The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Black Days: The Wall Street Crash of 1929

Today we commemorate the 85th anniversary of Black Tuesday, the worst day of the 1929 stock market crash that preceded the Great Depression. For a close-up look at these events, we turn to the papers of Henry P. Binney (1863-1940), a Boston banker and investment adviser. His voluminous outgoing correspondence, bound into 14 large letterbooks and covering the last thirty years of his life, forms part of the Henry P. Binney family papers.

The Wall Street crash began a few days before, 24 October 1929, on what came to be called Black Thursday. The bull market sustained through most of the 1920s had culminated in a record-high Dow Jones Industrial Average at the beginning of September 1929 before stock values started to tumble. Black Thursday saw the first precipitous drop. Nearly 13 million shares were traded in a single day, double the previous record and more than triple the volume of an average day. The boom was over. On that day, Binney wrote to a colleague who had proposed an investment opportunity:

On my return from a short trip to New York I find your letter of October 21st. While I do not know what reaction Mr. Ray Morris would now have regarding your proposition if presented to him I do not believe he or anybody else would consider anything new at this time. The tremendous shake-out of this morning in the stock market has taken the gimp out of pretty much everybody and it will take time for the panic of today to be forgotten. During the last week paper profits have faded away and many people rich at the beginning of said period are now poor.

To another investor on the same day, he wrote, “Everybody is pessimistic about everything just now.” Little did he know that Black Thursday would be followed by an even more frightening plunge in the market. On Black Tuesday, 29 October 1929, 16.4 million shares were traded in an all-out panic. While these numbers pale in comparison to the trading that we see on Wall Street today, they were unprecedented at the time. The stock ticker couldn’t keep up and ran hours behind as the market spiraled out of control.

One of Binney’s frequent correspondents during this period was his brother-in-law Roy E. Sturtevant. A week after the crash, he told Sturtevant:

Even the man who had his nose close to the grindstone on those fateful days did not, apparently, benefit much….Personally I don’t like the outlook. Such a tremendous crash as has occurred will take long to live down.

Binney’s prediction was prescient. He knew it would take years for the stock market to recover, but he did his best to stay optimistic and often reassured his friends and colleagues. On 30 January 1930, he joked to Sturtevant, who served as vice-president and treasurer of the Ludowici-Celadon Co. in Chicago:

I have just been reading your circular letter of January 28th to the stockholders, and have been looking over your figures for 1929. I imagine this is the first time the “Profit for the year” has been in red! However, lots of Industrials are on the same raft with you, so don’t be depressed.

Binney himself seems to have been less dramatically affected by the crash, at least initially, than many others. He was already a fairly conservative investor, preferring the safer bond market to risky stocks, and the events of October 1929 strengthened that tendency.

That's not to say he didn't feel the pinch. Between 1929 and 1932, the Dow Jones would lose about 90% of its value, bottoming out in July 1932. Curious to see how Binney was holding up, I looked ahead to his correspondence of that year. His letters had become more pessimistic and skeptical. I found him writing often about cutting back on utilities and luxuries, such as a proposed trip to Europe for his 18-year-old daughter Polly. He even swallowed his pride and accepted a gift from his brother- and sister-in-law, the Sturtevants:

Between ourselves, we will have to see how the depression works out. If matters remain as they are, it would be better in my judgment not to spend the money, especially as Europe is not a real necessity. I try not to be too gloomy when at home but, notwithstanding my efforts, both of my ladies have come to the conclusion that I had better hoard gold for contingencies. This being the case, I have decided to accept, with a million thanks, the check….No people I have ever known have ever been half as nice as you and Roy have been to us.

Unsurprisingly, his correspondence had also become more overtly political. He preferred Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt, but felt Hoover wasn't up to the job. Binney feared a revolution if the Depression dragged on much longer. The relief measures he supported included a $5 billion bond issue to put people back to work, the repeal of Prohibition for additional revenue, and a tax on all manufactures. Here's a sampling of his more political letters:

Needless to say I am dreadfully sorry to hear that you are so blue – it is quite the fashion here. However, things must turn or the U.S.A. will be faced by a Revolution before snow flies! I have no use for Mr. Hoover but even he may be better than whoever the Democrats nominate! Two or three days ago in New York I found rather a more cheerful tone although when one man laughed most of us fainted away at the unusual sound! [17 June 1932]

