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kottke.org posts about Great Depression

A Hand-Drawn Visualization of the US Economy from 1861 to 1935

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2019

75 Yrs Us Ecoonmy

In 1936, former director of research at the Cleveland Federal Reserve L. Merle Hostetler published 75 Yrs. of American Finance, a hand-drawn chart of the economic health of the US from 1861 to 1935. The chart, which is horizontally oriented, shows a trending business activity index (which measures productivity) along with other financial data, indicates when Congress is in session, lists notable news events, and shows the high and low of the DJIA (starting in 1898). The graphic at the top shows Hostetler’s chart from 1929-1931, aka the beginning of the Great Depression.

The copy of this chart hosted by the St. Louis Fed goes to 1938…it must have been updated at some point. Also, if you go into the “»” menu in the upper-right corner of the in-page document viewer, you can set it to “horizontal scrolling” for easier viewing. (thx, andy)

Update: Philip Bump made a horizontally scrolling B&W version of Hostetler’s chart. This is a lot easier to navigate than St. Louis Fed version.

The Making of an Iconic Photograph: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2019

At the end of a long day in March 1936, Dorothea Lange stopped in a migrant workers camp in California for just 10 minutes and took six photos of a woman and her children. The final photo, known as Migrant Mother, became one of the most iconic photographs of the Great Depression.

Migrant Mother

In this video, Evan Puschak details not only the context the photo was created under (FDR’s administration wanted photos that would shift public support towards providing government aid) but also how Lange stage-managed the scene to get the shot she wanted.

As Puschak notes, the photo we are all familiar with was retouched three years after its initial publication to remove what Lange saw as a detriment to the balance of the scene: the thumb of the woman’s hand holding the tent post in the lower right-hand corner.

It is easy to tell whether a print of “Migrant Mother” was made before 1939, because that year Ms. Lange had an assistant retouch the negative and remove Ms. Thompson’s thumb from the bottom right corner, much to the chagrin of Roy Stryker, her boss at the Farm Security Administration. While that was a fairly common practice at the time, Mr. Stryker thought it compromised the authenticity not just of the photo but also of his whole F.S.A. documentary project, Ms. Meister said. But Ms. Lange considered the thumb to be such a glaring defect that she apparently didn’t have a second thought about removing it.

Here’s what it looked like before the alteration:

Migrant Mother Unretouched

There are some other things about the photo that may prompt us to think about the objectivity of documentary photography. The cultural story of Migrant Mother is that this is a white woman who came west during the Great Depression for migrant work. The real story is more complicated. The woman was identified in the late 1970s as Florence Owens Thompson, and as she told her story, we learned some things that Lange didn’t have time to discover during her fleeting time at the camp:

1. Thompson was a full-blooded Cherokee born in Indian Territory (which later became the state of Oklahoma). As this NY Times review of Sarah Meister’s book on the photograph says, if people had known the woman wasn’t white, the photo may not have had the impact it did.

“We have never been a race-blind country, frankly,” Ms. Meister said. “I wish that I could say that the response would have been the same if everyone had been aware that she was Cherokee, but I don’t think that you can.”

2. The family were not recent migrants to California and had actually moved from Oklahoma in 1926, well before the Depression started. The family briefly moved back to Oklahoma because Thompson was pregnant and afraid the father’s family would take the baby from her, but returned to California in 1934.

3. Thompson’s first husband died in 1931 of tuberculosis while she was pregnant with her sixth child. A seventh child resulted from a brief relationship with the father mentioned above. An eighth child followed by a new husband in 1935. But it was Thompson who provided for the family while taking care of 8 kids:

By all accounts, Jim Hill was a nice guy from a respectable family who never could seem to get his act together. “I loved my dad dearly,” Norma Rydlewski said, “but he had little ambition. He was never was able to hold down a job.” The burden of supporting the family, and of keeping it together, fell on Florence.

4. The ultimate goal of Lange taking Thompson’s photo for the FSA was to stimulate public support for government aid to people who were out of work because of the Depression. But Thompson herself didn’t want any aid:

“Her biggest fear,” recalled son Troy Owens, “was that if she were to ask for help [from the government], then they would have reason to take her children away from her. That was her biggest fear all through her entire life.”

5. Thompson and her family weren’t actually living at the pea pickers camp when Lange photographed them there. They had just stopped temporarily to fix their car and were only there for a day or two.

In the field notes that she filed with her Nipomo photographs, Lange included the following description: “Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.”

Owens scoffed at the description. “There’s no way we sold our tires, because we didn’t have any to sell,” he told this writer. “The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.”

