This iconic Depression photo of a migrant mother and her two children may well be the most famous of all the photos taken during the Great Depression. Dated February or March of 1936, it captures the despair of the era.
Like many Americans my age (66), I grew up listening to my parents and grandparents tell stories of the Great Depression. At times, these woeful tales just seemed too outlandish to be believed - and I think that we sometimes rolled our eyes (secretly), when the snow got too deep, the money got too scarce, and the distance to school got too long.
However, all those tales have been woven into a tapestry of legend which has made the Great Depression a familiar part of our culture. In today's shakey economy, I can hardly believe that Americans are looking back to those former hard times and wondering if that's where we're headed now.
I told 94-year old Paul Corbin that I wanted to do a blog about the Depression, and he agreed to add his comments from experience. We readers of the North Stoddard Countian have enjoyed his occasional excursions into his family's rugged past, as he recounts stories from those lean times. When he describes his father chopping a hole in the living room floor of their cabin on the Cato Slough, in order to save the chickens from drowning in a flood, I sense the stuff that legends are made of!
The beauty of having Paul Corbin as a resource is that he can remember what things cost back in the dim shadows of the past. He remembers the price of a bushel of corn in 1920; he remembers what his father paid for his first car - a Model T!
Worst economic disaster in the history of the modern industrial world
The Great Depression began on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, when the stock market crashed, and it lasted until the early 40's - though some local Southeast Missourians will tell you that it continued ten years or so beyond that. Banks failed and businesses closed, leaving one-quarter of the workforce unemployed (15 million).
The U.S. already had a tremendous imbalance between the rich and the poor, with 0.1 percent of society earning the same income as 42 percent, so the depression had a hard impact on a large segment of the population. Though businesses had made great gains (65%) from the mechanization of manufacturing, the average worker's wages had increased only 8%. "Nobody had money" is the common refrain from survivors of that economic disaster.
President Herbert Hoover was in office at the time, and his unresponsiveness to the disaster is credited for some of the folklore of the era. Calling the depression "a passing incident in our national lives" and trusting in "tickle-down economics," he predicted that it would be over in 60 days. His name was given to several colorful Americanisms: An empty pocket turned inside out was called a "Hoover flag," and decrepit shantytowns, which sprang up all over the country, were called "Hoovervilles."
The stage was set for the election of New York multi-millionaire governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 and the introduction of a Socialist program called "The New Deal," which is credited with having saved America from starvation.
In the first 100 days of Roosevelt's administration, Congress passed the Emergency Banking Relief Act. Within 37 days of Roosevelt's March 4, 1933 inaguration, the first member of the CCC was enrolled.
Civilian Conservation Corps
Known as "Roosevelt's Tree Army," the CCC lasted from 1933 to 1942, when the U.S. pulled its resources together for World War II. Thousands of young men, unemployed, unmarried, and between the ages of 18 and 26 (though the rules were later relaxed for war veterans) were employed to renew the nation's decimated forests by planting 3 billion trees, building roads and bridges, fighting fires, establishing drainage systems for farmland, building campgrounds, and providing erosion control, as well as disease and insect control. The reforestation was especially important in states affected by the Dust Bowl. Poor farming practices and a drought in the western states had caused the land to turn into unproductive dust, blowing away and causing the ruin of hundreds of farm families, who were forced to migrate to California in "Grapes of Wrath" fashion.
My father spoke warmly of his time in the CCC camps. The work was hard, but he loved it. Men were paid $30 a month with mandatory $25 allotment checks sent to their families.
Vocational training was also a part of the program; 90 percent of the enrollees participated in some facet of the educational program. More than 40,000 illiterate men were taught to read and write.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was one of the most successful New Deal programs of the Great Depression. It existed for fewer than 10 years but left a legacy of handsome roads, bridges, and buildings throughout the U.S. Between 1933 and 1941, more than 3,000,000 men served in the CCC. After the job market picked up, employers were happy to hire a man who had been in the CCC, knowing that he knew what a day's work meant and could carry out orders in a disciplined way.
Migrant Mother photo
If you would like to read an interview with one of the daughters in the above photo taken during the Depression, you can go to http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/12/02/dustbowl.photo/. The photo was taken by Dorothea Lange, who was working for the Resettlement Administration when she took the photo of Florence Owens Thompson, then 32, and her two children. Katherine McIntosh, now 77 years old, is the girl on the left. She tells how ashamed she and her sister were during that period of time, when they had to live in a tent or a car, and were told by their classmates to "Go home and take a bath!"
There is so much more out there about the Great Depression. I know I've just scratched the surface of this fascinating topic.