Dec 8, 2010
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.