40 Poignant Photographs That Reveal The Reality Of The Great Depression

Image: The New York Public Library/Dorothea Lange/Public Domain

The Great Depression was an economic crisis of unparalleled scale. It affected the whole world and lasted an entire decade. In America alone, the country’s unemployment level grew to a massive 15 million in 1933, at the worst point of the downturn. These 40 pictures show what the era was really like, in all its heartwrenching detail.

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40. Man sells car after the Stock Market Crash

During the 1920s the U.S. economy boomed, with the wealth of the nation more than doubling over the course of the decade. However, the good times came to an end with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Many people lost all their savings as millions of shares became totally worthless or were wiped out altogether. It appears that this man was one of those many people, as he attempts to sell his luxury roadster for $100.

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39. Roadside dinner

Following the Stock Market Crash of 1939 consumer spending diminished, which slowed production and led to unemployment. This economic uncertainty coupled with drought conditions in the Midwest meant many people hit the road in search of new opportunities. There was still room for some normality though, as we can see this family saying grace ahead of their roadside meal.

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38. Feeding the poor

By November 1930 the effects of the Great Depression were beginning to be felt by many people. This poignant photo shows an old lady receiving a parcel of food for Thanksgiving. During this period, tons of food rations were given out across the country in a bid to feed the hungry population.

Image: Dorothea Lange/Getty Images

37. Despairing mother

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This emotive image was taken in Texas in 1932 and shows the wife of a migratory laborer during a moment of despair. The mother-of-three was captured by the photographer Dorothea Lange. Lange was prolific during the Great Depression and her pictures of life during the era would go on to define her career.

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36. Hooverville kids

As the Great Depression set in, public resentment towards President Herbert Hoover grew, with many people believing that the worsening economic situations were his fault. When shantytowns emerged across the country to house the homeless they were nicknamed “Hoovervilles.” This photograph shows two youngsters sat by a “tobacco fund” at a makeshift camp in Washington D.C.

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35. Roosevelt becomes president

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Given Hoover’s unpopularity, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt cruised to victory in the election of 1932. By then, the country was gripped by the Great Depression, with 15 million people out of work. Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s message was one of hope. During his Inauguration in 1933 he famously told the nation “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

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34. Men advertise willingness to work

At the height of the depression, 15 million U.S. citizens were unemployed. Finding a job was not easy, and some resorted to desperate measures in an attempt to secure work. This image was taken in Chicago in 1934 and shows two men advertising their willingness to work by wearing sandwich boards.

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33. Riding the railroads

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This powerful picture shows so-called hobos — impoverished migrant workers — riding a freight car to Southern California in 1934. Train hopping became prevalent during the Great Depression, as people took to the rails in search of work. They risked being caught by railroad police, but it seems that the risk was worth it for many.

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32. Woman with relief check

Here a woman looks over a relief check from the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The welfare handout was intended to help farmers aid their farms and lives. Up until 1935, the U.S. was the only industrialized nation with no form of unemployment insurance. However, that changed with the launch of the Social Security Act which provided old-age pensions as well as unemployment and disability benefits for the first time.

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31. Depression era carpenter

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This picture of a charismatic carpenter smoking a pipe was taken by photographer Walker Evans in 1935. Evans was part of a team employed by the FSA to document life during the depression. Often these images portrayed the survival of strong-willed people against overwhelming odds, which comes across in this man’s defiant stare.

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30. South Pines home

This image shows an African-American family outside of their home near Southern Pines in North Carolina in 1935. During the Depression, a fifth of federal relief recipients in America were black. However, domestic work and farming — two major sources of employment for African-American people — were exempt from the Social Security Act. As a result, it was harder for black families to obtain any form of financial aid.

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Image: Walker Evans/Getty Images

29. Hale County family

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This image shows Bud Fields, a cotton sharecropper, with his family in Hale County, Alabama. This photograph was another taken by Walker Evans in 1935 in the midst of the Depression. Reflecting on his work from the era, the photographer later said, “I just photographed everything that attracted me at the time and was rather unconsciously recording that period.”

Image: Bert Garai/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

28. The Dust Bowl

In the midst of the Great Depression, several years of drought affected the Great Plains states, which collectively became known as the Dust Bowl. This dry period extended from 1934 to 1937 and resulted in great dust storms known as “black blizzards.” These girls model masks that were intended for use in areas where dust was causing breathing difficulties.

