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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

“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

“I can do nothing without you”: The 250th Anniversary of John and Abigail Adams

This month we celebrate the 250th wedding anniversary of John and Abigail Adams. Their marriage endured through separations, long in distance and time, war, partisan politics, and family hardships. Their distance and struggle became our treasure, because it is through their incredible correspondence that we obtain such an intimate look inside their lives—lives that in so many ways, are not so alien to our own.

     

About a month before their 25 October 1764, wedding, John Adams wrote to Abigail Smith movingly describing how important she was to him:

Oh my dear Girl, I thank Heaven that another Fortnight will restore you to me—after so long a separation. My soul and Body have both been thrown into Disorder, by your Absence, and a Month of two more would make me the most insufferable Cynick, in the World. I see nothing but Faults, Follies, Frailties and Defects in any Body, lately. People have lost all their good Properties or I my Justice, or Discernment.

But you who have always softened and warmed my Heart, shall restore my Benevolence as well as my Health and Tranquility of mind. You shall polish and refine my sentiments of Life and Manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured Particles in my Composition, and form me to that happy Temper, that can reconcile a quick Discernment with a perfect Candour.

Abigail was that and more for John. His counselor and confidant, the one that even at the age of 61 and President of the United States, he could “do nothing without,” Abigail, while managing his beloved farm and caring for family, provided him with local news and gossip, advice, and a sympathetic ear. Likewise, for Abigail, when faced with trials of her own, she looked forward to a reunion with her dearest friend, where “I come to place my head upon your Bosom and to receive and give that consolation which sympathetick hearts alone know how to communicate.”

When Abigail died on October 28, 1818, just days after their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary, a heartbroken John wrote to his son John Quincy Adams, “My consolations are more than I can number. The Separation cannot be So long as twenty Separations heretofore. The Pangs and the Anguish have not been So great as when you and I embarked for France in 1778. . . . Love to your Wife. May you never experience her Loss.”

If you would like to learn more about this great American love story, the Abigail Adams Historical Society in Weymouth, MA, is holding a multi-day celebration and conference including remarks from Sara Martin, the Series Editor of the Adams Family Correspondence series, on October 24–26, 2014. Click here for more information.

 

 

Images:  Abigail Adams. Pastel on paper by Benjamin Blyth, circa 1766. Artwork 01.026; John Adams. Pastel on paper by Benjamin Blyth, circa 1766. Artwork 01.027

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 15 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

“The Moonlight Is Wasted”: Not So Quiet on the Western Front

The stacks of the MHS are filled with innumerable letters written by soldiers serving in U.S. wars to their families back home. This year marks both the sesquicentennial of the penultimate year of the Civil War and the centennial of the first year of World War I. It’s a disheartening fact that we rarely lack for war-related anniversaries to commemorate, but these letters are an invaluable resource for a true understanding of U.S. wars.

Some of them were written to anxious parents by very young soldiers, barely out of high school and full of bravado. Others come from older, battle-hardened men who write wistfully to their children while shells fall around them. Sometimes a soldier breezily anticipates the upcoming battle in which we know he will be killed, or has an eerie premonition of his own death. While it’s impossible for most of us to comprehend the realities of war as experienced by those in the thick of it, little details speak volumes. I always find it interesting how the ordinary things we take for granted are perceived in radically different ways by a soldier on the front lines.

Take moonlight, for example. Lovers serenade in it, poets write about it, dreamers gaze up at it. Moonlight is one of the universally acknowledged beauties of life, right? Well, not if you’re digging trenches in northern France in 1918. William F. Wolohan, serving with the American Expeditionary Forces, 103rd Engineers, Co. E, explained in a letter to his mother on 30 Nov. 1918 that he and his fellow soldiers had a different perspective:

Night work was the hardest as this country over here is positively the blackest place I have ever been in at night. Our night work consisted mostly of barbed wire work. A funny thing, still we over here can not realize the jokers regarding Beautiful-moon light nights. One mother wrote to her son who is sleeping in here with us, said that outside a beautiful moon was shining down, how much she enjoyed these moon light nights and she could always think that this same old moon was shining down on him. Yes Henry said the same moon shines but I wish the moon would die or never come out. You see on moonlight nights these big bombing planes come over and drop everything from pins to rail road engines, including boocoo bombs….So on moon l[ight n]ights we are always careful and we figure th[at] the moonlight is wasted. I wish I could remember some of the funny expressions I have heard when we did not know but the next minute we would be blown to atoms.

