Opinions vary as to where things stand with the current economic climate: Are we in recovery mode, stalled, or still bottoming out? The distance of history offers a clearer perspective, as evidenced by an exhibit at the Baker Library | Bloomberg Center. “Bubbles, Panics, and Crashes: A Century of Financial Crises, 1830s–1930s” uses letters, photos, cartoons, old money, and legislative documents to chart four economic implosions that occurred in 1837, 1873, 1907, and 1929. While offering a fascinating glimpse into the unique circumstances of each downturn, the exhibit also underlines their common cyclical nature, whether the crash in question was fueled by land speculation, railroad expansion, the booming life insurance industry, or lax regulation of regional stock exchanges.

So, will a deeper understanding of these moments in history prevent future economic catastrophes? “Each of these crises shares defining features of a speculative bubble followed by a crash, but they emerged in idiosyncratic ways. I’m not sure you can ever figure out a tried-and-true pattern,” says Caitlin Anderson, the exhibit’s curator and a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Center for History and Economics. That surely won’t stop observers from trying, even as reverberations from the most recent crisis continue to be felt. The exhibit will be on display through May 3 and can be viewed online at

Railway development fueled rapid expansion of the American securities market, leading to the Panic of 1873; James Landis, an early champion of financial regulation; a run on New York’s 19th Ward Bank in the early 1900s; privately issued banknotes from the 1830s wreaked havoc with the nation’s money supply.

Union Pacific Museum; Special Collections, Harvard Law School; Library of Congress; Baker Library Historical Collections


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