An Intimate Look at Life During the Great Depression
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.
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.