6 People Who Made Big Money During the Great Depression | HISTORY (2024)

When the Great Depression hit its lowest ebb in 1933, the unemployment rate exceeded 20 percent and America’s gross domestic product plummeted by 30 percent. Not everyone, however, lost money during the worst economic downturn in American history.

Business titans such as William Boeing and Walter Chrysler actually grew their fortunes during the Great Depression. As the aviation industry took flight in the 1930s with the advent of regular passenger service, Boeing built a vertically integrated empire that manufactured aircraft and operated airlines until the federal government forced its breakup.

Carmaker Chrysler responded to the financial freefall by cutting costs, boosting efficiency and improving passenger comfort in his company’s vehicles. While sales of expensive cars plunged, those of Chrysler’s cheaper Plymouth brand soared. According to Automotive News, Chrysler’s market share rose from 9 percent in 1929 to 24 percent in 1933 as it surpassed Ford as America’s second-largest car company.

Thanks to shrewd investments, fortuitous timing and entrepreneurial vision, the following Americans also profited during the Great Depression.

Joseph Kennedy, Sr.: Stocks, Movies and Spirits

6 People Who Made Big Money During the Great Depression | HISTORY (1)6 People Who Made Big Money During the Great Depression | HISTORY (2)

A portrait of the Kennedy family, pictured in Hyannis, Massachusetts, c. 1930s. Seated from left, Robert Kennedy, Edward Kennedy, Joseph P Kennedy Sr, Eunice Kennedy, Rosemary Kennedy, and Kathleen Kennedy; standing from left, Joseph P Kennedy Jr, John F Kennedy, Rose Kennedy, Jean Kennedy, and Patricia Kennedy.

Joseph Kennedy, Sr. made millions in the unregulated stock market of the 1920s, in part due to insider trading and market manipulation. The Kennedy family patriarch then used his Wall Street earnings to become a movie mogul. After purchasing a failing Hollywood studio in 1926, he consolidated movie companies that churned out low-budget movies, made them more efficient and sold them for big profits. By the time he exited Hollywood in 1931, Kennedy had earned $5 million in the film industry, according to the National Park Service.

While most investors watched their fortunes evaporate during the 1929 stock market crash, Kennedy emerged from it wealthier than ever. Believing Wall Street to be overvalued, he sold most of his stock holdings before the crash and made even more money by selling short, betting on stock prices to fall.

Kennedy biographer David Nasaw said he found no truth to the rumors that the 35th president's father was a bootlegger during Prohibition. However, the lucrative contract Kennedy signed in Prohibition’s waning days to be the sole American importer of Scotch whiskey and gin produced by British distillers such as Dewar’s and Gordon’s contributed to the growth of Kennedy’s wealth from $4 million in 1929 to $180 million by 1935.

J. Paul Getty: Oil Stocks and Real Estate

6 People Who Made Big Money During the Great Depression | HISTORY (3)6 People Who Made Big Money During the Great Depression | HISTORY (4)

Jean Paul Getty, pictured 1939.

Oil tycoon J. Paul Getty abided by a simple business formula: “Buy when everyone else is selling, and hold on until everyone else is buying.” Having already made his first million dollars in the oil industry more than a decade earlier, Getty skipped a celebration of his parents’ golden wedding anniversary during the 1929 stock market crash to commiserate with Wall Street brokers, investors and speculators.

With companies desperate for cash, Getty took what he had learned and acquired undervalued oil stocks and real estate. “It is the opportunity of a lifetime to get oil companies for practically nothing,” he wrote. Aiming to build an oil empire to rival that of John D. Rockefeller, Getty purchased Pacific Western Oil Company and shares of Tide Water Associated Oil Company, the country’s ninth-largest oil company. Five years after buying Tide Water shares for $2.12, they were worth more than $20.

Mae West: Movie Stardom

History Shorts: How Artists Helped End the Great Depression

As demand for inexpensive entertainment and interest in new talking pictures kept the movie business afloat during the Great Depression, Mae West emerged as one of the era’s biggest box-office stars. Before jumping to the silver screen in 1932 at the age of 39, West starred in vaudeville and burlesque shows and Broadway plays that she wrote.

