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.

8 Daring Female Entrepreneurs From History

An assortment of Madam C.J. Walker products
An assortment of Madam C.J. Walker products
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the past 20 years, the number of women-owned businesses has risen 114 percent. But female entrepreneurship isn't just a hallmark of the modern era: Since as early as the 17th century, women have been forging their own paths in a variety of trades. From merchants to ironmasters to dressmakers, these historic women shattered glass ceilings and broke stereotypes to rise to the top of their industries.

1. Margaret Hardenbroeck

When 22-year-old Margaret Hardenbroeck arrived in New Amsterdam (later New York) from the Netherlands in 1659, she was ambitious and ready to work. She already had a job lined up—collecting debts for a cousin's business. She continued to work even after she married the wealthy merchant Pieter de Vries, this time as a business agent for several Dutch merchants. She sold small goods like cooking oil to the colonists, and bought furs to send to Holland.

When Peter died in 1661, Hardenbroeck inherited his estate and took over his business. She expanded her fur shipping operations in Holland, trading the furs for merchandise to sell back in the colonies. For the Dutch, it was not wholly unusual for women to run businesses on equal footing with men; in New Amsterdam, they sometimes called themselves she-merchants. Hardenbroeck would become the most successful and wealthiest she-merchant in the colony.

Eventually, she was able to purchase her own ship, the King Charles, and accumulated real estate holdings throughout the colonies. Ever the savvy businesswoman, Hardenbroeck ensured that her wealth, properties, and independence were protected when she married her second husband, Frederick Philipse, by choosing an usus marriage under Dutch law. That meant she rejected marital guardianship of her husband and communal property, retaining all that was hers prior to marriage. When Hardenbroeck died in 1691, she was the wealthiest woman in New York.

2. Rebecca Lukens

Printed picture of Rebecca Lukens, c. 1820
Rebecca Lukens circa 1820
Hagley Museum Collection, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1825, 31-year-old Rebecca Lukens found herself a widow and the new owner of Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory. The Pennsylvania-based company had been started by Lukens’s father Isaac Pennock in 1810, leased to her husband Charles, and ultimately left to her after both men died only a year apart. As uncommon as it was at the time for a women to be an ironmaster, and despite objections from her own family, Lukens took over and led the company into a new era of innovation and industry.

Under her husband’s leadership, Brandywine Iron Works had harnessed the demand for steam power by producing rolled iron plate for steam engines. Lukens continued this line of production and propelled Brandywine to become the leading producer of boilerplate. But she saw another opportunity for iron when the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, one of the first commercial railways in the U.S., launched in the mid-1830s, and she began seeking out commissions to produce iron for locomotives.

Even in the midst of the financial crisis of the Great Panic of 1837, Brandywine continued to roll out iron, and when business was stagnant, she sustained her employees by putting them to work maintaining and updating the mill. When she couldn’t pay them with money, she paid them with food. Her foresight and willingness to seek out new opportunities kept Brandywine afloat when other ironworks failed, and her business emerged from the Panic as the most prominent ironworks company. Lukens herself is remembered as the first woman CEO of an industrial company, and one of the first female ironmasters in the US.

3. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

A drawing of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley from her book
A drawing of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley from her book
Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, HathiTrust // Public Domain

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was one of Washington, D.C.'s most popular 19th century dressmakers—but it was a long and difficult road to financial independence and recognition. Born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, Keckley was moved from plantation to plantation. Taught sewing by her seamstress mother Agnes Hobbs, Keckley used this skill while still a teenager to build a clientele, making dresses for both white women and freed black women. While much of the money that she made from her dresses went to the family who owned her, some of her loyal clients loaned her the $1200 she needed to buy her and her son’s freedom. Keckley worked to pay back all the patrons who helped her buy her freedom before moving to Washington, D.C.

In D.C., word of her talents reached Mary Todd Lincoln. The first lady took Keckley on as her personal designer—and close personal friend. Keckley designed nearly all of Mary’s gowns during her time in the White House, including the dress she wore at Lincoln’s second inauguration, now on display at the Smithsonian. As a visible and well-respected free black woman, Keckley also founded the Contraband Relief Association (later the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldiers’ Relief Association), an organization that raised money and provided food and clothing for black people and wounded Union soldiers.

