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Hard Times

Questions to Consider

What was happening to average people during the Great Depression?

What was life like for people who were unemployed?

What was life like for the poorest people?

What was life like for rural people living in "Hoovervilles"?

About the Images

These images show how the Great Depression affected ordinary people. They depict the poverty, labor unrest, unemployment, and homelessness that typified the times.


The US stock market crash of 1929 set off the most severe economic depression in the Western world. The so-called Great Depression lasted more than a decade, until approximately 1941. In the United States, the general atmosphere was one of desolation, as expressed in the Dorothea Lange photograph "Thirteen Million Unemployed Fill the City in the Early Thirties," which shows men leaning against a wall in San Francisco.

Many photographs in this topic were taken by Lange, one of the primary chroniclers of the Great Depression. Lange had been taking portraits of wealthy individuals in her studio, but she felt compelled to go out on the streets and take photographs of everyday people. In 1933, she marked the start of her documentary career what she called her "first street image": "White Angel Bread Line," a photograph of a man waiting for food at a soup kitchen run by a San Francisco widow.

The images in this group reflect the lives of average citizens struggling to get by. Photographs show unemployed men waiting in long lines. One Lange photo shows a man sleeping in a parking lot.

Rural areas were also hard hit. As several of these images show, some people lived in "Hoovervilles" — temporary towns of makeshift housing that got their name from President Herbert Hoover, who was blamed for the problems that led to the Depression. The image captions written at the time (such as "Not much room in this one room shack, but it’s shelter from a trying winter" and "These Hooverville children are ashamed of their home — can you blame them?") express the conditions that people endured and reveal the way people felt.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 11:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.5)

Grade 11:

11.6 Students analyze the different explanations for the Great Depression and how the New Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government. (11.6.3)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)

Who was Dorothea Lange?

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), a great American photographer, is perhaps best known for her photographs of Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression.

General note about Lange’s images

Due to the limits of technology and the scanning process used, the digitized versions of Dorothea Lange’s photographs in some cases do not accurately represent the high quality of the original images.