Fabulous Historical Photos Online

Children in the tenement district, Brockton, Mass., Dec. 1940 (Jack Delano, FSA)

(Click the thumbnail to open a large image.)

The past few years have seen some articles (such as this excellent recent one) about digitized archives of historical photos, particularly in the USA. These photo collections are historical treasure troves, but media treatments of them are necessarily limited in scope. Why not go directly to the source and browse the archives yourself?

A good place to start is the Library of Congress’s photo collections. (See also this Library of Congress site.)

One way to find interesting photos is to search on the photographer’s name and browse the results. Some names to start with might be these from the FSA:

Jack Delano
Dorothea Lange
Russel Lee
Carl Mydans
Arthur Rothstein
Ben Shahn

I’m sure there are many others whose work is worth a look, but these will get you started.

Many of the photos — including, I assume, all of the FSA images — are in the public domain. Even better, you can download full-sized scans of many of these photos and make high-quality prints.

(Via the Streetphoto forum.)

UPDATE: The FSA photos, interesting as they are as historical documents, are also superb examples of propaganda. If you look at them it’s difficult not to come away thinking warm thoughts about New Deal programs. Of course that’s what the people who commissioned the photos, and the people who made them, had in mind. In hindsight it’s clear that those New Deal programs didn’t do much, if any, good. But look at the photos and you will almost want to believe the myths. (Not that valuable historical documents aren’t generally produced by people with agendas — who else produces documents? — but it’s prudent to keep the agendas in mind.)

6 thoughts on “Fabulous Historical Photos Online”

  1. Some of it wasn’t myth. If you had no job, and the WPA gave you a job, it was a job. If you got a job working building a dam for the TVA, that was a job, too. If your teenage kid was not working and had no prospects, and he went off to a CCC camp and learned to build things, that really happened. If you were a business that employed people that could not get credit since the banking system was unable to make loans, but the RFC made you a loan, that really happened, too.

    We can say that the New Deal was the wrong approach, with the benefit of hindsight. I tend to think that it was the best thing on offer at the time, since no one knew what to do. Like most things done in a crisis, it is easy to critique later.

    But its actual effects were hardly “myth”.

  2. These were jobs in the sense that somebody worked and was paid, but it was make-work that wasn’t very productive. History is written in hindsight. We can acknowledge that many people didn’t know better. We are not obliged to support the myth. And it was a myth. The Depression lasted until the War, despite the New Deal programs. Whatever they did for morale they were not economically effective. It is also true that some supporters and administrators of the New Deal had a collectivist agenda that is palpable in the photos and other artwork they commissioned and made.

  3. More than 60 years later, Brockton is still a dump.

    Judging by the style of the buildings, they were erected around 1890, when New England was an industrial powerhouse. Brockton’s specialty was shoes. Much of the Union army marched in boots made there. United Shoe Machinery Company fought anti-trust actions for many years, until their proprietary technology was either pretty much obsolete or in the public domain. The manufacture of shoes had also moved to cheaper places in the US and elsewhere by the time the photo was taken. Brockton has recovered a bit, but the schools and the tough commute to Boston don’t help much.

    It would be another 30 years after this photo for the region to re-tool for new industries (financial services and technology). Plymouth County has lagged the rest of the state, but there are prosperous areas to the north and west of Brockton.

    Gales of creative destruction – sometimes, the process is not very pretty.

  4. “…it was make-work that wasn’t very productive.” That is too strong. A lot of the guys who ran those programs only turned to government spending very reluctantly. Jesse Jones of the RFC is a good example. They tried to get value for money until a recovery got going. So they built a lot of basic stuff, like parks, roads, bridges, post offices, etc., much of which is still in use today. And they were “economically effective” for the millions of people who would not otherwise have had any job at all. They were therefore very politically effective, since crowds of angry unemployed men in other countries in the 1930s destroyed their governments and put dictatorships into power.

    Mitch, agreed. I grew up one town over from Brockton. That photo is what Brockton still looked like in the 1970s.

  5. Thank you for bringing our attention to this collection. I spent hours last night going through the amazing photos from the Chicago Daily News collection (1902-1933) and have not even scratched the surface. I recommend it to all Chicagoans interested in seeing how much the city has (and has not) changed.

  6. The center of our town when we were growing up was a WPA auditorium – used for all town events, all high school basketball games, plays, proms, etc. One room upstairs was a library (open Wed, Friday & Sat nights). Downstairs was the office for the town policeman (at one time, having had his license taken away for DWI, he patrolled the streets in a tractor). Yeah, we were a pretty minimalist town. And we were pretty sturdy believers in the free market. But that building was useful in both practical and communal ways. My father, fresh out of engineering school in the mid-thirties with not all that many prospects, worked on dams that made farming a little less unpredictable. I don’t know about the grand schemes & maybe it wasn’t wise – I do know that some of this stuff was politically questionable (the leftist tinge of much of the arts promoted by these grants) but I also know my life, a generation later, was more pleasant because of it. (The building is still standing but it was at one point turned into a grocery store.)

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