Depression

Posted by Ellen

Pausing for her picture in 1939, on her way back to the house from the pepper patch. The pincurls in her hair suggest that she's got post-pepper-picking plans for the evening.

She was one of eight children in the Schrock family in the Yakima Valley of Washington state, where they were clients of a Farm Security Administration tenant-purchase program, a New Deal effort to help migrant farm families obtain homes and farmland of their own. The program worked best, it turned out, for families that broke the rules and generated some cash income by finding work off the farm.

Johnny Cash grew up in a similar FSA project in Dyess, Arkansas.

Posted by Ellen

In 1934, Carl Gustaf Nelson painted life in New York's Central Park, above, the way life ought to be; in 1932 and 1933, photographers from the New York Daily News aimed their cameras at Central Park's Hooverville, below, revealing life that was not being lived the way people ought to live. Both images tell something of the story, in an upstairs-downstairs sort of way.

New York's homeless citizens began building shanties in Central Park's Sheep Meadow late in 1931, by which time half the factories in the city had been shut down by the Depression and literally millions of New Yorkers were desperate for food and shelter. In 1930 and 1931 homeless people tried to camp in Central Park, but they were repeatedly arrested for vagrancy; as the economic situation became more and more dire, however, policemen and judges became more sympathetic to the "bums," and official eyes were averted as this and many other Hoovervilles emerged. Some of the shacks were said to be solid brick and stone houses with tile roofs, built by unemployed bricklayers.

The residents of Central Park's Hooverville said they had built their homes along Depression Street. Many of the shanties had furniture and at least one had carpets, but there was no electricity or running water, no sanitary facilities at all. In 1933, the city condemned the dwellings, evicted the residents, and demolished the shantytown. The official justification was public health.

Thus, by 1934, when Nelson painted his picture, Central Park had been officially reclaimed for the sole use of well-dressed, well-to-do people like the ones in the painting, people with warm apartments to go home to and indoor plumbing. The people of Hooverville had moved on, and they would keep on moving on, scraping by, somehow, till a government stimulus program, aka World War II, finally brought full employment back to America.

Posted by Ellen

The only summer in American history drier than this summer of 2012 was 1936, the time of the Dust Bowl. In South Dakota, home to the family of Vernon Evans, pictured here, the drought was compounded by a grasshopper plague. The crop failed, the bank took the farm, and there were no jobs to be had. "You couldn't even buy a job," according to Evans.

They had $54, and no idea how they were going to get by, when they piled into their Model T and headed west. The first day they only made  six miles before breaking the crankshaft; fortunately, a nearby farmer had a yard full of dead Model Ts; he told the Evanses to find themselves a crankshaft and take it, no charge. 

They were on the road again a day later and made good time for the next few days, averaging about 200 miles a day till they reached the outskirts of Missoula, Montana, where they passed a car at the side of the road with a man sleeping in it. They honked at him, "just having a good time." The man woke up quickly, started his car, and chased them down, waving frantically for them to pull over. They thought he was a cop turning them away from Missoula; many communities had posted guards to try to keep the Dust Bowl migrants out of town.

"Well, here's where we go back home," the Evanses said to one another. They had $16 left. 

But the cop turned out to be Resettlement Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein, who introduced himself, explained that the sign on the back of their car had caught his eye, and asked if he could take a picture. They told him they were headed for Yakima, Washington, hoping to arrive in time to find work harvesting hops.

Rothstein snapped eight poses there on the road to Missoula, which the family recalled seeing in newspapers and magazines a few months later, when they were newly settled in Oregon, working for the railroad.

Posted by Ellen

 

In August 1939, this unemployed lumberjack and his wife showed up in the bean fields of eastern Oregon, hoping for a few weeks' work picking beans. Even though New Deal photographer Dorothea Lange was not expected--and in fact was not permitted--to note the names of the people she portrayed, we actually know a fair amount about this couple, thanks to the tattoo on the man's right arm. It's his Social Security number.

He is Thomas Urs Cave, 535-07-5248, and he must have been among the first Americans covered by Social Security, which started up for many workers--including lumberjacks but not farmworkers--in 1937. Tattooing Social Security numbers was not uncommon among people who may have feared that paperwork would disappear, or that they themselves might wind up in a ditch without identification. Mr. Cave's tattoo is a bit unusual, however, because it's right side up; usually, Social Security numbers were tattooed upside down, for easy reading by their owners.

He was born in July 1912, making him 31 when this picture was taken. He must have lost his logging job sometime after January 1937, when Social Security started up, so he was fairly new to the life of migrant farm labor. Three years after picking beans in eastern Oregon, he was drafted into the army, where he served till early 1946. He died in 1980 in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 68.

His army enlistment records identify him as "divorced," but his death records list a wife named Annie. The woman shown here may be the first wife; she might also be Annie, a girlfriend in the bean field days but eventually a second wife. 

Thomas Urs Cave did eventually collect on his Social Security.