During the Great Depression, in the 1930s and early 40s, the federal government sent photographers out all over the country to document the condition of the people (and to keep a few more photographers employed). The effort produced some of the most famous images in American photography, as well as scads of seldom-seen photographs, like this one, now available online.
The pictures capture America at a time when the modern consumer society was just beginning. Americans drank Pepsi and Coke, bought things on credit, and wore factory-made clothes. In many parts of the country, though, many Americans still used horses, made what they wore by hand, grew their own food, and did without refrigerators or washing machines. The “March of Progress” hadn’t yet made it to their neighborhoods, and perhaps some were not all that eager to see it arrive.
Life was tough, but the relative simplicity of Americans’ material conditions brought clarity. It was easy to see the relation between work and the standard of living people enjoyed. Then, as now, many Americans lived in a precarious state or in out-and-out poverty. Society was less knit together in a corporate economy, so the solitude of failure was a specter individuals lived with daily. The wedge between the hard work of getting and the easy work of spending was already there, but there were far fewer goods to buy.
A tension had already developed, between the industrial output of the US and the capacity of individual citizens to consume all of what the nation made. As early as the 1890s, the government and corporations began pushing to develop markets for our products overseas, producing the kind of globalism that prevails today. No one has ever figured out what to do when the goods in the world exceed what the human population wants or needs.
Today, in a time of high long-term unemployment, commentators fret about “low consumer confidence.” We’re told this is the reason American corporations are reluctant to hire. Yet it’s perverse to hope that Americans will spend when they are in debt, unemployed, and impoverished. It’s amazing how much more “confident” a consumer feels when he or she has a paycheck or a real wad of money.
Corporations and banks show their contempt by sitting on hordes of cash rather than making it a priority to hire American workers, which would ease our collective difficulties. Meanwhile, we have lost sight of economic independence as an important goal of a free people. In the midst of this antagonism, we need to keep asking, how much do we need?
Top image: House and fruit stand in Houston, photographed by John Vachon, 1943,
from this source.