“Mother always said that Lange never asked her name or any questions, so what she [Lange] wrote she must have got from the older kids or other people in the camp,” speculates daughter Katherine McIntosh, who appears in the Migrant Mother photo with her head turned away behind her mother’s right shoulder. “She also told mother the negatives would never be published — that she was only going to use the photos to help out the people in the camp.”

So what are we to make of what we thought we knew about this photograph and what we know now? In 2009, Errol Morris wrote of the FSA photos:

Rothstein, Lange and Evans have been accused of posing their photographs, in short, of manipulating them to some end. And yet all photographs are posed. There is no such thing as pure documentary photography. The problem is not in what any of them have done, but in our misunderstanding of photography. No crimes were committed by the F.S.A. photographers. They labored as employees of an organization dedicated to providing propaganda for the Roosevelt administration. And they created some of the greatest photographs in American history. Photographs can be works of art, bearers of evidence, and a connection with the past for individuals, families and society as a whole. It should not be lost on any of us that these controversies are still with us. The Photoshop alteration of a photograph “documenting” the launching of Iranian missiles, the cropping of a Christmas get-together at the Cheney ranch. These are just the latest iterations. In 1936, Roosevelt was reelected in a contentious election. Photography played a controversial role, reminding us that wherever there are intense disagreements, particularly political disagreements, there will be disagreements about photography, as well.

The stories we tell about photographs change as we change and as our culture changes. Yes, Migrant Mother is a symbol of the hardship endured by many during the Great Depression. But Migrant Mother is also the portrait of a fiercely independent Native American single mother who fought to provide for her family and keep them together during the most difficult time in our nation. That’s a story worth hearing today.

Both prints above are courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division: with thumb and without. You can also explore the rest of the LOC’s FSA collection.

Great Depression Cooking

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2015

Born in 1915, Clara Cannucciari survived the Great Depression and, when she was in her 90s and with the help of her grandson, made a YouTube series about meals and cooking techniques used in that era. Watch as Clara cooks a 3-course Poorman’s Feast, a relatively rare treat in those lean times.

The series aired several years ago and Clara has since passed away, living until the age of 98.

Yale launches an archive of 170,000 Depression-era photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 05, 2015

Migrant Woman

Yale has made 170,000 Library of Congress photos of the US from 1935 to 1945 available online, searchable and sortable in many different ways.

In order to build support for and justify government programs, the Historical Section set out to document America, often at her most vulnerable, and the successful administration of relief service. The Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) produced some of the most iconic images of the Great Depression and World War II and included photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein who shaped the visual culture of the era both in its moment and in American memory. Unit photographers were sent across the country. The negatives were sent to Washington, DC. The growing collection came to be known as “The File.” With the United State’s entry into WWII, the unit moved into the Office of War Information and the collection became known as the FSA-OWI File.

The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2012

The Dust Bowl is a four-hour documentary by Ken Burns airing on PBS starting this weekend.

The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the “Great Plow-Up,” followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation. Vivid interviews with twenty-six survivors of those hard times, combined with dramatic photographs and seldom seen movie footage, bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible human perseverance. It is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us — a lesson we ignore at our peril.

You can watch the first five minutes of the film on the PBS site.

Alternate reality: a same-sex Depression

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2012

For her project My Pie Town, Debbie Grossman modified Depression-era photos to depict all-female families.

Pie Town

Joan Myers’ biography of Doris Caudill (Doris is in many of the pictures), Pie Town Woman, describes her husband, Faro, as less than helpful on the homestead. I had downloaded a portrait of Doris and Faro from the Library of Congress website, and because it was so high-resolution, it occurred to me that I had enough pixels to work with that I could alter the image. I removed Faro, and I loved the opportunity to look at Doris on her own and imagine a different life for her. I thought it would be fun to remake the whole town in a way that reflected my own family, and I imagined a Pie Town filled with women.

The main reason for doing so was to give us the unusual experience of getting to see a contemporary idea of family (female married couples as parents, for example) as if it were historical. But I am also very interested in using Photoshop to create imaginary or impossible images-this is something I have done in other work as well.

(via @riondotnu)

Those great (staged?) Great Depression photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2009

In his newest multipart essay for the NY Times, Errol Morris examines evidence of photo manipulations by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, including Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Dorothea Lange. Were they dispassionate observers of American life in the 1930s or employees after a certain type of story?

If one can imagine the political animosity that would have been generated if, as part of the current stimulus package, President Obama introduced a national documentary photography program, then it is possible to understand the opposition that the F.S.A. faced. Fiscal conservatives did not want to see their hard-earned tax dollars spent on relief, let alone a government photography program, of all things.

