Depression Apples

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.

Maro Riofrancos

I googled for this "most emotionally powerful photograph to come out of the Great Depression" and came up empty. I assume this was not a photograph by one of the well-known photographers of the 1930s, like Evans or Lange, or any of the FSA photographers. In any case, it's hard to imagine any of them taking such a cliched image as the one described here. And I don't think businessmen in suits ever ascended to the exalted level in the nation's iconography that is implied by Mr. McWilliams.


I like work.

Neither I nor, a co-worker, (advanced degrees) no colleague euphemism here, ever felt it "beneath us" to crawl under desks, take inventory, menial tasks, make coffee, yes Boss etc.

Having the proclaimed virtues and attitude of doing what it takes, doing extra, precision execution, team-player mindedness, I would like a 2nd job, where there are none.

@Michael Malta, you didn't discuss the "next phase of life", compelled, but can't offer rides. Example. I offered a ride (single occupant driver), to people on a to NYC suburban bus-stop. This eco-cost-time friendly gesture, rejected, car not yellow.

Sadly, there was a time hitch-hiking, stranger pick-up, ride-sharing was O.K.. The creeps, weirdos, thugs, pervs ruined it.

Your desire and drive to survive, make $ and learn from the driver experience, is commendable.

@Suzanne, that's a good healthy walk.
About the fruit., an interesting study would be lbs. discarded by type and cost dynamics. Street corner take-away demand should be fairly predictable - regulars ?
How much overstock is there, typically ?

Curiously, did you note price by area, location.

While we all should be eating more fruit, it's most unreasonably, presumably discarded, unless on the off chance, it could be juiced, smoothie-tized. Health regs. I believe prevent this. Fregons may benefit and generally I believe it unlikely a big percentage going to the needy.

Rather, than sell-off, repurpose, some just blemished inventory, it's easier to discard.

I even watched, what looked like edible grapefruits, cored, smashed and defiled, made un-edible, instead of juicing.

Of course, I would have offered - paid something say 50cents off list.and take my chances - pre-pulped, that is.

There may be a willing vendor or two.



A picture may be worth a thousand words but in many cases it represents the wrong thing.
Photography as a deliverer of truth is way overrated



I'm not a Republican. In fact, I would be ashamed to associate with any group of people whose arithmetic skills are as pathetic as the California Republicans. The Reps apparently think that the voters can endlessly increase spending for pet projects (which the misguided constitution allows them to do) without ever having to pay the piper.

Now if you want to accuse me of supporting the work ethic that built this great nation, then I'm all ears. I haven't noticed that trait being the exclusive property of any political party, however.


#24 htb
Please re-read my post, #6 & #12. My so-called "sense of worth (being) so fragile" is based on thirty years of self employment in a highly competitive field. After more considered evaluation you may find my point is clear although posed in sarcasm.

If as a nation we have only the 'apple-sellers' story in the face of eviscerating unemployment we have to accept the system is a failure and the solution may be found in more progressive approaches to economic contractions. (see: Finland, Norway ect.)

ps, lighten up, attacking me smacks of the 'hopey-changey' thing not working out.


I was reading the Atlantic article you linked to at the end of your post when about half way through I came to a point where I just could not proceed. All my optimism about America's ingenuity and its ability to rise in the face of adversity was shot dead in one fell swoop. I may have been a little too engrossed in the article, but such a morbid view of our apparently inevitable future is downright depressing.

Seeing as I am a few small steps away from the edge of the pit of despair, also known as the job market for a sparkling new graduate (of Finance none the less), I decided to immediately try and forget what I had just read and to continue on with pride still intake. The article is well written and rife with factual support but at the end of the day I hope the author is mainly searching for an untouched angle on the potential future of our country, and not an omen of things to come.


Arnold D'Souza

@michael malta (#16): Really nice story. I like.


I would definitely like the concept of these apples...Keep giving us updates!!

Moshe Sharon

When we hear about "depression" we associate this word with mental illness. However, contrary to what the drug peddling psychiatrists say about it, depression is not an illness; it's a human condition. It's the opposite of joy, so it is part of an emotional spectrum with extremes at both ends. Morever, when we look at the buzz words dealing with depression in the realm of popular psychology such as, "self esteem", "self worth", "self image", "self love", "self Loathing", etc., we can get that this entire area of study is about ego-centrism. There is no room in this private domain for anyone else. Moreover, the way our society deals with this subject as a whole even encourages narcissism. Therefore, barring any chemical or hormonal imbalances which doctors can correct, the person suffering from chronic bouts of depression needs to focus on the needs of others. The best therapy is a program that encourages people to be more altruistic and less self-centered.