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Rural Mother: 1936

Rural Mother: 1936

March 1936. "Mother and baby of family of nine living in field on U.S. Route 70 near the Tennessee River." 35mm nitrate negative by Carl Mydans for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.


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For those who don't believe

Read "The Worst Hard Time" by Tim Egan. Never had heard of "dust pneumonia" until reading this. Also, a section of diary entries is just heartbreaking. Poverty and desolation on a scale unimaginable today.

The Depression

I really liked reading all the comments. I intend to get the book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" by Agee. I was born in 1921, the seventh child in a family of 10. My father died of TB in October 1929.

Our church had a dinner after the service yesterday. I noticed some people not eating all the food they had put on their plates. I told them my clean plate was a reflection of living through the Depression, when at mealtime I would hand my plate to my mother with the words "All I can have. please."

Every child in the family, when they were old enough, gave most of the money they earned to our mother. In the early 1930s our school clothes and shoes would be ordered by mail from Sears and sometime they would arrive days after school started. We lived in northwest Detroit and most of the kids had fathers with good jobs.

In 1936 my oldest brother started to build a home near Mount Clemens, Michigan. A family pitched a tent in a field across the street from him and lived much like the family in this picture. My brother did not want me to visit them.

I served in WW2, which I enjoyed because I had been working since I was 14 and it was nice to be free of responsibility. And seeing Europe was wonderful. I am a tourist at heart. Yes! Not getting killed and living into the Internet age is wonderful.

Nebraska! With family now on the West Coast in Oregon and Washington we have been driving across this country about once a year. We like Nebraska and have been driving across that state on old U.S. 30, and find it much more enjoyable than I-80. Please try this some time.

Where in SW Nebraska?


A friend of mine introduced me to this website. I, too, am from southwest Nebraska. Where in SW Nebraska was your family originally from?


The Great Depression

I've read the comments about this picture and echo the feelings of distress that people have had to exist under these conditions. We only have to look at some of the present day third world countries to see the same thing. Thank God that that level of poverty has never touched me. I was born in 1927 and raised, with my sister, in a single parent home. My Mother took in washing and ironing to make a living for us, and though we didn't have an abundance, we never went to bed hungry. She bought used adult clothes and cut them down to fit us (our sunday school and church clothes). No one told me that times were hard so I didn't know it until I was grown. The hobos (Hoover Tourists) used to get off the trains near our house and come to the door begging food. My Mother always made them a peanut butter sandwich. I spent my days in school or outside playing with my friends, I had a glorious childhood. It pains me to see today's children confined to the house, afraid to go outside alone, with only a TV or computer for a companion. So many children and young adults are overweight and under exercised. The Depression was hard on a lot of people but, as a child, I skated through it and wouldn't trade my childhood memories for being a child today.

The picture, the video, the hoarding.

Two things struck me about that picture: the caked on dirt on the mother's feet and the smile on the boy's face. Sure, I had heard the phrase "dressed in flour sacks." But, there's something about an image - seeing it. It hits home.

The video, The Face of the Great Depression, from a previous comment. At first, honestly, I thought, "Can't the pictures move faster?" Then I looked, and listened, and let time stand still for a brief moment. By the end, I was crying. The license plate in the last photo was 1939. My mother would have been 13.

NOW IT GET IT. Well, I'm beginning to. A second generation child on the South Side of Chicago, she always told stories of a her gang of kids distracting the cart owner so other kids could run by - stealing whatever vegetables they could grab. They would start little fires at the curb and roast them on a stick or boil them in a pot of water. She said that's why, as an adult, she hated boiled onions or potatoes. But, the stories she told, of washing out her underclothes each night, sleeping 4 to a bed, lard and bread sandwiches...I somehow cleaned up the images and made them all pretty. I left out what it smells like if you haven't had a bath. Or, what it must have felt like to really, really be hungry.

