Images of the Depression Era


Informational Content:
Students will draw on visual and textual material to learn that during the Depression the occupations and pastimes of young adult Americans varied:

  • Some teenagers attended high school, had hobbies and even drove cars.
  • Others were poor migrant workers who followed the crops.
  • As the possibility of war loomed, some joined the armed forces while others trained for jobs in airplane production.
  • Still others chose to explore the country for adventure or opportunity by hitching rides in freight trains or in cars.
  • Some found it necessary to accept direct relief from the government in the form of surplus commodities.


  • National or global economic forces affect ordinary individuals in profound and varied ways.
  • In each generation, young adults must confront the challenges of how to fill economic and personal needs. Depending on the availability of resources and opportunities, they respond to these challenges in different ways.
  • A contemporary historian like a reporter or a documentary photographer views events from a particular perspective. His choice of language or images may reveal his own individual point-of-view or prejudices or the points-of-view and prejudices of the times he recorded.


  • Getting the literal meaning from text
  • Making inferences from text (perspective)
  • Taking literal information from photographic images
  • Making inferences from photographs (perspective, lifestyle, location in time)


The following pages are a representative selection from the New Deal Network series of photographs by Rondal Partridge. There are about 70 photos in all, divided into categories (Migrant Youth, Contract Labor, On the Freights, High School Youth, Hanging Around, Mechanization, Youth on Relief, Hitch-hiking, Lockheed Employment, and Aircraft Vocational Schools).

The images and text may be downloaded and reproduced. Photos should either be projected onto a screen directly from the computer, downloaded and photocopied onto acetates so that they may be projected for class use, or photocopied onto paper for each student to see.

[Note: The following links will take you to pages in the Rondal Partridge feature piece. To get back to this page, please use the "Back" button on your browser.]

  1. Migrant Youth in Potato Field
  2. Sitting on a Sack of Potatoes
  3. Digging Up Potatoes
  4. Contract Labor
  5. Li'l Fellers
  6. On the Freights
  7. Helping a New-Comer
  8. In the Roseville Switch Yard
  9. Speed Burner
  10. The Student Body President
  11. Negro and White Youngsters
  12. Hanging Around the Store
  13. Hanging Around
  14. Movie Theater
  15. Navy Recruits
  16. Mechanization; the Agricultural Employee
  17. Skillful Young Man
  18. Youth on Relief
  19. Looking for his Card
  20. Hitch-Hiking
  21. A Professional Job of Thumbing
  22. Lockheed Employment
  23. Line Outside the Lockheed Plant
  24. Aircraft Vocational Schools
  25. Boys Training as Maintenance Men


The activity may be presented for the whole group with the teacher leading, for small groups, with the teacher circulating to facilitate the work, or as an individual activity.

Preview and select a number of images and captions to look at and read. Try to include one or two from each category. You might also choose one or two photographs of teenagers from contemporary magazines like Seventeen or Rolling Stone.

As a whole group activity:

  • Reproduce the images on acetate so they may be viewed by the whole class using an overhead projector.

  • Instruct the students to fold a sheet of loose leaf paper into two columns, heading one column "Observations" and the other "Inferences."

  • Show "3. Digging Up Potatoes." Cover the caption. Ask for volunteers to tell you what they see. Record observations and inferences in the appropriate columns (e.g., "The girl is wearing a hat," is an observation, while, "The girl is poor," or "The girl is working hard," is an inference. Observations may be verified visually; inferences are interpretations, which will require further information to be confirmed. Discuss as necessary. ). You might preface inferences with qualifiers such as, "The girl may be...."

  • Encourage the students to get as much information as they can from the image. They should make observations and inferences about the girl, her clothing, the ground, the background, the weather, the light, etc.

  • Now show the caption. Read it together. Discuss the additional information you get from the caption. Talk about how the image and the caption work together to help the observer make meaning (e.g., Partridge explains in the text that workers dropped from exhaustion. This confirms that the work was hard.) If any inferences were not confirmed, ask the class how they might be.

  • Repeat Steps 1-5 with images from the other categories.

  • At some point, show the contemporary image. Allow students to respond to it. Ask them what visual clues tell them that this is a picture of a young adult of today.

  • Have the students elicit as much information as they can from the pictures and the text.

  • Use the Notes section below to guide your viewing of the photographs.

  • As a small group activity:

  • Repeat Steps 1-5 from the whole group activity, so that all the students understand the procedure.

