“Migrant Mother” and the real story of Dorothea Lange’s masterpiece

Part 2 in our series on Reading Famous American photos brings us to one of the most famous photographs in world history: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother: Lange-MigrantMother02 It was taken in 1936. The Library of Congress has annotated it thus: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California”. The woman stares into the distance, her brow lined with worry, trying to perceive a glimmer of hope in her desperate situation. Her two daughters hide their faces from the camera, but the mother does not even seem to see it. Her mind is working to find some way forward, some way to feed her children, including the baby almost hidden in her lap. Their clothes are worn and dirty. Never did the future for Americans facing the Depression seem so bleak; there is no guarantee that this family will come through intact. The photo is beautifully framed in a classic triangle: you look at the mother’s face, then travel down her arm to the baby, then back up to the girl on the right, and across to the girl on the left—and then back again to that expressive, strong, but desperate face.

That Migrant Mother was Florence Owens Thompson, a migrant worker originally from Oklahoma. She married Cleo Owens and moved with him and their three children to California in the late 1920s, where he had relatives, and they worked in saw mills and farms in the Sacramento Valley. Owens died in 1931, leaving Florence pregnant and with five children to support at the height of the Depression. Florence met Jim Hill and had three more children with him, supporting her family by picking cotton, doing manual labor in hospitals, working as a cook—anything to bring in money. The family was on the road in March 1936, looking for work in the fields after finishing a hitch picking beets. Their car broke down on the highway, near a pea-pickers’ camp. That was bad news; worse was to come. There were around 3,000 migrant workers at the camp, all unemployed after a freezing rain had destroyed the crop. There would be no work for anyone. As Hill and two of the boys walked into town to get parts for the car, Florence waited in the camp with the younger children.

At this point, Dorothea Lange appeared with her camera. Lange was a photographer working for the Farm Security Administration to document the human toll of the Depression. She took six photos of Florence and her three youngest children, and wrote these notes: “Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.” Later, Lange described her encounter with Florence:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

Lange sent her photos to the San Francisco News and to Washington, DC. When this photo ran in the newspaper, people were so moved and appalled by the conditions at the camp that the federal government sent 20,000 pounds of food to the camp. By the time it arrived just a few days later, Florence and her family had moved on to work at another farm.

So much is history, and legend. Florence Owens Thompson (she remarried in 1945), however, told a different story. She claimed that Lange never spoke to her at all, and just started taking pictures. She also ridiculed the idea that they had sold their tires for food—how would they drive the car if they sold the tires? “I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying,” Thompson said, “I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.” Thompson also claimed that Lange had promised not to publish the photos. Thompson was humiliated by her family’s poverty and didn’t want it broadcast around the nation.

Luckily for her, the family’s name was never published, and the identity of the family and the Migrant Mother remained unknown until 1978, when a California reporter saw Florence in her mobile home and recognized her. The newspaper published his article that quoted Florence as saying “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.” There was no way for Florence to know that, as a government employee, Lange gave up all rights to her work and never received any money from the photo herself.

The photo became more and more famous as the single best illustration of the nightmare of the Depression. In 1998, it was put on a U.S. stamp—the first time that living people (the daughter on the left and the baby in Florence’s arms) were featured on a stamp. According to her children, Florence was humiliated all over again by the celebration of the photo, but when she became ill in August 1983, her children appealed to the public for help, and over $25,000 in donations for the Migrant Mother’s medical bills came in. For the first time, Florence felt like she was more than a symbol of failure and shame.

Florence Owens Thompson died the next month. Her gravestone reads “Florence Leona Thompson, Migrant Mother—A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.” Migrant Mother is rightly famous, but for Florence’s sake, this photo should have its due, too:


This is a re-enactment of the photo taken in 1979. Katherine and Ruby stand on either side of their mother, and Norma, the baby in Florence’s arms, kneels beside her mother. Florence managed to provide for her family and get them through the Depression, despite all odds. Katherine’s tribute to her mother is fitting: “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That’s one thing she did do.” Next time: Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima

The Great Depression, 2008

Are we on the brink of another Great Depression? Are the economic events of summer and fall 2008 mirror-imaged to those of the summer and fall of 1929?

