by lyle e davis
It was a different world back then. A black and white world.
Follow this photo essay of America . . . before Pearl Harbor. Color, you will see, made a world of difference.
This is one of Dorothea Lange’s most famous photographs -
a destitute mother in a migrant farm worker camp in California. Lange was one of the many talented WPA photographers who recorded the history and conditions of the Depression across the United States.
Now, not just anybody could buy this film. It cost $5 per roll and had to be sent back to Rochester, New York for development. By comparison, in 1938 Congress established the first minimum wage at 25 cents per hour. $5 represented half a week’s work. But the Farm Security Administration sent out about a dozen photographers with this new film. Commercial photographer, Samuel Gottscho, and well-to-do amateur, Charles Cushman, embraced this new technology, as well.
Urban America began to have its picture taken. Wherever there was scenery, there was kodachrome. And soon, photos began to color, literally, the landscape!
Times Square was the happening place. Big date. Hop in a taxi and go see Night Train at the Globe Theater.
Washington was a city of contrasts – the New Deal having extended its influence across the nation.
But it was still very much a Southern city – especially if you were African American.
Chicago was the transportation, food, and manufacturing center of the country.
But for all the big, beautiful buildings, the Chicago River, the ballparks, Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field, Chicago still had the Southside, which was still an industrial neighborhood of steel mills and packing houses. Cars parked, waiting for their owners to get off work and head back home.
New Orleans was the largest city in the South – not Atlanta.
Jim Crow laws were a fact of life for residents of the Ninth Ward.
San Francisco had been eclipsed by Los Angeles in size, but it remained the most important port and financial center of the West.
And Charles Cushman had to take a photograph of his new coupe beside the recently-completed Golden Gate Bridge.
Washington D.C. |
Faro and Doris Caudill, farmers in Pietown, New Mexico.
They lived in a dugout and struggled to survive on Resettlement Administration land. As the 1930s came to a close, Kodak came out with Kodachrome film – the first commercially viable color film available to the general public. In 1937 and 1938, the colors were still not stable and accurate, but by 1939 Kodachrome was producing color images of remarkable precision.
Chicago’s South Side industrial area . . with steel mills and packing houses.
Nearly half of all Americans still lived on farms and in small towns.
The Farmall tractor had revolutionized farming, but mechanization remained limited.
In rural Georgia, folks still went to town on Saturday by wagon.
And kids still went barefoot in Indiana in the summertime.
People learned to make do for themselves. One just didn’t run down to the local department store, whip out a piece of plastic and say, “Charge it!” No, this was before Pearl Harbor, remember? Life was not quite as easy way back then. Mothers still made clothes for the kids – from flour and feed sacks - as with these girls at the Vermont State Fair. (See photograph below, second row).
And grandmothers still made sure that their teenaged granddaughters didn’t hang out at the horse auctions with the menfolk in little towns in eastern Kentucky.
Sometimes, grandma got good and mad and sometimes her granddaughter is stomping away. See the photo below, third row.
Saturdays were the day that everybody went to town in Cascade, Idaho. See photo below.
Yes, this was a totally different time. A safer time. War had not yet come our way. The “Ware to End All Wars, also known as World War I was quite enough for us. We just wanted peace to continue. And as we pursued peace, we found our lives . . . in downtown America, in urban America, and in rural America.
You could get Cokes for five cents. People would see doctors, but usually only in an emergency. One treated oneself. Doctors cost money. Besides, there was that independence thing. We didn’t like to count on anybody but ourselves back then. ‘Course, some of the doctors would work on the barter system. Dentists, too. But unless your were bleeding badly . . . or if you were near death, chances are mom would give you some type of home remedy. More often than not . . . they worked. But sometimes not.
These were the times when farm kids would often complete their schooling after the 8th grade . . . and then report back to the farm to learn the trade.
Jazz had been discovered and some of the stars who have since come and gone were in their prime. No one knew what rock and roll was and Elvis sure would be a funny name to give to a kid.
Yes, life before Pearl Harbor was something. The air was fresher, there was less noise, and traffic? It just wasn’t a problem. Not yet, anyway.
But rural life remained quite distinct from urban America – whether on the C-D Ranch in Montana –
Or during the peach harvest in western Colorado.
Transportation was changing, too. For those who could afford to fly the emerging airlines were already flying four-engine Boeing Stratoliners out of Chicago Midway.
For those whose lives were led a bit closer to the ground, their boundaries were slightly more limited.
Often, a visit to the neighbors was a big thing. It may have been a five mile walk, or drive, if you had a car . . . or by horse and buggy if you didn’t. Or you might decide to visit the country store. Often that was the furthest many rural Southerners ever got.
Americans celebrated Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak during the summer of 1941 and another Yankees’ World Series championship in the fall.
We got to know a beautiful young girl from Kansas who managed, somehow, to visit this wonderful World known as Oz. Her name was Judy Garland and she was seen in color, for the very first time.
Those on the Edges
Although immigration had been curtailed in the 1920s, the Lower East Side remained vibrantly Jewish.
While life was getting easier for most, the African Americans still had a hard row to hoe. African Americans faced brutal discrimination in jobs, housing, education, and public accommodations. It’s no wonder that the women here and even the older girl are suspicious of the white photographer.
And while the New Deal did help a lof of folks, the relief was not spread evenly.
You take a sharecropper in Alabama, for example. To him, the New Deal was more likely a card game of some type. He didn’t see a whole lot of benefit.
The New Deal did little to improve conditions for sharecroppers in Alabama.
Poverty is an equal opportunity pain. It affects many parts of the country, many trades, professions, industries.
You had the farmers, the sharecroppers, the steel workers, the miners . . . hard, hard work. Dangerous work. And what did they have to come home to? Mining families in Pennsylvania still lived in decrepit company housing. The Roosevelt administration struggled to get Mexican American children out of the fields and into schools in Texas and other border states.
Native Americans, who had only recently received citizenship in their own land, remained desperately poor. This Tohono O'odham grandmother in Tucson shows the same distruct of the white photographer that the Africam American family in Maryland did.
All of these scenes, sometimes bucolic, sometimes painful, sometimes threatening, were about to change dramatically.
The now famous 9th ward, New Orleans, before Pearl Harbor |
Another New Orleans view, this a courtyard,
before Pearl Harbor
Suddenly, the world would be swept up in events that would change the way we lived, the way we loved, the way we died.
We were about to experience something called Pearl Harbor.
We now had color film to record our pleasant times . . . but now that same Kodachrome would record a lot more pain, suffering and death.
And little do these Japanese Americans suspect – as they celebrate their culture during the World’s Fair - that within two years, they will be deported to relocation camps by their own government.
On December 6th, a very different America prevailed. After December 7th, that America would be changed forever.
Sources: These images and much of the storyline were derived from the Internet. The images from a website known as Photobucket. "Site content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." We first found this photo essay on a website known as “The Daily Kos.”
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/12/7/04913/9030. It carries a byline of JohnnyGunn but we do not think this is the original author or compiler.
We’ve made efforts to locate the author, but without success. We have added to the storyline where appropriate.
The New York City Skyline . . . after Kodachrome . . . but before Pearl Harbor
The Capitol Dome . . . a quiet, peaceful place before Pearl Harbor. A pretty photo, after the
introduction of Kodachrome . . . a busy, busy place after Pearl Harbor.