In 1939, a migrant family—one of many in America at the time—pitches a tent on the outskirts of Hammond, Louisiana. The family is picking strawberries, during the spring of 1939, to earn a living. The boy, in the picture, has just returned from the city dump where he found some springs the family will use to fashion beds. Photo by Russell Lee on behalf of the U.S. Farm Security Administration. Online via the Library of Congress. Click on the image for a full-page view.


For anyone born after World War II, it is inconceivable that such a time as "The Great Depression" ever existed. The ongoing personal tragedy, fear and utter despair, which crippled the country, are nearly unimaginable today.

But for those who experienced the reality of constant unemployment, desperate poverty, insufficient food, homelessness and lost family wealth, the memories are still vivid and painful. Photographs from America's archives, which document the struggle, open a window—at least to some extent—into those difficult years.

Many uprooted, out-of-work families packed up everything they owned and moved to California. Travel—which often meant sleeping in tents—wasn’t easy since Interstates did not yet connect the country. Some families, without vehicles, had to walk—or push carts with their belongings—as they moved along the roadways. 

Destitute mothers had few, if any, options to provide for their children. Some families who formerly lived in tents tried to upgrade their circumstances by building "housecars."

Fathers left their families "at home" while they went to the industrial north to find work. Their "bachelor cabins" were nothing more than shanty towns. But there was also "No Work" for people in the north. The once-bustling docks of New York City were mostly quiet.

By 1932, the worst year of the depression (follow the link to see the dramatic downturn in U.S. rates of production), nearly 25% of the American work force was unemployed. Without means of transportation, people had to walk miles just to see their families. Living in squatters’ camps (called "Hoovervilles"), dislocated families tried to stay together. Even Central Park, in New York City, was turned into a Hooverville.

Before the days of the FDR along the East River, and the Westside Parkway along the Hudson, an artist (like Russian emigre Raphael Soyer) could draw images, along the water’s edge, of human hopelessness.

Meanwhile ... employment agencies in New York City were inundated with applications from well-dressed, out-of-work people. The "land of plenty" had become the land of hard times.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5184stories and lessons created

Original Release: Dec 01, 2005

Updated Last Revision: Sep 01, 2017

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"DESPERATE TIMES" AwesomeStories.com. Dec 01, 2005. Jul 21, 2019.
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