When the Great Depression hit its lowest point in 1933, the unemployment rate was over 20% and the US gross domestic product had fallen by 30%. However, not everyone lost money during the worst economic downturn in American history.
Business titans such as William Boeing and Walter Chrysler actually increased their fortunes during the Great Depression. As the aviation industry took off in the 1930s with the advent of scheduled passenger service, Boeing built a vertically integrated empire that manufactured planes and operated airlines until the federal government forced its disbandment. .
Auto maker Chrysler has responded to the financial downturn by cutting costs, increasing efficiency and improving passenger comfort in company vehicles. As sales of expensive cars plunged, sales of the cheaper brand of Chrysler Plymouth soared. According to Automotive newsChrysler’s market share increased from 9% in 1929 to 24% in 1933, overtaking Ford as the second largest American automaker.
Through wise investments, fortuitous timing, and entrepreneurial vision, subsequent Americans also benefited from the Great Depression.
Joseph Kennedy, Sr .: Stocks, Movies and Spirits
Joseph Kennedy Sr. made millions in the unregulated stock market of the 1920s, in part due to insider trading and market manipulation. The patriarch of the Kennedy family then used his Wall Street earnings to become a movie mogul. After buying a failed Hollywood studio in 1926, he consolidated movie companies that produced low-budget films, made them more efficient, and sold them for big profits. By the time he left Hollywood in 1931, Kennedy had earned $ 5 million in the film industry, according to the National Park Service.
While most investors saw their fortunes evaporate during the stock market crash of 1929, Kennedy emerged richer than ever. Believing Wall Street to be overvalued, he sold most of his stocks before the crash and made even more money by selling short, betting on falling stock prices.
Kennedy biographer David Nasaw said he found no truth to rumors that the 35th President’s father was a bootlegger during Prohibition. However, the lucrative contract Kennedy signed at the end of Prohibition to be the sole US importer of Scotch whiskey and gin produced by UK distillers such as Dewar’s and Gordon’s helped Kennedy’s wealth grow by $ 4 million. from $ 180 million in 1929 to $ 180 million in 1935.
READ MORE: How Joseph Kennedy Made His Fortune (Hint: It Wasn’t Bootlegging)
J. Paul Getty: Oil stocks and real estate
Oil mogul J. Paul Getty adhered to a simple business formula: “Buy when everyone else sells, and wait until everyone else buys.” Having already earned his first million dollars in the oil industry more than a decade earlier, Getty skipped a celebration of his parents’ golden wedding anniversary during the 1929 stock market crash to empathize with brokers, the Wall Street investors and speculators.
With companies in desperate need of cash, Getty took what he had learned and acquired dumped oil stocks and real estate. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime to get oil companies for next to nothing,” he wrote. In an attempt to build an oil empire to rival that of John D. Rockefeller, Getty bought Pacific Western Oil Company and shares of Tide Water Associated Oil Company, the nation’s ninth largest oil company. Five years after buying shares of Tide Water for $ 2.12, they were worth more than $ 20.
READ MORE: How apples became a weapon against the Great Depression
Mae West: movie celebrity
As the demand for inexpensive entertainment and interest in new talking imagery kept the movie industry afloat during the Great Depression, Mae West became one of the biggest box office stars of the era. Before jumping to the big screen in 1932 at the age of 39, West performed in vaudeville and burlesque shows and Broadway plays that she wrote.
Paramount Studios, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, signed West to star in the 1933 film She hurt him, an adaptation of his hit Broadway play Lil Diamond. The success of the film changed Paramount’s fortunes – as well as West’s. By the mid-1930s, she was making $ 300,000 per role and $ 100,000 per screenplay, making her the highest paid artist in Hollywood and the highest paid woman in the country. West’s strong female roles combining wit, courage, and sexuality tied to her audience, but her star faded when her performances proved too risky for Hollywood censors in the 1930s.
READ MORE: 10 Ways Americans Had Fun During The Great Depression
Charles Clinton Spaulding: Insurance
During the Great Depression, Charles Clinton Spaulding chaired America’s largest black-owned company: the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Founded in 1898, the company struggled to survive before hiring Spaulding. Using its expertise in sales and marketing, the company has grown in the areas of fire insurance, banking and mortgages. The company, which operated from a rented office space in the corner of a doctor’s office when Spaulding started, has transformed into a six-story office building that anchored ‘Black Wall Street’ in Durham, in North Carolina.
While African Americans suffered the highest unemployment rates during the Great Depression, Spaulding was widely regarded as the country’s leading black businessman. He oversaw the expansion of his business in Pennsylvania while advising President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the composition of his “Black Cabinet”. According to The Complete Encyclopedia of African American History, “Spaulding was the living black symbol of the New South.”
READ MORE: Last hired, first fired: How the Great Depression affected African Americans
Michael Cullen: Grocery Store
Prior to the 1930s, consumers shopped at convenience stores with limited stocks of items that clerks collected from the shelves. When the Great Depression hit, Michael Cullen, an employee of Kroger Grocery, suggested the company launch self-service stores with large selections, reduced prices and parking lots to cater for the growing number of automobiles. “I would convince the public that I could save them $ 1 to $ 3 on their food bills,” he wrote. “I would be the ‘miracle man’ in the grocery store.”
When Kroger ignored his business plan, in 1930 Cullen opened what the Food Industry Association considers the first American supermarket in New York’s Queens neighborhood. Advertising himself as “the world’s best price destroyer,” King Kullen has won over cost-conscious buyers with its small margins and large inventory.
In 1933, Cullen bought a competing Queens grocery store from Fred Trump, father of President Donald Trump, who used the money to bolster his real estate investments. By the time of Cullen’s death in 1936, King Kullen had 15 locations and a loyal following. Publix Super Markets also sprouted during the Great Depression when George Jenkins opened his first store in Winter Haven, Florida in 1930. According to Supermarket News, the number of American supermarkets increased from 300 in 1932 to 4,500 in 1939.
READ MORE: Underpaid, but employed: How the Great Depression affected working women
Howard Hughes: Oil, Aviation, Movies
Howard Hughes was a millionaire at the age of 18 after inheriting a fortune from his father, who had developed a drill bit that revolutionized the oil industry. Before becoming known as an aviator, Hughes developed his wealth as a producer of Hollywood films. His 1927 film Ten Arab Knights won Lewis Milestone an Oscar for Best Comedy Director at the inaugural Oscars. He spent over $ 4 million to produce 1930s Angels of Hell, at the time the most expensive film ever made, followed by box office success The first page and Scarface.
In the midst of the Great Depression, he turned to aviation and in 1932 founded the Hughes Aircraft Company, which became one of the most profitable aircraft manufacturers in the world. His company converted military planes into air pilots, and Hughes made headlines in the 1930s setting new speed records. In 1936 he broke the transcontinental speed record by flying from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, in less than 10 hours, and two years later he joined a crew that flew around the world in a record 91 hours.