Mom hoarded. Born in 1926 she left me the legacy of wall to wall, floor to ceiling piles of National Geographic magazines and "collectors" tins." "These will be worth something someday," she chided...and promised. They weren't. Well, some of it was valuable - more from memories of her than replacement cost. More than anything, I wish she could have culled her stuff so she had more room to live. Sure, it was a burden to empty. But it was easier for me to let go of her junk than it was for her to unload the fear of being "without." I can live with that. Everyday I understand and accept her more.

One little photo...
Can teach so much.


My parents did not allow us to wear jeans (which we didn't own) or sneakers because they weren't real clothing, but only worn if you owned nothing else. Believe me we weren't rich either.

I would have said this if you didn't. We had sneakers for gym class and gym class only.

Family History

My father's family had a farm in southwest Nebraska during the Depression, so they were able to grow their own food and eat fairly well. My mother's paternal grandfather was a Methodist minister there, which was very rough since he was dependent on what the local community could pay, which wasn't much and people had an odd idea about what made a suitable gift. So instead of eggs and chickens, which Great-Grandpa would have taken in a heartbeat (he had 5 teenage sons!), people gave him things like fancy hankies, which he had no use for, and I found 50 years later still in the gift boxes. I know the Depression had a profound impact on my grandfather; he hated to throw anything away. When my mother cleaned out Grandpa's house in the late 80's she had to throw out dumpsters of metal pie plates, shopping bags, twine, bottles, newspapers, magazines and God knows what else.

The Depression

Anyone who says these photos are exaggerated or fake has never talked to someone who lived during that time. My mother lived on a farm during that period, and though she didn't have much that came from a store, they were able to eat and eat well. My father's family were poor tennant farmers on unproductive land and frequently had meals like "grease smeared on bread"....try to imagine that one. With several children, all but one had to quit school at 13 to earn a living. My husband's family has pictures of the children looking just like these - torn overalls and bare feet. Do some real research in your own family's past.


My parents are children of the Depression, too. And my father most definitely instilled in me the sense that one doesn't waste or discard anything useful. He has 2 barns and a shed filled with stuff, much of which I'll have to deal with after he's gone.

But you know what? Virtually everything he has is valuable! His shed is filled with dishes and small appliances and the like, which has supplied many of his grandchildren when they went away to college or got their first apartment. He has one of nearly every tool known to man, and freely loans or gives them away. He paid cash for a brand new truck recently, using the proceeds from sale of scrap copper and iron he's been saving in the plum thicket. (He's never owed money on a car in my lifetime).

He loves to give to others (it's nearly impossible to leave a visit empty-handed), and a lifetime of saving and storing means he has no shortage of things to give away.

Because of my upbringing, it's very hard for me to discard anything that still has value, just because I don't need it any more. But I've learned from my dad - somebody needs that, so give it away!

I understand that some hoarders are truly mentally ill. But to say that all Depression children who refuse to discard things that might be useful are "wrong in every single solitary instance, no exceptions" is absolute hogwash.

Future Hoarders of America Unite!

You know, I don't look at the faces of these little ones and concern myself with the idea that their biggest issue in their senior years is going to be that they held on to too much stuff instead of throwing it out. When your clothes are being held together with twine and your mother is wearing a cotton feed bag as a skirt, it's kind of easy to see how, in the future, when you're an old woman, you're probably going to hang on to every scrap and see its potential usefulness someday.

It's amazing how differently our consumerist culture sees items today. How often I've longed to be able to hold onto a toaster that could work just fine if I had someone who could fix it for me. But instead, appliances today aren't meant to last for more than a few years and then off to dump with them. Our landfills are overcrowded with plasticized items that will never, ever decompose - plastic bags, water bottles, take out containers...the list is endless. I hate to politicize a picture but I can honestly see how having nothing more than the holey shirt on your back would make you take stock when one day you had tremendous bounty. We could learn a lot from these people and their troubles and how to see potential treasure in trash.

Alive and well

Poverty can be because of chance or personal choices. Back in the times of the Depression it was heaped on people by powers out of their control. I see it today right here in Arkansas where I live and in my own neighborhood. I live in a small town of about 5600 and even in what is supposedly the world's most rich and powerful country people are lining up at the free food banks and food giveaways, receving government commodities and waiting in ine at the free medical clinic that is run by area churches and staffed with Doctors and Nurses who volunteer their time for free. Just walk into Walmart on the 1st of the month, they way some families are dressed would break your heart.

