5 Great Depression Success Stories

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The news about the economy continues to be glum, which makes you wonder if any industry or business could possibly be doing well in such a crummy financial climate. While it might not be easy, it's certainly possible to succeed in a slumping economy. Just take a look at these entities that faced serious challenges during a much bigger fiasco, the Great Depression, and lived to tell about it.

1. Floyd Bostwick Odlum

Many investors lost everything during the market crash of 1929 because they has mistakenly assumed Wall Street's good times were never going to end. Odlum, a former corporate attorney who had cannily turned $39,000 into a multimillion-dollar fortune by investing in utility companies, didn't like the way he thought the markets were moving, though. He cut bait on stocks in an effort to generate cash before the market crash he thought was coming.

When the crash came, Odlum had millions in cash on hand, an enviable position in a cash-starved market. He began swooping in to buy up failing companies at drastically reduced prices and then consolidating or spinning their assets for more cash. It sounds like a pretty simple model, but it was so effective it made Odlum one of the ten wealthiest men in the country and earned him the title of "possibly the only man in the United States who made a great fortune during the Depression."

2. Movies

The beginning of the Great Depression in late 1929 came at a particularly inopportune time for the film industry, which had recently evolved with the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer, a milestone talkie. Just as the industry seemed to be gaining momentum, unemployment shot up and the sort of disposable income one uses for little luxuries like going to the movies steeply declined. Early in the economic crisis, many moviehouses had to close their doors due to the decreased traffic, and most of the once-profitable studios started turning losses in the 1930s.

Faced with this glum market, the film industry got creative. To give customers maximum bang for their scant bucks, theaters cut ticket prices by 50% or more and started giving patrons two features for the price of one ticket. These double features propped up demand for cheaply made B movies, and smaller studios stayed afloat by banging out these quick products.

Theater owners resorted to even more desperate hucksterism, though. During the Depression it was fairly common for theaters to use giveaways to fill their seats. Promotions like "Dish Night" in which any woman who attended got a free dinner plate, cash door prizes, and silverware giveaways where each trip to see a flick got you closer to having a complete set of flatware helped buoy up attendance. Although box-office takes swooned to $480 million in 1933, they slowly climbed back up to $810 million by 1941, in part due to these disaster-management tricks.

3. Procter and Gamble

The Great Depression was trying for most consumer product companies, but Procter and Gamble came out of the whole ordeal smelling better than it had in 1929. How did the soap giant beat the Depression? Things were tough at first when mainstay grocery customers started cutting their orders and inventories piled up. P&G apparently realized that even in a depression people would need soap, though, so they might as well buy it from Procter and Gamble.

Thus, instead of throttling down its advertising efforts to cut costs, the company actively pursued new marketing avenues, including commercial radio broadcasts. One of these tactics involved sponsoring daily radio serials aimed at homemakers, the company's core market. In 1933 P&G debuted its first serial, Oxydol's Own Ma Perkins, and women around the country quickly fell in love with the tales of the kind widow. The program was so successful that P&G started cranking out similar programs to support its other brands, and by 1939, the company was producing 21 of these so-called "soap operas." In 1940 the company started its own production division for soap operas, and in 1950 it made the first ongoing television soap opera, The First Hundred Years.

P&G's share price is currently trading at about $20 below its 52-week high, so maybe it's time for the consumer goods behemoth to go back to what works. Might we suggest YouTube videos involving the antics of adorable babies?

4. Martin Guitars

Like movies, musical instruments would seem to be a vulnerable industry in a down economy, but venerable acoustic guitar maker Martin made it through the Depression using a number of strategies. The company stuck to its principle of not giving high-volume retailers discounts, which maintained its relationship with smaller dealers and cemented the company's image as a square dealer.

Martin also started offering new, less expensive models that went on to enjoy great popularity. The "dreadnought" body style was one of these triumphs; it included a larger, deeper body that provided more volume and bass resonance. Martin introduced its first archtop guitar in 1931, and the company also revolutionized its designs by using 14-fret necks on its guitars. These technical changes, coupled with Martin's dedication to giving its customers high-quality instruments at reasonable prices, helped keep its sales up throughout the Depression.

5. Brewers

The Depression was hard enough for most companies, but the nation's brewers had it especially bad. Sure, money was tight, but brewer's core product, beer, wasn't even legal. During national Prohibition from 1920 to 1933, about half of the country's breweries closed their doors for good, but the rest stuck it out hoping for a repeal. How did these brewers make ends meet during the Depression when they couldn't sell suds to the distressed 25% of workers who didn't have jobs?