Keckley’s success in D.C. ended, however, shortly after she published an 1868 autobiography—Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Mary saw the sections about her and the White House as a betrayal of confidence, and ended their friendship. The ripple effects ruined Keckley’s reputation in D.C. In the aftermath, she was offered a position at Wilberforce University in Ohio as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts, which she accepted. Keckley also organized the dress exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. She died in 1907.

4. Lydia Estes Pinkham

An advertising postcard for Lydia E. Pinkham
An advertising postcard for Lydia E. Pinkham
Boston Public Library // No known copyright restrictions

Lydia Pinkham reputedly came into possession of a secret medicinal recipe when her husband Isaac accepted the formula in lieu of money owed to him. The recipe contained five main herbs—pleurisy root, life root, fenugreek, unicorn root, and black cohosh—and alcohol. Pinkhman brewed her first batch of the soon-to-be-famous Vegetable Compound on her stove, and just three years later, she launched the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Co., a home remedy business run by and for women.

Pinkham claimed that her Vegetable Compound could cure a spectrum of female-specific ailments, from menstrual problems to a prolapsed uterus. She started out small, first distributing her compound to neighbors and friends, but in the midst of the financial crisis of 1873—when her husband was ruined—she began selling it and writing female health pamphlets to go alongside it. Her three sons helped her package, market, and sell the compound, and the strategic advertising campaign they implemented was key to the business’s success. She was the first woman to put her own likeness on her product, which helped create brand loyalty and spoke to her target audience: women. Eventually, she was able to expand her business beyond the U.S. and into Canada and Mexico.

There is little evidence proving the medical efficacy of Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, and she is often lumped into the quackery category along with hundreds of other 19th century patent medicine producers. But she was also addressing a need for women-centered health care, which was often inadequate at the time. To find alternative methods of care, and avoid dangerous, expensive doctor visits, women often turned to home remedies—like Pinkham’s compound.

5. Madam C.J. Walker

Tin for Madame C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower
Tin for Madame C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower

Born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana plantation on December 23, 1867, Walker was the daughter of Owen and Minerva Anderson, freed blacks who both died by the time she was 7. She was married at 14, and soon gave birth to one daughter, Lelia. After her husband died only six years into their marriage, Walker moved to St. Louis, where she worked hard as a laundress and cook, hoping to provide a life free from poverty for Lelia.

In 1904, Walker began working as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo Malone’s hair care company—and soon came into some inspiration of her own. As the story goes, she had a dream in which a man told her the ingredients for a hair-growing tonic. Walker re-created the tonic and began selling it door-to-door. After she married Charles Joseph Walker in 1906 and renamed herself Madam C.J. Walker, she launched Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a line of hair care for black women.

Walker built a business that was earning $500,000 a year by the time she died, while her individual financial worth reached $1 million. Yet it isn’t the wealth alone that earned Walker a lasting legacy—it was how she used that wealth for a larger social good. Within her company, she trained over 40,000 black women and men and advocated for the economic independence of black people, particularly black women. She financially supported black students at the Tuskegee Institute, and contributed the largest recorded single donation, of $5000, to the NAACP, to support anti-lynching initiatives.

6. Annie Turnbo Malone

Though Madam C.J. Walker is often recognized as the first black woman millionaire, some historians say that credit belongs to Annie Turnbo Malone, the woman who hired Walker to sell her Wonderful Hair Grower in St. Louis before Walker started her own company. Like Walker, Malone’s parents were former slaves who died when Malone was young. Her older sister Peoria raised her, and together, they began experimenting with hairdressing.

Hair care products for black women were not widely produced, and the chemical solutions that were used often damaged hair. Malone developed her own chemical straightener around the turn of the century, and soon had created an entire line of other products for black women’s hair. In 1902 later, she moved to St. Louis and, along with three assistants, sold her hair care line door-to-door. She expanded the company rapidly, advertising in newspapers, traveling to give demonstrations at black churches, and even selling her line at the 1904 World’s Fair. In 1906, Malone trademarked her products under the name Poro, and in 1918, she built Poro College, a multi-story building that housed her business offices, training offices, operations, and a variety of public gathering spaces for the local black community. Malone even franchised retail outlets throughout North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines, employing over 75,000 women worldwide.

Malone’s company was worth millions, and she continuously used her money to improve the lives of those around her, either by hiring women or donating to colleges and organizations around the country. She made $25,000 donations to both Howard University Medical School and the St. Louis Colored YMCA. She donated the land for the St. Louis Colored Orphans’ Home and raised most of their construction costs, then served on their board from 1919 to 1943. In 1946, the orphanage was renamed in her honor, and it is still operational today as the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.