But then you have the victims of bad personal choices. There is a single other in my neighborhood that recently lost her job because she failed a drug test. She has 3 children. Everyone in the neighborhood knows she sells her food stamps for alcohol. She would buy just enough (barely) food for them to get by and sell the rest If it were not for the kindness of neighbors her children would not have any decent clothes. She was just kicked out of what is very decent public housing where she was paying $16.00 a month rent because she had her alcoholic boyfriend living there with her. Her poor choices affected not only her children but many people in the neighborhood (who at their own expense would buy extra food so they could feed her children or spend money to buy clothes for them) who have tried to help her for years.

In her children I see the NEXT generation of American poverty waiting to happen and it is so sad.

Re: Hoarders

I would have to seriously question the sweeping and wide swath of the brush you painted this generation with. My parents lived through the depression and the dust bowl, as did my dads' 12 brothers and sisters. and the 5 siblings of my mothers' family.

And not a hoarder among them.

I am sure they used things longer and valued what they had more than we do, but I hardly consider this a "disorder".

Now I am sure some did, but your statement to me really portrays this generation as unhealthy mentally, and I am just a little offended by it. Oh that we today were as mentally stable as they.

And if "There are internet groups made up of people in their 40s and 50s who are, like me, dealing with the unhealthy hoarding habits of their Depression-era parents who have passed on", well then I would say, perhaps it is this weak-kneed generation, who need support groups because, "Oh No, Mamma kept things a Long Long time", are the ones who are unhealthy.

You do this unbelievable generation a great disservice.

The habits remained - for good or bad

My parents grew up in the Depression. Members of their generation, roughly those born 1920-1935, often find it difficult to throw out anything "good". In my parents' case, I was left with stacks of thousands upon thousands of moldering magazines and newspapers, piles of old shingles, 2x4s, chunks of vinyl siding, and old cardboard; hundreds upon hundreds of doilies, knick-knacks, and figurines; and tons of worthless, useless plywood and cheap wood furniture. The cry was, "I might need it someday!" and "It'll be worth GOOD MONEY one day!" and "You're so wicked and wasteful and lazy to want to throw it out!".

They were wrong in every single solitary instance, no exceptions. The figurines now go for five to ten cents each on eBay (and don't sell at that price); the shingles melted together into a big unusable pile; the 2x4s and cardboard rotted to dust; the doilies were attacked with mold; the magazines were destroyed by water and age; the furniture was rickety and undesirable in its shoddy construction and unattractive, unmarketable poor style. It all went away to the dump as useless, worthless, unrecyclable (because of the mold) garbage - and it cost over a thousand dollars to have it hauled away.

And I'm not the only one. There are internet groups made up of people in their 40s and 50s who are, like me, dealing with the unhealthy hoarding habits of their Depression-era parents who have passed on.

But we, the children, are not the ones hurt the most by this sickness. The older generation itself is harmed most of all. The mold and dust gathered by the things they've hoarded endangers their health. The sheer bulk of the hoard can endanger them in case of fire. And since they can't find what they've hoarded, they end up buying the same things over and over again, which reduces their ability to provide for themselves.

No North American generation before this one has suffered from this level of hoarding, and I doubt any one after it will. Earlier generations didn't overbuy but also weren't afraid to discard; later generations might overbuy but likewise aren't afraid to recycle or discard.

Amen! Thanks, dalecaruso!

I'm going to show this to my 7th grade students who LOVED the Newbery Medal-winning book "Out of the Dust" by Karen Hesse!

Amazing...moving...thank you.

Mother of Nine

Thank you so much for sharing this. I was born in 1977, but just hearing these stories helps me to realize that we are so spoiled and really puts things into perspective.


My parents did not allow us to wear jeans (which we didn't own) or sneakers because they weren't real clothing, but only worn if you owned nothing else. Believe me we weren't rich either.

