Crecia C. Swaim
The Great Depression was triggered by the stock market crash that began on Black Thursday (October 24, 1929) and continued through Black Tuesday, five days later.
The Industrial Revolution led to greatly increased profits for businesses (65%); but worker wages did not increase that much (8%), so people began spending even more than they were making, using credit. From 1920 to 1929, the value of stocks quadrupled. Stocks were seen as a financial guarantee, so people began to borrow money to invest in stocks, thinking that they were securing their financial future. But stocks could not go up forever, and in 1929 they started to lose value at an extraordinary rate, so that by 1933 they were worth 20% of what they were worth at their peak. Banks were unable to collect on loans, and they had even invested depositor's money, which could not be replaced. People panicked and withdrew their money, which made things even worse. Then-President Herbert Hoover did little to intervene in this situation, and is blamed by many for the Depression, during which more than
million Americans (1/4 of the workforce) lost their jobs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the next presidential election by a landslide in 1932; he offered the country a "New Deal" in which the government would intervene to stabilize the economy and ensure public welfare.
The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was one of FDR's New Deal programs implemented between 1933-1937 with the goal of relief, recovery, and reform for the U.S. economy. It was created to document the struggles of the rural poor during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl (see the next section), as well as the programs that the government put into place to address their needs.15 It was created within the Department of Agriculture in 1937, but its roots were based in the Resettlement Administration (RA) of 1935, also a New Deal program.
Roy Stryker was the head of a special photographic section in the RA and FSA from 1935-1942. During its existence, the RA/FSA created 77,000 black-and-white documentary photographs and 644 color photographs. In 1942 the FSA unit moved to the Office of War Information, where it worked to document America's mobilization during the early years of World War II, and to attract U.S. citizens to jobs in support of the war effort. The entire FSA-OWI collection numbers around 108,000 (most of which are black-and-white).
In its "Depression and WWII" section, the
America's Story from America's Library
website has clear, concise, kid-friendly historical background refreshers for students who are struggling with this content [http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/jb/wwii]. Also, PBS has a very informative film and accompanying website (with film transcripts) entitled
The American Experience: Surviving the Dust Bowl
White Angel Breadline
was Lange's first documentary photograph. She took it when she was still doing portraits, and though she knew it was important, she did not know what she would do with it. Neither did her portrait patrons, who would ask her about it (she had hung it on the door of her studio she was so struck by it). She felt the need to contribute to supporting her family, so she was very aware that her photography would always need to be a source of income. At the time, she knew no market for the types of social reflection pieces she felt compelled to produce.
In the photograph, the crowd faces away, a sea of hats hinting that it could be any one of us in that line. The Depression hit so many unsuspecting people so hard; it did not discriminate. Our subject leans against the slanting railing, which creates an aesthetically striking line in the photograph. Although his eyes are covered by the brim of his hat, the set of his jaw and the posture of his body indicate anger and fortitude, as if to express that he doesn't like being in this breadline but he'll do it alright, and thank goodness that it exists. It is a striking portrait of that one man at the same time as it reflects on a broader social situation.
Classroom Implementation Opportunities
The standard version of this photograph should be compared and contrasted (using a Comparison Matrix) to the alternate view featured at the following website: http://www.mindspring.com/~davidmbernstein/Dorothea_Lange.html. This view is taken from a different angle (below), with the main subject occupying the center of the top half of the frame (as opposed to slightly left of center)
and in it the subject evokes pity rather than dignity. Students could view and discuss a photo-essay on the Great Depression at the following website: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/depression/photoessay.htm.