  • Make one set of photocopies of the images (If the school is adequately equipped, students might be given Internet addresses for the images and view them on the computer screen.). Divide them up into categories.

  • Divide the class into groups of four or five students. Distribute the pictures and captions by category. Some groups may have more than one category.

  • Instruct the group to discuss and record their observations and inferences. Suggest that, for a challenge, they should cover each caption until they have made all their notes about that photograph.

  • When you have a sense that the groups have completed their work, ask them to share their results with each other. You (or another student) should make notes on the chalkboard for the rest of the groups to write, so that all the groups have information about all the categories. Alternatively, students might share by making a display of the pictures and text with their interpretations of it. Groups might then be given time to read the work of their classmates.

  • After all the groups have reported, ask the class what conclusions they might draw about the youth in the Depression from having looked at and thought about the pictures and captions. At this point, if appropriate, use the Notes section to enrich the discussion.

  • As an individual activity:

  • Repeat Steps 1-5 from the whole group activity, so that all the students understand the procedure.

  • Make one set of photocopies of the images (If the school is adequately equipped, students might be given Internet addresses for the images and view them on the computer screen.). Label each page with its category name (e.g., Migrant Youth in Potato Field).

  • Distribute one or two images to each student. Allow class time for them to make notes about their images and text. This might also be assigned for homework.

  • Debrief together, as suggested in Steps 5 and 6 in the group activity.

  • Notes:

    In general, try to integrate information from other class readings and resources to reinforce the concept that history is a rich fabric of events and stories. In addition, for groups that are cognitively mature, you might raise issues about the perspective embedded in some of Partridge's captions:

    1. Migrant Youth in Potato Field: "Some were willing to pay five or even ten dollars for a place in the field, at thirty-five cents an hour. This result of this could be speeding up of the potato digging until someone dropped out of exhaustion." Partridge implies that workers were desperate for these low-paying jobs. What are the implications of Partridge's speculation that the willingness of migrants to pay for positions might have caused bosses to speed up picking to the point where people dropped from exhaustion, thereby creating profitable vacancies?

    3. Digging Up Potatoes: Partridge and the father of the girl in the picture say, "...The girl never got a chance to finish high school and will be nineteen 'come August 11.'" What might their feelings be about the situation? Are they emphasizing her youth, and lamenting the fact that her youth and her education has been cut short because of hard times?

    4. Contract Labor: What is the intentional irony of the term "paying guests"? Also, what does Partridge mean by "indentured boredom"? Is he sympathetic or hostile toward the idle workers? Why do you think so?

    6. On the Freights: From paragraphs 1, 2 and 4, what can you tell about Partridge's attitude toward young people who choose to ride the freights? Is he supportive, critical or neutral? Is there any evidence that he feels there is more to riding the freights than a means of transportation in difficult times? Use with 20. Hitch-Hiking. Discuss the same issues.

    9.Speed Burner: Contrast the language Partridge uses here to describe "the speed burner" with the language of the student bystander. Who is more critical? Who is more sympathetic? How can you tell? How can you account for this difference?

    11. Negro and White Youngsters: What are the implications of Partridge's title for this photograph? Why are the black and white children separated? How is this separation expressed in the photograph? How is it expressed in the caption for the photograph? Is there any verbal or visual evidence that Partridge is sympathetic to the situation of the African-American children? You might also look at Typical Italian High School Student and discuss the Partridge's casual use of the word "typical." What might readers' responses be today to this way of entitling the two photographs?

    16. Mechanization; the Agricultural Employee: Discuss the meaning of this paragraph, which is, syntactically, among the more challenging passages. Why does Partridge call the large farms "factories in the field"? How are the machinery operators "hasten[ing] their own displacement from small farms"? What do you think is Partridge's feeling about this development? How can you tell?

    18. Youth on Relief and 19. Looking for his Card: Discuss the meaning of "surplus commodities" and "on relief." Why are the youth reluctant to be photographed? Why do they "feel very keenly the stigma" of accepting relief? Would the same be true today?

    21. A Professional Job of Thumbing: Along with the information in 20. Hitch-Hiking, discuss the description of the hitch-hikers and what Partridge would probably guess are their chances of getting a ride soon.

    22. Lockheed Employment: In what way is working in an aircraft factory "more romantic" than other jobs? Contrast the wages of the aircraft workers to that of the potato pickers. How do you account for the difference?

    24.Aircraft Vocational Schools: Why are so many jobs available in this high tech industry in an era of economic depression?


    There is a conspicuous majority of male subjects in the series. What are several explanations for this?