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All U.S. Recessions Ranked — From Bad to Downright Ugly

Joel Anderson

Of all the conversations you might hear around the Thanksgiving table every year, some variation of who “had it worse” is likely to be among them. After all, whenever more than one generation gathers in a room together, loud arguments about what people don’t understand about their particular era of economic misery can oftentimes follow.

But who’s really right? Are millennials correct in thinking that their grandparents couldn’t hope to understand just how bad the job market was during the Great Recession? Or is grandma mostly right about how the stock market crash of 1929 makes all other economic crises look like a quaint tea party in the garden by comparison?

To nail down which recession really was worse, GOBankingRates looked at the length of each one, using information from the Bureau of Economic Research.

It should be noted that the more technical definition of “recession” used by economists — any period of six months or more when economic growth is negative, i.e., gross domestic product (GDP) is declining — won’t always be in line with the way historians classify them. So, while the economic pain of the Great Recession might have lagged on for years, the actual period when the economy was contracting ended in mid-2009. Likewise, you might think of the Great Depression as a single entity, but it technically had two distinct recessions within it. Using this definition, the study notes the length in months for every economic contraction going all the way back to the Civil War to get a sense of which era’s recession really was the ugliest.

Early 1980s Recession

  • Start: January 1980
  • End: July 1980
  • Length (in months): 6

As inflation hit more than 14%, the Federal Reserve had to increase interest rates as a countermeasure and — when combined with the energy crisis — it resulted in the economy contracting for the first half of the year.

Pictured: New York Stock Exchange trading floor on Wall Street in New York.

Post-World War I Recession

  • Start: August 1918
  • End: March 1919
  • Length (in months): 7

World War I sparked tremendous growth for the U.S. economy, but its end meant much of the demand for goods in Europe fell away and manufacturers had to cut back to reflect the new reality.

Pictured: U.S. Army infantry troops, African American unit, march northwest of Verdun, France, during World War I in 1918.

2001 Recession

  • Start: March 2001
  • End: November 2001
  • Length (in months): 8

After a long period of sustained economic growth, the dot-com binge gave way to a market crash that settled into a brief recession in 2001 — a period exacerbated by uncertainty surrounding the 9/11 attacks.

Pictured: New York firefighters work near ground zero after the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City.

Early 1990s Recession

  • Start: July 1990
  • End: March 1991
  • Length (in months): 8

While there were a variety of contributing factors, the rapid spike in oil prices caused by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait appeared to play a major role in sparking this recession in the early 1990s.

Pictured: A U.S. soldier in the Kuwaiti desert south of the Iraqi border.

Recession of 1957-1958

  • Start: August 1957
  • End: April 1958
  • Length (in months): 8

Two years of tightening monetary policy ultimately led to an eight-month contraction that began in 1957.

Pictured: Pharmacist assisting customers at a drug store prescription counter in 1957.

Recession of 1945

  • Start: February 1945
  • End: October 1945
  • Length (in months): 8

Even more so than World War I, World War II sparked the American economy into a long period of massive expansion. However, there was a natural contraction to the economy as the war effort wound down.

Pictured: A lineup of 13 P-40 United States Warhawks.

Recession of 1860-1861

  • Start: October 1860
  • End: June 1861
  • Length (in months): 8

This eight-month recession overlapped with the election of Abraham Lincoln, the secession of the Southern states and the beginning of the Civil War.

Pictured: Abraham Lincoln.

Recession of 1960-1961

  • Start: April 1960
  • End: February 1961
  • Length (in months): 10

The United States didn’t technically abandon the gold standard until 1971, and that meant that efforts to curb gold outflows — as money continued to flow out to still-recovering Europe — prompted a restrictive monetary policy in 1960 that would spark a recession by the spring, which lasted into John F. Kennedy’s first term as president.

Pictured: John F. Kennedy.

Recession of 1953-1954

  • Start: July 1953
  • End: May 1954
  • Length (in months): 10

Another example of a post-war hangover, inflation started to increase as the Korean War ended, prompting an increase in interest rates — partially driven to the newfound independence of the Fed from the Department of the Treasury — that led to a brief recession in 1953-1954.

Pictured: A U.S. Navy Douglas AD-4Q Skyraider of Fighter Squadron 194 (VF-194) “Main Battery” on the aircraft carrier USS Boxer (CVA-21) in 1953.

