Great Depression Pictures
These 35 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
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.
Causes of the Dust Bowl
The Dust Bowl was caused by the worst drought in North America in 300 years. In 1930, weather patterns shifted over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Pacific grew cooler than normal and the Atlantic became warmer. The combination weakened and changed the direction of the jet stream.
There were four waves of droughts: 1930-1931, 1934, 1936, and 1939-1940. The affected regions could not recover before the next one hit. By 1934, the drought covered 75% of the country, affecting 27 states. The worst-hit was the Oklahoma panhandle.
Once farmers settled the Midwest prairies, they plowed over 5.2 million acres of the tall, deep-rooted prairie grass. When the drought killed off the crops, high winds blew the topsoil away.
Effects of the Dust Bowl
Dust storms helped cause The Great Depression. Dust storms nearly covered buildings, making them useless. People became very ill from inhaling the dust.
These storms forced family farmers to lose their business, their livelihood, and their homes. By 1936, 21% of all rural families in the Great Plains received federal emergency relief. In some counties, it was as high as 90%.
Families migrated to California or cities to find work that often didn't exist by the time they got there. As farmers left in search of work, they became homeless. Almost 6,000 shanty towns, called Hoovervilles, sprang up in the 1930s.
Farming in 1935
This photo shows a team of two work horses hitched to a wagon with farm house visible in the background in Beltsville, Md., in 1935. It comes from the New York Public Library.
On April 15, 1934, the worst dust storm occurred. It was later named Black Sunday. Several weeks later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Soil Conservation Act. It taught farmers how to plant in a more sustainable way.
Farmers Who Survived the Dust Bowl
The photo shows a farmer cultivating corn with fertilizer on a horse drawn plow at the Wabash Farms, Loogootee, Indiana, June 1938. That year, the economy contracted 3.3% because FDR cut back on the New Deal. He was trying to balance the budget, but it was too soon. Prices dropped 2.8%, hurting the farmers who were left.
World's Greatest Standard of Living?
In March 1937, this billboard, sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers, is displayed 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%.
On the Road to Find Work
The photo shows an impoverished family of nine on a New Mexico highway. The depression refugees left Iowa in 1932 due to their father's tuberculosis. He was an auto mechanic laborer and painter. The family had been on relief in Arizona.
Come to California
The photo shows a roadside camp near Bakersfield, Calif., and 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%.
This Family Did Not Feel the Economy Improving
The photo shows a family of migrant workers fleeing from the drought in Oklahoma camp by the roadside in Blythe, Calif., on August 1, 1936. That month, Texas experienced 120 degrees, which was a record-breaking temperature.
By the end of the year, the heat wave had killed 1,693 people. Another 3,500 people drowned while trying to cool off.
The economy grew 12.9% that year. That was an incredible accomplishment, but too late to save this family's farm. Unemployment shrank to 16.9%. Prices rose 1.4%. The debt grew to $34 billion. To pay down the debt, President Roosevelt raised the top tax rate to 79%. But that proved to be a mistake. The economy wasn't strong enough to sustain higher taxes, and the Depression resumed.
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.
More Soup Lines
This photo shows another 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? The photo was taken between 1930 and 1940. There was no Social Security, welfare, or unemployment compensation until FDR and the New Deal.
Effects of the Great Depression
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%.
"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," according to a story from a reader.
The Faces of the Great Depression
This famous photo by Walker Evans is of Floyd Burroughs. He was from Hale County, Ala. The picture was taken in 1936.
"Fortune" magazine commissioned Walker Evans and staff writer James Agee to produce a feature on the plight of tenant farmers. They interviewed and photographed three families of cotton growers.
The magazine never published the article, but the two published "Now Let Us Praise Famous Men" in 1941.
The Faces of the Great Depression
Lucille Burroughs was Floyd's 10-year old daughter in "And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.'" Dale Maharidge followed up on Lucille and others.
Lucille married when she was 15, and then divorced. She married again and had four children, but her husband died young.
Lucille had dreamed of becoming a teacher or a nurse. Instead, she picked cotton and waited tables. Sadly, she committed suicide in 1971. She was 45.
The Faces of the Great Depression - Migrant Mother
This woman is Florence Thompson, age 32, and the mother of five 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.
In an interview available on YouTube, Florence revealed that her husband Cleo died in 1931. She picked 450 pounds of cotton a day. She moved to Modesto in 1945 and got a job in a hospital.
Children of Great Depression
The photo shows children of agricultural day laborers camped by the roadside near Spiro, Okla. There were no beds and no protection from the profusion of flies. It was taken by Russell Lee in June 1939
"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 reader says.
Stock Market Crash of 1929
The photo shows 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.
The New Deal Programs Employed Many
The photo shows part of a fashion parade at the largest WPA sewing shop in New York where 3,000 women produce clothing and linens to be distributed among the unemployed sometime in 1935. They work a six-day, thirty-hour week on two floors of the old Siegel Cooper Building.
During the Great Depression, people lost their homes and lived in tents. Could that happen in the United States again? Probably not. Congress has demonstrated it would spend whatever is necessary, regardless of the damage to the debt.