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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Slum Kids: 1940

Slum Kids: 1940

April 1940. Dubuque, Iowa. "Children who live in the slums." 35mm nitrate negative by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.

On Shorpy:
Today's Top 5


Such a beauty in such a cruel world. A thank you to the person who posted the second picture. That smile is so familiar. Timeless.

OK, Dave, now you've done it

After looking at hundreds of Depression era photos here and elsewhere, I thought I had seen the most poignant, precious faces there could be. But when you posted the smiling photo below, these little beauties took on a dimension far beyond what two photos should be able to create. Despite their obvious poverty, they radiate in their innocence a joy that I desperately hope they were able to find again for keeps, as they went through life.

John Vachon

John Vachon was, in my opinion, the best of all the FSA photographers. His pictures lack the sometimes self-conscious drama of Dorothea Lange. They are plain, less artful, and often concentrate on the landscapes of towns and cities, instead of people. For that reason, his work is perhaps the most valuable collection we have of what the uncelebrated and unnoticed parts of America looked like during this era.

It's not that her left eye is lazy,

It's that her right eye is an overachiever!

Geez, what's wrong with a little dirt?

They've already proven that letting kids get dirty gives them a little resistance to things like polio and asthma.

Except for the lazy eye, I could have sat right next to those kids at that age and fit into the pictures. Those kids ran and jumped and played all day. They did not sit in a room holding a little box staring at it all day. They caught bugs, made swords and knives with sticks and the little boy probably dropped a frog down his sister's back a time or two.

I feel sorrier for kids today than I do for these beautifully shaped kids.

Depression Babies

A friend and I were born in 1930. He thinks the 1930s were the best time for this country. As I recall the decade, life was good for those who had jobs. The father of a boyhood friend was a handyman at the streetcar hq. Over time he made enough to buy a new house and a new car. He took the family every summer on a long trip. His wife did not work. They were frugal. They went to church about three times per week. The church actually was just a basement, the rest unfinished. The 1930s featured a lot of unfinished buildings. Scientific studies show that church is good for people in many ways.

What happened to them?

Victrolajazz is right about the opportunities these kids had as they got older. For better or worse, however, their early upbringing was probably never forgotten. My aunt, slightly older than these two, carried the memories of poverty in the Depression all of her life. Even as a well-to-do senior citizen she would always buy the winter coat that cost less, no matter what she preferred. I sometimes think that that feeling of "the wolf at the door" was a better one for our country.

The thing about kids

is that unless someone TELLS them they are deprived and that their lives are terrible, they often don't live their lives that way.

I'm not trying to romanticize the life of the poor but as long as they are loved and can play and enjoy their friends, they are usually perfectly happy. The minute they are treated as "different," that other people should look down on them, that they aren't equal to their friends, that's when they learn to hate themselves.

John Vachon

I had never known about Vachon's photographs until seeing them on Shorpy, but I am starting to believe he's one of the great photographers of his generation. It's incredible that he had no art, design or photography training before starting with the FSA as a filing clerk and messenger. It's easy to see why Roy Stryker said Vachon was the FSA's "congenital photographer." He had amazing and innate talent and artistic insight, as this image clearly shows.

[He also took a bazillion pictures. Quite a few of this pair, shown below in happier times. Like 30 seconds later. - Dave]


I made the dumb mistake of looking at it full view. What a haunting photo.


They look like the inspiration for those "Sad-Eyed Kids" paintings.


Aren't they precious? I want to scoop them up and hug them. Oh, how I hope they went on to have long, happy, bountiful lives.

Growing up poor

When you grow up poor, there is nothing anyone can do to you that life itself hasn't already done. Trust me.


I don't have any other words. This picture really affected me. There is no excuse for the suffering of children. The clothes, the girl's eye, the dirt. I wonder what became of these kids. What life did they lead.

Tugs at the Heart

Something about this photo makes me want to grab and hug them, and tell them everything is going to be alright.

Haunting me

For some reason their face expressions haunt me after studying them for about 20 or more minutes. I am approaching 70 years on this planet now and even after all those years my heart can and does go out to them. My hope is that first comment "Entitlement- - " came true for them. They look like they deserve it.

No entitlement mentality here!

They were born in the mid-30's and are poor here, but they will be part of the small generation of young adults in the mid-1950's and enjoy America's great Postwar economic boom. They'll get a good education in the schools of the day, most likely better than those of today, and be able to get employment for life. Life after World War II will just get better and better for them and compensate for their poverty as children. They're in their 70's now and I hope comfortably retired with lots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who love them.


I love Shorpy and view it every day in the hope and anticipation that I'll get to see some old school photos of my lovely home town. Maybe of the tragically destroyed Union Park, or our historic and recently renovated Shot Tower, or even the downtown bustling with shoppers and beautiful architecture. Oh well, I guess I'll have to make due with a couple of sad slum kids. :D


The girl has "lazy eye"? Easily corrected in the young, but not in adults, according to the Net.

Poor kids

Nice patch job on the boy's pants. Even though they are quite young they understand the meaning of poverty. It is etched upon their faces.

What are they doing now?

They do look a bit sad ... I wonder what they did of their lives, and what they are up to now. They must be about 65 years old now.

[They'd be at least 75. - Dave]

Learn something new every day

I didn't know that little Sandy Duncan grew up in Dubuque.

SHORPY HISTORICAL PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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