Lots of people think The Great Depression is on its last legs but, having turned pessimist, I am not at all certain of this. Apparently President Hoover will not be returned. I do not know a single Republican who will vote for him. The G.O.P. gentlemen all have their tails between their legs and either won’t vote at all or cast their votes for Roosevelt who nobody likes but, it is thought, cannot be as sloppy as H.H.! [13 July 1932]

The Depression seems to be passing, at least stock-marketwise. You had better print in your well[-]known newspaper that the one reason for this is the action of the Government in seriously attempting to put people to work. The method adapted is a little clumsy but what can one expect of Washington?! [9 Aug. 1932]

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 29 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

On Tuesday, 28 October, there is an Immigration and Urban History seminar starting at 5:15PM. Join us as Laura Barraclough, Yale University, presents "At the Crossroads: Charros, Cowboys, and Capitalists in San Antonio, Texas," a paper which examines the practice of charreria (Mexican rodeo) among Mexican immigrant men in San Antonio form the late 1940s through the early 1970s. Barraclough's project looks at the reinscription of a genered and classed vision of ethnic Mexican inclusion while also seeing the place claimed by charros for Mexicans in the history of the Southwest. Comment provided by Desiree J. Garcia of Arizona State University. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

And on Wednesday, 29 October, bring a lunch at noon and listen in as short-term research fellow Melissa Johnson, University of Michigan, presents "The Power of Women's Words in Puritan New England: Gossip, Rumor, and Reputation in a Culture of Surveillance." This approach uncovers the ways that women’s networks constituted alternate sites of community definition and how different kinds of information and modes of transmission were gendered as either “gossip” or “news.” Brown Bag lunch talks are free and open to the public. 

Also on Wednesday is a special event to honor Pauline Meier (1938-2013), a longtime friend and contributor to the Society. Join us as Professor Gordon S. Wood pays tribute to a great historian, teacher, and author who was committed to making American history vivid and accessible to all. The evening will begin with a reception at 5:30PM, followed by the talk at 6:00PM. Registration is required at no cost. Please call 617-646-0560 or click here to register.

On Saturday, 1 November, why not usher in the new month with a free tour of the MHS? The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute, docent-led tour that explores all of the public spaces in the building at 1154 Boylston Street, touching on the history, architecture, art, and collections of the Society. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition, "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in World War I." In addition, you can see our new side exhibition "The Father of His Country Returns to Boston, October 24, 1789," on view until 31 December 2014. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 26 October, 2014, 8:00 AM

A Church for a Zombie: Architecture in Salem, MA

One thing that I like about working as a reference librarian is the extreme variation in the nature of questions I receive from outside researchers. In a library like the MHS, it is commonplace to work on inquiries relating to 17th century matters, such as King Philip’s War or early Puritan evangelization of the Indians. In the same day, a researcher might ask about the Revolutionary or Civil Wars and the role of Massachusetts men in them. Then a researcher in Europe e-mails me looking for a single letter held at the Society written by composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1845. Some of these are stranger than others but all fit the description of historical research and pertain to materials we hold.

Something that I do not expect is to field a question that crosses over with my own enjoyment of heavy metal music. Specifically, we recently received via e-mail a very brief question from a researcher who was looking for information about a church that appeared in the horror film the Lords of Salem (2012). The movie was directed by Haverhill, MA native Rob Zombie (a.k.a. Robert Bartleh Cummings). Before getting into movie-making, he founded the band White Zombie in the late-1980s and the group went on to produce two multi-platinum albums in the ‘90s. After that band dissolved he continued on to a solo career. Unfamiliar with the movie, the connection gave me a chuckle and I decided to field the question myself.

I started by looking up the movie online to find screenshots that feature a church. It took a few tries, but soon enough I found an image of a woman sitting with a dog in front of a small stone church. Part of the movie was filmed on location in Salem, MA, so I thought it likely that the church was located there. I continued searching the web for more shots of and/or information about the church but to no avail. So, I took to the Society’s online catalog, ABIGAIL, to see what resources might be of use.

