The Great Depression is remembered for the devastation it brought to the American people. Joblessness, homelessness and debt plagued the country, but even when hundreds of banks closed, Americans found a way to continue commerce with local currencies called “scrip.”
The closing of American banks was both an early effect of the Great Depression and a factor that grossly exacerbated it in the early 1930s. Between December 1930 and the “banking holiday” President Roosevelt declared in March 1933 – which shut down the entire national banking system – about half of the banks in America either closed or merged with others. Surviving banks cut back drastically in their deposits and loans, contributing to a decline in money supply, and causing people to hoard their cash rather than entrusting it in a banking system that was rapidly deteriorating. Hoarding effectively removed money from circulation, further contributing to the deflation that characterized the Depression era. With decreasing cash availability and with money worth markedly less than before, Americans turned to local currencies to carry out daily commerce.
Depression-era scrip was issued by local governments, businesses and even individuals. The scrip spurred local economies by being most valuable in the community that had issued it. Some store owners accepted scrip issued in other neighborhoods, but usually at a highly inflated rate to compensate them for the risk of the currency being invalid elsewhere. Scrip was issued on a variety of materials, including paper bills, wooden tokens or bills, animal skin, fish skin parchment and even seashells. Though local currencies existed in America long before the Great Depression, and some even today, Depression-era scrip played a vital role in reviving local businesses and keeping their owners and employees from suffering the worst blows of the Depression.
The Museum of American Finance holds an impressive collection of Depression-era scrip representing a variety of issuers and materials from communities across the United States. Below are a few of our favorite examples from the collection.
The Banking Act of 1933, also known as the Glass-Steagall Act, established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which guaranteed banking deposits up to a specified amount, and joined two Congressional projects sponsored by Representative Henry B. Steagall. That is, the Act combined both the creation of a federal system of bank deposit insurance and the regulation of mingling commercial, investment banking and other “speculative” banking activities.
Though synonymous to one another, the Glass-Steagall Act today usually refers to the four provisions that separated commercial banking from investment banking. Of these provisions, section 16 prohibits Federal Reserve Member banks from acquiring securities on their own account. Sections 16 and 21 further prohibit member banks from accepting deposits for the buying or selling of securities. Section 20 disallows these banks from having any association with companies that deal with securities, including employee relationships with (i.e. sharing employees with) as stated under section 32. Moreover, Regulation Q forbade banks from paying interest on demand deposits and capped interest rates on other deposit goods.
A few days ago, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced it is selling a “catastrophe” bond worth $125 million, in order to cover the damage from future natural disasters.
The New York City transportation system has a 109-year-old history, but it has “never faced a disaster as devastating” as Hurricane Sandy, the chairman of the MTA, Joseph J. Lhota, said in a statement. After Sandy smashed the city in October 2012, the “Metro-North Railroad lost power from 59th Street to Croton-Harmon on the Hudson Line and to New Haven on the New Haven Line. The Long Island Rail Road evacuated its West Side Yards and suffered flooding in one East River tunnel. The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel is flooded from end to end, and the Queens Midtown Tunnel also took on water and was closed.”
Technology has strongly changed the way stocks are traded from a decade ago to today. Historically, stock markets like the NYSE are a physical location for buyers and sellers to meet and negotiate trades. However, in the 20th Century technological improvements in stock trading have made the physical location to meet irrelevant, giving rise to electronic trading.
Before the telegraph arrived in the 1850s, brokers would place agents on top of hills and buildings between Philadelphia and New York City with signal flags and telescopes to rely stock prices between cities in about half-an-hour. Homing pigeons were also used to transmit information.
Later on, “runners” in the 1860s would carry stock prices handwritten on large chalkboards from the exchange to brokerage offices, so that the brokerages would be aware of a stock’s price. The NYSE was referred to as the “Big Board” supposedly because of these large chalkboards.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has been the government agency responsible for providing deposit insurance to banks since its creation in the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. While the establishment of the FDIC was an important event in the history of government regulation of the economy, it was not the first instance of deposit insurance in the United States. Several states had previously had state level institutions of deposit insurance in the 1800s and early 1900s.
At various times before the Civil War, Vermont, Michigan, Indiana, and New York insured both banknotes and deposits, while Iowa and Ohio insured only banknotes. Most of these systems operated successfully up to the Civil War, with the notable exception of Michigan’s which had been established immediately before the Panic of 1837 and had failed rather quickly. These state deposit insurance systems generally required participating banks (and participation was voluntary) to pay for insurance to pay off deposit returns from failed banks.
Such systems did not survive the Civil War and nationalization of the banking system. However, interest in state level deposit insurance systems was increasing again by the end of the 1800s, though it was not until 1907 that Oklahoma became the first state since the Civil War to establish a state deposit insurance system. Seven more states followed suit in the following ten years. The deposit insurance systems of the early 20th century had less positive results and unintended consequences. A common observation of banks insured by state deposit insurance in the 1920s was that in spite of nominal regulations against risky behavior by banks, the state deposit insurance actually encouraged risky behavior by banks, increasing the proportion of bank failures and thus insurance burden. By the end of the 1920s the state deposit insurance schemes had largely failed. In some states voluntary participation left banks the option to simply opt out, and most did, while in other states high insurance costs led to deposit insurance being repealed. Yet while state level deposit insurance appeared to be a failure, it was a model that would pave the way for the establishment of the FDIC, deposit insurance on the federal level and subject to stricter regulation.
Vaughn Rennie is a summer museum intern at the Museum of American Finance.