5 Great Depression Success Stories

Moviehouses took a hit but, through innovation, came out of the Great Depression stronger than ever.
Moviehouses took a hit but, through innovation, came out of the Great Depression stronger than ever.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These entities faced serious challenges during 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 had mistakenly assumed Wall Street's good times were never going to end. Floyd Bostwick Odlum had, with some partners, cannily turned $40,000 [PDF] into a multimillion-dollar fortune by investing in utility companies. Odlum and his partners didn't like the way they thought the markets were moving, though. They cut bait on stocks in an effort to generate cash before the market crash Odlum 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 wealthiest men in the country. The 1941 edition of Current Biography declared Odlum "possibly the only man in the United States who made a great fortune out of 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 percent 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 fell from $720 million in 1929 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 & Gamble

The Great Depression was trying for most consumer product companies, but Procter & Gamble came out of the whole ordeal smelling better than it had in 1929. How did the soap giant [PDF] 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 & 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 radio shows—and pioneering the “soap opera." In 1950, P&G made the first ongoing television soap opera, The First Hundred Years.

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. In addition to reducing its wages and operating on a three-day work week, the company also made everything from violin parts to wooden jewelry. 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 (which traced its origins to earlier guitars made for a Boston publishing firm) 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 brewers’ core product, beer, wasn't even legal. During national Prohibition from 1920 to 1933, many of the country's breweries closed their doors for good—according to a 1932 Congressional Hearing, there were more than 1000 breweries before Prohibition began, but by 1932, there were “only 164 that could be ready to make beer again.”

How did these brewers make ends meet during the Depression when they couldn't sell suds to the distressed 25 percent [PDF] 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 root beer. Frank Yuengling, who headed the family brewery outside of Philadelphia, remained confident that Prohibition was just a phase, and he personally diversified widely, including 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. As of 2019, the five best-selling beers in America are all produced by pre-Prohibition/pre-Great Depression brands.

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From Campaign Slogans to Social Movements, New Book Explores the Role Buttons Have Played Throughout History

Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon
Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

From their early days on the campaign trail during the 1896 presidential race to their current role as a way of showing support for social causes like the LGBTQIA+ pride movement, pinback buttons have remained one of the most popular ways for people to express their values and beliefs for well over a century. And now, button experts Christen Carter, founder of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Company and the Button Museum, and Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions, have put their extensive knowledge of the subject into the new book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons ($25), a cultural journey showcasing 1500 of the most important and unique pinbacks throughout American history.

“Buttons seem like really a niche thing, but they really are very general,” Carter tells Mental Floss. “They cover so much history, and the history goes deep and wide.”

For the book, Hake and Carter—who both began collecting buttons during their respective childhoods—cover how buttons have been used to communicate messages during their 125-year history, from pinbacks featuring landmark political slogans and anti-war sentiments to others that simply proclaim a person's love of Dallas.

“[Buttons] are little windows on the world, and you can pick an avenue and head down to your heart's content,” Hake tells Mental Floss.

Some of the 20th century's most important moments had a button to go along with them.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

One of Hake's favorite buttons in the book doesn't feature a political or social statement—it's just a picture of a buffalo with the words “Eat Me at Bremen, Kans. June 9, 1935” emblazoned across it. But it wasn't just the design that really caught his attention; it was also its backstory.

The button's origins lie within the town of Bremen, Kansas, which, in June 1935, was celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the dedication of a marker for the defunct Oregon Trail, according to Kansas Historical Quarterly. Two weeks before the celebration, 500 townspeople gathered in Bremen to watch a buffalo get slaughtered, which was then shipped to the neighboring town’s ice house for preservation. When the big day finally arrived, the buffalo was shipped back to become the centerpiece of a community-wide feast. The button was made to spread the word for the unique event.

“Here he is on this button, inviting the good folks of Bremen to enjoy him,” Hake says. “So it is a little bit surreal, to tell you the truth.” During his research, Hake recovered this niche historical event that could’ve otherwise been easily lost to history. “At the end of the day, they capped it off with supper, a band concert, and they gave away a baby buffalo calf,” he says.

Buttons have been used to express both support and opposition to the United States's involvement in wars. Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

While pinback button technology has not changed drastically in the past 125 years, Hake and Carter still consider their golden era to be from 1896 to 1921. “The colors are just unusual and beautiful,” Carter says. “They were able to get fine details that, [even] with digital printing, we can’t do.” Carter also enjoys how buttons were used as a communication device during the punk movement, saying, “They're important identifiers to a counter-culture movement, and they were not afraid to piss people off.”

Though the book covers buttons featuring celebrities, bands, and brands, many of the most popular ones come from the political arena and sports. Hake’s Auction just set the record for the most expensive pinback sold on September 23, 2020, with a 1916 Boston Red Sox World Series button that went for $62,980. “What makes it great is that every team member is on the button and up at 11 o’clock is one Babe Ruth. He was in his second year and was a pitcher back in those days,” Hake explains.

Even though there are buttons like the Babe Ruth ones that sell for thousands of dollars, it's still an accessible hobby for everyone. “You can start your button collection with just $10 and already have a good start. It is a good thing to collect if you don’t have much money or much space,” Carter explains.

The power of the political button eventually became fertile ground for satire in the '70s.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

Looking forward to the next 125 years, Carter hopes that buttons can become more eco-friendly by eliminating steel use and replacing it with recycled materials. “They haven’t changed that much in the last 125 years. They are pretty timeless in that way, and they are inexpensive, so whatever keeps them as inexpensive as possible as resources change in the next 100 years, they will probably change."

You can order Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons on Amazon or on the Princeton Architectural Press website.

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