America from the Great Depression to World War II: Color Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1939-1945
FSA-OWI Photographs, 1935-1945, includes color photographs of rural and small-town America and scenes of the World War II mobilization effort. Many now-famous photographers created these pictures while employed by a Depression-era government program. Black and white photographs are another component of this collection.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.
- The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Related Collections and Exhibits
These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.
- American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
- California Gold: Folk Music from the Thirties, 1938-1940
- Women Come to the Front: Journalists, Photographers, and Broadcasters During World War II
Recommended additional sources of information.
There are currently no other resources for this collection
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
Black and white and color images may be searched separately or together. See the combined search page for a description of what is searched.
Searching by place or topic will be more successful than searching by a specific date.
For help with search words, go to a FSA-OWI Subject Index.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
The Farm Security Administration (FSA)/Office of War Information (OWI) collection contains over 1,500 color photographs. The photographs, taken between 1939 and 1945, provide an overview of American social history during the final years of the Great Depression and World War II. Providing rich evidence of daily life in the United States, the pictures focus on rural and small-town United States in the 1930s and 1940s and the mobilization effort during World War II.
Women in the War Effort
Many of the photographs examine women's contribution on the home front during World War II. As men were drafted into military service, women replaced them on the factory floor. The photographs show the many roles women played as they rallied to do their part in the war effort.
Search on employment, factory, and laborers for photographs showing women in the workplace.
New Deal Work Programs
President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised the country a "New Deal", a series of programs aimed at helping the country revive from the Great Depression. These programs affected many aspects of American society, and emphasized creating jobs for the unemployed citizens in the United States. Several photographs within the collections show New Deal work projects. For example:
Search on dams and Tennessee Valley Authority for photographs of TVA projects under construction.
Throughout the United States, migrant workers provided the labor needed to bring in the harvest. These individuals, who owned no land of their own to cultivate, were some of the hardest hit by the Depression. The photographs highlight the living conditions of these workers.
Search the words agricultural laborers and migrant laborers for photographs showing the lives of farm workers.
Many photographs show farm workers in the fields and at home.
Search on farmers, farming and families for photographs such as this one illustrating agricultural practices.
The Farm Security Administration was established to help the farmers in the U.S., including those who owned farmland and those who did not. One of the ways this was accomplished was be providing loans to farmers for the purchase of equipment.
Some photographs in this collection show people who benefited from the farm relief program of the FSA and the food relief program.
Search on farm relief and food relief for photographs showing relief programs in action.
In preparation for participation in World War II overseas, members of the military received training in the United States. Photographs in the collection show various types of training as well as munitions and military technology of the period.
Search on camouflage, military science, flight training, and military training for photographs showing the process of educating the armed forces.
Although the collection is not organized chronologically, it does lend itself to sequencing activities since it provides a slice-of-life view of the United States during the late 1930s and 1940s. Students can select a topic and choose photographs to show the order of the processes or events related to the topic. For example, students might select the topic military aircraft. They can arrange photographs to show military planes being built, being loaded with bombs, and flying in the air. Students can use the same approach to sequence other events and processes, such as the agricultural processes of plowing, planting, and harvesting.
Search on airplane industry, bombers, and employment to locate pictures of aircraft in various stages of development.
History texts often document the political history of a nation and provide little insight into the daily lives of the American people. In contrast, the FSA/OWI collection shows rural locations, factories, and ordinary Americans at work, at home, and at play. It provides an opportunity for students to study the social history of the United States. For example, students can gain insight into the living conditions of African-Americans in the rural South.
Search on Afro-Americans, agricultural laborers, migrant laborers, and Fourth of July. Encourage students to describe living and working conditions for African-Americans living in the rural South.
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Through the collection, students can gain an understanding of how world and national events impact ordinary people. They can use the photographs to hypothesize about the effects of the Great Depression and relief programs on farmers and laborers, for example.
Search on food relief and auctions for photographs showing the impact of the Great Depression on farmers, laborers, and their families.
Students can interpret what a photographer chooses to depict by comparing the photographs with written accounts about the same topic. For example, they might view the pictures of relocation camps for Japanese Americans during World War II and compare the visuals to accounts in their history texts. How do the photographs reinforce or enhance the accounts of relocation? Do students think the photographer provided an objective, non-opinionated viewpoint of relocation? Do the photographs show how the people felt about being forced to leave their homes?
Search Japanese Americans for pictures of relocation camps during World War II.
Historical Research Capabilities
The collection can serve as a primary source springboard for research. For example, students might review photographs of the construction of Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dams and reinforce the visual images with research information about the TVA construction projects. They can investigate the effect of dam construction on the people living in the TVA region and on the environment. In addition, students can use photographic evidence from the collection to support research topics on many aspects of American social history during the 1930s and 1940s.
Search on dams, Tennessee Valley Authority, and construction industry for photographs depicting the building of TVA dams
Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making
The collection contains many photographs of the war effort on the home front, particularly of women working in wartime industries. Students can examine the roles women played during the war and form theories about how their role in the workplace affected the women themselves and their family lives. They might analyze how the work of the women compared to that of the men they replaced. They might consider how women who joined the work force were treated by their fellow employees, as well as how they were viewed after the war came to an end. Students can also compare and contrast the roles of working women during World War II with those of today.
Search on airplane industry, women-employment, and bombers for pictures of women in the workplace.
Arts & Humanities
A unit of instruction on the Depression era and the World War II can be enhanced with musical and literary resources. Students can use these resources in conjunction with the collection to increase their understanding of the American experience.
- Songs: "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime;" "This Is the Army, Mr. Jones"
- Fiction: My Wartime Summers by Jane Cutler, Purely Rosie Pearl by Patricia A. Cochran, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- Nonfiction: The FDR Way by Jeffrey Morris, A Fence Away from Freedom: Japanese Americans and World War II by Ellen Levine
- Poetry: "Depression" and "The Last Good War - and Afterward" by Isabel Joshlin Glaser; The People, Yes by Carl Sandburg
- Speech: Fireside Chat of December 9, 1941 by Franklin D. Roosevelt
Persuasive Writing and Speech
Explain to students that President Roosevelt's New Deal was a program established to help end the Depression. The Farm Security Administration was founded as part of the New Deal to help farmers purchase equipment. It was just one of many agencies organized to help rural and urban Americans. Ask students to write a short speech supporting or opposing the establishment of the FSA or another New Deal agency. Encourage students to select photographs from the collection to use as visual evidence in support of their position. Allow time for each student to give his or her speech.
Story Boards for a Docudrama
Docudramas often make use of still photographs as visuals. Have students select a topic about which they will prepare a three-minute docudrama. They might consider topics such as "Farming the Land" or "On the Home Front." Students can work in groups to choose photographs that illustrate their topic, write the copy for the narrator of the docudrama, and prepare the story boards. If possible, students might use a video camera to shoot their docudrama. They could use some live reenactment scenes by playing roles while dressed in period costumes.
During World War II, letter writing kept families connected although they were physically apart. Men and women in the military avidly looked forward to mail from the home front. Parents, spouses, children, and even strangers wrote to the military personnel providing news about the everyday life back home. Students can select a photograph and imagine they are one of the individuals in the picture. Encourage them to write a letter to someone overseas describing the day-to-day life at home.
Students can examine photographs depicting rural areas in the 1930s and 1940s to gain an understanding of what life was like. They can review pictures of social gatherings, laborers in the field, housing, and crops to help them set the stage for a one-act play, a poem, a short story, or an essay about living and working in rural areas.