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Image: The New York Public Library/Dorothea Lange/Public Domain

27. Dispossessed Arkansas farmers

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This hard-hitting photograph depicts the makeshift home of some dispossessed Arkansas farmers in Bakersfield, California. Conditions in the Dust Bowl meant that 2.5 million people left their homes to seek work, many of them moving west to California, as this family had done. This movement of people marked the largest migration in the history of America.

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26. Homeless man

The Great Depression saw a sharp increase in the rate of homelessness throughout America. Here, a man is seen sleeping on the street in New York’s notorious Skid Row neighborhood. Apparently, he has chosen a spot on the street’s west side, so that the sun will warm him up as it rises in the morning.

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25. Cheap eats

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These unemployed men are seen tucking into a simple meal of soup and bread at Bernarr Macfadden’s Penny Cafeteria. Macfadden was a philanthropist and physical culture enthusiast who established canteens that served food for just one cent a dish. According to a New York Times article from the time, the opening of a branch in the city during 1931 was met with a wave of hungry customers.

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24. Sharecroppers

This image was taken in Arkansas in 1935 and shows a sharecropping family on their porch. This form of tenant farming was a particularly tough way to earn a living. Families often dealt with poor conditions and were forced to work hard for a minimal share of the farm’s profits. Sharecropping often meant that farmers were constantly in debt, which made them particularly susceptible to the effects of the Depression.

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Image: Walker Evans/Getty Images

23. Lucille Burroughs

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Lucille Burroughs was the 10-year-old daughter of cotton sharecropper Floyd Burroughs in Hale County, Alabama. She had dreams of becoming a nurse or teacher. But there was no happy ending to Lucille’s story. She married twice, the first time aged just 15. Her second husband died young, leaving her with four children to raise. To earn money she waitressed and picked cotton, but sadly took her own life in 1971 at the age of 45.

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22. Family of nine sell their possessions

During the desperate times of the Great Depression, this family of nine were forced to sell their belongings — including their trailer — in order to obtain cash for food. Many children went hungry during the era and malnutrition was rife. Lots of young people also went on to develop psychological and emotional problems due to the uncertainty and hardships they and their families experienced.

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21. Man at the Self Help Association

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This well-dressed man was pictured at the Self Help Association for dairy farmers in California in 1936. Apparently, he had worked in construction before moving to North Georgia in order to work on his family’s farm. There they had livestock and tended to their fruit and vegetable crops.

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20. Child chokes on dust

In this photograph, the harsh conditions in the Dust Bowl are clear to see as this little boy covers his mouth to prevent breathing in particles. The image perfectly fulfills the task undertaken by the team of FSA photographers, who were tasked by presidential advisor Rexford Tugwell to “Show the city people what it’s like to live on the farm.”

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19. Abandoned farm

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As we’ve seen, the conditions in the Dust Bowl were just too hard to bear for most people.. This photo shows farm machinery that has seemingly been submerged by unrelenting dust storms. There’s a good chance that this lot was abandoned by its owners, as many farmers had to leave their land in search of alternative opportunities.

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18. Dust Bowl storm

This dramatic image shows just how devastating the dust storms of the Great Depression really were. These “black blizzards” turned the sky dark, and sometimes lasted for days at a time. Furthermore, the clouds were so far-reaching that they carried Great Plains topsoil as far as New York, Washington D.C., and even out into the Atlantic ocean.

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17. Migrant Mother

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One of the most iconic images of the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” depicts Florence Owens Thompson, the wife of a migrant agricultural worker at a camp in Nipomo, California. This image was taken in 1936 and shows Thompson surrounded by her children as she stares off anxiously into the distance. In the decades since the Depression, this photo has come to symbolize the desperation experienced by large swathes of the American population during the era.

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16. A family flees the Dust Bowl

The members of this young family were some of the millions of people to flee the Dust Bowl in the Great Depression. However, the new life they dreamed of in the west was often difficult. Known derogatively as “Okies” these migrants were often faced with discrimination, hard labor and low pay when they reached California.

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Image: Dorothea Lange/Getty Images

15. Migrants flee drought

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“Okies” were so-called due to the vast amount of people who migrated from Oklahoma, which is where this family originated. They were pictured by Dorothea Lange at a roadside camp in Blythe, California, in 1936 as they fled a severe drought. The dry spell killed 1,693 people, while a further 3,500 drowned while attempting to cool down.