Baring Crisis

  • Start: July 1890
  • End: May 1891
  • Length (in months): 10

The era between the end of the Civil War and the dawn of the 20th century was punctuated by nearly a dozen different banking panics in Manhattan of varying degrees of severity. The one in 1890 — started when a brokerage firm collapsed and prompted securities prices to fall — was among the milder of them.

Pictured: Damage to Richmond, Virginia, from the American Civil War.

Recession of 1969-1970

  • Start: December 1969
  • End: November 1970
  • Length (in months): 11

The downturn in the economy from the end of 1969 through most of 1970 is an example of where defining “recession” becomes a little more difficult. Some academics will hold that this was more of a pause in a longer growth period rather than a recession marking the end of a business cycle.

Pictured: View of ship models at the U.S. Navy David W. Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center at Carderock, Maryland.

Recession of 1948-1949

  • Start: November 1948
  • End: October 1949
  • Length (in months): 11

The recession that began at the end of 1948 is often viewed largely as an “inventory recession” — a contraction that follows a build-up of inventories to the point where a slowdown is necessary while vendors sell off existing stock.

Pictured: Brooklyn Terminal Market, Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York, in 1948.

Recession of 1937-1938

  • Start: May 1937
  • End: June 1938
  • Length (in months): 13

It’s important to note that there were still alternating periods of expansion and contraction during the intractable mess that was the Great Depression. This recession saw unemployment hit a staggering 20%, and GDP fell by 10%.

Pictured: Miller Farm workers at West Carlton, Yamhill County, Oregon, in 1939.

Recession of 1926-1927

  • Start: October 1926
  • End: November 1927
  • Length (in months): 13

The recession of 1926 is widely believed to have been caused by a combination of an oil shock (a period of rapidly rising oil prices) and the six-month cessation of production by Ford as it switched from the Model T to the Model A automobile.

Pictured: 1926 Ford Model T.

Panic of 1907

  • Start: May 1907
  • End: June 1908
  • Length (in months): 13

The 1907 recession was a result of one of the first major global financial crises and ultimately predictive of the issues that would lead to the Great Depression. Its severity would prompt many reforms including the creation of the Federal Reserve System.

Pictured: Wall Street during the bank panic in October 1907.

Recession of 1887-1888

  • Start: March 1887
  • End: April 1888
  • Length (in months): 13

A slowdown in business and railroad investment in the late 1880s induced a mild recession that lasted just over a year.

Pictured: A train at the Saxonville railway station in 1880.

Recession of 1923-1924

  • Start: May 1923
  • End: July 1924
  • Length (in months): 14

This mild recession was sparked largely by an oil shock.

Pictured: Oil wells near La Habra, California, in the 1920s.

1981-1982 Recession

  • Start: July 1981
  • End: November 1982
  • Length (in months): 16

The term “Stagflation” was coined to describe this era when inflation was at record highs even while the economy struggled to grow. Monetary restrictions put in place to combat inflation played a major role in causing this notorious recession.

Pictured: Striking air traffic controllers walk the picket line at the New York air route traffic control center in Ronkonkoma, New York, in 1981.

Recession of 1973-1975

  • Start: November 1973
  • End: March 1975
  • Length (in months): 16

The initial domino in this recession would be the approval of $2.2 billion in aid to Israel due to the Yom Kippur War. That prompted an oil embargo against the U.S. by Arab nations prompting a major oil shock and triggering the recession.

Pictured: Bird’s eye view of a gas station in Portland, Oregon, in 1973.

Panic of 1893

  • Start: January 1893
  • End: June 1894
  • Length (in months): 17

Of the myriad banking panics of this era, the one that started at the beginning of 1893 proved to be among the most severe and — unlike several others — spread well beyond New York and the surrounding region. The inciting incident was a lack of gold reserves that led to runs on banks across the country.

Pictured: Illustration of panic scene in the New York Stock Exchange on the morning of May 5, 1893.

Great Recession

  • Start: December 2007
  • End: June 2009
  • Length (in months): 18

This one is still likely fresh in most people’s memories, but the length might have some of you scratching your heads. While the long, drawn-out recovery lasted for years, the period when the economy was actually shrinking technically only lasted until mid-2009.

Pictured: President Barack Obama signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009.

Depression of 1920-1921

  • Start: January 1920
  • End: July 1921
  • Length (in months): 18

While this era is widely known as the “Roaring Twenties,” it got out of the gates with a hiccup that lasted about a year and a half. This recession was sparked by restrictive monetary policies enacted in reaction to rising inflation and concerns about gold outflows.

Pictured: President Warren G. Harding arrives at The President’s Conference on Unemployment in 1921.

Recession 1899-1900

  • Start: June 1899
  • End: December 1900
  • Length (in months): 18

Another of the Gilded Age banking panics, the 1899 iteration didn’t extend to the nation as a whole, but still fell at the beginning of a lengthy period of economic contraction.

Pictured: Illinois Trust and Savings Bank in Chicago in 1900.

Panic of 1896

  • Start: December 1895
  • End: June 1897
  • Length (in months): 18

The recession from 1895 to 1897 was still a knock-on effect from the Panic of 1893 and the depression that followed it.

Pictured: Newsboy in the streets of New York City in 1896.

Black Friday and Recession of 1869-1870

  • Start: June 1869
  • End: December 1870
  • Length (in months): 18

An effort by Jay Gould and other prominent railroad investors in 1869 to corner the gold market failed, but it sparked a financial panic over what was then known as “Black Friday.” While the recession was technically already underway when it happened, the panic helped contribute significantly to its length and severity.

Pictured: Jay Gould.

Panic of 1857

  • Start: June 1857
  • End: December 1858
  • Length (in months): 18

The Panic of 1857 was prompted by the nationwide failure of many banks and businesses caused by their extension into the uncertain international financial markets.

Pictured: Illustration of a bank run on the Seamen’s Savings’ Bank during the Panic of 1857.

Recession of 1913-1914

  • Start: January 1913
  • End: December 1914
  • Length (in months): 23

The year 1913 saw the creation of the Federal Reserve and the creation of the income tax, but it was also wracked by a recession that lasted for two full years and saw average economic growth from 1913-1921 rise a mere 1.4%.

Pictured: Federal Reserve Board Building in Washington D.C.

Panic of 1901-1902

  • Start: September 1902
  • End: August 1904
  • Length (in months): 23

A stock market crash in 1901 — the first for the New York Stock Exchange — helped prompt a long period of negative growth from 1902 to 1904.

Pictured: The floor of the New York Stock Exchange, secretly shot with a camera hidden in the photographer’s sleeve in 1907.

Panic of 1910-1911

  • Start: January 1910
  • End: January 1912
  • Length (in months): 24

The Panic of 1910-1911 was born of the enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act that included breaking up Standard Oil. While among the longest in U.S. history, its severity was relatively mild.

Pictured: Standard Oil Building in New York in 1915.

Recession of 1865-1867

  • Start: April 1865
  • End: December 1867
  • Length (in months): 32

In another example of the end of a war prompting a recession as economic activity slows, the U.S. experienced one of its longest recessions immediately after the end of the Civil War.

Pictured: Montgomery Street in San Francisco in 1866.

Recession of 1882-1885

  • Start: March 1882
  • End: May 1885
  • Length (in months): 38

The conclusion of a great boom of railroad building led to this long recession that’s largely viewed as being a price depression that grew out of a deflationary economy.

Pictured: New York Central and Hudson River Railroad wreck at Batavia, New York, in 1885.

Great Depression

  • Start: August 1929
  • End: March 1933
  • Length (in months): 43

The Great Depression lasted throughout the 1930s, but its specific periods of recession were the first four-or-so years and then again in 1937 when a brief recovery sparked by the New Deal reversed itself.

Pictured: People waiting for relief checks during the Great Depression in 1937.

Panic of 1873 and the Long Depression

  • Start: October 1873
  • End: March 1879
  • Length (in months): 65

While it’s certainly not as well known now, the so-called Long Depression left the U.S. economy in a state of contraction for over five full years. Early stock returns for railroad investors were so great it set off a great deal of speculation, a bubble that popped when international stock markets crashed in 1873 and set off the lengthy downturn.

Pictured: Illustration depicting the Great Financial Panic of 1873 in Frank Leslie’s newspaper.

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This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: All U.S. Recessions Ranked — From Bad to Downright Ugly