Monday, February 16, 2009

Migrant Mother

This is a picture of Florence Owens, the Migrant Mother of the Great Depression. This is not the most famous picture of her, but it was one of five pictures taken by Dorothea Lange of her that day. With these pictures, Florence became the icon on the great depression. This series of photographs, perhaps better than anything else, captured the abject poverty and hopelessness of the Great Depression.


  1. Truly an iconic photograph,
    and Dorothea Lange a great

    I really love her work.

  2. Weren't ~ 50% of the population then rural workers? I understand that the Okies left Oklahoma due to not owning the land and probably being in debt. But I wonder if this picture reflects the fact that rural life was so prevalent then. I know that unemployment reached ~25% and there are pictures of destitution, but just wondering about this picture in particular.

  3. This has always been a favorite photograph. Lange really did capture a moment in time in that photo. It is indeed one that's worth a thousand words, and then some. The Wikipedia aricle on Florence Thompson is pretty informative. They also show the other five photos Dorthea took of Florence that day. There is also a 1979 photo of Florence in the article. Florence passed away in 1983.

  4. One reason why our current economic situation can be considered as bad as the Great Depression lies in today's demographics. Total unemployment percentages today may only be less than half of those out work then, but the work force affected is different.

    Then it was mainly rural workers who were out of work, even though everyone was affected in some way. Today the out of work workforce is predominantly high wage earners in blue and white collar jobs who are much more responsible for the overall economic health of our nation.

    No one is reporting on this disparity and/or correlation. I wonder if it is to keep the news from appearing as bad as it really is?

    The government has done this before. Reagan secretly added the military to reduce the overall unemployment figures. Up to then the military had not been used in employment numbers.

  5. A riveting photo. It's curious that the claims are Depression Era like, yet we aren't seeing any evidence of it. There are so many cell phones, cameras and ways to communicate it's difficult for me to believe that it is being sequestered some how.

    Anyway. The linked article discusses how, after the father passed away, the relative began discussing taking in the children individually to raise. This in fact was a practice because my father's family took in the daughter of a cousin. Both parents died of the flu and the family took the thirteen children around the country sides of Texas and doled them out one by one. Very sad. As a side note my 82 year old neighbor who suffers from osteoporosis related that her doctor suggests that the kids who were raised in the city during the Depression may be more vulnerable to the disease because they did not have access to milk like their country counter parts.

  6. Debbie,

    Good for you! Read my comments from yesterday if possible on how all my world wide work, 3 businesses, 20 years each is gone.

  7. Kent says,

    Lange was quite the woman. She was married to the great artist, Maynard Dixon for awhile.

    She and Ansel Adams tangled more than once. She once claimed he was stealing her clients in no uncertain terms. She also told him he sold out with some of his great landscapes when he sold them as coffee can art in late 60's or early 70's.

  8. Just read the wikipedia entry; very informative.

    Certainly teaches you not to take anything for granted.

    As a first generation American, I know that this type of poverty is common in my country of origin, but it is a powerful picture of dignity and determination.

  9. On the comments of whether we are entering a "Depression Like" time. CNBC just did a story called "house of cards". It was a GREAT documentary, and shed light on our present condition, probably better than anything else I have seen or read. If they replay it, dont miss it.

  10. To Debbie Adams:

    Ignorance is bliss, sweetie.

  11. Debbie,

    I guess all the foreclosures, loss of Caterpillar jobs, lost 401K's, and bailouts are NOT evidence of a depression.

    And certain job; doctors, nurses, teachers, police and fireman for example are somewhat recession proof even though there are police who have lost their homes.

  12. You know, I just never have appreciated anonymous comments. They tend to let people say things they may or may not say when they are known.

    I appreciate the picture, and realize the different society we have today. A neighboring school district is not rehiring over 500 personnel - teachers, and support persons. The recession/depression is hitting everyone. Unfortunately - as the prevaling belief in bailouts, the Congressman touting the new legislation as better than the New Deal - are creating an illusion that the problems will be short term because of legislation. I don't think that's the case.

  13. I knew I'd forget something. Thanks for the one who posted the 'migrant mother' name and the wikipedia link. Great source.