Making do

The habits of the depression generation persisted into the better days of the '40s. I remember my mother repairing worn sheets by splitting them down the middle and sewing the good edges together to prolong their life. My dad brought home flour sacks from the restaurant where he worked. My mother made dish cloths and pillow cases from them. Some of the sacks were made from patterned material for dresses. The branding on the others washed out easily. To this day I an reluctant to discard clothing.

Barefoot Kids

My parents grew up in the depression. When I was a kid (in the 60s) going outside barefoot was STRICTLY FORBIDDEN, reason being that in their minds if you weren't wearing shoes it was because you didn't have any, and therefore were poor, which they viewed as something to be ashamed of.

Reality Check

I have a picture on my desk showing my mother during the depression. You can see her bones because at 5'7" she weighed 85 pounds...just from the simple lack of food. Each girl in the family had two dresses and each boy had two pairs of overalls - one to wear and one to wash. By "wash", I mean using a metal tub over an open fire. Mostly they went barefoot (in the Arizona desert) because if they had shoes, they were too valuable to wear everyday. In the picture my mother is looking directly at the camera and her expression is almost exactly the same as the look on the face of a shell shocked combat veteran.
As I said, I keep this small black and white photo on my desk so that if I ever, ever have even a moment of thinking that I'm having a hard day I can look at my mother's face and get a reality check.

Oh My Gosh

I'm 15 years of age and I had no idea that the Great Depression was that bad. This picture really oppened my eyes to the extreme conditions at that time. Thank you for this reality.

The Face of the Great Depression

Thank you Mr. Caruso.

I echo the response from Dave....

We read in history books about the Great Depression and over the years, in our mind it is simply a swirl of facts and figures, of almost dispassionate removal that was the reality. While it has been said that hindsight is 20/20, I think it can also be argued that hindsight, especially from such a distance can be sterile becoming almost become an illusion, an event without a substance.
Hopefully this will once again place it into a reality ...



My Gramma has saved some clothes that her mother made from flour sacks. She also has some made from linen and wool they spun and wove themselves, when they were more prosperous.

She lived in a house with a dirt floor and didn't wear shoes in the summer.


If anyone was ever interested in trying to achieve that kind of detail today, I'd highly suggest buying an old used medium format camera and using some 120 roll film. I have a couple of Yashica TLR's which were considered substandard in the 50's and 60's, but their quality still makes a 35 SLR look like a cheap point and shoot. It's not the camera that makes the pictures better, but the larger negative available in 120 film. Not only do you get more detail, but the color depth is far more realistic.

Re: No exaggeration

"And yeah, glass plate negatives are amazing. But even 35mm film actually carries more information than most digitals: ISO 100 35mm has an effective resolution of 10 megapixels, and when you up the negative size to that of a view camera or the 8x10 glass plates, you're talking resolutions and image quality that today's cameras can't touch."

Rural mother 1936

Oh how I wish I could take the doubting thomases back with me to the North East of Scotland during the time that this stunning photograph was taken. I am glad that it has been brought up to watchable standard by digital magic or whatever. I can still remember my grandfather filling his boots with straw to keep the cold/wet out before going out to the field to plough or cut corn with a scythe. He also used the very same material to wipe his bottom. Granny had a grain sack for a skirt and wore clogs. My favourite time of day was when she put the 'hen's pot' out to cool. I invariably ate the potatoes and haven't tasted better since. Money-wise it was a very poor time but life had a richness difficult to achieve these days.

No exaggeration

In addition to reading "Let us Now Praise Famous Men," check out the photos of Jacob Riis and read "How the Other Half Lives." Yes, muckrakers, but they were not making up the poverty they found and photographed.

When people who were doing *well* had only 2 or 3 sets of clothing, there just wasn't as much "extra" around to give to the poor. Using flour sacks and sugar sacks was incredibly common - so common that it is a trope in literature of the time. Even solidly middle-class families "turned" collars and facings on their clothing when it wore to holes, to use the other side, and every family had a rag bag in which they saved *every* scrap of old clothing for other purposes.

