Published by EH.NET (June 1999)

Douglas Steeples and David O. Whitten, Democracy in Desperation: The

Depression of 1893. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. 261 pp. $59.95

(cloth), ISBN: 0-313-27943-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Anthony P. O’Brien, Department of Economics, Lehigh


The depression of the 1890s is the least studied major event in the economic

history of the United States. The contrast is striking between the torrent of

work by economic historians on the depression of the 1930s and

the trickle of work on the 1890s. For most, the 1930s are the “defining moment”

for the twentieth-century U.S. economy (as the title of a recent essay

collection would have it), but the depression of the 1890s was a very large

(and largely unexplained) event that merits detailed examination.

This book on the depression of the 1890s by Douglas Steeples and David O.

Whitten presents a well-written narrative of the events of the depression and

the effects of the depression on some aspects of the economy and

government policy, but it does not move us forward in understanding why the

depression was so severe.

The opening chapter gives an indication that the authors had intended to move

beyond the existing literature to provide a new explanation of the downturn.

The authors quote J. Rogers Hollingsworth, writing in the 1960s,

that “there is no adequate account of the causes of the depression of

1893-1897.” They promise that: “One goal of this study is to fill that gap.”

But their discussion of the causes of the depression, presented in the first

half of the book, is disappointing. They recount a wide variety of events that

they believe contributed one or another to the severity of the depression. But

they never provide an analytical framework that would make

it possible to gauge the relative importance of these factors. They also make

almost no attempt to contrast what occurred during the 1890s with what occurred

during other downturns, which might have at least implicitly highlighted the

factors that were most important in accounting for the severity of the 1890s


In fact, I found it hard to distinguish their roll call of existing

explanations, offered in Chapter 1, from the factors they list in later

chapters as being, presumably, key to understanding the downturn. Previous

explanations and their explanation all strike me as a hodge-podges of some

factors that probably were important in accounting for the severity of the

depression, some factors that might have been important, and some factors that

probably were not important, with no means offered the reader to figure out

which was which.

As Friedman and Schwartz once remarked in discussing the effect of the death of

Benjamin Strong on the unfolding of the Great Depression, a small pebble can

sometimes start a landslide. Maybe the depression of the 1890s is a case of a

landslide being started by a series of medium size boulders,

and this may be what Steeples and Whitten are arguing. But they end up

discussing so many boulders, pebbles, and grains of sand that it is difficult

to make much sense of it all.

Although concerned with questions of

the severity of the depression,

Steeples and Whitten make no use of the literature arising from Christina

Romer’s reworking of the data series for this period (most of the data they

reproduce in their tables are from the 1957 edition of Historical Statistics).

In general, most of their references to the secondary literature are to works

published before 1980 and references to the economic history literature

are scarce.

The later chapters of their book deal with the consequences of the depression,

particularly for labor relations, politics, and government policy. The

discussion, based on contemporary newspaper accounts and secondary sources,

supplemented here and there with material from archival sources, is wide

ranging and interesting. Unfortunately, the authors feel obliged to pepper

their discussion with comparisons between the 1890s and 1990s that seem rather

strained and out of place. For instance, after discussing the difficulties

some academics got into in the 1890s for suggesting unorthodox solutions to the

depression, the authors offer the opinion that (p. 133): “The tenure system has

been under determined attack from its inception, and conservative politicians

rank its destruction high on their list of targets, perhaps immediately behind

eradication of the welfare system.” Or (p. 136): “Media attacks of the 1890s

are timid in comparison to editorial cartoons and illustrations directed at


William Clinton’s alleged sexual peccadilloes, cartoons lending credence to

claims of reactionary politicians that so-called ‘welfare queens’ found in

unemployment and public assistance an effortless road to unearned wealth,

and drawings skewering public

officials for real and imagined offenses.”

Overall, this book provides a good summary of the events of the 1890s

depression and some of its consequences. It might well prove useful as a

supplementary reading for a course on the period. It does not succeed in

providing a new and coherent explanation for the severity of the depression.