Paramount Studios, which was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, signed West to star in the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, an adaptation of her hit Broadway play Diamond Lil. The movie’s success changed Paramount’s fortunes—as well as West’s. By the mid-1930s, she earned $300,000 per role and $100,000 per screenplay, making her Hollywood’s highest-paid entertainer and the country’s highest-paid woman. West’s strong female leads that combined wit, grit and sexuality connected with her audiences, but her star faded when her performances proved too risqué for Hollywood censors in the latter 1930s.

Charles Clinton Spaulding: Insurance

During the Great Depression, Charles Clinton Spaulding presided over America’s largest Black-owned business: the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Founded in 1898, the company struggled to survive before hiring Spaulding. Utilizing his sales and marketing expertise, the company expanded into fire insurance, banking and mortgage lines. The company, which operated out of rented desk space in the corner of a doctor’s office when Spaulding started, grew into a six-story office building that anchored “Black Wall Street” in Durham, North Carolina.

As African Americans suffered the highest unemployment rates during the Great Depression, Spaulding was widely seen as the country’s leading Black businessman. He oversaw his company’s expansion into Pennsylvania while advising President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the composition of his “Black Cabinet.” According to The Complete Encyclopedia of African American History, “Spaulding was the living black symbol of the New South.”

Michael Cullen: Groceries

6 People Who Made Big Money During the Great Depression | HISTORY (5)6 People Who Made Big Money During the Great Depression | HISTORY (6)

Exterior view of a King Kullen grocery store, in Rockville Center, Long Island, New York, c. 1940s.

Prior to the 1930s, consumers shopped for groceries in corner stores with limited inventories of items that clerks retrieved from shelves. When the Great Depression struck, Kroger Grocery employee Michael Cullen proposed that the company launch self-service stores with large selections, discount prices and parking lots to cater to the growing number of automobiles. “I would convince the public that I would be able to save them from $1 to $3 on their food bills,” he wrote. “I would be the ‘miracle man’ of the grocery business.”

When Kroger ignored his business plan, Cullen in 1930 opened what the Food Industry Association considers America’s first supermarket in the New York City borough of Queens. Advertising itself as “The World’s Greatest Price Wrecker,” King Kullen appealed to cost-conscious shoppers with its small markups and large inventory.

In 1933, Cullen purchased a competing Queens grocery store from Fred Trump, father of President Donald Trump, who used the money to bolster his real estate investments. By the time of Cullen’s death in 1936, King Kullen had 15 locations and a loyal customer base. Publix Super Markets also sprouted during the Great Depression when George Jenkins opened his first store in Winter Haven, Florida, in 1930. According to Supermarket News, the number of American supermarkets grew from 300 in 1932 to 4,500 by 1939.

Howard Hughes: Oil, Aviation, Movies

6 People Who Made Big Money During the Great Depression | HISTORY (7)6 People Who Made Big Money During the Great Depression | HISTORY (8)

Howard Hughes in his pilot's uniform, c. 1932.

Howard Hughes was a millionaire by the age of 18 after inheriting a fortune from his father, who had developed a drill bit that revolutionized the oil industry. Before he became known as an aviator, Hughes grew his wealth as a Hollywood film producer. His 1927 film Ten Arabian Knights earned Lewis Milestone an Oscar as best comedy director at the inaugural Academy Awards. He spent upward of $4 million to produce 1930’s Hell’s Angels, at the time the most expensive movie ever made and followed that with box-office hits The Front Page and Scarface.

In the midst of the Great Depression, he turned his attention to aviation and in 1932 formed the Hughes Aircraft Company, which became one of the world’s most profitable aircraft manufacturers. His company converted military aircraft into air racers, and Hughes garnered headlines in the 1930s by setting new speed records. In 1936, he broke the transcontinental speed record by flying from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, in under 10 hours, and two years later, he joined a crew that flew around the world in a record 91 hours.

6 People Who Made Big Money During the Great Depression | HISTORY (2024)


Who made big money during the Great Depression? ›

Business titans such as William Boeing and Walter Chrysler actually grew their fortunes during the Great Depression.

Who was most successful during the Great Depression? ›

10 People Who Got Rich During the Depression
  • Baseball star Babe Ruth, who made $80,000 a year in Depression-era dollars.
  • Robber John Dillinger, who raked in more than $3 million in today's dollars.
  • Supermarket pioneer Michael J. ...
  • Charles Darrow, creator of the Monopoly game, who became the world's first millionaire.
Aug 21, 2009

What made people rich during the Depression? ›

8 – Oil and petroleum and stocks in those oil wells (the Texas oil boom was a biggie!) A few of the well known companies that changed hands during that period were John Deere, Douglas Aircraft, Reynolds Metals, Ericsson, and even the Goudy Gum Company – they were the first gum company to issue baseball cards with gum.

