Great Depression Pictures

These 35 Photos Show the Economic Impact of the Great Depression

The Farm Security Administration hired photographers to document the living conditions of the Great Depression. They are a landmark in the history of documentary photography. The photos show the adverse effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Some of the most famous images portray people who were displaced from farms and migrated west or to industrial cities in search of work. These photos show better than charts and numbers the economic impact of the Great Depression.

Dust Attacks a Town

Dust Bowl
Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images

A dust storm rolled into Elkhart, Kansas, on May 21, 1937. The year before, the drought caused the hottest summer on record. In June, eight states experienced temperatures at 110 or greater. In July, the heat wave hit 12 more states. They were Iowa, Kansas (121 degrees), Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota (121 degrees), Oklahoma (120 degrees), Pennsylvania, South Dakota (120 degrees), West Virginia, and Wisconsin. In August, Texas saw 120-degree record-breaking temperatures.

It was also the deadliest heat wave in U.S. history, killing 1,693 people. Another 3,500 people drowned while trying to cool off. 

Causes of the Dust Bowl

Arthur Rothstein / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

The Dust Bowl was caused by the worst drought in North America in 300 years. In 1930, weather patterns shifted over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Pacific grew cooler than normal and the Atlantic became warmer. The combination weakened and changed the direction of the jet stream. 

There were four waves of droughts: 1930-1931, 1934, 1936, and 1939-1940. The affected regions could not recover before the next one hit. By 1934, the drought covered 75% of the country, affecting 27 states. The worst-hit was the Oklahoma panhandle.

Once farmers settled the Midwest prairies, they plowed over 5.2 million acres of the tall, deep-rooted prairie grass. When the drought killed off the crops, high winds blew the topsoil away.

Effects of the Dust Bowl

Arthur Rothstein /Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

Dust storms helped cause The Great Depression. Dust storms nearly covered buildings, making them useless. People became very ill from inhaling the dust.

These storms forced family farmers to lose their business, their livelihood, and their homes. By 1936, 21% of all rural families in the Great Plains received federal emergency relief. In some counties, it was as high as 90%. 

Families migrated to California or cities to find work that often didn't exist by the time they got there. As farmers left in search of work, they became homeless. Almost 6,000 shanty towns, called Hoovervilles, sprang up in the 1930s. 

Farming in 1935

Farming in 1935
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

This photo shows a team of two work horses hitched to a wagon with farm house visible in the background in Beltsville, Md., in 1935. It comes from the New York Public Library.

On April 15, 1934, the worst dust storm occurred. It was later named Black Sunday. Several weeks later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Soil Conservation Act. It taught farmers how to plant in a more sustainable way. 

Farmers Who Survived the Dust Bowl

farmer during depression
Photo by Arthur Rothstein/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The photo shows a farmer cultivating corn with fertilizer on a horse drawn plow at the Wabash Farms, Loogootee, Indiana, June 1938. That year, the economy contracted 3.3% because FDR cut back on the New Deal. He was trying to balance the budget, but it was too soon. Prices dropped 2.8%, hurting the farmers who were left. 

World's Greatest Standard of Living?

the great depression billboard
Photo by Dorothea Lange/Library Of Congress/Getty Images

In March 1937, this billboard, sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers, is displayed on Highway 99 in California during the Depression. It reads, "There's no way like the American way" and "world's highest standard of living." That year, the unemployment rate was 14.3%.

Men Were Desperate to Find Work

depression-walkers.jpg
Photo by Dorothea Lange/Getty Images

 This photo shows two unemployed men walking towards Los Angeles, Calif., to find work.

On the Road to Find Work

Okies on the road during the depression.
Photo by Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection.

The photo shows an impoverished family of nine on a New Mexico highway. The depression refugees left Iowa in 1932 due to their father's tuberculosis. He was an auto mechanic laborer and painter. ​The family had been on relief in Arizona.

Unemployment was 23.6%. The economy contracted 12.9%. People blamed President Herbert Hoover, who raised taxes that year to balance the budget. They voted for FDR, who promised a New Deal.

