Library of Congress Photos Put a New Face on the Great Depression

Ferris Wheel, Library of Congress, Depression, Great DepressionThe Library of Congress recently released over 1,600 color photos taken during the final years of the Great Depression. Funded by the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information, the pictures were taken by several famous photographers, including Jack Delano, Russell Lee and Marjory Collins. With their unique, vibrant look at the past, they offer a fresh perspective on one of the darkest periods in American history.

In the American imagination, the Great Depression is a sepia-toned land of rural life, large families, and close-knit communities that came together to weather through the hard times. The lines are sharply drawn between the haves and the have-nots, the poor souls without resources and the luckier citizens for whom the impact of the economic downfall is softened by a steady job or a fat bank account.

The Library of Congress' Depression color collection shatters some of these myths. With images of urban life in the late 1930s, they depict a Depression-era world in which the downfall doesn't necessarily mean destitution; rather, it may mean wearing a coat that is growing shabby with age or reading the latest headlines off a newspaper publisher's window in order to save the price of a paper. Or, for children photographed outside a tenement, it may mean living in a run-down home, but finding a new set of clothes under the Christmas tree.

Ferris Wheel, Library of Congress, Depression, Great DepressionGone are the bleak landscapes and hopeless-looking sharecroppers that populate so many of the rural images from the 1930's. Rather, these photos depict tired-but-satisfied homesteaders and freshly-scrubbed children performing in a school pageant. For recreation, there are square dances and state fairs, with attractions that look startlingly familiar. In short, it is a world that is more frugal than today's America, but not necessarily less joyful.

Most of these photos date from the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the economy was -- much like our own -- in a slow state of recovery. For their subjects, the future is a mix of opportunity and worry, and a new coat, or a ride on a Ferris wheel, provides a momentary distraction from economic fears.

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People made do with very little, and many lost what little they had and never forgot it, that's true. But the FDR photo teams that were sent out were expected to take the kind of pictures that would depict worried, weary, blank-faced Americans ("migrant mother") desperately in need of what the FDR people were prescribing. It was propaganda and no one would deny it. It has become clear now that FDR was not great. The American people; honest, hopeful, hard-working, and uncomplaining, made him look great.

August 26 2010 at 4:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Jerry Small

you are about as ill informed as the congress that paid for these phony pictures by well fed photographers, some people who actually lived through this educated me as to what really happened and it's not the Fairy Tail Congress tells in your pictures

August 26 2010 at 3:18 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Notice how the great depression lasted so long. People give FDR credit for getting us out of it after many years, but with more free market solutions we would have made out better. If anyone takes an honest look at economic history, they will see that too much government involvement caused more harm than good. It is what made the great depression so "great." Instead of learning from the past, we pretend that big government is the best way to handle the problem. We can see how it does not help.

August 26 2010 at 2:13 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

the Great depression started in the late 20s like 27-29 with the dust bowl ???any ?????????s this pics are just to late ........

August 26 2010 at 12:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
The LeFans

The real depression will not be forgotten I believe enough people will tell family down thru the yrs. Get your HISTORY books before the true ones disapear.THE DEPRESSION in AMERICA has been brought on by our own AMERICAN GOVERMENT. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS releasing these photos is only trying to give AMERICA HOPE,But our country WILL NOT look anything as depicted.THE PHOTOS should show AMERICA as a third world country

August 25 2010 at 11:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to The LeFans's comment

AMEN , listen to the old foggys

August 26 2010 at 1:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ken Cook

What do you know? It turns out Depressions are fun! Good thing we're about to experience one for ourselves, we'll all get together and have a nice barn dance and thank the rich Reps and Dems for giving us all such a wonderful gift.

August 25 2010 at 10:29 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Baloney story. Just another political tactic to get everybody to hate everybody else for one reason or another. Those fared best who lived on farms, worked hard, relied upon themselves, were self-sufficient; they reaped what they sowed. They did not fall for the borrowing/mortgaging/credit tactics to buy useless modern farm machinery and other goodies. They had no electric or gas bills, ate what they grew, and traded for what they didn't have. Some even built their own small houses to live in. It was hard work but rewarding because they were able to take care of themselves, their families and anyone who needed some food. Modernization and dependency upon all it encompasses costs plenty and we lose much in return in the way of freedom, self-sufficiency and the money we earn. The past was not perfect and neither is the present. The only thing that ever changes is the technology we use and the individual purchasing power.

August 25 2010 at 9:35 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

It is amazing how liberals think. Clinton's tax and spend policies destroy the economy - liberals blame Bush. Obama's tax and spend policies destroy the economy - liberals blame Bush. When Republicans tried to explain during Bush's term that Clinton caused the problems that were showing up, liberals loudly shouted that Republican should not pass the buck. Yet, all Obama does is pass the buck instead of taking the blame. Liberals do the damage but always blame Republicans.

August 25 2010 at 9:22 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Goppinkelephant states that during the Great Depression people ran after coal trucks with buckets to pick up pieces of coal that fell off the truck. My parents told me the same story. I also heard that if women's silk stockings got a run, they would sew it up because they could not afford another pair. They would darn socks, put patches on their cloths until their patches had patches. For breakfast they would dunk their bread to soften it so that they could eat it since it was hard and stale. The rare times they had jam to put on the bread was a tremendous joy for them. The Great Depression time was very hard and nothing to be happy about.

August 25 2010 at 9:03 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

How can a former research assistant in the British House of Commons and the United States Naval Institute fail to research the subject he's writing about? It appears you've got a credibility problem, Mr. Watson. To goppinkelephant: No, I meant Obamavilles.

August 25 2010 at 8:51 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply