Soup Kitchens During the Great Depression

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Few institutions define the Great Depression as much as the soup kitchen. In this lesson, we're going to explore the history and function of soup kitchens, and see what they represented to people of the 1930s.

Soup in the Great Depression

We all eat food, every one of us, so it's been a big part of human history. In fact, we often associate various places or times with certain kinds of food. For example, no food defined American experiences in the Great Depression as much as soup.

But why soup? As a relatively cheap meal that's full of nutrients and easy to produce in massive quantities, soup was the perfect food for charity, consumed daily by the millions of Americans who were out of work and completely destitute. Thus, the soup kitchen, an institution where free soup was served to the unemployed, became the preeminent institution of the era. It was a place to find a warm meal for those who had nothing, and that's something everyone can understand.


In 1929, the stock market crashed and America plunged into the Great Depression. Banks closed, businesses went bankrupt, and people everywhere lost their jobs. In fact, unemployment across the United States ranged from 25%-37%, depending on location.

That's where the soup kitchens came in. This idea was actually brought over to the United States in the mid-19th century by Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine. With millions starving, supplies were gathered from across Ireland to form community kitchens that served free meals. The concept of charity meals had stuck in the U.S., being part of the inner-city reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. However, not until the Great Depression did these become a ubiquitous part of American cities, usually run by private citizens or churches.

Soup kitchens were organized by the people, not by the government. So what was the government doing during this time? Americans in the 1920s had some very different ideas about government than we do. They believed the government should stay out of their lives as much as possible. However, this meant that there were no forms of government insurance or welfare. People had no social security, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, or worker's compensation. Most of them, living in an era of low wages and abundant credit, also had no savings accounts. So, when the Great Depression hit, many people lost everything overnight and had no safety net to catch them.

The president at the time was Republican Herbert Hoover. He believed that welfare made people lazy and complacent and that Americans should be 'rugged individuals' who solved their own problems. As a result, his response to the Great Depression was to not respond. Hoover believed that the starving and unemployed masses needed to take care of themselves and that it wasn't the government's responsibility.

Private Soup Kitchens

As a result, the first major soup kitchens of the Great Depression were privately funded by individual citizens and businesses that had survived the stock market crash. They saw it as their social responsibility to help the less fortunate and placed their money into organizations like the Salvation Army or local churches to fund soup kitchens.

These private soup kitchens quickly became community-based institutions. Some neighborhoods planted gardens in order to grow ingredients for soups and stews. Others maintained fundraising drives to gather vegetables and other supplies. The soup kitchens were entirely staffed by local volunteers. They were symbols of community strength and perseverance, with accounts today of some serving literally hundreds to thousands of people.

For many, soup kitchens provided their only meals for the day

The soup kitchens became a sign of something else as well: the failure of the government to protect its citizens. Across America, people saw private organizations go far out of their way to help the unemployed while the government did nothing. This presented an interesting opportunity for some, most notably the infamous Chicago mobster Al Capone. Capone was a crime lord who had risen to prominence by defying the government and overseeing black market liquor sales during Prohibition. When the Great Depression hit, he was also one of the first private citizens to open a soup kitchen, one which fed hundreds daily. According to accounts of the time, his private soup kitchen served over 5,000 people on Thanksgiving Day of 1930 alone. For this service, Capone was worshipped in Chicago. He was seen as a man of the people, a savior of the city, and therefore untouchable by the law.

The soup kitchen of Al Capone in Chicago

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