Come to California

Roadside camp during the great depression
Photo by Dorothea Lange/ /Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

The photo shows a roadside camp near Bakersfield, Calif., and the worldly possessions of refugees from Texas dust, drought, and depression. Many left their homes to find work in California. By the time they got there, the jobs were gone. This occurred in November 1935. Unemployment was 20.1%.

This Family Did Not Feel the Economy Improving

A family of migrants during the Great Depression
Photo by Dorothea Lange/Getty Images.

The photo shows a family of migrant workers fleeing from the drought in Oklahoma camp by the roadside in Blythe, Calif., on August 1, 1936. That month, Texas experienced 120 degrees, which was a record-breaking temperature.

By the end of the year, the heat wave had killed 1,693 people. Another 3,500 people drowned while trying to cool off. 

The economy grew 12.9% that year. That was an incredible accomplishment, but too late to save this family's farm. Unemployment shrank to 16.9%. Prices rose 1.4%. The debt grew to $34 billion. To pay down the debt, President Roosevelt raised the top tax rate to 79%. But that proved to be a mistake. The economy wasn't strong enough to sustain higher taxes, and the Depression resumed.

Eating Along the Side of the Road

Depression refugee
Photo by Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection.

The photo shows the son of depression refugee from Oklahoma now in California taken in November 1936.

A Shanty Built of Refuse

depression shanty
Photo by Arthur Rothstein,

This shanty was built of refuse near the Sunnyside slack pile in Herrin, Ill. Many residences in southern Illinois coal towns were built with money borrowed from building and loan associations, which almost all went bankrupt.

Migrant Workers in California

migrant family
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The photo shows a migrant worker, his young wife, and four children resting outside their temporary lodgings, situated on a migrant camp, Marysville, Calif., in 1935. 

Living Out of a Car

Depression car became a home
Photo by Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection.

This was the only home of a depression-routed family of nine from Iowa in August 1936.

Hooverville

Family living in a tent
Photo by Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection.

Thousands of these farmers and other unemployed workers traveled to California to find work. Many ended up living as homeless “hobos” or in shantytowns called “Hoovervilles," named after then-President Herbert Hoover. Many people felt he caused the Depression by basically doing nothing to stop it. He was more concerned about balancing the budget, and felt the market would sort itself out.

Depression Family

Walker Evans / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

The Great Depression displaced entire families, who became homeless. The children were most severely impacted. They often had to work to help make ends meet. 

Soup Line

depression unemployed men line
Getty Images Archive

There were no social programs in the early part of the Depression. People lined up just to get a bowl of soup from a charity.

More Soup Lines

Soup line.
Photo by Getty Images.

This photo shows another soup line during the Great Depression. Men this side of the sign are assured of a five-cent meal. The rest must wait for generous passersby. Buddy, can you spare a dime? The photo was taken between 1930 and 1940. There was no Social Security, welfare, or unemployment compensation until FDR and the New Deal. 

Soup Kitchens Were Life Savers

Depression soup
Photo by Bettman/Corbis/Getty Images.

 Soup kitchens didn't offer much to eat, but it was better than nothing.

Even Gangsters Opened Soup Kitchens

new deal
Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images. From the Chicago Daily News collection.

A group of men line up outside a Chicago soup kitchen opened by Al Capone, sometime in the 1930s in this photo. In a bid to rebuild his reputation, Capone opened a soup kitchen amid the worsening economic conditions.

Soup Kitchens in 1930

Soup kitchen
Photo: American Stock/Getty Images

Dolly Gann (L), sister of U.S. vice president Charles Curtis, helps serve meals to the hungry at a Salvation Army soup kitchen on December 27, 1930.

Effects of the Great Depression

Effects of the great depression
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

This gentleman tried to remain well-dressed, but was forced to seek help from the Self Help Association. It was a dairy farm unit in California in 1936. Unemployment was 16.9%. 

"He worked construction, but when the jobs disappeared he moved the family from Florida to his father's farm in North Georgia. On the farm, they grew a field of corn, many vegetables, apples ​and other fruit, and they had some livestock," according to a story from a reader.

