It may be the most emotionally powerful photograph to come out of the Great Depression: the well-dressed, unemployed businessman hawking apples for a nickel on a city street corner. It’s a poignant image-the stoic gentleman attempting to preserve a vestige of dignity for himself and his family. But is it an accurate reflection of the era? After all, no more than 5,000 out of 10,000,000 unemployed Americans actually sought relief selling apples.
Indeed, the skeptic has good reason to suspect historical sensationalism. University of Wisconsin historian Stanley Schultz writes that the street corner vendor is little more than a “stereotype,” one that’s “become romanticized in popular culture.” As he sees it, the actual suffering was “much less dramatic, and thus more dismal.”
But the collective experience of apple vendors should not be dismissed, for it reverberates well beyond their numbers. Ultimately, thousands of men spent thousands of hours on New York street corners during the Depression due to the efforts of a man named Joseph Sicker.
“Ultimately, thousands of men spent thousands of hours on New York street corners during the Depression due to the efforts of a man named Joseph Sicker.”
In 1930, just after the Crash, Sicker became chairman of the Unemployed Relief Committee of the International Apple Growers Association. Sicker’s approach to the problem of mounting unemployment was simple. He would start, as he put it, “an apple selling crusade.”
Sicker began his mission during “National Apple Week” in September, 1930. With a startup fund of $10,000 donated by the produce industry he arranged to sell boxes of apples to unemployed businessmen at rates that were about 10 percent below market price. Every morning the unemployed would meet at 66 Harrison Street to purchase a $2.20 box of 88 apples for $2.00 a box. From there they would fan out into the city (via carts or cabs they hired) to set up shop, tell their tales of woe to the ranks of the employed, and sell their subsidized apples. When they day was over they owed Sicker $1.75 to offset costs.
For a brief moment the vendors did well-very well. Although Sicker provided cardboard signs that read “Unemployed: Buy Apples 5 cents each,” many sellers devised their own price schemes. The New York Times reported that, in the fall of 1930, just after the program started, venders were selling apples as high as 50 cents a pop and grossing more than $16 a day. Clearly, some sellers were cultivating a “client base” willing to pay above market price to help a good person get through a bad time. Needless to say, as The Times noted, “Unemployed men and women flocked into the profitable trade,” becoming visible “on almost every street corner.”
And that, of course, was the problem. Come spring of 1931, the program was shot through with vendors. About 4000-5000 in fact. And they found themselves working under much less forgiving economic circumstances. Gone were the days of the 50 cent apple. Now all apples went for a nickel, and tips were rarely given. Factor in the cost of carting apples to a desired location, and it turns out that the typical vendor was netting about a penny an apple.
“This might have been a subsidized program, but the laws of supply and demand were still felt.”
This might have been a subsidized program, but the laws of supply and demand were still felt. And increasingly, they hurt.
Still, it was the Depression, and most vendors had no choice but to keep at it, collectively buying about 320,000 apples a day from the Association throughout 1931. Vendors offloaded so many of Sicker’s subsidized apples that he had to start importing supplies from Washington State-New York apples were gone. Eventually, Sicker’s Association was having to buy apples for $2.50 a box rather than $2.20-refusing all the while to pass costs on to the vendors. The Times explained, “The association’s problem is how to stop this unprofitable business without destroying a means of livelihood for so many men and women.”
Making matters worse was the fact that retailers were also getting slammed. One letter writer to The Times noted, probably correctly, that “it would be better for the retailers of the city to buy off all the apple sellers.” Feed and clothe the poor vendors, he added, “but get them off the street corners between the shop doors.” This plan might have made economic sense, but it ignored the fact that work-even if it was only selling apples-conferred self-respect, something that may have been just as important as money to many of the (male) vendors.
For better or worse, by the fall of 1931, relief came in the form of another economic endeavor: shoe shining. In 1931, before the influx of former apple peddlers, a conventional New York City shine cost a dime. The new guys offered it for a nickel. As one former apple-selling “freebooter” put it, “Yeah, business is better now. People don’t mind spending a nickel. They say, ‘what’s 5 cents anyway.’ But a dime-that’s money.” The Times observed, “men who last winter were selling apples [are] now carrying a rag, a bottle, and a box as stock in trade.” Shoe shiners, after making an initial capital investment, no longer had to pay carting fees or cover Association costs.
So why is it the apple peddler that gets all the glory? After all, at the height of the Depression-or at least when unemployment was the highest-the apple selling craze had diminished, yielding to shoe shining (at least in Manhattan). I think the answer has to do with symbolism. There’s something more noble in the image of two Americans standing together and exchanging a nickel for an apple than there is in one man hunched around the feet of another, face down, grunting it out. When we think about how resilient Americans were to have survived the Depression, we (understandably) prefer to imagine equals helping equals rather than the haves humoring the shoe-scrubbing talents of the have-nots.