Exploring Farm Security Photography

A worn middle-aged woman holding a box of strawberries she has picked.
Since the Library of Congress began digitizing the photographs of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), it has blazed a path back into the US of the 1930s and 40s.  The 170,000 photographs that make up the collection surprise and complexify by preserving the look of everyday life back in the era of the Great Depression and WWII.

Folks at Yale have unveiled an interface to the FSA photographs called Photogrammar that facilitates browsing the massive collection by county, using a map that arranges the entire archive by locale.  Another map allows users to find all images created by a particular FSA photographer, whose shoots show up as dots plastered across the US.  (One can follow John Vachon’s photographic odyssey from Chicago across the Southwest to southern California, for instance.)  Every photograph in the interface links back to an original Library of Congress record.

The photograph above is one of many documenting the lives of migrant workers in Michigan’s Berrien County in 1940.  Who knew that placid Berrien County (now a Chicago-area vacationland) had its own Grapes of Wrath story?  That, in the forties, poor families displaced by the Depression and Dust Bowl migrated up to those parts to pick the fruits and berries that even now are a mainstay of the state’s agriculture?  Some 190 photographs by John Vachon record the heart-breaking conditions that awaited those who, after losing their own farmland, had to resort to working as seasonal day laborers.  Pictures from the series document the labor of parents and their small children in the fields, as well as their ‘home life’ in the tents and trucks that sufficed as their dwellings.

The FSA photographs document both the nation’s suffering and its dynamism and vitality, furnishing an often startling yardstick of change in the ensuing 75 years’ time.

Image: John Vachon’s “Migrant berry picker from Arkansas,
Berrien County, Michigan” (July 1940),
from the Library of Congress via Photogrammar.
Click here to visit the Photogrammar site.

Today we rest from our labors

A farmwoman in house dress outside, with quilt she made hanging next to her from a clothesline.

Mrs Bill Stagg of Pie Town, New Mexico, standing next to her quilt of the States, October 1940

Image from this source


Our works merit celebration.
Happy Labor Day

 

Bike messengers by Lewis Hine

Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message (which see in his hand). He said gleefully "She gimme a quarter tip." . . . Location: Shreveport, Louisiana.

Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message . . . . He said gleefully “She gimme a quarter tip.” . . . Location: Shreveport, Louisiana.  1913.

Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M. Been with W[estern] U[nion] for six months, one month delivering for a drug store. "I learned a lot about the 'Reservation' while I was at the drug store and I go there some times now." Location: Houston, Texas.

Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M.  Been with W[estern] U[nion] for six months, one month delivering for a drug store. “I learned a lot about the ‘Reservation’ [red-light district] while I was at the drug store and I go there some times now.”  Location: Houston, Texas.  1913.

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers. Location: Waco, Texas.

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company.  Said fifteen years old.  Exposed to Red Light dangers.  Location: Waco, Texas.  1913.

Earle Griffith and Eddie Tahoory, working for the Dime Messenger Service. They said they never knew when they were going to get home at night. Usually work one or more nights a week, and have worked until after midnight. They said last Christmas their office had a 9 yr. old boy running errands for them, and that he made a great deal of money from tips. They make about $7 a week and more, sometimes. Said "The office is not allowed to send us into the red light district but we go when a call sends us. Not very often." Location: Washington DC.

Earle Griffith and Eddie Tahoory, working for the Dime Messenger Service.  They said they never knew when they were going to get home at night.  Usually work one or more nights a week, and have worked until after midnight.  They said last Christmas their office had a 9 yr. old boy running errands for them, and that he made a great deal of money from tips.  They make about $7 a week and more, sometimes.  Said “The office is not allowed to send us into the red light district but we go when a call sends us.  Not very often.”  Location: Washington DC.  1912.

Selling during school hours, 10:30 A.M. Location: Syracuse, New York.

Selling during school hours, 10:30 A.M.  Location: Syracuse, New York.  1910.

Wilbur H. Woodward, 428 Third St., NW, Washington, DC, Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only. Location: Washington DC.

Wilbur H. Woodward, 428 Third St., NW, Washington, DC, Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only.  Location: Washington DC.  1912.

Eleven-year-old Western Union messenger #51. J.T. Marshall. Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls. Location: Houston, Texas.

Eleven-year-old Western Union messenger #51. J.T. Marshall. Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls. Location: Houston, Texas.  1913.

