The Great Depression began in 1929 and lasted for an entire decade, affecting nearly every aspect of daily life for people all over the world — and hitting the United States especially hard. U.S. unemployment soared to nearly 25%, businesses shuttered, and families lost their life savings. Food became scarce in many communities, especially as a severe drought hit the Great Plains, leading to the agricultural disaster known as the Dust Bowl.
This difficult era also impacted innovation. Independent inventors found themselves with less funding, and many businesses shied away from risky initiatives, but big inventions also helped keep companies and innovators afloat during the hard times. Some inventions were successful specifically because of the economic downturn, such as the groundbreaking new adhesive that could repair just about anything. For others, success came in spite of the crisis. Here are five inventions that came out of the Great Depression that are still shaping our lives today.
A century ago, people had to bust out a bread knife whenever they wanted a sandwich or slice of toast. That changed in 1928, when a bread slicing and wrapping machine invented by Otto Rohwedder made its debut at a bakery in Chillicothe, Missouri. The machine proved to be so popular that Rohwedder had trouble keeping up with demand from other bakeries. After the Depression hit, economic realities forced him to sell his patent to a larger manufacturing company — but the story has a happy ending. The owners hired the inventor as the vice president and sales manager of a new division formed just for his machines. In 1930, Wonder Bread started advertising its own sliced bread, and, although Wonder Bread used its own machines, Rohwedder’s bread-slicer sales exploded as the trend grew. By 1933, sliced bread accounted for 80% of all bread sales. The invention was so influential, it led to the phrase still used to praise new wonders today: “The best thing since sliced bread.”
Nylon Stockings and Toothbrushes
Before the Depression, the DuPont chemical company had a “fundamental research” program — a team of scientists tasked with increasing scientific knowledge rather than developing specific projects. But with the economic downturn, the division became more focused. It was already working on synthetic textiles and had invented neoprene, although the material wasn’t particularly useful at the time. They’d also worked with rayon, which didn’t make a great substitute for silk, and was only partially manmade. Nylon was the first entirely synthetic fiber developed by DuPont that was actually useful — and its invention in 1937 was a very bright prospect after the agricultural woes of the era.
Nylon started appearing in toothbrushes in 1938, and DuPont showed off its new fabric to the world as hosiery at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The first day nylon stockings became available to the public, around 800,000 pairs flew off the shelves. DuPont’s Depression-era investment in fiber technology paid off; by 1937, 40% percent of its sales came from products that didn’t exist before 1929, including freon, neoprene, and lucite.
Richard Drew, the inventor of Scotch tape, cut his teeth as an inventor by creating masking tape in his spare time. In his first job as a lab tech at 3M (known then as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing), he delivered sandpaper samples to auto manufacturers, and after hearing many an auto painter curse over their DIY masking solutions, he decided to design the perfect tape. He worked on it at 3M at first, but after he was scolded and told to get back to work, he continued the project at home. Drew eventually made his masking tape from crepe paper, cabinetmaker’s glue, and glycerin in 1925, and got a big promotion.
Another industrial problem came to his attention soon after: Bakeries had started using newly invented cellophane for packaging, but had nothing attractive to seal it with. So Drew started experimenting with a clear tape. The adhesives he used on the masking tape looked brown, so he had to invent a new type of adhesive to make sure the tape stayed clear. The result was a cellophane tape with adhesive made from oil, resins, and rubber. As the story goes, the name “Scotch tape” was inspired by an early version of Drew’s masking tape, which had adhesive only on the edges, causing one auto painter to ask why Drew was so “Scotch” — a slang term for “cheap” at the expense of Scottish people. Scotch tape debuted in 1930, right at the start of the Great Depression, and as more and more households had to be thrifty and resourceful to survive, the product came along right in the nick of time. People used Scotch tape for everything from mending clothing to capping
milk bottles — and even repairing cracked eggs.
Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies
In August 1930, amid the early days of the Great Depression, a Massachusetts chef named Ruth Wakefield took a major risk: She decided to chase her dream of opening an inn and restaurant. It was touch and go at first: In the Toll House Inn’s first month, the money on hand dwindled to just $10, a little more than $180 today. But by the end of the year, the business had grown so popular it needed 12 employees to keep up with demand. By the end of the Depression, against all odds, Wakefield had to expand the inn to serve around 1,000 diners per day. Comfort food with complimentary second helpings along a busy road for auto travelers turned out to be a winning strategy.
Wakefield is widely credited with inventing the chocolate chip cookie, after stumbling on a recipe that proved to be a hit with diners at the Toll House Inn. Originally served not as a stand-alone dish but as an accompaniment to ice cream, the cookie became the restaurant’s most enduring creation, and Wakefield appeared in newspapers and radio shows to talk about the trendy treat. In its early days it was called the “Toll House cookie” or “chocolate crunch cookie”; the “chocolate chip cookie” name came around 1939 because the recipe called for literally chipping the chocolate off the bar.
Speaking of chocolate chipping: After Nestle got Wakefield’s permission to use the recipe, the cookie started appearing in ads, and it was so popular that it started influencing product development. Early on, Nestle released a semisweet chocolate bar scored into 160 pieces, and in 1940, the company debuted its “morsel” chips — the chocolate chips we know today.
In 1928, Paul Galvin co-founded a radio parts manufacturing company along with his brother, Joseph. When the Depression hit, households stopped buying noncritical items such as radios, so Galvin had to think fast to save his business. He noticed that car sales hadn’t dipped — people had come to rely on their vehicles — and he figured that inventing a car radio could be a good bet. (Car radios had been attempted before by other companies, but were too cumbersome and expensive to be viable products.) After landing on a solid design at a price that would actually sell, Galvin and his team mounted the new radio on his car and drove all the way from Chicago to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to attend the 1930 Radio Manufacturers Association Convention. They didn’t even get a booth; they just parked the car and cranked up the radio. It may seem counterintuitive that a luxury add-on would thrive during a time of extreme economic hardship, but the car radio took off. The team called their radio the Motorola, and their company eventually took the same name.