  14. Debbie,
    I appreciate your comments and insight, as I am sure most on this site do.

    Please keep your thoughts coming, they are appreciated.

  15. Kent says,

    Hi, I am not logged on yet, but I am identifying myself.

    Debbie you are entitled to your opinion. I would like to shed a little light on "secrets". I worked for the AEC during the height of the cold war. I had a "Q" clearance, the highest civilian clearance short of eyes only. I know the government has secrets. I took an oath for the rest of my life. If I do not honor that oath, I will be hung for treason.

    In the 90's I met a WWII veteran who was with the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA. One mission he told me about had a lot to do with shortening the war and saving England, literally. I was impressed and wanted to write up his story and illustrate it. I mean here was the greatest hero I ever met. He said no, I insisted, bugged him, he called Washington. The next time I saw him and he raked me over the coals.

    He said, "Kent, I am 84 and I want peace. These are people who can make you disappear. Now if you don't drop this, I will call Washington and some men will make sure you never bring this up again. Now I have to report back to them and tell them what you decide. It was then I saw the look many an enemy soldier did just before he died.

    My point is the government, for whatever reason, did not want his WWII actions known, After 50 years they still shrouded it in secrecy. Anyway, for what it's worth it is still a pretty good true story.

  16. Over the years I had almost every security clearance the government offered. Overall I found 99% of the sectets pretty boring and mundane stuff. Then there was the 1% that still lead me to wake at 2 in the morning in a cold sweat with a chill runing up my spine.

  17. How clever that the photographer placed that empty plate [or pie tin] next to the woman. Quite impressive.

  18. My 93-year-old father has been very calm through this whole ecomomic crisis.

    He experienced the Depression first-hand (when he had to leave school at the age of 15 to go to work); and he says that it was much worse back then; and that a much higher percentage of people were out of work, including those in white collar jobs in cities.

    He also said that the New Deal and WPA were a bunch of garbage and that they really didn't do anything - the ecomomy recovered on its own when we were pulled into WWII.

    He also says that beginning with FDR, our country is moving more and more towards Socialism, and it's a big mistake.

    Re Obama's ecomomic stimulus, he told me it's just a waste of time and money. It's not going to do anything. I'm sure he's right.

    According to him, the biggest problm facing our economy is the tremendous loss of American manufacturing jobs that has occured over the past 20 years and our huge trade deficit.

    Almost all manufacturing jobs have moved to other countries, thanks to the elimination of tariffs and the free trade agreements, along with the fact that our domestic labor costs are too high.

    So, if people have more money to spend due to a stimulus, they are more than likely going to buy products made overseas. So . . . that won't create jobs HERE.

    My dad says that we all complain about the loss of jobs, but who wants to pay twice as much for something like a TV that was made here, when we can buy one made overseas for half the price??

    He says we all have conflicting and constantly changing positions -as taxpayers, we don't our taxes raised; but as citizens, we want good schools and municipal services. Well, who's going to pay for them?? And . . as employees, we want the highest wages and benefits available, but as consumers, we want to pay the lowest possible price.

    We don't practice what we preach!!

    My dad says it's too late to go back to restricting world trade (i.e., by imposing import taxes and quotas) because we actually made those agreements for military reasons.

    But. . there has to be a compromise somewhere, including a complete restructuring of the focus of the American job market, as it switches to a more service-based economy, and concessions by organized labor.

    And . . . he says we all have to learn to live within our means, instead of having two BMWs and three HD TVs, etc etc.

    He's a brilliant man, and I believe him.

  19. Reading yesterday's and todays comments, seems like the current economic situation is really bad. I wish good luck to all you people and hope that the good times come back soon. We are also facing diffucult times here, but I suppose things are not as bad.

    The general mood seems to be gloomy when I read the comments, with a constant attempt tp compare the current situation with the one of Great Depression. With a great economies like US, EU getting into such a bad shape, I winder whats going to happen to the rest of the world.

