In the event, many of these promises were to prove illusory. American farmers found themselves fettered to loans that they could not service in the face of over-production, falling prices and collapsing land values. War loan repayments to the US were dependent on the receipt of war reparations that vanished with German hyperinflation. An important platform of the Progressive Movement had been Prohibition, which from 1920 had its own effect on sectors of agriculture and industry, reduced tax revenues and contributed to the disasters to come. More importantly perhaps, Prohibition opened the doors to organised crime and revitalised corruption of the police, politics and the judiciary - the opposite of the consequences intended by the Progressives. And it was seen in some quarters as the imposition of the mores of a Protestant rural America on an increasingly urbanised population, reinforcing divisions old and new: between the north and south, between city and country, between coast and hinterland. Ironically, many farmers who had fought for prohibition were to eventually argue for its repeal because of the negative effects it had on their businesses.
The illusion of stability and long term prosperity had launched the ‘Roaring Twenties’ on a raft of rampant, credit-based, consumerism and an ocean of bathtub gin. Misplaced confidence saw a booming stock market, with millions of first-time investors borrowing on the assumption of exponential growth. By 1929 production was declining and unemployment was rising, leaving vastly over-valued stocks and creditors unable to meet their commitments. The bubble burst in the autumn of that year with the US stock market crash and a global domino effect that included the final demise of a Weimar Republic that had been propped up by American loans.
The Great Depression was to destroy millions of American jobs in industry and construction, with a concomitant spread of urban and social decay, with destitute inner city populations looking to charities, breadlines and soup kitchens for survival. The agricultural heartlands suffered a whole different order of deprivation, where isolated or displaced families often lacked even the comfort of community. This was nowhere more true than on the Great Plains, where mortgage foreclosures and uninsured bank failures marched hand in hand with a ten year drought. Deep ploughing had ousted the deep rooted indigenous grasses that held soil and moisture together against an arid microclimate and periodic high winds. In November 1933 a series of dust storms devastated South Dakota and were to spread to neighbouring regions in subsequent years. Worst affected were the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and adjacent sections of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas, where desiccation saw 100,000,000 acres of top soil disappear on the wind. The 'black blizzards' increased in frequency and intensity, spawning the largest short term migration in American history. More than 3.5 million people abandoned farms in the Dust Bowl. Unquantified numbers headed towards an unwelcoming and equally troubled California, an exodus mythologised into the stuff of literature and cinema and in the songs of Woodie Guthrie. The images persist: of starving women and children, of broken down jalopies, of work camps and police lines.
The germinal year of the Dust Bowl storms was a watershed in other ways. In March 1933, as the US economy hit bottom, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated on the back of a landslide and the pledge of a ‘New Deal’. His legendary “First Hundred Days”, a benchmark for his lesser successors, were spent with a compliant Congress in a flurry of lawmaking that included fiscal, banking and monetary reform, the regulation of Wall Street … and the repeal of Prohibition. Relief programmes were initiated by the National Industrial Recovery Act to help the unemployed, working in parallel with major projects under a newly formed Public Works Administration. Public works programmes were to repair, and in many cases create, essential infrastructure, ranging from roads to hospitals, schools, bridges and rural electrification. Reforestation, flood controls and dam construction were to reclaim millions of hectares of barren land. Long term as many of these programmes were, immediate action during the First Hundred Days was to produce a near miraculous economic upturn. The Federal Reserve Index rebounded by almost 60% by July 1933.
FDR’s visionary administration was to produce a tranche of organisations – dubbed the alphabet agencies – that hinted at a new, social democratic, order and through their various incarnations were to add to the foundations of a liberal, progressive, sustainable and civilised civic society; institutions and functions that the current administration is systematically dismantling. Then as now, the spectre of such a social order was not universally welcomed where rampant individualism was prized above community and compassion. As always, the merest sniff of public benevolence brought on paranoid cries of “socialism”. Law enforcement, freed from prosecuting trivial infringements of Prohibition and not yet fully engaged with residual organised crime, was antagonistic towards unionisation and industrial action. The Red Menace was a bigger threat than Fascism and the legacies of this antagonism were the House Un-American Activities Committee, the junior Senator from Wisconsin and the dark obsessive empire of J Edgar Hoover.
Subsumed within the Public Works Administration was the much smaller Federal Project Number One, created in 1935 to provide employment for artists, writers, musicians and actors. Federal One worked on the principle that the artist, like the manual worker, should be entitled to employment through public programmes; and that the arts should be the concern of an ideal commonwealth, no less than agriculture, industry and commerce. By 1936 more than 40,000 creative workers were employed across the United States, in activities that ranged from public performances to public art to the Historical Records Survey. The impact of Federal One cannot be overstated, laying down as it did the groundworks for the cultural life of the half-century to come. Direct beneficiaries of Federal One are too numerous to list but a smattering of names including John Steinbeck, F Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Wells, John Huston and James Agee gives a flavour.
Arguably the most enduring legacy for the public perception was that created by the Farm Security Administration’s photography project, headed by Roy E Stryker. Stryker recruited eleven photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, to chronicle the lives of sharecroppers and migrant workers and to report the condition of rural communities. Stryker’s office in Washington DC provided full back office, processing, editorial and distributive support; this last servicing the main function of the project: to provide content to magazines, newspapers, book publishers and public information exhibitions.
The photography project was the main component in a programme of benevolent propaganda that set out to justify and promote FDR’s administration and initiatives, not least through emotional appeal: high drama, ravaged landscapes and the haunting dignity of the displaced and dispossessed.
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