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14. Family live in car

A family of nine from Iowa lived in this car as they migrated through the Depression. Such a sight would have been familiar in California, as workers drove up and down the state in search of work. For them, vehicles not only provided a vital form of transport but shelter from the outside world.

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13. Roadside camp

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This makeshift roadside camp consisted of 40 families who hoped to gain work at the adjacent pea field in Calipatria, California. However, cold weather destroyed the crop, forcing almost all the inhabitants of this camp to claim emergency relief. Over the course of the Depression, the U.S. government issued relief loans totaling $300 million to states, none of which was ever repaid.

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12. Migrant father

It’s likely that this Mexican migrant family was also affected by the freezing weather of 1937, as their ramshackle home teetered on the edge of a frosted pea field. The depression hit Mexican families particularly hard, as they faced the threat of deportation alongside the food and job shortages that were affecting all workers in the U.S. at the time.

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11. On the road

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This image tells the story of migration, which was common during the Depression. It depicts three related families who left Oklahoma, fleeing drought. They managed to pick up work in Arizona and California, but are pictured here near Lordsburg, New Mexico, as they arrive in the state to take part in the cotton harvest.

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10. Not going by train

The juxtaposition between the harsh reality facing many Dust Bowl migrants and the image depicted in this Southern Pacific advert is stark. As the refugees walk along the highway, bags in hand, the billboard suggests, “Next Time Try the Train — Relax.” It seems unlikely that rail travel was financially viable for these two men making their way to Los Angeles on foot.

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9. Flood refugees wait in line for food

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This photo shows children waiting in line for food with other flood refugees in Forrest City, Arkansas. The Ohio River Flood of 1937 compounded the misery caused by the Great Depression, killing 350 people and leaving almost a million people without a home. So we can only imagine the hardships these youngsters had already faced.

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8. WPA workers

Kentucky was among the states to be affected by the Ohio River Flood of 1937. Here we see employees from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) helping to clear up after the disaster in Louisville. The WPA was launched by Roosevelt in 1935 as part of his New Deal, with the purpose of boosting employment and infrastructure. Over the eight years it operated the program employed around 8.5 million Americans.

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Image: Dorothea Lange/Library Of Congress/Getty Images

7. Propaganda

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The billboard by the National Association of Manufacturers proclaims, “There’s no way like the American way” and “world’s highest standard of living.” This picture was taken in 1937, when unemployment was as high as 14.3 percent. As a result, its message seems at odds with the experiences of a large proportion of the U.S. population at the time.

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6. Drought in the dust bowl

This image shows the town of Caddo, Oklahoma, which was ravaged by the effects of the Great Depression and relentless droughts. By the time Lange captured this scene, in 1938, the economy had started to recover. However, there seems to be no sign of the upturn in this apparent ghost town.

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5. Child in Hooverville

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Nor was there any sign of the economic recovery in the many Hoovervilles across the U.S. This child is pictured perched on an old tire in a shantytown in Circleville, Ohio, in 1938. In fact, it wasn’t until 1940, when the economy stabilized further and unemployment rates fell that many Hoovervilles were eventually shut down.

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4. Family flee on foot

This family from Pittsburg County, Oklahoma, were forced to leave their home towards the end of the Great Depression in 1938. They set out on the road following a major drought in the area. Scenes like this were common throughout the 1930s, with family’s packing just what they could carry as they went in search for a better life.

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3. Migrant fruit workers

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This man and woman were migrant fruit workers in Berrien County, Michigan. They are photographed here in 1940, holding a box of cherries for their own consumption. By the time this picture was taken, the Second World War had already broken out in Europe the previous year, which would finally help to end the economic woes of the U.S.

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2. Pie Town family

Pie Town, New Mexico, experienced an influx of Dust Bowlers during the Great Depression as migrant farmers from Oklahoma and West Texas flocked to the area. This image shows Jack Whinery and his family who formed part of the resilient community. It was taken by photographer Russell Lee, who captured around 600 images of Pie Town during the depression.

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1. Attack on Pearl Harbor

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New Yorkers react to the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The incident led the U.S. to enter World War II and, as a result, led to an uptick in industrial production. As output grew and conscription began, unemployment fell, finally marking the end of the Great Depression.

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