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A Photograph of the Great Depression

id74271_2_depression_applesThe professorial old man—round glasses, full white beard—stands beside an open box, pointing at a sign fitted into the open lid: Apples 5₵. Underneath the sign sits a money box and a mound of fruit.

Something brown wraps itself over the open lid of the box, and for a moment, I think a snake has made its way out of some New York gutter and up the table leg to the box. The serpent, forbidden fruit, Adam, now old, still doing penance. I study the brown object and realize that it’s only the handle of the professor’s cane.

He wears a suit and tie, his worn fedora on his head. Grainy photos almost always show men lined up at soup kitchens wearing suits, a habit that must have increased their self-respect even in those Dickensian times. Maybe the ability to hang on to self-respect explains how young men who jumped box cars and rode the nation looking for work landed on the beaches of Normandy and became known as the Greatest Generation. Not the professor. His fighting days are over. Still, he wears a suit and tie to sell apples and that says something.

Where did he get the apples and why do so many depression-era photographs show men selling apples for a nickel? And why always a nickel? You would think the law of supply-and-demand would allow some capitalist apple seller to go for 7₵ in under-served areas, while others had to cut their rates to 2₵. But no. Always a nickel.

As it happens, history supplies the answer to this question. A man named Joseph Sicker became Chairman of the Unemployed Relief Committee of the International Apple Shippers Association in 1930. Apple producers chipped in ten thousand dollars so that Sticker could sell apples on credit to desperate men, who became street vendors. The crusade began in September, 1930, helping both the unemployed and the producers, who had an overabundance of apples that year.

But just as the serpent slithered into the garden and the Roaring Twenties charged headlong into the Great Depression, so rotten apple cores soon littered the streets of New York and apple sellers proliferated like rabbits. The program lasted only nine months.

I wonder how the professor earned a living in 1932, the worst year of the Depression, almost two years away from the 1930 apple season.

One last thought occurs to me as I move to the next photograph. I bet the professor didn’t have a city permit. A modern bureaucrat would argue that the professor might have stayed in business if the city had regulated the apple business by forcing sellers to buy a five-dollar permit. But what if he didn’t have five dollars? Nine months’ of work is better than no months of work. And I suspect my professor is the kind of man who likes to earn his way in the world. Hence the suit and tie.

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