Age of Lost Innocence: Photographs of Childhood Realities and Adult Fears During the Depression

Pricola, Jennifer Ann Pricola, Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia

Although official numbers mislead, reliable estimates suggest that in 1933, about one-third of the Unites States' workforce found itself unemployed, and the average family income had fallen nearly forty percent since 1929 (Elder 19-20).1 By December, 102,000 dependent and neglected children were placed in foster care and an additional 140,000 in orphanages (Morton 438). Thousands of others were forced into early labor to help support their struggling families. Many dropped out of school. Some lacked clothes to keep them warm on the walk there while others headed to the work fields instead.

Living in a country founded on Puritan principles of "self-reliance and individual initiative," Americans considered the despair of the nation's children--innocents who had not yet inherited the heritage of moral responsibility--a challenge to their fundamental belief system (Watkins 61). White, protestant, middle-class culture regarded personal responsibility and hard work as the highest of virtues and thought poverty a direct result of an indolent work ethic. After the 1929 stock market crash, conservative President Hoover adopted the moral-responsibility mantra as official policy. Historian William Stott reports: "When, at Senator Robert Wagner's insistence, the Congress of 1930 counted the unemployment in the U.S. and found there to be 3,187,947, [President] Hoover 'corrected' this figure down to 1,900,000 by cutting out those whom he judged only seasonally unemployed and those whom he decided did not seriously want work" (71). Shiftlessness, in other words, accounted for nearly half of the unemployed.

Conservatives viewed the downturn as part of a natural economic cycle that would eventually rectify itself. To interfere would threaten both the recovery process and the spirit of American resiliency. Writing about the early twentieth-century American mindset, R.H. Watkins claims: "Hard work, honesty, and independence, they believed utterly, had brought this country to the forefront of nations, had built a breed of men…who had taken up the institutions of the founding fathers and made them the wonder of the world. Anything that might weaken the strength of that tradition would weaken the very character of America and was, by definition, evil. Government charity, especially, by robbing people of initiative, would be the very embodiment of error" (61). Therefore, rather than provide direct-assistance programs, the Hoover administration encouraged local and national, private charities to provide any necessary relief. Many agreed with the President's agenda, and even the Red Cross refrained from offering assistance on a national level, turning the problem over to local and state chapter chairpersons.

Still, while Republicans waited for the nation to heal itself, helpless children--innocent victims who could be accused of neither laziness nor moral irresponsibility--continued to suffer and often worse than their adult parents. Perhaps for this reason, public sentiment toward morality shifted, and as the election of 1932 indicated, the majority of Americans embraced a spirit of community outreach in the form of government-sponsored welfare programs. To be sure, New Deal opponents abounded, but overall a sense of social responsibility defeated zealous adherence to moral platitudes (McElvaine 206). Emotions overcame, or rather mingled with, politics. Of course federal programs, including overt propaganda efforts, facilitated this shift, guiding public opinion.

The Farm Security Administration, in particular, produced artfully framed images that manipulated both the nation's increasing sentimentalism and long-held conceptions of childhood to sway the middle class to support President Roosevelt's federally mandated relief efforts. Photographs such as Dorothea Lange's "Migrant mother" and Walker Evans' "Child in back yard" contradicted previously held Puritan ideals by suggesting that people often got less than what they deserved, and, in such situations, the government had a responsibility to provide what was lacking. Many FSA pictures focused on poverty-stricken children, and, in conjuring up ideals of innocence, these effectively eradicated notions of the poor as evil people.

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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