Photos of the Great Depression

These Photos Show the Economic Impact of the Great Depression

The Farm Security Administration hired photographers to document the living conditions of the Great Depression . They are a landmark in the history of documentary photography. The photos show the adverse effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Some of the most famous images portray people who were displaced from farms and migrated west or to industrial cities in search of work. These photos show better than charts and numbers the economic impact of the Great Depression.

Dust Attacks a Town

Dust Bowl
Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images

A dust storm rolled into Elkhart, Kansas, on May 21, 1937. The year before, the drought caused the hottest summer on record. In June, eight states experienced temperatures at 110 or greater. In July, the heat wave hit 12 more states. They were Iowa, Kansas (121 degrees), Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota (121 degrees), Oklahoma (120 degrees), Pennsylvania, South Dakota (120 degrees), West Virginia, and Wisconsin.  In August, Texas saw 120-degree record-breaking temperatures.

It was also the deadliest heat wave in U.S. history, killing 1,693 people. Another 3,500 people drowned while trying to cool off. 

Dust Storms of the Great Depression

Arthur Rothstein / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

Dust storms helped cause The Great Depression. Over-cultivation led to erosion, which was one reason for the huge dust storms. The most important reason, however, was an extended drought. These storms forced family farmers to lose their business, their livelihood and their homes. Families migrated to California or cities to find work that often didn't exist by the time they got there. 

Effect of Dust Bowl

Arthur Rothstein /Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

Dust storms from erosion nearly covered buildings, making them useless. People became very ill from inhaling the dust. 

Farming in 1935

Farming in 1935
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Team of two work horses hitched to a wagon, farm house visible in the background, low-angle view, Beltsville, Maryland, 1935. From the New York Public Library.

Farmers Who Survived the Dust Bowl

farmer during depression
Photo by Arthur Rothstein/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

A farmer cultivating corn with fertilizer on a horse drawn plow at the Wabash Farms, Loogootee, Indiana, June 1938. The economy contracted 3.3 percent because FDR cut back on the New Deal. He was trying to balance the budget, but it was too soon. Prices dropped 2.8 percent, hurting the farmers who were left.

World's Greatest Standard of Living?

the great depression billboard
Photo by Dorothea Lange/Library Of Congress/Getty Images

March 1937: A billboard, sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers, on Highway 99 in California during the Depression. It reads 'There's no way like the American way' and 'world's highest standard of living'. That year, the unemployment rate was 14.3 percent.

Men Were Desperate to Find Work

Photo by Dorothea Lange/Getty Images

 Two unemployed men walking towards Los Angeles, California to find work.

Come to California

Raodside camp during the great depression

Roadside camp near Bakersfield, California. The worldly possessions of refugees from Texas dust, drought and depression. Many left their homes to find work in California. By the time they got there, the jobs were gone. This occurred in November 1935. Unemployment was 20.1 percent.

On the Road to Find Work

Okies on the road during the depression.
Dorothea Lange

Part of an impoverished family of nine on a New Mexico highway. Depression refugees left Iowa in 1932 due to father's tuberculosis. He was an auto mechanic laborer and painter. Family has been on relief in Arizona. Unemployment was 23.6 percent. The economy contracted 12.9 percent. People blamed President Hoover, who raised taxes that year to balance the budget. They voted for FDR, who promised a New Deal.

Eating Along the Side of the Road

Depression refugee

Son of depression refugee from Oklahoma now in California. November 1936

Migrant Workers in California

migrant family
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

 A migrant worker, his young wife and four children resting outside their temporary lodgings, situated on a migrant camp, Marysville, California, 1935. 

Living Out of a Car

Depression car became a home
Dorothea Lange

 The only home of a depression-routed family of nine from Iowa. August 1936 


Thousands of these farmers and other unemployed workers traveled to California to find work. Many ended up living as homeless “hobos” or in shantytowns called “Hoovervilles”, named after then-President Herbert Hoover. Many people felt he caused the Depression by basically doing nothing to stop it. He was more concerned about balancing the budget, and felt the market would sort itself out.

Depression Family

Walker Evans / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

The Great Depression displaced entire families, who became homeless. The children were most severely impacted. They often had to work to help make ends meet. 

Soup Line

depression unemployed men line
Getty Images Archive

 There were no social programs in the early part of the Depression. People lined up just to get a bowl of soup from a charity.

