The facts are still staggering, as we learn from Russell Freedman's recent, award-winning The Children of the Great Depression and from an earlier volume by Kathleen Thompson and Hilary MacAustin, that looks at the same decade and the effects it had on young people. In 1933, Thompson and MacAustin write, "34 million men, women, and children were entirely without income. That was 28 percent of the American people then." At this same time, they continue, "a quarter of a million children were homeless . . . . at least one in five were hungry and without adequate clothing . . . [and] In some regions, especially coal-mining regions, as many as 90 percent of the children were malnourished."
These two books are testaments to what children suffered during this crisis in American cultural life, when the bottom fell out, especially for the poorest in our society. Both Freedman and Thompson and MacAustin have brought this powerful and moving chapter of the history of American childhood back to us visually through the dozens of photographs that they have collected in their respective books from the enormous archives of such federal bureaus as the Farm Security Administration, the FSA. During the 1930s, the FSA actively documented the plight of children as well as their parents, in rural and small-town America, through the photographs and field notes of a group of remarkable photographers, including Marion Post Wolcott, Lewis Hine, and Dorothea Lang. Their heart-breaking photographs captured both the physical and emotional states of these beleagured children and their deplorable living and working conditions.
The 1930s brought us our first child labor laws, which were finally passed not because of an overwhelming desire to protect children from the harshness and brutality of the workplace, but, rather to keep children from competing with adults for scarce, menial jobs. And yet, in these photos and as we learn in the texts of these books, the children continued to work: dragging cotton sacks through the dusty fields, trying to drive a plow through an eroded pasture, harvesting cauliflower and peas, hawking newspapers in the rain. Here is where those myths about hardship were in fact born, the ones that have been passed down from the grandparents and great-grandparents, who really did walk to school barefoot and who really wrote the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, to ask her for any old soiled dresses that might fit a seventh grader who had to stay out of school because she had nothing but rags to wear. These are unforgettable and necessary photographs and parts of our national history. They remind us just how fragile and how brave the smallest among us always are.
Copyright 2006© John Cech
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