7. Mary Ellen Pleasant

When Mary Ellen Pleasant moved to San Francisco in 1852 she was fleeing the South, where she had been accused of violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Pleasant had, in fact, broken the law—which punished anyone who aided people escaping slavery—as a member of the Underground Railroad, along with her first husband James Smith. For four years, Pleasant and Smith helped escaped slaves find new homes in free states and Canada, and when Smith died only four years after their marriage, Pleasant continued the work with a considerable inheritance from him.

When Pleasant moved to San Francisco in 1852 amid Gold Rush fever, she initially worked as a cook and housekeeper, but also began investing in stock and money markets, and lending money to miners and other businessmen in California's surging economy (at interest, of course). Pleasant was successful enough that she became a philanthropist, and continued her abolitionist work by housing escaped slaves and finding them jobs.

In 1866, Pleasant brought a civil rights case against the North Beach Mission Railroad Company, which refused to pick up black passengers. She won. Her success in court, as well as in continuing the Underground Railroad through her businesses, have earned her the title the mother of California’s civil rights movement.

By this time, Pleasant had amassed a sizable fortune and was considered one of the wealthiest women in America. But many people in white society saw her only as a black stereotype, and dubbed her Mammy Pleasant—a title she hated. She ended up being dragged into a series of scandals and court cases connected to wealthy men, accused of being both a thief and murderer. Financially drained and emotionally exhausted, she was forced to give up her home. The smear campaigns also greatly diminished her fortune and reputation in her time, but the legacy of her radical life has not been lost. In 2005, the city of San Francisco proclaimed February 10 Mary Ellen Pleasant Day in her honor.

8. Olive Ann Beech

A photograph of Olive Ann Beach
A photograph of Olive Ann Beach
San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, Wikimedia // No known restrictions

From an early age, Beech knew how to manage finances. Born in 1903, she had her own bank account by the age of 7, and by 11 she had taken on the unusual childhood responsibility of keeping track of her family’s accounts. Already with a mind for business and finance, Beech enrolled in a business college in her home state of Kansas, where she studied stenography and bookkeeping. After college, she took a position in 1924 as a bookkeeper for Travel Air Manufacturing Company, a new commercial and passenger aviation company.

Beech was fundamental to the company’s growth, managing its correspondence, records, and financial dealings, and the organization quickly became the world’s largest commercial aircraft manufacturer. In a short time, she was promoted to office manager, and eventually became personal secretary to Walter Beech, one of Travel Air’s co-founders. Their working relationship became much more, and they married in 1930. As partners, they formed Beech Aircraft Company, and when Walter fell sick for a few months, Beech took over. With the onset of the U.S.’s entry into World War II, Beech Aircraft boomed, building over 7400 military aircraft over the course of the war.

When Walter died in 1950, Beech became president—the first woman president of a major aircraft company. She then took the company into the Space Age, establishing a research and development facility that supplied NASA with cryogenic systems, cabin pressurizing equipment for the Gemini program, and parts for the Apollo moon flights and Orbiter shuttle. Under Beech’s leadership, the company’s sales tripled.

In 1980, Beech Aircraft merged with Raytheon; Beech stayed on as chair of Beech Aircraft and was elected to Raytheon’s board of directors. Though Beech never piloted an aircraft herself, she was awarded the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy that same year—the first woman to receive the award—for "five decades of outstanding leadership in the development of general aviation."

California Retirement Home Put Residents' Vintage Wedding Dresses on Display

iStock.com/raksybH
iStock.com/raksybH

You know you’ve reached a certain level of maturity when many of your once-modern day belongings can be described as vintage. It’s a term the residents of the Stoneridge Creek retirement community are taking in stride this month, because some of their (yes, vintage) wedding dresses are now on display.

The Pleasanton, California retirement home has created an elaborate presentation of more than 20 dresses with various laces, styles, and lengths, some of which date back to 1907, along with wedding photos and other memorabilia to commemorate Valentine’s Day. The public is invited, but if you’re not local, you can catch a glimpse of the dresses in the video below.

This isn’t the first time Stoneridge Creek has made news. In 2015, a number of residents came together to craft quilts for residents who had served in the military. The group worked in secret to make the customized quilts honoring their service, then surprised them with the gifts on Veterans Day.

[h/t ABC7]

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