What would a contemporary depression look like?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 24, 2008

With the Great Depression further removed from today than the Civil War was then, it’s difficult to imagine what a contemporary depression might look like.

Much of a modern depression would unfold in the domestic sphere: people driving less, shopping less, and eating in their houses more. They would watch television at home; unemployed parents would watch over their own kids instead of taking them to day care. With online banking, it would even be possible to have a bank run in which no one leaves the comfort of their home.

Also, desuburbanization:

In a deep and sustained downturn, home prices would likely sink further and not rise, dimming the appeal of homeownership, a large part of suburbia’s draw. Renting an apartment — perhaps in a city, where commuting costs are lower — might be more tempting. And although city crime might increase, the sense of safety that attracted city-dwellers to the suburbs might suffer, too, in a downturn. Many suburban areas have already seen upticks in crime in recent years, which would only get worse as tax-poor towns spent less money on policing and public services.

Migrant Mother

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2007

While working for the FDR administration in 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange took the following photograph:

Migrant Woman

You’ve likely seen it before…it’s called Migrant Mother and it’s one of the more famous American photos. When she took the photo, Lange neglected to note the woman’s name (or other details) so her identity remained anonymous while the photo went on to become a symbol of the Great Depression. In the late 1970s, Florence Owens Thompson revealed herself to be the woman in the photo after she wrote a letter to her local paper saying that she didn’t like the image. In an AP story about the ensuing flap, Thompson stated:

I wish she hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”

In addition to not taking her subject’s name, Lange got something else wrong. Thompson and her family weren’t typical Depression migrants at all; they’d been living in California for almost 10 years. Like all photographs, Migrant Mother is neither truth nor fiction but somewhere in-between.

Margaret Bourke-White

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2007

I came across this striking photo by Margaret Bourke-White the other day:

White Bread Line

It’s a photo of a bread line during the Louisville Flood in 1937. The 1937 flood was one of the worst floods ever to occur in the Ohio River Valley:

In January of 1937, rains began to fall throughout the Ohio River Valley, eventually triggering what is known today as the “Great Flood of 1937”. Overall, total precipitation for January was four times its normal amount in the areas surrounding the river. […] The Weather Bureau reported that total flood damage for the entire state of Kentucky was 250 million dollars, which was an incredible sum in 1937. Another flood of this magnitude would not be seen in the Ohio River Valley until 60 years later.

A diary from Mama Bondurant provides a glimpse into what the flood was like:

January 22—-This is another terrible day. The water is still rising and we hear distress cries everywhere. I have tired all day to get West Point, but it is still under water. Jim came home for a little while but went back to Camp Knox to assist in placing flood sufferers from West Point. It is so bad outside. Rain has turned to sleet. Electricity is gone. No lights or radio.

Working as a photographer for Life magazine, Bourke-White also took this iconic photo of Gandhi and his spinning wheel.

The first superhero?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2005

Out of a recent conversation popped this interesting question: who was the first superhero? After a short discussion and a few guesses (Superman, Batman, etc), it was agreed that this might be the most perfect question to ask the internet in the long history of questions.

The earliest superhero I could find reference to was Mandrake the Magician, who debuted in 1934, four years before Superman, who was probably the first popular superhero. Mandrake’s super power was his ability to “make people believe anything, simply by gesturing hypnotically”. Does anyone out there know of any superheroes who made an earlier media appearance?

There’s a related question that has some bearing on the answer to the above question: what is a superhero? There have probably been books (or at least extensive Usenet threads) written on this topic, but a good baseline definition needs to acknowledge both the “super” and the “hero” parts. That is, the person needs to have some superhuman power or powers and has to fight the bad guys. But this basic definition is flawed. Superman is an alien, not human. Batman doesn’t have any super powers…he’s a self-made superhero like Syndrome in The Incredibles. Or can a superhero be anyone (human or no) that fights bad guys and is superior to normal heroes…the cream of the hero crop? And what about a costume or alter ego…are they essential for superheroism? These are all questions well-suited for asking the internet, so have at it: what’s a good definition for a superhero?

And there’s (at least) one more angle to this as well…where did the idea of the superhero come from? As Meg suggested to me at dinner last night, was there a cultural need for a superhero during a super-crisis like the Great Depression? Or did the idea evolve gradually from regular heros (cowboys, space cowboys, etc.) to heros who were magicians (with special powers…it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine a magician possessing supernatural powers) to classic superheroes like Superman?