Migrant Mother, 1936, Iconic Photograph

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The Migrant Mother, Florence Owen Thompson photographed with her hand on her face with a concerned look. She is surrounded by her children looking distressed. Taken in March 1936 during the Great Depression by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration
The Migrant Mother, March 1936 by Dorothea Lange.

The Migrant Mother and the Great Depression 

Out of the many photos taken during the Great Depression, none had a greater impact than that of the Migrant Mother.

It is credited with bringing to light the reality of hunger, poverty, and hopelessness suffered by Americans during the Great Depression.

Taken by photographer Dorothea Lange in March 1936, the image depicted a mother lost in thought, squinting into the distant emptiness with resilience.

When it was published by a San Francisco newspaper, the Government instantaneously dispatched 20,000 pounds of relief food to starving immigrant workers in Nipomo, California, United States, where the photo was taken.

Interestingly, by the time the relief food arrived at the Nipomo migrant farmworkers’ camp, the migrant mother had vanished.

Capturing the Iconic Moment 

In 1936, Dorothea Lange was contacted by the Farm Security Administration to document the struggles of people living in rural America. The aim of the project was to firm up support and funding for the FSA’s farm aid programs to resettle migrant farmworkers.

While undertaking the project, Lange passed by Nipomo, California, where migrant workers who had been displaced due to the drought-ravaged US Southern Plains were living in camps. 

Overwhelmed by the great depression and a ravaging drought, the workers had responded to a notice for pea plant pickers but the crop was destroyed by freezing rain. With their hopes of a job and pay gone, the pickers were huddled into a camp with poor conditions. 

While at the camp, Lange took four photos, one of which was one of the most famous American photos of the 20th Century. The Migrant Mother. 

The Migrant Mother 

Florence Owens Thompson was a 32-year-old mother of 7 children in 1936 when the photo was taken. It was reported that Thompson and her children were at the time living on frozen vegetables from neighboring fields and birds that her children had killed and she had sold her car’s tires to buy food.

In 1978 Thompson came out to dispel the earlier accounts. According to her, she was not a migrant from the drought-ravaged southwest as had been stereotyped. On the day of the photo, her car broke down at the pea pickers camp at Nipomo while she was on her way to work on a lettuce farm. 

Seeing the deplorable conditions in which the pea pickers were living, she accepted to take the photo to convey their suffering. Thereafter she proceeded with her journey which is the reason she could not be found when government relief arrived at the pea pickers camp.

She however acknowledged that her situation was no different at the time. She and her children were also struggling.

The Definitive Photo Of The Depression Era

The photo went on to acquire mythical status, carrying with it the definition and manifestation of the great depression era more than any other photo. It has been herald as the ultimate image of the impact of the great depression. 

Thompson died in 1983 aged 80 years, marking the end of a life of economic hardship and maternal sacrifice. 

President Ronald Reagan eulogized her as “…an American who symbolized strength and determination in the midst of the Great Depression.”

The photo is held by the Library of Congress as part of their Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. See and learn about more iconic photographs on the HistoryColored website.

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