If you do an internet search for “The Great Depression”, you’ll notice a repeat of the same photograph of an unkempt, forlorn woman with two children in tattered clothes by her side and a filthy infant in her arms.
This iconic image is the perfect representation of how life was for many lower class Americans in the 1930s, and the seemingly anonymous woman who became face the Depression Era was Florence Owens Thompson.
Florence Owens Thompson was born Florence Leona Christie in 1903, in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). At 17 years old, Florence married 23 year old Cleo Owens in Missouri on February 14, 1921. The couple had 3 children together and traveled with relatives to Oroville, California where they earned their wages by working in saw mills and on farms.
In 1931, while Florence was pregnant with her sixth child, her husband Cleo died of
tuberculosis. In 1933 Florence had another child (not sure who’s the father here), returned to Oklahoma and traveled back to California with her parents.
In California, Florence met Jim Hill, and together they had 3 more children. During the 1930s the family worked as migrant farm workers in California and sometimes Arizona.
In March 1936, Florence and her family were traveling on U.S. Highway 101 towards Watsonville, CA. While driving, the car’s timing chain snapped and they stopped at a large pea-pickers’ camp on Nipomo Mesa. While her husband and two of Florence’s sons went into town to seek car repair, Florence set up a temporary camp. As Florence waited for her husband and sons to return, photographer Dorothea Lange, working for the Resettlement Administration, drove up and started taking photos of Florence and her family.
This particular photograph is actually one out of six of the photos the photographer took. According to Thompson, Lange promised the photos would never be published, but Lange sent them to the San Francisco News as well as to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. The News ran the photos almost and reported that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in Nipomo, CA. Soon, the pea-picker camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government but Thompson and her family had already moved on.
Thompson’s identity was discovered in 1978 by Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan. A letter Thompson wrote was published and titled “Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo.” Florence was quoted as saying:
“I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”
Thompson died of “cancer and heart problems” in California, on September 16, 1983. Her gravestone reads: “FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”
BONUS FACTS: Although Florence appears to be perhaps in her early 50s, she is only 32 years old in this iconic photo.