  20. wow-- here I was thinking this was a site about pictures and not politics. Just an FYI I was born and raised in the USAF for 26 years so I know all about secrets and taking them to my grave. I trust our military but not the politicians. Right now I am on permanent disability and let me tell you it's been no easy street, yet this may we were able to climb out of over $20,000.00 worth of debt and all we owe is money on our mortgage. That's in addition to raising two sons and helping them through college. All I am saying is that I'm not seeing women nursing children wearing burlap scraps for booties on the streets of America. Yes, people have it rough but no one is starving and unsheltered. I'm not seeing Hoovervilles popping up anywhere yet. When I see that, then and only then will I believe the hype about this being as great as or as worse as the Depression.

  21. I've lived in places like Taiwan and seen the poverty first hand in Mexico. Trust me we have it pretty plushy here and we have choices. If folks really feel this is a crisis, go out and work in the soup kitchens, the community food bank can use volunteers. I've been there and done this all through the avarice of mind numbing depression.

    And just in case anyone might think I have a sugar daddy for a husband. He is a restaurant manager making $40,000 a year; we have managed to save up 6 months worth of money to pay bills just in case he loses his job. He's fifty years old and his job right now is to keep his job. Fifteen years ago I was a Catholic school teacher and now supplement our income with tutoring an hour a day. Our neighbors are blue collar construction workers who have been laid off and they go down to the Day Labor office and get work most days.

    As a military brat I'm unaffiliated with any party and believe that media is nothing more than the mouthpiece of politicians, so consider the source and take it with an ocean of salt until you see it with your own eyes. We have let them scare us into indebting our children and grandchildren. Compulsive debiting has led us into this mess. I frankly don't see how it's going to get us out.

  22. Since we touched on economics here, one thing to add is about the ineffectuveness of the new deal. There are scholars who now say that FDR did not spend near enough with his programs, and it was only when you had the justification of war that you could really open the defecit spigots which obviously got this country working again. Counter intuitive but food for thought. Anyway, the great thing about this site is that it shows a life well lived didn't need a lot of money.

  23. SmartGirl,

    Your dad is right. Period. Most people want to earn more and more, have more and more, spend less and less. And companies like producing where work is cheap and sell where work is expensive and people can spend (if they haven't lost their jobs because of their and the companies' said economic behavior).

    When money is used by governments to alleviate depression, they always go into debt. There are examples that this is not always necessary. How, for instance, did Hitler finance Germany's huge rearmament? That was the work of one man: Hjalmar Schacht, president of the Reichsbank and finance minister. He created a bogus company that the tank and aircraft manufacturers could draw bills on which the Reichsbank would discount. That way, he bypassed the banking system to create new money out of nothing. It was in 1938 that he informed Hitler that now arms production would have to stop, as individual Germans would not buy tanks and warbirds, so there was too much money in the pockets and a threat of inflation, and industry should be switched to production of consumer goods: Volkswagen, radios, even the newly invented TV's, some of which were standing in beer bars. Hitler did not listen and sacked him (that saved Schacht's neck after the war), as he wanted war instead. But is is quite probable that Schacht's recommendation would have worked. We can't wish that in that particular case, as Germany would still have been a Nazi state, but there is an economic lesson to be learne from it: if there are things people want and the hands to do the job, it is safe to create just the amount of money that is needed to start the process, not as debt, but as debt-free money. When East Germany was reunified with the West, the West German central bank "exchanged" the savings of East Germans, worthless East German Marks, into (West) German Marks, a political decision that increased the money base by a huge and unparalleled fifteen percent. There was no inflation afterwards. The supply was elastic, as economists say: companies just produced more.

  24. Jens:

    Thanks, I think my dad is right, too. He's a smart man, and he's lived through this entire century being self-sufficient.

    The trouble is, these are unpleasant truths that most people don't want to face.

  25. As I understand it, Lange's choice of having the mother with only two children visible was because (or at least partly because) of the contemporary public's perception of poor migrants with large families.

    At a time when birth control was non-existent for the poor and the fact that finding yourself homeless and on the road with your family, small or large, was beyond one's control, it seems especially cruel to judge the poor on the size of their family....

  26. Here is an audio interview with Florence Thompson.