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The Panic of 1893 was a serious economic depression in the United Statesmarker that began in 1893. Similar to the Panic of 1873, this panic was caused by railroad overbuilding and shaky railroad financing which set off a series of bank failures. Compounding market overbuilding and a railroad bubble was a run on the gold supply and a policy of using both gold and silver metals as a peg for the US Dollar value.

Estimates of Unemployment during the 1890s (Source: Romer, 1984)
Year Lebergott Romer
1890 4.0 4.0
1891 5.4 4.8
1892 3.0 3.7
1893 11.7 8.1
1894 18.4 12.3
1895 13.7 11.1
1896 14.5 12.0
1897 14.5 12.4
1898 12.4 11.6
1899 6.5 8.7
1900 5.0 5.0


The 1880s had been a period of remarkable economic expansion in the United States. In time, the expansion became driven by speculation, much like the tech bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubble of the early 21st century, except that the associated industry was railroads. Railroads were vastly over-built (and fortunes were made), and many companies tried to take over others, seriously endangering their own stability. In addition, many mines were opened (frequently with rail connections), and their products, especially silver, began to flood the market. Farmers, particularly in the Midwest, suffered a series of droughts which left them short of cash to pay their debts, which drove down the value of their land. The Free Silver movement arose, gaining support from farmers (who sought to invigorate the economy and cause inflation, thus allowing them to repay their debt with cheaper dollars) and mining interests (who sought the right to turn silver directly into money). The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, while falling short of the Free Silver movement's goals, required the U.S. government to buy millions of ounces of silver (driving up the price of the metal and pleasing silver miners) for coining money (pleasing farmers and others).

One of the first signs of trouble was the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, which had greatly over-extended itself, on February 23, 1893, ten days before Grover Cleveland's second inauguration. Some historians consider this bankruptcy to be the beginning of the Panic.

As concern of the state of the economy worsened, people rushed to withdraw their money from banks and caused bank runs. The credit crunch rippled through the economy. A financial panic in the United Kingdom and a drop in trade in Europe caused foreign investors to sell American stocks to obtain American funds backed by gold. People attempted to redeem silver notes for gold; ultimately the statutory limit for the minimum amount of gold in federal reserves was reached and US notes could no longer be successfully redeemed for gold. Investments during the time of the Panic were heavily financed through bond issues with high interest payments. The National Cordage Company (the most actively traded stock at the time) went into receivership as a result of its bankers calling their loans in response to rumors regarding the NCC's financial distress.As the demand for silver and silver notes fell, the price and value of silver dropped. Holders worried about a loss of face value of bonds, and many became worthless.

A series of bank failures followed, and the Northern Pacific Railway, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad failed. This was followed by the bankruptcy of many other companies; in total over 15,000 companies and 500 banks failed (many in the west). According to high estimates, about 17%-19% of the workforce was unemployed at the Panic's peak. The huge spike in unemployment, combined with the loss of life savings by failed banks, meant that a once-secure middle-class could not meet their mortgage obligations. As a result, many walked away from recently built homes. From this, the sight of the vacant Victorian (haunted) house entered the American mindset.


The 1896 Broadway melodrama The War of Wealth was inspired by the Panic of 1893.

The severity was great in all industrial cities and mill towns. Farm distress was great because of the falling prices for export crops such as wheat and cotton. Coxey's Army was a highly publicized march of unemployed laborers from Ohio and Pennsylvania to Washington to demand relief. A severe wave of strike took place in 1894, most notably the bituminous coal miners' strike of the spring, which led to violence in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois. Even more serious was the Pullman Strike, which shut down much of the nation's transportation system in July, 1894.

The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, perhaps along with the protectionist McKinley Tariff of 1890, have been partially blamed for the panic. Passed in response to a large overproduction of silver by western mines, the Sherman Act required the U.S. Treasury to purchase silver using notes backed by either silver or gold. Politically, the Democrats and President Cleveland were blamed for the depression. The Democrats and Populists lost heavily in the 1894 elections, which marked the largest Republican gains in history.

Many of the western silver mines closed, and a large number were never re-opened. A significant number of western mountain narrow-gauge railroads, which had been built to serve the mines, also went out of business. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad stopped its ambitious plan, then under way, to convert its system from narrow gauge to standard gauge.