I guess in this day of cheap clothes made by slave laborers in poison-filled factories in China, its hard to believe anyone treated clothes as so precious that they were saved and worn until they were in this state, huh?

And yeah, glass plate negatives are amazing. But even 35mm film actually carries more information than most digitals: ISO 100 35mm has an effective resolution of 10 megapixels, and when you up the negative size to that of a view camera or the 8x10 glass plates, you're talking resolutions and image quality that today's cameras can't touch.

Not an exaggeration

"There's no way a family can dress like that and not receive donations of used clothes."

My mother was a teenager during those years and remembered how so many people were driven to desperation. Her comment was "there was always someone trying to cheat you."

Two or three years into the Depression the do-gooders began to run out of sympathy and "used clothes." And after five more years of no improvement they began to fear things would never turn around and that they would end up in the same circumstances.

There were just too many newly poor people and not enough people with excess resources to balance things out.

Poverty exaggeration

Ok, this photo is an example of early photo-journalism. The family could very well have been homeless and living in a lean-to or a wooden box on top of a truck chassis- during the summer, anyway. But the depiction of poverty is exaggerated- think about it- if someone steered the photographer toward the family, then others in the community knew they were there. There's no way a family can dress like that and not receive donations of used clothes. These rags were put on to evoke sympathy for the plights of many during the depression. Don't get me wrong - shock value was probably needed to raise support for many valuable social programs that came about because of the depression. But how long could a family dress like that and not receive donations from others, no matter how bad off the community was.

[Most of these migrants, refugees from the Dust Bowl farms of the Great Plains, were not especially welcome in the communities where they dropped anchor, and people often did whatever they could to get them to leave. You might want to read up a little more on the Great Depression. A good start would be "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" by James Agee with photos by Walker Evans. Or "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck. - Dave]

Re: Fake

>> The picture is of far higher quality than existed in that era. It's obviously a fake.

We get a lot of comments like this, I guess from younger people, or people who have never been to a museum. They don't realize that the farther back you go, the better and sharper professionally taken photographs get, because the recording media were much, much larger. An 8-by-10 glass plate negative is 80 times as large as a 35mm film frame, or the image sensor in a digital camera. Two examples are here (1865) and here (1913). As well as here and here and here. Also a lot of comments from people who seem to think color photography started around 1960.


The picture is of far higher quality than existed in that era. It's obviously a fake.

["That era," the mid-1930s, when photography was 100 years old, saw some of the best photographs ever made - the work of Ansel Adams, for example. And of course a few minutes of Googling will show this to be a well-known Depression-era image in the Library of Congress archives. Comments like these are a good opportunity to point out that the farther back you go, the better and sharper the pictures get, because the recording media were bigger. Two examples are here (1865) and here (1913). As well as here and here and here. - Dave]

Mother of poverty

This is the worst case of poverty I have ever seen that wasn't from the third world, but look at them they are together, even able to smile, by far this picture is the best example of "the great depression".


They may be poor material wise with their tatters and rags on their back, but they are rich in their love for each other.

And yet the boy is smiling

And yet the boy is smiling :)

What happened to them?

While it's certainly disheartening to see that kind of abject poverty, the family probably fared better over the next decade. The TVA started bringing electricity to that area around the time of this photo and Tennessee had a pretty robust wartime economy. The draft board generally didn't take men with nine children so the father would have been around to find steady work. So however bad it may have been you can at least be confident it got better.



And notice that the boy you mention (the one on our right) is the only one wearing shoes. It looks like he's standing on maybe his father's feet--there's somebody else standing off the camera edge.

But imagine: The clothes that they're wearing might've been their only clothes! Just to reiterate: there was no choice of what they could wear from day to day. What they have on now was all they (might've) had for possibly months at a time.

"How do I get to the Susquehanna Hat Company?"

Mother of poverty

This photo made cry. What more clear image of poverty in America could there be? A flour sack for a skirt and a safety pin holding a tattered sweater. I ache for her children and wonder what happened to this family. One bright spot is the boy smiling to his sister while holding her toe.

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