By diversifying. And then diversifying some more. Brewers started running dairies, selling meat, and venturing out into other agricultural enterprises. Brewers were also allowed to make "near beer" that had only trace amounts of alcohol, but the Depression killed off consumer demand from 300 million gallons in 1921 to just 86 million gallons in 1932. Breweries also started applying their expertise to non-alcoholic tipples like ginger beer; during the Depression there were upwards of 300 breweries making the spicy soft drink. Frank Yuengling, who headed the brewery of the same name outside of Philadelphia, remained confident that Prohibition was just a phase, and he personally diversified widely, including a foray as a bank president and opening a dance hall.

In the end, waiting out the storm by diversifying (and maybe brewing some illicit beer on the side) turned out to be a sound strategy. According to a 2005 survey of the American brewing industry, eight of the 10 largest brewers in the U.S. are pre-Prohibition brands that survived through the Depression.

5 Fast Facts About Billy the Kid

On September 23, 1875, Billy the Kid was arrested for the first time. Whether you think he was a misunderstood old West hero or nothing but a cold-blooded killer, it's impossible to argue that he was an interesting man. Here are five facts to prove it.

1. HIS "REAL" NAME IS A TOPIC OF DEBATE.

Billy the Kid's real name? Henry McCarty. Or maybe William Bonney. Or Henry Antrim. Take your pick. He was born Henry McCarty, but there's some speculation that his dad may have been a man named William Bonney. Billy the Kid started using his name at some point in 1877. Antrim was his step-father's last name; he went by that for some time as well.

2. HE WORKED AT A CHEESE FACTORY.

Billy the Kid wasn't always engaging in illegal activities and shooting people; he once worked at a cheese factory—at least he did according to Charlie Bowdre, a man who would later be in Billy's posse, and was part owner of the cheese factory. Bowdre's descendants have said this is where the two of them met, although his employ was short.

3. HIS LEGEND MAY BE A BIT OF AN EXAGGERATION.

You may have heard the legend that Billy killed 21 people—one for each year of his rather short life. It's just that: legend. We only have evidence that Billy killed four people, two of them prison guards. He may have "participated" in the deaths of up to five more people.

4. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, HE PROBABLY WASN'T LEFT-HANDED.

The reason this notion became widespread is because of the famous ferrotype of him that shows him wearing a gun belt with the holster on the left side. It was later discovered that the image has been reproduced incorrectly and flipped to show the mirror image of what really was. The picture actually shows Billy with his gun on his right hip.

5. SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE HE FAKED HIS OWN DEATH.

Many people—including some claiming to be Billy himself—have said Billy didn't actually die on July 14, 1881 in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, which is the official story. Many claim that Sheriff Pat Garrett didn't kill Billy, but actually helped him fake his death and happily ride off into the sunset. No evidence has ever been found to support this, though.

Men claiming to be Billy include Ollie "Brushy Bill" Roberts and a man named John Miller. Brushy Bill started claiming to be Billy the Kid in 1949, and knew quite a few intimate details about Billy's life and the Lincoln Country War. But there were several gunfights he was pretty clueless about, and photo comparisons using sophisticated computer programs show the men to have completely different bone structure and other features.

As for John Miller, his claims were basically put to rest in 2005 when his bones were disinterred and DNA samples were taken. They were compared to a blood sample thought to be Billy the Kid's and there was no match.

10 Electrifying Facts About Michael Faraday

iStock
iStock

This world-changing genius was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday refused to let his background stand in his way.

1. HE WAS LARGELY SELF-EDUCATED.

In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support a wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, young Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, with the teen's primary job being the delivery and recovery of loaned-out newspapers.

Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, he mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, hungrily reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.

Like most lower-class boys, Faraday's formal schooling was very limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself a great deal—especially about chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."

2. A 300-PAGE NOTEBOOK LAUNCHED HIS SCIENTIFIC CAREER.


Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0 

Sir Humphry Davy (above) left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, the man discovered no less than five elements, including calcium and boron. An excellent public speaker, Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution consistently drew huge crowds. 

Twenty-year-old Faraday attended four of these presentations in 1812, having received tickets from a customer. As Davy spoke, Faraday jotted down detailed notes, which he then compiled and bound into a little book. Faraday sent his 300-page transcript to Davy. Duly impressed, the seasoned scientist eventually hired him as a lab assistant. Later in life, Davy was asked to name the greatest discovery he'd ever made. His answer: "Michael Faraday."

