Posted by Ancestry Team on January 17, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

An Intimate Look at Life During the Great Depression

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” courtesy of the Library of Congress.

For many Americans, Dorthea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photo is the defining image of the Great Depression. But it’s just one of over 170,000 commissioned by the U.S. Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information during the 1930s and early 1940s. Meant to boost public support for FDR’s rehabilitation initiatives after the Great Depression, the FSA-OWI hired photographers such as Lange and Walker Evans to visit poor rural farmers and document their hardships.

Photogrammar: The Searchable Photo Database

Recently, a team from Yale University created Photogrammar: an interactive, searchable web database of all 170,000 photos. Only a small percentage of the FSA-OWI photos identify their subjects by name, making it difficult to find specific ancestors within the collection. But the Photogrammar team is actively working on more research tools.

“We’ve had a fair amount of people email us and tell us the names of people depicted in the photographs, or share stories about the images,” says Lauren Tilton, who co-directs Photogrammar with Taylor Arnold. “We’re now looking for ways to better capture that information and make it publically accessible.”

The team is also working to integrate stories from the Federal Writers’ Project, another initiative launched during the Great Depression. The project commissioned writers to travel the United States and interview people about their life histories. Tilton and her team plan to organize the life histories by geography. Because the stories also have names attached, people would be able to search by family member.

Tilton expects these tools to be launched on the Photogrammar site sometime in 2017. For now, genealogists can use the map to get an intimate glimpse of life in specific locales during the 1930s and 40s. “There’s something amazing seeing the same places in history over time,” she says.



How to Use Photogrammar’s Interactive Map

From the Photogrammar home page, click on the blue “Start Exploring” button or the gray “See Map” button on the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. Then double-click a location or use the scroll wheel on your mouse to zoom in.


The green areas represent the counties with FSA-OWI photos on record. (The darker the green, the more photos are available.) Click on a county to reveal a popup window with the county name and number of photos.


To view all photos, click on the blue link. You’ll be taken to a results page with thumbnails of the first 60 images, plus their titles, photographers and dates.

advanced search

Click on any image to see its detail page. There you can view additional information and a full-size version of the photo. Most of the FSA-OWI’s photographs are in the public domain, according to the Library of Congress, though restrictions, privacy and publicity rights may apply.

Has the FSA-OWI or similar government archives led you to any genealogical discoveries? Share them in the comments section below.

Kelly Kautz is writing “The Skeleton Club,” a memoir about her family’s secret past. She lives with her husband and two young sons in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Connect with her on Twitter @KellyKautz.



  1. Jojo

    Ancestry should build a similar dB.

    My idea is that many of us have photos of people from our family history where we cannot identify by name(s) of people or year taken. By offering a repository for everyone to place their unidentified photos in, we might be able to leverage the power of the crowd to help ID the people in these photos.

    People who submit photos would be the owner. Others could freely browse this photo repository and if they knew someone, they could reach out to the owner through anonymous email to offer the information they know or ask for a connection to share directly.

    One other strong value-add is that this might also facilitate new connections between family members who for any number of varied reasons, have not found each other previously.

    What say you Ancestry?

  2. Jesse E sanchez

    That’s a great idea. I have a group picture that my mom passed on to me but I have no idea who they are other than they are related to me.

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