Why was there a Great Depression, and what should have been done to overcome it? To this day no one has formulated answers to these questions that command general consent. To its contemporaries, the Great Depression was a vast and menacing enigma, an unprecedented and inexplicable catastrophe. Economic depressions, periods of unemployment, falling prices, failing banks, and much increased human insecurity and misery were of course no strangers to American national life. They had on the contrary played an important role in shaping political and social life since the earliest days of the Republic and became all the more influential after the Civil War as the pace of industrialization quickened, and the number of wage workers dependent on large corporations for a livelihood rapidly expanded. Each of the decades of the late nineteenth century experienced an economic downturn, the depression of the 1890s being the most severe. Indeed, the Panic of 1893, as the 1890s depression was known, was so severe that it too, like the Great Depression, touched off major political changes and a period, the Progressive era, of fundamental change in the relationship between government and economic and social life.
The Great Depression differed from preceding depressions because it was deeper and longer and reached worldwide. Not only was the devastation wrought by the economic decline from 1929–1933 without precedent in American history, but the anemic quality of the recovery, which began late in 1933 and extended through much of 1937 was also without parallel.