Bread lines. Hoovervilles. Dust storms. Bank runs. The Great Depression left an indelible impression on the people who lived through it, and imagery of the poverty and social instability it left in its wake still evokes the crisis today.
One of the Depression’s most indelible symbols was the apple seller. Photographs of men hawking apples on street corners have come to represent the lows to which once stable people fell during the economic crisis, which slashed the United States’ gross national product by nearly half and plunged up to 50 percent of the residents of some communities into unemployment.
But apple sales weren’t a spontaneous response to the misery of the Great Depression—they were an organized attempt to get unemployed men back to work. Here’s how a surplus and a bright idea led to one of the Depression’s most memorable symbols:
Combination of Hits Cause Great Depression
The stock market crash of October 1929 shocked the United States, but at first, it seemed like the country might recover. That was anything but true: A combination of deflation, Midwestern drought and public doubt about the economy sent the country into a financial freefall.
Businesses felt the effects of the spiral, but its most devastating effects were felt in family homes. Unemployment spiked and families suddenly had to get by on little or no income.
Inside the home, many men struggled with their inability to support their families. Sociologists who studied the impacts of economic instability and unemployment documented men who were no longer able to claim the role of breadwinner. Many “felt humiliated and ashamed by unemployment,” writes historian Olaf Stieglitz. “The dominant middle-class ethos of breadwinning and self-reliance weighed heavily on these men…Feeling emasculated, many men blamed themselves for their difficulties.”
But during the Depression, finding a new job wasn’t as easy as sending out a resume. With so many men unemployed—and unwilling to perform tasks traditionally coded as feminine—competition for the few jobs that existed was fierce. People tried to come up with creative ways to make ends meet, but the situation was dire for people who could no longer afford shelter or food due to unemployment.
A $10,000 surplus led to a creative opportunity for unemployed men
The Depression also presented some perplexing challenges to businesses, which had to grapple with consumers who had little or nothing to spend. In 1929, the apple industry faced a quandary when the apple industry produced a massive bumper crop. How could they move their product and keep apples relevant to Americans who had little money for food?
Joseph Sicker, chairman of the International Apple Shippers’ Association, had an idea: Why not use the apples to help unemployed men? He worked with members of the produce industry to fund the purchase of $10,000 worth of surplus apples to sell to unemployed men.
The business model was simple: Men would buy the apples from the apple industry for a reduced price, then sell them at a profit. Sicker gave boxes of apples to unemployed men in New York and other cities. They’d sell them for as much as they could, then pay back $1.75 per box at the end of the day.
The apple-selling scheme had several benefits: It helped the apple industry move surplus produce that might never get purchased otherwise, and it helped men earn some money. But more than that, it gave men a small sense of pride. By selling apples instead of begging, the unemployed men still seemed to be in charge of their own destinies.
Apple vendors became an iconic symbol in New York
Soon, the vendors were on what seemed like every street corner in New York. Though the men needed to sell the apples for five cents apiece to earn a profit and be able to pay back Sicker’s association, they often sold their wares for much more thanks to buyers who were moved by the plight of the sellers. Soon, up to 6,000 people sold apples in New York every day. Though some vendors were women, the majority were men. They purchased up to $10,000 of apples every day.
Apple vending soon became a critical part of many people’s livelihoods. But it also required a sacrifice: the willingness to stand on often freezing and rainy street corners, publicly exposing one’s unemployed status to the world. This moved bystanders, who bought apples when they could. “Wherever the little boxes of apples stand a listener has no trouble in getting from the vendor the story of a long period of unemployment, misery at home and of near-starvation,” wrote the New York Times in 1930.
When New York Times reporter Frances D. McMullen toured the city to talk to apple vendors in 1931, she found what she called “soft spots in a city’s hardened heart.” Bystanders would sometimes donate clothing or a hot meal to the vendors, she wrote, and had kind words for the vendors.
The program’s popularity lead to its demise
By all accounts, the program was a success. But then, it became so successful that it imploded. By late 1930, corner peddling had moved so many apples that the price of apples as a commodity began to rise. Soon, the apple association was paying $2.50 for boxes of apples it had once sold for $1.75. It attempted to keep the costs low for vendors but didn’t succeed.
Over time, the program faded away as the surplus dried up and it became unprofitable to give the unemployed men the apples. There were so many apple sellers that they clogged traffic, and apple cores became a new mainstay of city trash. Cities like Washington, D.C. even banned apple vendors, declaring them public nuisances.
Soon apple sellers were a thing of the past. But the idea of apple sellers lasted much longer. In 1934, cartoonist Martha Orr began a popular comic strip, Apple Mary, that appeared in newspapers nationwide. And photographs of men selling apples remain one of the most well-known symbols of the Depression today.