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.
Gone 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.