Economics for the Masses: The Visual Display of Economic Knowledge in the United States (1921-1945)

42 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 2010

See all articles by Loic Charles

Loic Charles


Yann Giraud

THEMA - Université de Cergy-Pontoise

Date Written: April 22, 2010


The rise of visual representation in economics textbooks after WWII is one of the main features of contemporary economics. In this paper, we argue that this development has been preceded by a no less significant rise of visual representation in the larger literature devoted to social and scientific issues, including economic textbooks for non-economists as well as newspapers and magazines. During the interwar era, editors, propagandists and social scientists altogether encouraged the use of visual language as the main vehicle to spread information and opinions about the economy to a larger audience. This process, which most notably helped shape the understanding of economic issues during the years of the Great Depression, has also changed the place of visualization in US society, seen not only as a tool of illustration but as a powerful engine of conviction and education. We explore different yet related aspects of this development by studying the use of visual language in economics textbooks intended for non-specialists, in periodicals such as the Survey, a monthly magazine intended for an audience of social workers, the americanization of Otto Neurath's pictorial statistics and finally the use of those visual representations by various state departments and administrations under Roosevelt's legislature (including the much-commented Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration). We show how visualizations that have been created in opposition to mainstream economics have lost most of their theoretical content when used widely for policy purposes while being simultaneously integrated into the larger American culture. It is our claim that those issues, which are familiar to those involved in cultural and visual studies, are also of crucial importance to apprehend the later developments of modern economics.

Keywords: Visualization, economics, American Economy, Otto Neurath, Rexford Tugwell, Roosevelt, Roy Stryker, Photographs, Pictorial Statistics

JEL Classification: B20, A14

Suggested Citation

Charles, Loic and Giraud, Yann, Economics for the Masses: The Visual Display of Economic Knowledge in the United States (1921-1945) (April 22, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Loic Charles

INED ( email )

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Yann Giraud (Contact Author)

THEMA - Université de Cergy-Pontoise ( email )

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F-95011 Cergy-Pontoise Cedex, 95011
+331 34 25 60 24 (Phone)


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