Although the Great Depression was born on Wall Street, it affected Americans in their homes and on the streets, and its ramifications would echo for decades. The record unemployment of the Great Depression is jarring but doesn’t even begin to convey the distress felt by individuals in their daily lives for so many years. Many of the unemployed had families or dependents and their lost wages meant anything from mere discomfort to malnutrition or home foreclosure. This was true in the city as well as in the countryside, where many crops went unharvested due to rock-bottom prices. In the Plains, farmers had to contend with the weather as well as the economy as the Dust Bowl ravaged their land. Some saw no other recourse than to pack up their belongings and hit the road in search of work. Others abandoned their families, including older children who didn’t want their family to worry about feeding them. Poor diets and healthcare could result in long-term health issues for the poorest during the Depression.
The Great Depression is a unique period of study for the social historian due to the wealth of materials created by writers, artists and photographers working through New Deal programs. The Library of Congress’s American Memory houses the manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project (1936-1940) at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wpaintro/wpahome.html; the site also features “Voices from the Dust Bowl” at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/afctshtml/tshome.html where you can read and listen to oral histories. A rich collection of photographs taken by the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information, including the famous “Migrant Mother” photo by Dorthea Lange, can be found at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html.
The American Social History Project hosts a “Young America” channel with videos that use photographs and journal excerpts to paint a picture of daily life during the Depression. The first video describes life for young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Another ASHP video documents how notions of “childhood” changed during the Great Depression and the strain it caused for families.
The National Archives channel offers a number of useful videos that give a glimpse into Great Depression life. In this video, oral histories of Great Depression survivors are overlaid with pictures to illustrate the vast and varied experiences of these people. The video is a bit long, the audio quality is not great, and the tinkling music can be grating, but it is an excellent resource for social historians and teachers looking to impart a deeper understanding of daily life in the Depression.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for the Great Depression