When we think of America during the Great Depression, we often picture it in shades of grey. It was a grim era and nearly all of the photographs we see are in black and white.
This is one of Dorothea Lange’s most famous photographs - a destitute mother in a migrant farm worker camp in California. Lange was one of the many talented WPA photographers who recorded the history and conditions of the Depression across the United States.
Follow me below the fold as we look at America before Pearl Harbor.
Color presents an entirely different image.
This is a photograph of Faro and Doris Caudill, farmers in Pietown, New Mexico.
They lived in a dugout and struggled to survive on Resettlement Administration land.
As the 1930s came to a close, Kodak came out with Kodachrome film – the first commercially viable color film available to the general public. In 1937 and 1938, the colors were still not stable and accurate, but by 1939 Kodachrome was producing color images of remarkable precision.
Now, not just anybody could buy this film. It cost $5 per roll and had to be sent back to Rochester, New York for development. By comparison, in 1938 Congress established the first minimum wage at 25 cents per hour. $5 represented half a week’s work. But the Farm Security Administration sent out about a dozen photographers with this new film. Commercial photographer, Samuel Gottscho, and well-to-do amateur, Charles Cushman, embraced this new technology, as well.
New York City was the metropolis of America.
Times Square was the happening place. Big date. Hop in a taxi.
And go see Night Train at the Globe Theater.
Washington was a city of contrasts – the New Deal having extended its influence across the nation.
But it was still very much a Southern city – especially if you were African American.
Chicago was the transportation, food, and manufacturing center of the country.
And the Southside was still an industrial neighborhood of steel mills and packing houses.
New Orleans was the largest city in the South – not Atlanta.
Jim Crow laws were a fact of life for residents of the Ninth Ward.
San Francisco had been eclipsed by Los Angeles in size, but it remained the most important port and financial center of the West.
And Charles Cushman had to take a photograph of his new coupe beside the recently-completed Golden Gate Bridge.
Nearly half of all Americans still lived on farms and in small towns.
The Farmall Tractor had revolutionized farming, but mechanization remained limited.
In rural Georgia, folks still went to town on Saturday by wagon.
And kids still went barefoot in Indiana in the summertime.
Mothers still made clothes for the kids – from flour and feed sacks - as with these girls at the Vermont State Fair.
And grandmothers still made sure that their teenaged granddaughters didn’t hang out at the horse auctions with the menfolk in little towns in eastern Kentucky.
This is my favorite.
Look how mad grandma is and how her granddaughter is stomping away.
Saturdays were the day that everybody went to town in Cascade, Idaho.
But rural life remained quite distinct from urban America – whether on the C-D Ranch in Montana –
Or during the peach harvest in western Colorado.
Despite the Depression, modernization proceeded rapidly in the 1930s.
People still traveled by train. Railroads were one of the largest employers.
But the emerging airlines were already flying four-engine Boeing Stratoliners out of Chicago Midway for those wealthy enough to fly.
The country store was the furthest many rural Southerners ever got.
Yet, Miami Beach was filled with northern vacationers.
Hoover Dam began generating electricity for California in 1936 – promising to transform the West.
The Roosevelt Administration’s TVA projects created jobs and electricity for one of the poorest regions of the South. The divide between urban and rural America was beginning to close.
By 1939, Americans wanted to imagine a new and better future after the Depression decade.
The futuristic New York World’s Fair ran for two seasons in 1939 and 1940.
San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition envisioned a Pacific future for America.
Americans celebrated Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak during the summer of 1941 and another Yankees’ World Series championship in the fall.
Dances in Oklahoma were simple affairs – with perhaps a fiddler and guitarist.
And on the cusp of modernity, Americans still clung nostalgically to rural myths –
Not the reality of the poverty that most rural Americans endured during the Depression.
But they saw it in color - - for the very first time.
Those on the Edges
Although immigration had been curtailed in the 1920s, the Lower East Side remained vibrantly Jewish.
African Americans faced brutal discrimination in jobs, housing, education, and public accommodations. It’s no wonder that the women here and even the older girl are suspicious of the white photographer.
The New Deal did little to improve conditions for sharecroppers in Alabama.
Mining families in Pennsylvania still lived in decrepit company housing.
The Roosevelt administration struggled to get Mexican American children out of the fields and into schools in Texas and other border states.
Native Americans, who had only recently received citizenship in their own land, remained desperately poor. This Tohono O'odham grandmother in Tucson shows the same distruct of the white photographer that the Africam American family in Maryland did.
And little do these Japanese Americans suspect – as they celebrate their culture during the World’s Fair - that within two years, they will be deported to relocation camps by their own government.
On December 6th, a very different America prevailed.
After December 7th, that America would be changed forever,