The Depression in color


I absolutely love this collection of photos, taken by the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information between 1939 and 1943. The shots taken prior to 1941, especially, are incredibly jarring—familiar images of poverty stricken farm families straight from your high school history textbook, suddenly rendered "real" and emotionally resonant by the addition of color film.

I'm very fond of the shot posted above, partially because it's just a great portrait, but also because I recognize that dress and that apron. My Great-Grandma, Rosella Duncan, owned strikingly similar outfits and was still wearing them when I was a teenager in the 1990s. It's the sort of recognizable, relatable detail that gets lost if you were to look at the same image in black and white.

Other particularly striking shots in the series:

Denver Post Photo Blogs: Captured: American in Color 1939-1943


  1. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how, as a young person, I have each decade in the 1900’s neatly defined and separated in my brain by its stereotypes and media documentation. As a result, these color photos are really messing with my brain. These aren’t people in the 1940’s, these are people in the 1970’s playing 1940’s dress-up. My imagination never imagined for me that the colors in their world would be so vivid, or that the highlights and subtle colors of their skin would make them look like real humans just like me.

    But then, I remember, the 1940’s weren’t all that far away from the 1970’s, and the 1970’s weren’t so far from the 2010’s. In thirty or forty years I don’t expect to look back upon the 2010’s with such a feeling of nostalgia and history. But it makes me wonder how my grandchildren will define “2010” in their minds.

    These are amazing, thanks for sharing.

    1. As someone who grew up on the Great Plains in the 70’s, let me assure you, it still looked a hellovalot like this.

      In the nicer spots, it still does.

  2. great post, thank you. this really makes you think about how black and white images make you think about the world in a certain way. some enterprising photoshopper: quickly convert all these to b&w to see how they change…..

    1. So sad that such cool architecture is now an ugly slab of beige siding.

      I’m loving all the great Google Map street view finds for comparison.

  3. Many of these are familiar from

    The proprietor, Dave, has posted many of these photos in high resolution, but some only in B&W.

  4. Regarding #17: the biscuits are sitting on top of a Karo can. Note that the can is probably filled with bacon grease for dipping the biscuits into. This from my eldest aunt, who grew up poorer than all of her sisters, and had beans & cornbread for dinner several nights a week, with bacon grease in the middle of the table for dipping.

  5. The one thing that strikes me when seeing photographs like these, just like it did when I saw pictures from the ’50s of my family in the USSR is how healthy these people look compared with our modern selves, even compared with those of us who are completely free of hardship and who visit the gym three times a week.

    So why are we looking worse than starving peasants under both capitalist and communist oppression?

  6. Funny. Draplin posted this a few days ago. I thought about submitting it, but I assumed a few hundred others would have beaten me to it.

    As nataliep said, this series is kind of mindbending.

    It sounds naive, but I too have always operated with a “Before Color/After Color” mindset that kept the past safely in the past. I’ll be honest: to see everyday life as it was lived before my parents were born, but to see it looking much like my own childhood, fairly pounded me with the fact of my own mortality.

    Step one: call my parents.

    Step two: get busy.

    Oh, and step three: make some bannock. (#17 got me hungry!)

  7. See number 57? I found it on Google street view today

    The nice round tower is gone. So is the triangular pediment. But other than that, it’s the same buildings.,0,18358442359387795043&ei=Ai9WTNzUOYaCsQP585jaAg&ved=0CBcQnwIwAA&hq=6+n+montana+st+dillon+mt&t=h&layer=c&cbll=45.217729,-112.637384&panoid=4n2eP7lGa98aUaboLJTN3A&cbp=12,125.82,,0,0.58&ll=45.217659,-112.637479&spn=0.012319,0.019205&z=16

  8. It’s worth noting that even though they’re in full color, everything is either Black, Brown, White, Red (or faded Red, “pink”) and/or Blue.

    One or two pieces of clothing in that entire series are yellow. Green, orange, sky blue or any other number of vibrant secondary colors don’t exist at that income level.

    There’s some really good, ultra high resolution “photocrome” false color slides from the 1880s from all over Europe, from Norway to Istanbul, and up north to Russia as well.

    They’re taken just as steam powered boats started to take off; so there’s an excellent assortment of sail powered freighters mixed in with enormous steamers in these crowded, beautiful brick and stone port cities.