The depression was a major issue in the debates over Bimetallism. The Republicans blamed the Democrats and scored a landslide victory in the 1894 state and Congressional elections. The Populists lost most of their strength and had to support the Democrats in 1896. The presidential election of 1896 was fought on economic issues and was marked by a decisive victory of the pro-gold, high-tariff Republicans led by William McKinley over pro-silver William Jennings Bryan.

Many people abandoned their homes and came west. The growing railway towns in the west of Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles took in the populations, as did many smaller centers.

The U.S. economy finally began to recover in 1896. After the election of Republican McKinley, confidence was restored with the Klondike Gold Rush and the economy began 10 years of rapid growth, until the Panic of 1907.


  1. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, for example, made millions selling steel rails.
  2. James L. Holton, The Reading Railroad: History of a Coal Age Empire, Vol. I: The Nineteenth Century, pp. 323-325, citing Vincent Corasso, The Morgans.
  3. The History Box, The Panic of 1893 - Financial World; accessed 2009.04.08.
  4. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, The Panic of 1893; accessed 2009.04.08.
  5. Hoffman, Charles. The Depression of the Nineties: An Economic History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1970. Page 109.

External references

Primary sources

  • Appleton’s Annual Cyclopedia and Register of Important Events for the Year (annual 1893-1897).
  • Baum, Lyman Frank and W. W. Denslow. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).
  • Brice, Lloyd Stephens, and James J. Wait. “The Railway Problem.” North American Review 164 (March 1897): 327–48. online at MOA Cornell.
  • Cleveland, Frederick A. “The Final Report of the Monetary Commission.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 13 (January 1899): 31–56 (JSTOR).
  • Closson, Carlos C. Jr. "The Unemployed in American Cities." Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 8, no. 2 (January 1894) 168-217 (JSTOR).
  • Closson, Carlos C. Jr. "The Unemployed in American Cities," Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 8, no. 4 (July 1894): 443-477 (JSTOR).
  • Fisher, Willard. "‘Coin’ and His Critics." Quarterly Journal of Economics 10 (January 1896): 187–208 (JSTOR).
  • Harvey, William H. Coin’s Financial School (1894), 1963 (Introduction by Richard Hofstadter).
  • Noyes, Alexander Dana. “The Banks and the Panic.” Political Science Quarterly 9 (March 1894): 12–28 (JSTOR).
  • Shaw, Albert. “Relief for the Unemployed in American Cities.” Review of Reviews 9 (January and February 1894): 29–37, 179–91.
  • Stevens, Albert Clark. “An Analysis of the Phenomena of the Panic in the United States in 1893.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 8 (January 1894): 117–48 (JSTOR).

Secondary sources

  • Barnes, James A. John G. Carlisle: Financial Statesman (1931).
  • Destler, Chester McArthur. American Radicalism, 1865–1901 (1966).
  • Dewey, Davis Rich. Financial History of the United States (1903).
  • Dighe, Ranjit S. ed. The Historian's Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum's Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory (2002).
  • Dorfman, Joseph Harry. The Economic Mind in American Civilization. (1949). vol 3.
  • Faulkner, Harold Underwood. Politics, Reform, and Expansion, 1890–1900. (1959).
  • Feder, Leah Hanna. Unemployment Relief in Periods of Depression … 1857-1920 (1926).
  • Friedman, Milton, and Anna Jacobson Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960(1963).
  • Holton, James L. The Reading Railroad: History of a Coal Age Empire, Vol. I: The Nineteenth Century. Garrigues House, Publishers, Laury's Station, Pennsylvania. 1989.
  • Hoffmann, Charles. The Depression of the Nineties: An Economic History (1970).
  • Jensen, Richard. The Winning of the Midwest: 1888-1896 (1971).
  • Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1990).
  • Kirkland, Edward Chase. Industry Comes of Age, 1860–1897 (1961).
  • Lauck, William Jett. jays journal The Causes of the Panic of 1893 (1907).
  • Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike 1942.
  • Nevins, Allan. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage. 1932, Pulitzer Prize.
  • Ritter, Gretchen. Goldbugs and Greenbacks: The Anti-Monopoly Tradition and the Politics of Finance in America (1997)
  • Schwantes, Carlos A. Coxey’s Army: An American Odyssey (1985).
  • Shannon, Fred Albert. The Farmer’s Last Frontier: Agriculture, 1860–1897 (1945).
  • Steeples, Douglas, and David O. Whitten. Democracy in Desperation: The Depression of 1893 (1998).
  • White; Gerald T. The United States and the Problem of Recovery after 1893 1982.
  • Whitten, David. EH.NET article on the Depression of 1893

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