Library of Congress Photos Put a New Face on the Great Depression

Ferris Wheel, Library of Congress, Depression, Great DepressionThe Library of Congress recently released over 1,600 color photos taken during the final years of the Great Depression. Funded by the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information, the pictures were taken by several famous photographers, including Jack Delano, Russell Lee and Marjory Collins. With their unique, vibrant look at the past, they offer a fresh perspective on one of the darkest periods in American history.

In the American imagination, the Great Depression is a sepia-toned land of rural life, large families, and close-knit communities that came together to weather through the hard times. The lines are sharply drawn between the haves and the have-nots, the poor souls without resources and the luckier citizens for whom the impact of the economic downfall is softened by a steady job or a fat bank account.

The Library of Congress' Depression color collection shatters some of these myths. With images of urban life in the late 1930s, they depict a Depression-era world in which the downfall doesn't necessarily mean destitution; rather, it may mean wearing a coat that is growing shabby with age or reading the latest headlines off a newspaper publisher's window in order to save the price of a paper. Or, for children photographed outside a tenement, it may mean living in a run-down home, but finding a new set of clothes under the Christmas tree.

Ferris Wheel, Library of Congress, Depression, Great DepressionGone are the bleak landscapes and hopeless-looking sharecroppers that populate so many of the rural images from the 1930's. Rather, these photos depict tired-but-satisfied homesteaders and freshly-scrubbed children performing in a school pageant. For recreation, there are square dances and state fairs, with attractions that look startlingly familiar. In short, it is a world that is more frugal than today's America, but not necessarily less joyful.

Most of these photos date from the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the economy was -- much like our own -- in a slow state of recovery. For their subjects, the future is a mix of opportunity and worry, and a new coat, or a ride on a Ferris wheel, provides a momentary distraction from economic fears.

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