  9. Great set of photos. I don’t think that the period 1939-43 really counts as “the depression”, however.

  10. There is a wonderful book called Pie Town Woman by Joan Meyers ( about the photographer Russel Lee and his pictures of Pie Town, New Mexico, many of which are in this collection. The author tracks down Doris Caudell, the woman in the featured photo, and interviews her about the time.

  11. You recognize the dress because its from the Sears Catalog. Just about every on of the flowery, colorful dresses you see on these folks are from Sears-Robucks.

  12. Wow, I’ve driven the road in #27 probably 500 times. It’s a bit steeper now, but I recognized the hills the moment I saw the photo.

  13. Do they look healthier?

    Part of me, seeing the skinniness and the tan, agrees.

    Another part of me sees people who quite frankly look ten years older or more than they are.

    1. So much agree.

      “Thin” does not equal “healthy”, people. That same Great-Grandma of mine told stories about sick children, the effects of malnourishment, and parasites that would make your skin crawl.

      I’ll take a few extra pounds, thanks.

      And don’t even get me started on “tan”. I’m still not sure how my red-haired Great-Grandpa managed to avoid melanoma.

      1. Maggie Koerth-Baker replyed to peterbruells who said,

        “Do they look healthier?

        Part of me, seeing the skinniness and the tan, agrees.



        The ad culture of perfect… Perfect Hair, Perfect Smile, Perfect Body… .

        There is no such thing of coarse; and the quest for such a state is a life lived (not lived) in fear of what the other may think – rather than a life lived learning trough failure and mistake.

        Now ‘perfect gentleman’, that’s something we need more of… :)

  14. After seeing these photos I feel pretty lucky to have had grandparents who live on a farm that has been in our family for 150 years. Most of the buildings, decorations, clothing, furniture, etc. probably haven’t changed much since the 1940’s. My grandmother was still washing and rinsing all her clothes by hand as recently as the late 90’s. When my cousins and I would visit we would play around the yard very likely in the same fashion our grandparents or parents did. We used no modern creations, just what we would find which was mostly old farm equipment, streams, hay bails, trees, fences, etc. Those weeks were always a highlight of my childhood and they remain very fond memories.

  15. Speaking as a Brocktonian who has seen some of these photos before (and also a few more from Brockton, including a fantastic one of a friend’s great-grandfather;s junk shop), I feel obliged to point out that Brockton is not and was not a small town but a city. Although the Depression was the nail in the coffin for our once-thriving shoe production industry, we were and are still one of Massachusetts’ largest cities.

  16. holy.. the effect of color is so profound- i dont even know where to begin transcribing what i feel..

    but were these originally b/w photos? how are these converted?

  17. Great series of photos. I love the aesthetic of the film and cameras from the time.

    I think #6 was my fav.

  18. I love #13 – they were dancing hard. I don’t much see dancers that sweaty anymore – are people afraid to sweat now, or am I just going to the wrong parties?

  19. umm, dragonfrog, you’re just going to the wrong parties. I definitely got sweatier than that last night! My shorts finally dried out later on this morning. Drenched. A good soul dj can really get you going!

  20. Check out the book “Pie Town Woman” by Joan Myers for more information on Doris Caudill and family.

  21. Photos. They’re like windows into history.

    Amazing the difference color makes. I’ve sat through hundreds of hours of WW2-era films, but when I see the rare color film from that era, it makes it seem so much closer and real.

    I guess that’s because we’ve learned to associate B&W with “ghostly by-gone era” and color with “modern”.

    I wonder what’s being done today that will seem “modern” in 50 years?

  22. African American? not happy with the labeling… just calling them young boys or whatever would do…

  23. I’m seeing a big jump from the early pictures, with the Flour Sack fabric patterns & home-made styles on the dresses & aprons, changing to a more store bought look in just a couple images.

    And image #70; if you work in a Carbon Black factory today, you’ll look just as dirty at the end of the day.

  24. A perfect example of why Kodachrome is so important.
    This color film has recored more history then any other. Excellent shots…..

  25. I remember looking at some of the 4×5 negatives of these when I worked at the library of congress in the early 80s.

  26. these are really amazing – I don’t know if i’ve seen many color photos from this early. it really does make them much more real doesn’t it. i could look at these for hours. thanks!

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