The images in this topic provide a look at the everyday lives of Californians during the decade of the 1930s. Although many people struggled to survive during the Great Depression, these photographs also show that some still found employment, and many managed to enjoy themselves despite the hard economic times.
Despite the hard economic times of the Great Depression, California did provide work, much of it hard labor. One photograph shows two men working in an oil rig; another shows men using a steam engine and horses to haul logs. The labor crew of the Great Western Salt Works in San Diego, which produced 10% of California’s salt from seawater in 1932, posed for this picture in the late 1920s.
The state’s rich farming and agriculture industry also provided jobs. Two men stand with a rig to spray pesticides on orchards. Another photograph shows what happened to a citrus orchard when a rare Southern California freeze iced the trees (and ruined the crop) — an event so seldom seen that these women posed for a picture. On a factory assembly line, scores of women workers pick over fresh peppers to find the best ones for packing. The Cawston Ostrich Farm supplied a unique product. The South Pasadena farm provided ostrich feathers for hats, boas (long scarves), capes, and fans. Because the Farm was near a trolley line, it became a major tourist attraction where visitors could ride on the backs of ostriches and have their pictures taken.
Portrait photography, a popular commercial industry since the mid-19th century, was still popular during the Depression. The two images here commemorate the wedding of David and Essie Green in San Bernardino in 1929, and a funeral for the infant son of the Estrada family in Anaheim; they also reflect the state’s growing ethnic diversity.
During hard times, people had fun in their free time by finding activities that cost little money. Getting “back to nature,” a pastime encouraged by the development of the National Park system, continued to be a favorite activity. One photograph shows a group around a campfire near Bishop in 1930; another shows a family posing in front of Yosemite’s Wawona Tunnel Tree in 1939. During the summer, Southern California beaches were popular with swimmers and sunbathers.
People enjoyed public celebrations like the May Festival Parade in Orange. In the 1933 photograph shown here, members of the Nichols family ride a bicycle built for four. Beauty contests were also popular. The Miss Anaheim contest, where contestants “swam” in oranges at the City Park Pool, was part of the long-running California Valencia Orange Show.
And, as today, children played and parents wanted pictures of them doing it. Don and Bill Burtis are shown in a more formal play portrait, in clean clothes and combed hair, “taking off” in a toy airplane in Sutter County in 1933.
Some even had fun at work. The man pictured here on his Harley Davidson in 1933 used his motorcycle in his job with the Highway Patrol in Coalinga, but he was also known to ride around on his bike with his 200-pound pet puma, Oscar.
For many, however, everyday life was a struggle. Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph shows a migrant family of Mexicans on the road with car trouble. And a Los Angeles Daily News photograph taken the same year shows a mother holding her toddler son in their small apartment kitchen in a Los Angeles “slum.” The least fortunate lived in makeshift towns called “Hoovervilles,” after the US president blamed for the state of the economy. The man shown here stands next to an outdoor standpipe, this Sacramento Hooverville’s sole water supply. And thousands who couldn’t afford to buy food received government assistance, like the men standing in this “breadline” at a kitchen on 4th and Jefferson streets in Oakland in 1934.
The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:
The Great Depression: Everyday Life in Hard Times curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2009, Regents of the University of California.