The Faces of the Great Depression

Floyd Burroughs. Photo by Walker Evans

This famous photo by Walker Evans is of Floyd Burroughs. He was from Hale County, Ala. The picture was taken in 1936.

 "Fortune" magazine commissioned Walker Evans and staff writer James Agee to produce a feature on the plight of tenant farmers. They interviewed and photographed three families of cotton growers.

The magazine never published the article, but the two published "Now Let Us Praise Famous Men" in 1941.

The Faces of the Great Depression

Lucille Burroughs
Lucille Burroughs. Photo by Walker Evans / Getty Images 

Lucille Burroughs was Floyd's 10-year old daughter in "And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.'" Dale Maharidge followed up on Lucille and others.

Lucille married when she was 15, and then divorced. She married again and had four children, but her husband died young. 

Lucille had dreamed of becoming a teacher or a nurse. Instead, she picked cotton and waited tables. Sadly, she committed suicide in 1971. She was 45.

The Faces of the Great Depression - Migrant Mother

Photo by Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection.

This woman is Florence Thompson, age 32, and the mother of five children. She was a peapicker in California. When this picture was taken by Dorothea Lange, Florence had just sold her family's home for money to buy food. The home was a tent. 

In an interview available on YouTube, Florence revealed that her husband Cleo died in 1931. She picked 450 pounds of cotton a day. She moved to Modesto in 1945 and got a job in a hospital. 

Children of Great Depression

Russell Lee / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

The photo shows children of agricultural day laborers camped by the roadside near Spiro, Okla. There were no beds and no protection from the profusion of flies. It was taken by Russell Lee in June 1939

"For breakfast they would have cornmeal mush. For dinner, vegetables. For supper, cornbread. And they had milk at every meal. They worked hard and ate light, but they survived," a reader says.

Forced to Sell Apples

Depression era apple vendor
Photo: Interim Archive/Getty Images

People with jobs would help out those without jobs by buying apples, pencils, or matches.

There Were No Jobs

Unemployed men during the Depression
Photo by Felix Koch/Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images

Unemployed men are shown sitting outside waiting dinner at Robinson's soup kitchen located at 9th and Plum streets in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1931. That year, the economy contracted 6.2%, and prices dropped 9.3%. Unemployment was 15.9%, but the worst was yet to come.

Stock Market Crash of 1929

Photo by Getty Images Archives

The photo shows the floor of the New York Stock Exchange right after the stock market crash of 1929. It was a scene of total panic as stockbrokers lost all.

Stock Market Crash Destroyed Confidence in Wall Street

stock market crash
Photo by Imagno/Getty Images

After "Black Thursday" at the stock market of New York, the mounted police put the excited assemblage in motion. The photograph was taken on November 2, 1929.

Ticker Tapes Couldn't Keep Up With the Sales Volume

stock market
Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Brokers check the tape for daily prices in a scene from the film, 'The Wolf Of Wall Street,' which opened just months before the crash in 1929.

When the Great Depression Started

When did the Great Depression start
Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

President Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, are photographed in Chicago at the final game of the 1929 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Athletics, October 1929. The Great Depression had already begun in August of that year.

Hoover Replaced by Roosevelt

Hoover and Roosevelt
Photo by Imagno/Getty Images

President Herbert Hoover (left) is photographed with his successor Franklin D. Roosevelt at his inauguration at the U.S. Capitol on March 4, 1933.

The New Deal Programs Employed Many

New Deal Program
Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The photo shows part of a fashion parade at the largest WPA sewing shop in New York where 3,000 women produce clothing and linens to be distributed among the unemployed sometime in 1935. They work a six-day, thirty-hour week on two floors of the old Siegel Cooper Building.

Could the Great Depression Reoccur?

Men lined up for soup
Photo by Paul Briol/Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images

During the Great Depression, people lost their homes and lived in tents. Could that happen in the United States again? Probably not. Congress has demonstrated it would spend whatever is necessary, regardless of the damage to the debt.

View Article Sources
  1. Farm Security Administration. "About This Collection," Accessed May 1, 2020.