Today’s Obsession: Depression-Era America

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My Twitter stream yielded this amazing link the other day: a huge gallery of circa-1940 color photographs. The images are breathtaking; color photography was possible in those years, but nearly unheard of outside of those who could afford a luxury like a camera. This is such a beautiful look at the America that existed 70 years ago, weary hardworking people looking questioning and warily into a camera. So many things from less than a century ago that seem so odd and alien to anyone raised in suburban America of the 1970’s and 1980’s: all the meals pictured are simple and handmade, clothing appears homemade in several cases and ragged in most, and there are very few cars. There are a few pictures of a family of homesteaders living in a dugout.

Looking at these, I begin to understand what America was like at the end of its settlement phase, when big industry looked like the steady job and promise of a beautiful home—things that very few people had. Against this hardscrabble backdrop, the cities and factories we know as the building blocks of our own reality seem like huge, towering, beacons of productivity, organization, and cleanliness. It helped me to understand how we turned into a people of drive-thrus, screenprinted tattoo-flash t-shirts made in china, daily showers, and cars everywhere: the people who created that culture remember what it was like to be so close to the world, and they understand what a gift it is to be away from it for awhile.

[For more on these photographs, see Imprint contributor Jon Crawford-Phillips’s discussion from last week.]