Soup Lines

Soup line during the Great Depression. Men this side of the sign are assured of a five-cent meal. The rest must wait for generous passersby. Buddy, can you spare a dime? Photo taken between 1930 and 1940. There was no Social Security, welfare, or unemployment compensation until FDR and the New Deal. 

Soup Kitchens Were Life Savers

Depression soup

 Soup kitchens didn't offer much to eat, but it was better than nothing.

Even Gangsters Opened Soup Kitchens

new deal
(Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

A group of men line up outside a Chicago soup kitchen opened by Al Capone, ca.1930s. In a bid to rebuild his reputation, Capone opened a soup kitchen amid the worsening economic conditions.

Soup Kitchens in 1930

Soup kitchen
Photo: American Stock/Getty Images

 Dolly Gann (L), sister of U.S. vice president Charles Curtis, helps serve meals to the hungry at a Salvation Army soup kitchen on December 27, 1930.

Stock Market Crash of 1929

The floor of the New York Stock Exchange right after the stock market crash of 1929. It was a scene of total panic as stockbrokers lost all.

Effects of the Great Depression

Effects of the great depression
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

This gentleman tried to remain well dressed, but was forced to seek help from the Self Help Association. It was a dairy farm unit in California in 1936. Unemployment was 16.9 percent. 

The Face of the Great Depression

Floyd Burroughs. Photo by Walker Evans

This famous photo by Walker Evans is of Floyd Burroughs. He was from Hale County, Alabama. The picture was taken in 1936.

"He worked construction, but when the jobs disappeared he moved the family from Florida to his father's farm in North Georgia. On the farm, they grew a field of corn, many vegetables, apples and other fruit, and they had some livestock."  A true story from a reader.

The Face of the Great Depression

This woman is Florence Thompson, age 32, and the mother of seven children. She was a peapicker in California. When this picture was taken by Dorothea Lange, Florence had just sold her family's home for money to buy food. The home was a tent. 

"For breakfast they would have cornmeal mush. For dinner, vegetables. For supper, cornbread. And they had milk at every meal. They worked hard and ate light, but they survived." A true story from a reader.

Children of Great Depression

Russell Lee / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

Children of agricultural day laborers camped by the roadside near Spiro, Oklahoma. There were no beds and no protection from the profusion of flies. Russell Lee, June 1939

Forced to Sell Apples

Depression era apple vendor
Photo: Interim Archive/Getty Images

 People with jobs would help out those without jobs by buying apples, pencils, or matches.

There Were No Jobs

Unemployed men during the Depression
Photo by Felix Koch/Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images

 Unemployed men sit outside waiting dinner at Robinson's soup kitchen located at 9th and Plum streets, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1931. That year, the economy contracted 6.2 percent, and prices dropped 9.3 percent. Unemployment was 15.9 percent, but the worst was yet to come.

Stock Market Crash Destroyed Confidence in Wall Street

stock market crash
Photo by Imagno/Getty Images

After the 'Black Thursday' at the stock-market of New York the mounted police put the excited assemblage in motion, New York, USA, Photograph, 2nd November 1929.

Ticker Tapes Couldn't Keep Up With the Sales Volume

stock market
Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

 Brokers check the tape for daily prices in a scene from the film, 'The Wolf Of Wall Street,' which opened just months before the crash in 1929, Hollywood, California, 1929.

When the Great Depression Started

When did the Great Depression start
Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

President Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, in Chicago at the final game of the 1929 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Athletics, October 1929. The Great Depression had already begun in August of that year.

If Hoover Had Stayed in Office, the Depression Would Have Been Much Worse

Hoover and Roosevelt
Photo by Imagno/Getty Images

President Herbert Hoover (left) with his successor Franklin D. Roosevelt at his inauguration. Capitol / Washington. 4th March 1933. Photograph.

The New Deal Programs Employed Many

New Deal Program
Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Part of a fashion parade at the largest WPA sewing shop in NY where 3,000 women produce clothing and linens to be distributed among the unemployed, New York, New York, circa 1935. They work a six day, thirty hour week on two floors of the old Siegel Cooper Building.

Could the Great Depression Reoccur?

A shanty built of refuse near the Sunnyside slack pile, Herrin, Illinois Many residences in southern Illinois coal towns were built with money borrowed from building and loan associations, which almost all went bankrupt. Rothstein, Arthur, 1915-1985, photographer.

During the Great Depression, people lost their homes and lived in tents. Could that happen in the U.S. again? Probably not. Congress has demonstrated it would spend whatever is necessary, regardless of the damage to the debt. More