O’ Little Town of Bethlehem


Bethlehem, PA - Photo by Walker Evans - Nov 1935 from the Library of Congress FSA collection

The pictures in this post were taken by the Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information, between 1935 and 1945. This landmark government program sent photographers out into rural America to document the lives of American’s and the effects of the Great Depression and increasing farm mechanization. In it’s later years the focus of the program turned to America’s industrial mobilization for the Second World War. I stumbled across this treasure trove of historical images via the Shorpy.com photo-blog. They are part of the digitized archives of the Library of Congress.

Bethlehem, PA - Photo by Walker Evans - Nov 1935 from the Library of Congress FSA collection

I find myself drawn to them for reasons that are hard to explain. Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by what came before. In the summer I would ride my bike to the Richmond library, and look through the century old maps of Batavia, and the historical sketches of the late Don Carmichael. (Another long time resident of Prospect Avenue, and the father of childhood friends). I would find places that intrigued me on the map, and then ride my bike to the location to see how they looked today, and if I could find any traces of the past. I guess I should have pursued industrial archeology instead of engineering, as it really was my passion.

Bethlehem, PA - Photo by Walker Evans - Nov 1935 from the Library of Congress FSA Collection

That explains much about my current fascination with these old photographs. I’m still a hopeless dreamer, endlessly fascinated by the look of the pre-suburban world. These photos document a certain turning point in American life. A zenith in 20th Century Industry. The final days of the Industrial Revolution that began after the Civil War. These snapshots document life as it was before the great post war boom of consumerism, suburbanization, de-industrialization, and the rise of the middle class.

Street Scene- Aliquippa, PA - Photo by Jack Delano - Jan 1941 from the Library of Congress

I find it hard to imagine this world, when refrigerators, and other modern appliances were still out of reach of most American’s. We love to eulogize this world, and project idyllic images of community and agrarian life onto the past, but looking closely at these pictures I am struck by the grittiness of the world at the time. If you look beyond the iconic migrant & dust bowl photographs of Dorothea Lange, and dig deep into the catalog you’ll find many portraits taken of Urban and Rural American’s of the day. Reading the captions and looking at the faces, and these people seem old beyond their years. Weather it’s the 14 year old mill workers, the 20 year old miner’s, or the industrial working women of the War years, the faces betray the ages. We can romanticize the past all we want, and complain about the present, but I feel safe saying that most of the folks in these photos would gladly trade places with us.

Woman and Child - Bridgewater, PA - Husband is a steelworker ; Photo by Jack Delano - Jan 1940 from the Library of Congress

I’m not naive enough to think that these photo’s did not carry a political agenda. The FSA photo program was enacted to show both the need, and the success of FDR’s New Deal initiatives. And if you only had these photos to go by, you’d think every American was a Miner, Migrant Farmer, or a Mill Worker. But I do believe that the pictures are honest depictions of the life of the subjects, and illustrate what their world looked like at the time.

Steelworkers in Aliquippa - Photo by Arthur Rothstein - July 1938; from the Library of Congress

For better, or worse, the world shown in these photographs would disappear within another 50 years. Think about that for a moment. Like the population statistics I showed yesterday, this world of Indsutrial America rose up in the valley’s of Pennsylvania in the 80 years before these photos were taken, and would disappear even faster. Now go to the window and look out at the world that surrounds us. The post war suburbs, the suburban office parks, the Strip Malls and box stores, the downtown Condiminium’s. What will it look like in another 50 years? Will the changes be as stark as they were in the 20th Century, or is this post-industrial age fundamentally different? These are the things that occupy my mind. Yes, I think too much.

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