Danville Messengers. The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5, is only ten years old, and is working as extra boy. He said he was going to be laid off as the manager told him he was too young, but an older messenger told me the reason was that the other messengers were having him put off because he cuts into their earnings. Location: Danville, Virginia.

Danville Messengers. The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5, is only ten years old, and is working as extra boy. He said he was going to be laid off as the manager told him he was too young, but an older messenger told me the reason was that the other messengers were having him put off because he cuts into their earnings. Location: Danville, Virginia.  1911.

Manley Creasson, 914 W. 6 St. Messenger #6, Mackay Telegraph Co. Says he is 14; school records say 13. Says he has steady job-- "Been a messenger for years. Get $15 for 2 weeks' pay." Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Manley Creasson, 914 W. 6 St. Messenger #6, Mackay Telegraph Co. Says he is 14; school records say 13. Says he has steady job– “Been a messenger for years. Get $15 for 2 weeks’ pay.” Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  1917.

Since these boys stared into Lewis Hine’s camera a century ago, the status of American children has improved in some ways but not others.  Back then, children were prone to become whatever the economic situations of their families required.  The children of farmers were often pressed into lives of drudgery, while others followed the trend of modernization, working in the street trades if they were city dwellers, or in mills, mines, and factories, all to stave off the want of individual and family poverty. Continue reading

A nation of bankers and shopkeepers

capital-projectWhen my father could still speak, he would sometimes ask, “Do we really want to be a nation of bankers and shopkeepers?”  By which he meant, “Do we really want to become a nation that doesn’t make things?”  And, when talking about the nation of “bankers and shopkeepers,” he would inevitably mention England, a once-great manufacturing power that had allowed its amazing industrial advantages to wither away, leaving only “the capitalists,” who controlled and circulated most of the wealth, and “the shopkeepers”—everyone else—who retailed things. Continue reading

American Hunger Means A Feast for Some

The empty feastStuck in a cab heading north last time President Obama was in town, I had an opportunity to listen to NPR, a station preferred by many cabdrivers.  It was five p.m. and traffic was at a standstill, so I was able to catch most of ‘Marketplace.’  One of the features was about food-stamp assistance and the many thousands of American workers who don’t have enough to feed their families.

One of the persons interviewed was a Walmart employee, who recalled a painful period recently, when she and her family had had to rely on food stamps, even though she was working full-time.  Her voice kept breaking as she talked.  Embarrassed by her hardship, she was fighting back tears.  To me, her experience was extremely shocking, illustrating how Walmart, one of America’s largest, most profitable corporations, is essentially gaming our federal-assistance programs.  Its lowest-wage workers manage to keep going only by using food-stamps to feed their families.  What’s more, when underpaid workers and others receive food-stamps, they often spend them at Walmart and other discount retailers.

An April 15 article appearing in Forbes magazine reports that “Walmart Workers Cost Taxpayers $6.2 Billion in Federal Assistance.”   The article is based on findings of a new study by Americans for Tax Fairness, which estimates that a single Walmart supercenter costs US taxpayers as much as $900,000 and $1.75 million annually, because Walmart pays its employees so poorly that, to meet their needs, many end up relying on food stamps, Medicaid, and low-income housing.

Similar reports released last fall showed that American taxpayers also foot nearly $7 billion of the annual labor costs at McDonald’s and other leading fast-food companies.

Meanwhile, Walmart is thought to be the single biggest corporate beneficiary of food-stamp spending.  The Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal reported last year that the retailer received as much as 18 percent of all the food-stamp dollars spent.  That amounts to $14 billion annually.   Walmart’s total profits were $17 billion in 2013.

Millions of Americans experience “food insecurity”—meaning they do not know where their next meal is coming from.  An astonishing 1 in 7 Americans (47 million people) rely on food-stamps these days.  Even that figure doesn’t represent the number of Americans who are hungry.  Many elderly people who qualify for food stamps refuse to sign up for them because of their pride, according to Eli Saslow, whose reporting on American hunger for the Washington Post has just won the Pulitzer Prize.

I urge you to read or listen to Krissy Clark’s eye-opening 3-part series, “The Secret Life of a Food Stamp,”

Part 1: ‘The Secret Life of a Food Stamp’
Part 2: ‘Save Money, Live Better.’
Part 3: ‘Hungry for Savings’

Only a combination of social pressure, individual choice, and political action can ensure more Americans a taste of the American feast.

Click on the red links for more information about this important issue.