It’s a good question. I’m not an economist, but as an American historian I can draw some comparisons:

1. Of course, things didn’t just go sour in 1929. For a good decade the American economy had been expanding too rapidly, as the newly invented credit industry took off. For the first time Americans were buying big-ticket items on monthly installment plans. Why? Because of electricity. New appliances, ranging from washing machines to vacuum cleaners to radios, lamps, and toasters were on the market for the first time, and people had to have them. Car ownership was also growing rapidly.

The parallel? Our “electricity” is the new financial markets, created by and for Wall Street, which allowed banks and other financial firms to invent all manner of complicated and very fishy deals, from credit swaps to loan bundling. The difference is that Americans in the 1920s may have been making manufacturers and banks rich, but they were also getting some value from the deal–those new labor-saving and entertainment-making inventions. Today, the average American saw no benefit from Wall Street’s risky endeavors.

2. In the 1920s, the U.S. government was loathe to intervene in the economy, even as signs of unsustainable growth became apparent. And once the crash came, the government still hovered, waiting for it to turn out to be yet another temporary panic.

The parallel is that since the Internet boom of the 1990s, the U.S. government has refused to intervene to stop the Internet bubble, the housing bubble, the CEO pay bubble, the Dow-at-15,000 bubble, or the rampant fraud on Wall Street. In the 21st century, experts were all sure that another Great Depression simply could not happen.

3. In 1929, ruined business were allowed to die. The economy was allowed to go into critical condition. FDR instigated a recovery, but not by breathing new life (through money) into failed businesses, but by creating a whole new world of federal jobs.

The parallel here is that there is no parallel. Today, Wall Street is repeatedly described as “too big” to let it fail. We cannot let these banks go bankrupt. No correction can be allowed; Wall Street must be allowed to continue its ruinous ways, for no apparent reason.

Perhaps Americans today are unwilling to suffer like their grandparents did. But were Americans in 1929 really “willing” to suffer 10 years of misery? No. They weren’t willing, but they accepted it as inevitable. And the government made that easier to do, by refusing to offer an alternative. And the market eventually corrected, and improved, and was more sound.

That could happen in 2008. It isn’t likely, though; too many powerful people have too much to lose, and too many average Americans have too little say. The Great Depression of the 21st century, if it is coming, will not come quite yet. Check back in 2009.

The real “Greatest Generation”

I was going to say that it would have to be the Founding generation. But then I changed my mind.

TV news anchor Tom Brokaw put out a book a few years ago called The Greatest Generation, in which he identified Americans who grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, then fought the Second World War in the 1940s, as the greatest generation of Americans.

Great as the difficulties were for this generation of Americans, they must pale in comparison to those facing the Founding generation. If you were 20 years old in 1780, you would have trouble remembering a time before the crises of the 1770s, and then the Revolutionary War. As you lived on, you would experience a failed U.S. government (that operating under the Articles of Confederation) that was dismantled in 1787, a referendum to vote on the new and radical Constitution, desperate poverty and inflation, two armed citizen rebellions (Whiskey and Shays), and then when you were 52, the British would invade the U.S. and burn down the White House.

That’s a lot to face, especially with no history, really no inkling of experience with a democratic government. You would be building democratic government with your own hands and brain. There were no guideposts to reassure you, and several times the whole experiment of your new nation seemed on the brink of failure.

People growing up in the 1930s had a long history of being American, long experience of our form of government, and generally clear and well-established standards of American/democratic behavior to guide them.  If they were tempted to abandon these, that might be understandable, but the fact that they did not simply speaks to their historical advantages over the Founding Americans.

Well, that’s the case for calling the Founders the greatest generation. But after all, I did change my mind about the whole idea of choosing one group to be the greatest Americans.

The real Greatest Generation of Americans is each and every one that lives up to the principles this nation was founded on, the principles of promoting and protecting natural rights and equality of opportunity for all Americans. Every generation that does this is truly the greatest, simply because it’s very hard to do. Our founding principles demand that we rise above human nature in many ways, and offer justice and freedom to all. Any generation that does this deserves our praise.

That opens up the opportunity to those of us living in America right now to be the next greatest generation. Rather than thinking we missed the boat and cannot partake of the glory of any past generation of our ancestors, we must see that they simply carried the baton for a while, and have now passed it to us. It can’t go out on our watch, lest we fail the next greatest generation coming after us.