The Library of Congress caption for the above photograph reads: "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California."
As era-defining photographs go, “Migrant Mother” pretty much takes the cake. For many, Florence Owens Thompson is the face of the Great Depression, thanks to legendary educated and apprenticed photojournalist Dorothea Lange. Lange captured the image while visiting a dusty California pea-pickers’ camp in February 1936, and in doing so, captured the resilience of a proud nation facing desperate times. Unbelievably, Thompson’s story is as compelling as her portrait. Just 32 years old when Lange approached her (”as if drawn by a magnet,” Lange said). Thompson was a mother of seven who’d lost her husband, Cleo, to tuberculosis. Stranded at a migratory labor farm in Nipomo, Calif. her family sustained themselves on birds killed by her kids and vegetables taken from a nearby field – as meager a living as any earned by the other 2,500 workers there. The photo’s impact was staggering. Reproduced in newspapers everywhere, Thompson’s haunted face triggered an immediate public outcry, quickly prompting politicos from the federal Resettlement Administration to send food and supplies. Sadly, however, Thompson and her family had already moved on, receiving nary a wedge of government cheese for their high-profile misery. In fact, no one knew the identity of the photographed woman until Thompson revealed herself years later in a 1976 newspaper article.
(Blog Penting Dede Wijaya at dedewijaya.wordpress.com)
Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: Migrant Mother – Florence Thompson at livinghistoryfarm.org:
"I left Oklahoma in 1925 and went to Oroville (California). That's where them three girls' dad (Cleo) died, in Oroville, 1931. And I was 28 years old (in 1931), and I had five kids and that one (the baby in this photo, Norma) was on the road. She never even saw her daddy. She was born after he died. It was very hard. And cheap. I picked cotton in Firebaugh, when that girl there was about two years old, I picked cotton in Firebaugh for 50-cents a hundred." Question: "A 'hundred' (meaning) weight?" "A hundred pounds." Question: "How much could you pick in a day, then?" "I generally picked around 450, 500. I didn't even weigh a hundred pounds. I lived down there in Shafter, and I'd leave home before daylight and come in after dark. We just existed! Anyway, we lived. We survived, let's put it that way. I walked from what they called a Hoover camp ground right there at the bridge (in Bakersfield), I walked from there to way down on First Street, and worked at a penny a dish down there for 50-cents a day and the leftovers. Yeah, they give me what was leftover to take home with me. Sometimes, I'd carry home two water buckets full. "Well, (in 1936) we started from L.A. to Watsonville. And the timing chain broke on my car. And I had a guy to pull into this pea camp in Nipomo. I started to cook dinner for my kids, and all the little kids around the camp came in. 'Can I have a bite? Can I have a bite?' And they were hungry, them people was. And I got my car fixed, and I was just getting ready to pull out when she (Dorothea Lange) come back and snapped my picture. "I come to this town (Modesto) in 1945. I transferred from Whittier State to Modesto. And when this hospital opened up out here, I went to work there. And the first eight years I lived in this town, I worked 16 hours out of 24. Eight-and-a-half years, seven days a week." Question: "Are you comfortable now?" "Yeah."
The above photograph is a little different from the original photograph due to the addition of color courtesy of the creators of picture-america.com. Look at the woman's face, you can tell that this woman has been through hard times.
This is an excerpt from a February 1960 article from Popular Photography, in which Lange gives her account of the experience:
‘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.’
(Annie explores the Arts at aeroland.wordpress.com)
Library of Congress Prints and Photo Div
Library of Congress Prints and Photo Div
Library of Congress Prints and Photo Div
Library of Congress Prints and Photo Div
Library of Congress Prints and Photo Div
The photo that Lange made of Florence Thompson’s haunted face, wearing a cloak of weariness and worry that offered no more protection from the camera lens than from the elements, staring with dignity while cuddling children who averted their faces, was entitled “Migrant Mother.” Sometimes referred to as “The Madonna of the Depression,” it became one of the most powerful and painful images of its era. As the epitome of Dorothea Lange’s penetrating, humane style, “Migrant Mother” was by far her most famous photo. Yet it tells us nothing like the “truth” of Florence Thompson’s life. In the other shots from the series Lange took that night, we see the environment in which it was taken: the pure squalor and filth of the camp, the full shabbiness of the lean-to tent, the utter lack of anything as tidy and green as the camp depicted in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. That doesn’t mean that Lange’s camera lied. She saw (or used) what was needed to make plain the dignity of the ravaged, not the fact of their misery. It’s only today, when the reroutings of American streets and highways have made the poor and their pain invisible to us that the mere facts of the matter have become crucial. The real point is that we know almost nothing about how Florence Thompson felt that evening, or in the months and years afterwards when her face became famous.