Henry had good reason to dislike the moon, it turns out. He had nearly been killed in a German bombing raid while working on a trench near the French town of Fismes on the Vesle River. Wolohan illustrated Henry’s story with this diagram of trenchworks. The sketch is in pencil, so it’s hard to make out some of the details in this reproduction here, but Henry and the “Bomb Hole” are marked by asterisks at the top. Below that, you can see the “Barb wire,” “no mans land,” and the “German wire.”

 

Wolohan wrote this letter to his mother shortly after the end of the war but before he was shipped home. In it, he proposed this theory for the Allies’ success:

As one of our fellows said the other night It was the American Smile that won this war, and I agree with him. Even in the darkest minutes you can always get a smile out of these A.E.F. wargoing Americans. I have seen men come back all shot up an[d] smiling to beat the band. One night when on a long march we were held up by our divisional train for four hours. So we gave a show right in the middle of the road.

The William F. Wolohan papers is one of our smaller collections at the MHS. It contains only three letters and three postcards, but the terrific content more than makes up for its small size. I particularly like this poignant throwaway line on the back of a postcard dated 6 Oct. 1918:

This is a French soldiers postal card. It was taken by the Germans off a captured French Soldier. We took it off a dead German soldier. Such is the fortune of war in both the big and little things.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

Mysteries of the Elisha W. Smith, Jr. Logbook: Part III

Research is a nonlinear process rife with search strategies and dead ends. While researching the inside front cover note and the scrapbook engravings of the Elisha W. Smith Jr. logbook, I remained curious about the scrapbooker’s identity. Several clues exist within the logbook to identify the individual. The efforts of penmanship practice garnishes the pages with the initials “E D F” and the names “Elbridge” and “Freeman.” While this clue offered a name as a place to start, I still found myself running into dead ends.

 

A plethora of physical and digital resources exist to help researchers locate genealogical information. I started with a physical resource research strategy that proved unsuccessful. I searched through family histories Freeman Genealogy and Genealogy of the Freeman Family for “Elbridge Freeman” and “William Freeman.” I assumed that the ship’s name, the schooner William Freeman, referred to a relative of Elbridge Freeman. I also surmised that Elbridge Freeman was born in the late 1850s to early 1860s because the scrapbooker pasted Gleason’s Literary Companion engravings in the volume. Gleason’s Literary Companion ran in publication from 1860 to 1870 so the individual who read the juvenile literary magazine was young. These names and time frame narrowed my search, but these criteria also narrowed my results to zero.

Moments of revelation for researchers occasionally come from other researchers’ insight or suggestion. I found a lack of answers in the physical resources, but Librarian Elaine Heavey utilized online databases to find Elbridge D. Freeman’s birth certificate from FamilySearch, a free, online tool for genealogists. Elaine provided the document that put all the pieces together!

William D. Freeman sailed with supercargo Elisha W. Smith Jr. on the schooner William Freeman to Jacmel, Haiti in 1857. Both men and the schooner originated in Wellfleet. William Freeman later served as acting master of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire Navy yard. On 31 July 1861 William D. Freeman and Harriet A. Freeman welcomed their first born son Elbridge D. Freeman into the world. Somehow the logbook ended up in William Freeman’s hands after the voyage of the schooner William Freeman. Young Elbridge turned one of his father’s possessions, Elisha W. Smith’s logbook, into an eccentric scrapbook in the late 1860s.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 4 October, 2014, 1:00 AM

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