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U.S. Census Bureau History: Fireside Chats

Roosevelt's Fireside Chat.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke about
the crisis in the nation's banking system and
his administration's response during his first
fireside chat on March 12, 1933 [PDF 56KB].

March 12 marks the anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 fireside chat—On the Banking Crisis—the first of 30 chats Link to a non-federal Web site he hosted on topics that included banking, the dust bowl, economic conditions, and World War II. The speech was broadcast by radio as the nation's banking system teetered on the brink of collapse and nervous Americans looked to their new president for a solution.

The years following the 1929 stock market crash were difficult times for the United States marked by the extreme economic hardships faced by businesses, farms, and families. At this time, bank deposits were not insured—the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) would not be established until June 1933—so a bank's failure meant depositors lost their savings. By 1933, an increasing number of nervous bank customers withdrew their money. In Detroit, MI, depositors panicked after learning the city's largest banks could not cover the growing number of withdrawals and Henry Ford threatened to withdraw his money. Michigan's governor was forced to declare a bank holiday on February 14, 1933. Similar events occurred nationwide so that by FDR's March 4, 1933, inauguration, 37 states had declared bank holidays.

Roosevelt's Sunday evening broadcast On the Banking Crisis summarized the events leading up to the suspension of all banking transactions and actions the federal government was taking to strengthen the nation's banks. Under the direction of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks, additional currency was distributed, more liberal provisions were enacted for healthy banks to borrow money, and troubled banks were reorganized during the bank holiday. As a result of Roosevelt's emergency measures, banks controlling 90 percent of the country's assets reopened by March 15, and deposits soon exceeded withdrawals.

Although 82 years have passed since the 1933 banking crisis and Roosevelt's first fireside chat, the data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal statistical agencies illustrate the severity of the economic hardship American's faced in the 1930s. The examples below are just a few ways statistics help us understand the Great Depression and allow us to make comparisons to more recent economic booms and busts.

  • In 1930, the U.S. resident population was 123,202,624—a 16.2 percent increase from 1920. By 1940, the population was 132,164,569—the slowest population growth rate (7.2 percent) recorded by the census in U.S. history.
  • The 1933 banking crisis was a consequence of a worldwide economic depression that affected nearly every American family. In 1929, 3.2 percent {PDF 77KB] of America's civilian labor force was unemployed. Unemployment rose to 8.7 percent in 1930, and by 1933, the rate had risen to 24.9 percent. In comparison, data from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey shows that unemployment peaked at 10 percent [PDF 506KB] during the 2007 to 2009 Great Recession.
  • When Roosevelt's first fireside chat was broadcast on March 12, 1933, approximately 19.3 million [PDF 80KB] households owned a radio and the nation was home to 598 standard broadcast (AM) radio stations. By the time of his final chat Link to a non-federal Web site on June 12, 1944—Opening Fifth War Loan Drive32.5 million households owned a radio and 976 commercial radio stations operated in the United States.
  • In 1933, 4,004 [PDF 219KB] banks holding more than $3.6 billion in deposits suspended operations temporarily or permanently due to financial difficulties. Thanks to the Roosevelt Administration's banking reforms, including the Banking Act of 1933 (which established the FDIC), the number of banks suspended between 1934 and 1940 dropped to 448, and just 49 between 1941 and 1946.
  • According to the FDIC, the nonfarm foreclosure rate in metropolitan communities rose from 3.6 per 1,000 dwellings in 1926 to 13.3 in 1933. In 2009, 5.4 percent [PDF 56KB] of all mortgage loans entered the foreclosure process.
  • The 1930s dust bowl contributed to the nation's economic woes as farmers were helpless to prevent the topsoil from their drought-stricken farms from blowing away during wind storms. Between 1930 and 1940, the hard hit states of Oklahoma and Kansas saw their populations decrease from 2,396,00 to 2,336,000 and 1,881,000 to 1,801,000, [PDF 871KB] respectively. In contrast, California's population surged from 5,677,000 to 6,907,000 as impoverished farm families sought new lives and jobs in the state.

Dust Storm, Stratford, TX, April 18, 1935
During the 1930s, Great Plains farmers watched their livelihoods blow away in massive dust storms like this one
in Stratford, TX, on April 18, 1935. John Steinbeck's book The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the migration of farm families
from their wind-swept Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle farms to California in search of better lives.
Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Historic census records from 1790 to 1940 are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, not the U.S. Census Bureau.

Visit the National Archives Website to access 1940 Census records

Online subscription services are available to access the 1790-1940 census records. Contact your local library to inquire if it has subscribed to one of these services.

This Month In Census History

On March 12, 1885, Charles W. Seaton died at his home in Vermont. Seaton served as chief clerk during the 1870 Census and superintendent of the census from 1881 to 1885.

Charles W. Seaton

In 1872, Seaton invented a machine that sped data tabulation by isolating and organizing lines on tally sheets. The Census Office purchased the "Seaton Device" to help tabulate 1870 Census data.

Even with the device, clerks were overwhelmed by the volume of data collected by the 1880 Census. Motivated by the clerks' struggles, Herman Hollerith developed electronic tabulating technology for the 1890 Census. Variations of this technology would be used until it was replaced by computers in the 1950s.

Tips for Genealogists

Interested in the 1790 to 1940 census records of our nation's presidents, movie stars, and other celebrities? Check out our Famous and Infamous Census Records page!

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: March 10, 2015