What businesses made money during the Great Depression? ›

Industries that thrived during the Great Depression.
  • This has all happened before and it will all happen again.
  • Food. ...
  • Household products + essential consumables. ...
  • Healthcare. ...
  • Communications. ...
  • Capital goods. ...
  • Security. ...
  • Anyone who keeps advertising & innovating.
Mar 20, 2024

Who were the rich people during the Great Depression? ›

Even during our country's worst economic downturn, some folks still knew how to make a buck -- many bucks, in fact.
  • Babe Ruth. The Sultan of Swat was never shy about conspicuous consumption. ...
  • John Dillinger. ...
  • Michael J. ...
  • James Cagney. ...
  • Charles Darrow. ...
  • J. ...
  • Glenn Miller. ...
  • Howard Hughes.
Aug 20, 2009

Who were the main people in the Great Depression? ›

Key People
  • Calvin Coolidge. A conservative from Massachusetts who became the thirtieth U.S. president upon the death of Warren G. ...
  • Warren G. Harding. ...
  • Herbert Hoover. A former engineer and millionaire who became the thirty-first U.S. president in 1928. ...
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Did anyone have money during the depression? ›

Three things happened: (1) many of those who had savings lost them in bank failures; (2) those who managed to hand onto cash found it more valuable as prices fell substantially; (3) many didn't have money because they lost their jobs or farm ouput fell and prices of farm goods collapsed.

Who did the Great Depression hit first? ›

Because the Great Depression began in the United States and then spread around the world, the origins of the Great Depression are examined in the context of the United States economy. In the aftermath of World War I, the Roaring Twenties had brought considerable wealth to the United States and Western Europe.

Who had the worst Great Depression? ›

Economic history

The Depression was particularly long and severe in the United States and Europe; it was milder in Japan and much of Latin America. Perhaps not surprisingly, the worst depression ever experienced by the world economy stemmed from a multitude of causes.

Were there millionaires in the Great Depression? ›

There are MANY more stories of people (e.g., Charles Darrow, Glenn Miller, J. Paul Getty, John Templeton) who literally struck business gold during the worse economic time in American History.

Were the rich still rich in the Great Depression? ›

The Great Depression was partly caused by the great inequality between the rich who accounted for a third of all wealth and the poor who had no savings at all. As the economy worsened many lost their fortunes, and some members of high society were forced to curb their extravagant lifestyles.

Who were the richest people in the 1920s? ›

The Complete List of the Richest People on the Planet From 1900-2023
YearRichest PersonNet Worth in 2023 Dollars (in billions)
1950sJ.Paul Getty$10.5
1940sHenry Ford$200.0
1930sJohn D. Rockefeller$29.6
1920sJohn D. Rockefeller$20.9
41 more rows

What ended the Great Depression? ›

Despite all the President's efforts and the courage of the American people, the Depression hung on until 1941, when America's involvement in the Second World War resulted in the drafting of young men into military service, and the creation of millions of jobs in defense and war industries.

What sells during Depression? ›

Toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, toilet paper, and other grooming and personal care items are always in demand. Offering these types of items can position your business as a vital resource for consumers during tough times. People want to look good, even when times are tough.

What industry did not suffer during the Great Depression? ›

Answer and Explanation: Despite the widespread impact of the Great Depression in America, two industries did not suffer. These industries included entertainment and alcohol.

Who got rich during the Great Recession? ›

When the market rebounded, Getty was a rich man, thanks to his action when the economy appeared to be at its worst. The same thing happened to people like Warren Buffett, Jamie Dimon, and Carl Icahn during the Great Recession of 2008. Each zigged when the rest of the world zagged.

Did people make money in the Great Depression? ›

At the height of the Depression in 1933, 24.9% of the nation's total work force, 12,830,000 people, were unemployed. Wage income for workers who were lucky enough to have kept their jobs fell 42.5% between 1929 and 1933. It was the worst economic disaster in American history.

What thrived during the Great Depression? ›

U S Steel and Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) thrived during a lot of the depression as automobiles and trains and ships still were built world wide and exploration continued unabated all over the world.

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