(LIVING IN STEREO at livinginstereo.com)
Other Dust Bowl Descent Interviews:
Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: Darrel Coble and Lois Houleat livinghistoryfarm.org:
(Darrel Coble:) "The wind and the dust just blew every day. The one that I remember come in here from the north that evening. Dad was in the field, and I don't know why as dry as it was. This thing (dust storm) rolled in there, and he got caught on the tractor. And he started for the house, but he couldn't see the house. But we had an old chickenhouse just out east of the house. And the back wheel just clipped the corner of that chickenhouse, and he knew where he was at then. And he just stopped there and got in the chickenhouse and spent the night in the chickenhouse. (Laughter.) Of course, we had kerosene lamps and everything. It got so dark you couldn't even see without – Kerosene lamps didn't make no light so you could see by.... "Ah, it kind of scared me, best I can recall (laughs). I thought maybe the world was coming to an end, I didn't know (laughs)... "Last spring we had some pretty bad days. They weren't the old black dusters, but I mean, there was plenty of dust in the air…
(Question:) "Do you like living in this country?"
(Question:) "How come?"
"It's just home. Dad always says, 'Anybody ever come out here and wear out two pairs of shoes here, they'd never leave.' I've known some that did do it in later years."
(Question:) "Tell me about what was it like in Colorado?"
(Lois Houle:) "It was terrible. (Laughs.) We had dust storms and droughts. We survived back there as long as we possibly could. I can remember one dust storm back there. We were coming from my grandparents' in Straton. And as we got closer to home, you could see this big gray matter up in the air. And the minute we got home, we had a storm cellar built with things to eat and everything else in it. We were all taken to the storm cellar right away, and they went in and closed the house all up good. And we stayed down there until the storm was over. It just came to the point where we couldn't live any more back there. And we had relatives out here already."
(Question:) "Did they write back or anything?"
"Oh, yes! Oh, yeah! Everything was 'beautiful' out here. (Laughs.) This was the land of milk and honey out here."
Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: Nettie Featherston, "If You Die" at livinghistoryfarm.org:
"Oh, it was terrible. And when you didn't have hardly nothing to eat, and your kids would cry for something to eat and you couldn't give it. We were living in a little old two-room house. And we cooked with blackeyed peas until I never wanted to ever see another blackeyed pea. I just prayed and prayed and prayed all the time that God would take care of us and not let my children starve… "I must have said, 'Well, if we're dead, we're just dead.' That's all I can remember because I don't remember talking to her (the photographer Dorothea Lange'... "I never once thought about living this long (81 years in 1979). Well, I just didn't think we'd survive. You want to know something we're not living much better than we did, as high as everything is, than we did then… "Seems like I'm not satisfied. I have too much on my mind. It seems like I have more temptations put on me than anyone. That's the way we'd be tried out. And every time I ask God to remove this awful burden off of my heart, he does." Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: Lois Houle on Relief and Flour Sacks at livinghistoryfarm.org: "When we first moved out here (to Washington State from Colorado) my Dad had rheumatism real bad – in fact, he almost died – and we had to go on "relief" (local welfare programs) what they called it then. We got some food from them, and we got sometimes clothes. And then, my mother and them would make clothes out of flour sacks. And things (the sacks) that they gave us were all printed. Of course, we used those for dresses and underpants and everything we could possible use them for."
(Question:) "Flour sacks for underpants!?"
"Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. You utilized everything then. This was a case of 'Have to.'"
Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: Vernon Evans – Oregon or Bust at livinghistoryfarm.org:
"Well, we were all without jobs here. And the jobs were so few and far between at the time we left that you couldn't even buy a job. We decided we had friends that we knew out in Oregon, and we decided we were going to go out there and see if we could find some work. We had $54 between the five of us when we started out from here to go to Oregon. And when we got to Oregon, I think we had about $16 left. We had absolutely no idea what we wre going to do. "We all got in an old Model-T and started for Oregon. We started out, and, I don't know, we got out six miles and broke the crankshaft. This old rancher, he had some old Model-T motors laying around. He said we were welcome to a crankshaft if we wanted one. So, we went back and proceeded to tear the motor out of the old Model-T and put the crankshaft in. And that night we made Baker (laughs) which is a matter of 24 miles from the night before. "Well, then we had pretty good luck all the rest of the way. But we got around Missoula, (Montana) and we were having a good time. See somebody along the road or something. And here was this car sitting alongside the road, and a guy sleeping in it. So, we honked and hollared at him, having a good time. Pretty soon, this car was after us. We'd heard they were sending them back (police sending migrants back at state borders), wasn't letting 'em go on through. So, we thought, 'Well, here's where we go back home.' He motioned for us to pull over to the side of the road. Anyhow, he come up and introduced himself (as Arthur Rothstein) and said he was with the Resettlement Administration (the precursor of the FSA) and asked us questions about the conditons here and one thing or another. Where we were headed for. This 'Oregon or Bust' on the back end was what took his eye. Then, he asked us if we cared if he took some pictures of us. Oh, we said, 'I guess not.' I think he took eight different poses. And then after we were out there (in Oregon) I guess probably it was that fall or winter, why these pictures started showing up in the different magazines and papers. Anyhow, we got out there and I went to work on the railroad. "In the winter of '45, my father passed away. And then I quit working on the railroad to get ready to come come back here. And been here ever since. (Laughs.) Oh, we've had our ups and downs. I think I've been hailed out probably five, six times, and dried out three, four years. And one year we rusted out (from a plant disease called 'rust')."
Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: Walter Ballard on Riding the Rails at livinghistoryfarm.org:
Question: "What was it like riding the rails?"
"I loved it. And I tell you, you don't recommend that to any young kid because it'll get in your blood. You're not agoing anywhere. You don't care. You just ride. And I wasn't married. I didn't care. It'll sure get in your blood because you don't have no worries about how you're going to get around. It's paid for. You're going to eat (in the hobo 'jungles'). That was more than you were doing at home, probably. "Now we'd stop. I never mooched (begged) a meal in my life on that. Never did. We'd stop and work in town anywhere we could get a job. Well, we'd work and get our money and catch that freight on again. Yeah, it'll get in your blood. I still like it. That old whistle will take off there. "I've been hijacked in the yards by the railroad bulls (guards), and, boy, they'd get rough with you, too. Me and my brother-in-law, we were going down through the yards, the railroad yards. Well, everybody catching the train, why, they'd be down in there prowling around. Well, this old boy – he was one of them wops, too, big guard, mean as he could be – he stepped out between the cars, and he said, 'Where you guys going?' "'Oh, we were going up to North Dakota for the harvest.' "He said, 'You just came from that away, didn't you?' "'No, we're from Texas.' "'Well, just get your hands up!' Boy, I'll tell you! He said, 'Now, you see that elevator down yonder?' "'Yeah.' "'You get your so-and-so down there, and you catch this train whenever it gets down there.' "Why, that train would be making 50 mile an hour when it got down there. (Laughs.) So, we seen the guard go away. We run back up and caught it in the yard and left out. He knew we couldn't catch that train agoing that fast. But he meant it. He meant stay out of that yard. And then, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, one time, they run us all out. They were on horses. Boy, them pistols were shooting around there. Now, I'll say this much – "
Question: "Were they shooting at you?"
"Nah, I don't think they ever did shoot at us. I think they were shooting straight up. But, me and my brother-in-law, we just got over behind the railroad track in the weeds and hid there. When the train started up, we just went up and caught it and took it along. I never have thought they were shooting at anybody. They just – See, there was so many (hobos). They just couldn't let you congregate in one town. "So, we'd been working in the laboratory there in Chadron, Nebraska. We seen a freight asitting over there, and there were so many people on it it looked like blackbirds all over it. We were scared to death to ride one, afraid we'd get throwed off or beat up. And believe it or not, when we got ready to go, that old brakeman hollered, 'All aboard!' (Laughs.) 'All aboard.' Just like it was a passenger train. Well, then we felt at ease."
Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: Walter Ballard on Being "Tractored Out" at livinghistoryfarm.org:
Now, that's where you got started at when they run the renters off. We were helping them. I was working for a renter. Now the fellow I worked for, Frank Heine, is dead. He knows about him. He had half of that country out there. He'd have, oh maybe on a half section of land, there'd be two or three houses, you know, of me and him and you. Families living in them making a decent living working for him. Well, he seen he could buy tractors up, and (he said) 'You get off! I don't need you no more. I don't need you no more.' "The fellow I worked for, he bought four new tractors at one time and three combines, see. Case tractors and combines. Well, you take a four-up team of mules – well, one tractor can do as much in a day as one team could do in a week and not be as expensive. Gas then, you know – You may not believe it, but he knows, we bought gas right here in Goodlett for nine- and ten-cents a gallon. They seen they could make so much more money by farming all of their land and running the little farmer off." Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: Fritz Fredrick – Growing Wheat at livinghistoryfarm.org: "This picture here was taken in 1936, and this was practically the only wheat field that I know of that was harvested (in the county). I just picked it up – The wheat was there, and I used that for just chicken feed. It was so dry that the ground started to blow, and it go real fine that it would extend over. And more land would blow."
(Question:) "Do you remember how much you paid for that combine?"
"Yes, it was about $1,785. Oh, they're around from, I imagine, $12,000 to $25,000 now (in 1979) for these combines. The prices are not in line, that's all I can see. That's the big trouble now."
Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: Madge May on the FSA at livinghistoryfarm.org:
"The first photograph? I don't exactly remember the actual occassion, but I do remember doing that same job many, many times. We used to raise a lot of them (chickens), and I used to clean a lot of them. And we took them in to town to – cleaned and took them in to town for people to use as fryers, you know." Question: "How would you clean a chicken?" "Well, first you have to cut their heads off. Pluck them good. Then, we used to always have to singe them to finish getting them clean and then wash them." Question: "The photograph identifies you as borrowers from the Farm Security Administration. Do you remember that?" "Yes." Lynn May: "Definitely." Madge: "Well, I imagine probably we couldn't have even survived probably without them because we had to have – they gave us what financial background we had when we started. And they were helpful." Lynn: "I think probably that's where you got your start in bookkeeping." Madge: "Well, that could be. I don't know." Lynn: "We always had to keep books. She was good keeping books. And to this day, she still does that."
Question: "And what are you doing now?"
Madge: "I'm doing bookkeeping. Well, from the farm, we started a Purina Feed franchise here in town. We had that five years, and then decided that wasn't that prosperous and a lot of hard work, too. And so he then sold that and bought a propane gas delivery service. And I decided then to go to work in Lincoln, and I went to work at Hovland-Swanson's in 1953, in January of 1953. And I'm still there. Hovland-Swanson's is a specialty store in Lincoln, exclusive."
Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: Harvey Taft on Cooperative Farmsteads at livinghistoryfarm.org:
"That's this place right here. That's my wife. It was a wonderful experience. I wouldn't have wanted to miss it, nor I wouldn't have wanted to live it over. "That's the way I got my start. They picked my family as one of the 10 families (to live on the farmstead project). I could move here. This house was built new. It just had a house, and a garage and an outside toilet. We built the caves after we moved here. We still worked on relief (welfare) that first summer and tended our garden and dug our caves, and helped build them. We didn't raise anything to sell the first two years because it was kind of dry. And we didn't have any vegetables to sell to make a living. We stayed with that four years, and they kept moving families off. "After four years they leased us that farm and organized us into a co-op, a non-stock co-op. And them two new families (that they replaced) and me run that co-op – (we) farmed cooperatively – for four years. We started a holstein dairy herd, a hog project, raising hogs. And they sent me to another place where they were selling out. And with a supervisor, (I) bought tractors and machinery to farm this land. And we farmed this 517 acres of land at a nominal figure. The rented it to us, and it was a good deal. And I told my wife, I sez, 'That beats renting and getting moved off (the land.' "Then, the co-op blowed up after about three years. The men didn't co-op with me. They wouldn't help me when the hay needed put up. I blew up. I sez, 'I'm done with the co-op.' I got to where I could borrow money and I and my boy could start and rent a farm. "Some of the big shots came here and they said, 'You pick a farm out like you'd want it out of this land.' "And I did. I picked a 194 acre farm out of this. They sold it to me for a little less than $12,000, and it was good land. And we stayed. "In 14 years – that was during World War II – prices were good, and I had good crops. The first five or six years I had bumper crops. And I doubled and tripled my payments. In 14 years, I paid it out. "I sold out when I was 65, 14 years ago. I sold out to my son here and just reserved my home. Now, I got everything the way I wanted it when I got old, only that I'm left alone. (Harvey's wife died two years before this interview.) But, financially I don't have any worries. All my life I had to worry. I had debts and interest to pay. And I fought it for years."
Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: May Ross Lincoln on School Pie Suppers at livinghistoryfarm.org:
"It was a one-room school house, all eight grades." Question: "Just tell me about the pie supper." "Well, in the rural areas, (they were) for money making projects and social, too. It was chance for everybody in the school and the neighborhood to get together. Come about 7:00 (o'clock), all the women brought in their pies. And there were tables set up for the pies and cakes. The young men would get out – and boys – would play, like baseball, is what I recall, because it was in the spring. And the girls were over talking and chatting and giggling and laughing (laughs) and wondering who was going to buy their pie. "So then, I think they introduced me since I was the teacher. And I told them how much I enjoyed working with their children. And I was glad they came to the party, and I hoped they had a good time. "It was obvious that if there was a certain pie that a certain boy wanted to buy, well then the rest of the kids would bid it up. Some of them would go as high as $5 or $6. There was one couple – they didn't go to school, but they were engaged, I'd say they were in their 20s – so, they ran his pie up to about $10. And they made quite a bit of money that way. "And then after they'd sold all the pies, they had this contest of the 'Prettiest Girl.' So, I don't remember who nominated me, but I remember that after we were nominated well then they said, 'All the pretty girls stand up.' And then they started casting their votes to see who was the (prettiest). I have a vague recollection of winning. Well, I felt real pleased, and I felt like the community approved of me, because I really didn't think I was the prettiest. But I just thought that it was kind of an honor since I'd been teaching their children. And the children voted for me. So I thought well they like me and like the way I'd been teaching them. "I met a young man in college, and he was pre-med. We were married in 1941, and then that November (actually December 7) Pearl Harbor was attacked. And then they called him (drafted him). He became a private, a 'Pfc.' (Private First Class) He went down to Fort Sill for indoctrination, and came back. And he went to med school as a Pfc. "So, I was fulfilled as a housewife and mother."
Excerpts from Dust Bowl Descent Interviews: Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" at livinghistoryfarm.org:
"This Land is Your Land" is probably the best-known song written by Woody Guthrie. The song has become something of a patriotic anthem. But it's important to remember that Guthrie was a union organizer, and the song would have originally been performed in labor union halls and at rallies for migrant farm workers. In that context, the song is a radical call for the lower classes in American society to take back their country.
Here are the lyrics of this version, which was recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in March, 1940:
This land is your land
And this land is my landFrom California
To the New York Island,
From the redwood forests
To the gulfstream waters,
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking
That ribbon of highway
I saw above me
That endless skyway,
Saw below me
That golden valley.
This land was made for you and me.
I roamed and rambled
And I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of
Her diamond deserts.
All around me
A voice was sounding,
'This land was made for you and me.'
When the sun come shining
Then I was stolling
And the wheat fields waving
And the dust clouds rolling.
The voice was chanting
As the fog was lifting,
'This land was made for you and me.'
(Reprise first and last verses.)
As Lange told the story years later, the decision to stop at the pea picker’s camp was fortuitous. She was driving home after a month in the field when she happened upon a sign identifying the camp. She tried to ignore the sign and drive on, but after twenty miles she was compelled to return to the camp, “following instinct, not reason.” She shot six photographs in a very short period of time of the woman and members of her family, starting at a distance and working her way closer and closer after the fashion of a portrait photographer. Her photos first appeared in the San Francisco News on March 10, 1936, as part of a story demanding relief for the starving pea pickers. The feature was a success: relief was organized, and there is no record of death by starvation. This story of the photo’s origin and impact is, of course, a bit too good. Every icon acquires a standard narrative and often others as well. The standard narrative includes a myth of origin, a tale of public uptake or impact, and a quest for the actual people in the picture to provide closure for the larger social drama captured by the image. In this case, the photo’s origin is due to serendipity, not routine or craft. There is no mention of Lange’s government subsidy nor of the fact that the photo was retouched to remove the woman’s thumb in the lower right corner. Most tellingly, it slides over the fact that the iconic photo was not actually shown in the San Francisco News until the day following the original story. Iconic photos acquire mythic narratives: Lange becomes a poetic vehicle for the operation of historical forces; by mobilizing public opinion, the photographer provides the impetus to collective action. “The star illustration of moving somebody to do something is Migrant Mother".
(An excerpt from Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites at press.uchicago.edu)