Beginning the search with the subject term “Salem (Mass.)” I soon found a sub-heading “Salem (Mass.) -- Buildings, Structures, etc., -- Guide Books.” This seemed to be an appropriate place to check and, lo and behold, the only title under this heading is Architecture in Salem: An Illustrated Guide. I called for the volume and, using the index, flipped through for images of churches in Salem. There were far more than I expected to see, a few of which looked like potential candidates. Then, near the back of the book, I found an image of the Dickson Memorial Chapel and Conservatory located in the Greenlawn Cemetery in Salem.

 

 

While the still shot that I saw from the movie showed only the back of the church, I used this photo and a couple others online to compare some prominent features to conclude that they are the same.

With Halloween quickly approaching, why not visit Salem and take a stroll around Greenlawn Cemetery to get a closer look at this little church? And, if you are so inclined and want to disrupt your sleep patterns, follow it up with some of Mr. Zombie’s horror films.

 

 

 

comments: 2 | permalink | Published: Friday, 24 October, 2014, 12:00 PM

Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch Diary, Post 37

The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch.

Monday, Oct. 24th, 1864

News of continued successes, increasing the prospect of peace on the right terms. God grant it!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 23 October, 2014, 8:00 AM

“To the Women of Boston…”

Like many New Englanders, I followed the recent Market Basket labor strike with near-obsessive interest. Of course, a small, selfish part of me was irked that my “More for Your Dollar” shopping had been temporarily suspended. But beyond that, I was inspired by the employees’ bravery and revolutionary spirit. After weeks of negotiations and uncertainty, I was pleasantly surprised that the workers had triumphed over the CEOs. I’d noticed two important things while following the story; first, that many of the employees who were protesting “on the front lines,” as well as the consumer advocates who boycotted the store, were women. And secondly, that in the news media, many labor activists discussed the "record breaking" strike as distinctly unique to Massachusetts. These two facts are not particularly startling, given the state’s strong history of labor organizing and activism, much of which began with Massachusetts women.

In the 1830s, more than fifty years before labor movements became popular throughout the United States, the Lowell Mill women began organizing and striking, forming the first union of female workers in the United States. Over the next few decades, the same radical spirit picked up momentum and moved to the city of Boston. 

In 1874, forty-six years before the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, a group of female business owners in Boston formed the Business Woman's Mutual Benefit Association, which published circulars in Boston newspapers to advertise its services.

This circular, dated 27 February 1874, explains that “the object of [the] association [was] threefold:”

1st. To provide a fund from which a certain sum shall be paid to any member in case of sickness.

2nd. To provide a fund from which members in case of extreme need can obtain small loans, without interest, said loans to be returned by installments, in such sums and at such rates as shall be agreed upon.

3d. To provide respectable burial to deceased members.

To include as many people as possible, the Association established two tiers of membership: beneficiary members paid yearly dues and were subsequently entitled to all of the aforementioned benefits. Honorary members paid a one-time fee and received a certificate, but did not gain any benefits from the association. Men were “cordially invited to become Honorary members,” but the Board of Directors was comprised entirely of women.

Although women’s rights were not supported by the majority of Bostonians, the Association did have some allies. For instance, in its 2 April 1874 issue, The Index: A Weekly Newspaper Devoted to Free Religion, introduced the Association’s statement by writing:

We have been requested…to give a ‘word of notice’ to the following circular; but we find it so excellent that it seems proper to publish it in full in THE INDEX, with our heartiest approval of the organization and its object. Similar ones ought to be everywhere established; and the attention of all friends of the cause of women is called to one of the best plans yet devised to further it.

Nineteenth-century society provided independent women with very few legal and social rights, so these Bostonian businesswomen decided to organize and unite to protect themselves (and each other). Their circular states:

The constant complaint among women is that nothing is done to help them, pecuniarily, as a body, in case of need. The constant response of men is, that women will not unite as do men to help each other…by becoming members of, and thus supporting this association, women will not only effectually disprove the charge, but they will by this simple method do more to defeat the evil effects of unjust wages to women…

This last point seems particularly poignant and timely given that in mid-September, the United States Senate yet again blocked the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would have strengthened equal pay protections for women. Despite the valiant efforts of these pioneering ladies, women are still fighting to be paid equal wages, one hundred and forty years later. Perhaps we should look to these revolutionary nineteenth-century women for some twenty-first-century inspiration in our continued fight for gender equality.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 23 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

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