Tension would nevertheless erupt between mentor and protégé. As Faraday's accomplishments began to eclipse his own, Davy accused the younger man of plagiarizing another scientist's work (this rumor was swiftly discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.

3. IF IT WEREN'T FOR FARADAY, WE MIGHT NOT HAVE ELECTRIC POWER.

On September 3, 1821, Faraday built a device that ushered technology into the modern era. One year earlier, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted had demonstrated that when an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is created around it. Faraday capitalized on this revelation. Inside the Royal Society basement, he began what was arguably his most groundbreaking experiment by placing a magnet in the bottom of a mercury-filled glass container. Dangling overhead was a wire, which Faraday connected to a battery. Once an electric current was conducted through the wire, it began rotating around the magnet.

Faraday had just built the world's first electric motor. How could he possibly top himself? By building the world's first electric generator. His first experiment was comprised of a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. To this day, most electricity is made using the same principles.

4. FARADAY INVENTED THE RUBBER BALLOON.


iStock

By today's standards, his early models would look shabby. Made via pressing two sheets of rubber together, Faraday's balloons were used to contain hydrogen during his experiments. Faraday created his first in 1824 and was quick to praise the bag's “considerable ascending power.” Toy manufacturers started distributing these the following year.

5. HE'S ALSO THE GRANDFATHER OF MODERN REFRIGERATORS.

In 1823, Faraday sealed a sample of chlorine hydrate inside a V-shaped tube. As he heated one end and cooled the other simultaneously, the scientist noticed that a peculiar yellow liquid was starting to form. Curious, he broke open the tube. Without warning, a sudden, violent explosion sent glass shards flying everywhere. Mercifully uninjured, he smelled a strong scent of chlorine in the air.

It didn't take him very long to figure out what had happened. Inside the tube, pressure was building, which liquefied the gas. Upon puncturing the glass, he'd released this pressure and, afterwards, the liquid reverted into its gaseous state. This sudden evaporation came with an interesting side-effect: it cooled down the surrounding air. Quite unintentionally, Faraday thus set the stage for the very first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.

6. HE BECAME AN ANTI-POLLUTION CRUSADER.

Britain's industrialization came at a malodorous price. As London grew more crowded during the mid-1800s, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames with increasing regularity. Naturally, the area didn't smell like a rose. In 1855, Faraday penned an oft-reproduced open letter about the problem, imploring the authorities to take action. “If we neglect this subject,” he wrote, “we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof for the folly of our carelessness.”

Just as Faraday predicted, a broiling summer forced Londoners of all stripes to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament hastily responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill. Gradually, the putrid stench began to dissipate.

7. HE STARTED THE ROYAL SOCIETY'S CHRISTMAS LECTURE TRADITION.


Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Society, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong today. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of layman-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of WWII), a prominent scientist has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday himself was the presenter on no less than 19 occasions.

8. BRILLIANT AS FARADAY WAS, HE STRUGGLED WITH MATH.

Towards the end of his life, Faraday's lack of formal education finally caught up with him. An underprivileged childhood had rendered him mathematically illiterate, a severe handicap for a professional scientist. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't support the notion with mathematics, it wasn't taken seriously. Salvation for him came in the form of a young physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. Familial wealth had enabled Maxwell to pursue math and—in 1864—he released equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's hunch.

9. AS TIME WORE ON, HE STRUGGLED WITH MEMORY LOSS.

Michael Faraday
iStock

At the age of 48, Faraday's once-sharp memory started faltering. Stricken by an illness that rendered him unable to work for three years, he wrestled with vertigo, unsteadiness, and other symptoms. Following this "extended vacation" [PDF], he returned to the Royal Society, where he experimented away until his early 70s.

However, Faraday was still prone to inexplicable spurts of sudden giddiness, depression, and extreme forgetfulness. “[My] bad memory,” he wrote, “both loses recent things and sometimes suggests old ones as new.” Nobody knows what caused this affliction, though some blame it on overexposure to mercury.

10. EINSTEIN KEPT A PORTRAIT OF FARADAY IN HIS BERLIN HOME.

Fittingly, the father of modern physics regarded Faraday as a personal hero. Once, upon receiving a book about him, Einstein remarked, “This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved.”

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