on top of the car. . . . We're talking about professional people, scientists, doctors, lawyers. All these people were thrown into this pit."

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said Franklin Roosevelt, as he was sworn in as President of the United States in 1933. He promised that he would "stand or fall by my refusal to accept . . . a permanent army of the unemployed." His New Deal is considered by many even today the most ambitious program of democratic reforms ever conceived.

One direct beneficiary was Mancil Milligan, an out-of-work teacher who secured a permanent job on the Tennessee Valley Authority's Pickwick Dam project: "The money that the TVA spent trickled out all over the United States. They bought copper wire from somewhere -- so the people who mined the copper, they got a job. When I went to work at Pickwick, I worked six days a week, so I hired someone to haul and chop my wood. I hired someone to paint my house if it needed it. So everybody got a piece of the pie."

Ironically, it was the terrifying prospect of war that finally put the world back to work. In Chile, copper mines were busy working twenty-four hours a day: every artillery shell -- German, Japanese, British, and American -- needed a copper casing. And the nitrate from the Chilean desert was also in demand again -- but this time, for use in explosives. In Europe, German build-up accelerated rearmament -- and created new jobs. Shipyards across Britain received new orders from the navy

Suddenly, workers like Bill Bailey were in great demand: "There wasn't an industry that did not holler for men, no matter what it was," remembers Bailey. "[Just] a few years ago, here you were going from ship to ship, bumming a job, begging for a job. Going from soup line to soup line -- wondering if you're ever going to find yourself in a position again in America -- to where there's so many jobs that they can't be filled, you know. It was like a dream come true."


Breadline is produced and directed by Archie Baron; the narrator is John Forsythe. People's Century is a co-production of WGBH and the BBC -- filmed around the world and shaped in Boston and London. Executive producer for WGBH is Zvi Dor-Ner; senior producer is David Espar. Peter Pagnamenta is executive producer for the BBC. National corporate sponsorship for the series is provided by Conseco, Inc. Major funding is provided by public television viewers and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding is provided by the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation and The Lowell Institute.



About the Series | Episodes | Timeline | Your Stories | Thematic Overview | Teacher's Guide

People's Century | WGBH | PBS Online | Search PBS | Feedback | Shop | ©