49 Amazing Vintage Photographs Showing Life in America’s Farming Communities During the Great Depression

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. The timing of the Great Depression varied around the world; in most countries, it started in 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. The Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how intensely the global economy can decline.

The Great Depression started in the United States after a major fall in stock prices that began around September 4, 1929, and became worldwide news with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, which was known as Black Tuesday. Between 1929 and 1932, worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) fell by an estimated 15%. By comparison, worldwide GDP fell by less than 1% from 2008 to 2009 during the Great Recession. Some economies started to recover by the mid-1930s. However, in many countries, the negative effects of the Great Depression lasted until the beginning of World War II.

The Great Depression had devastating effects in both rich and poor countries. Personal income, tax revenue, profits and prices dropped, while international trade fell by more than 50%. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 23% and in some countries rose as high as 33%. Cities around the world were hit hard, especially those dependent on heavy industry. Construction was virtually halted in many countries. Farming communities and rural areas suffered as crop prices fell by about 60%. Facing plummeting demand with few alternative sources of jobs, areas dependent on primary sector industries such as mining and logging suffered the most.

Economic historians usually consider the catalyst of the Great Depression to be the sudden devastating collapse of U.S. stock market prices, starting on October 24, 1929. However, some dispute this conclusion and see the stock crash as a symptom, rather than a cause, of the Great Depression.

Even after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped from 381 to 198 over the course of two months, optimism persisted for some time. The stock market turned upward in early 1930, with the Dow returning to 294 (pre-depression levels) in April 1930, before steadily declining for years, to a low of 41 in 1932.

At the beginning, governments and businesses spent more in the first half of 1930 than in the corresponding period of the previous year. On the other hand, consumers, many of whom suffered severe losses in the stock market the previous year, cut their expenditures by 10%. In addition, beginning in the mid-1930s, a severe drought ravaged the agricultural heartland of the U.S.

Interest rates dropped to low levels by mid-1930, but expected deflation and the continuing reluctance of people to borrow meant that consumer spending and investment remained low. By May 1930, automobile sales declined to below the levels of 1928. Prices, in general, began to decline, although wages held steady in 1930. Then a deflationary spiral started in 1931. Farmers faced a worse outlook; declining crop prices and a Great Plains drought crippled their economic outlook. At its peak, the Great Depression saw nearly 10% of all Great Plains farms change hands despite federal assistance.

The decline in the U.S. economy was the factor that pulled down most other countries at first; then, internal weaknesses or strengths in each country made conditions worse or better.[citation needed] Frantic attempts by individual countries to shore up their economies through protectionist policies – such as the 1930 U.S. Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act and retaliatory tariffs in other countries – exacerbated the collapse in global trade, contributing to the depression. By 1933, the economic decline pushed world trade to one third of its level compared to four years earlier. (Wikipedia)

Born in New York City in 1915, Arthur Rothstein showed an early interest in photography. While studying at Columbia University, he met economics instructor Roy Stryker, who would later establish the photographic section of the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) in Washington, DC.

Appreciating Rothstein’s technical proficiency and enthusiasm for photography, Stryker hired him in 1935 as the first staff photographer for the FSA. Rothstein spent the next five years creating some of the most iconic images of rural and small-town America during the Great Depression (1935-1940).

After leaving the FSA in 1940, Rothstein took a position as photographer for Look magazine; he remained there until 1971, ultimately serving as the magazine’s director of photography.

Sharecropper’s child suffering from rickets and malnutrition, Wilson cotton plantation, Mississippi County, Arkansas.
Son of a sharecropper, Mississippi County, Arkansas.
Daughter of sharecropper, Mississippi County, Arkansas.
Sharecropper and children in front of company house. Wilson cotton plantation, Mississippi County, Arkansas.
Demonstrating process of canning corn at community canning kitchen near Atkins, Arkansas.
Commercial canning kitchen near Huntsville, Arkansas.
Street scene at Clarksville, Arkansas.
Street scene at Clarksville, Arkansas.
Street scene at Clarksville, Arkansas.
Scene at Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Old stage coach tavern near Huntsville, Arkansas, now inhabited by rehabilitation client.
Wife of rehabilitation client, Washington County, Arkansas.
Farmer who supplements his income by selling ice, Huntsville, Arkansas.
Wife and children of sharecropper in Washington County, Arkansas.
Lunchtime, Pulaski County, Arkansas. Stortz cotton plantation.
Lunchtime, Pulaski County, Arkansas.
Wife of a sharecropper, Stortz cotton plantation, Pulaski County, Arkansas.
Cotton picking scene, Pike County, Mississippi.
Son of a cotton sharecropper, Lauderdale County, Mississippi.
Picking cotton, Lauderdale County, Mississippi.
Cotton sharecropper, Lauderdale County, Mississippi.
Truck dropping building materials, Grady County, Georgia.
Slaughtering a bull, Grady County, Georgia.
Blacksmith and foreman, Grady County, Georgia.
Children of resettled farmer who has been moved into a new house, Wolf Creek Farms, Grady County, Georgia.
Young farmer who has been resettled, Penderlea, North Carolina.
Wife and children of resettled farmer, Jackson County, Alabama
Wife and child of sharecropper, Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana.
Son of a successful rehabilitation client, Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana.
Wife of sharecropper to be resettled on Skyline Farms, Alabama.
Children of resettlement farmer, Skyline Farms, Alabama.
Resettlement client.
Wife of resettled farmer, Pender County, North Carolina.
Fannie Corbin with some of her children, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Postmaster at Old Rag, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Child in Corbin Hollow, Virginia.
Eddie Nicholson who will be resettled on new land, Virginia.
Settlers weaving baskets, Virginia.
Two of the Nicholson children and their only cow, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Fennel Corbin and two of his grandchildren, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
One of Dicee Corbin’s children, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Dicee Corbin with some of her children and grandchildren, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Citizens of Nethers in front of post office, Virginia.
Two of Charlie Nicholson’s children. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Eddie Nicholson and some of his children. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
One of Eddie Nicholson’s children. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Children whose family will be resettled on new land. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
John Nicholson with some of the baskets he weaves. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Adam Nicholson. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.

(Photos by Arthur Rothstein)

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