The Dust Bowl: An Iconic Catastrophe

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

Scorched earth. Abandoned farms. Skies black with dust. Houses buried under great dunes of earth. Decades after the drought and depression of the 1930s ended, images of the Dust Bowl are still familiar to millions of people worldwide. These images, and the stories and songs that emerged at the same time, are powerful tools for exploring the history and legacy of this nation-changing disaster.

When a brutal drought hit the southern plains of the U.S. in the 1930s, it triggered both a humanitarian disaster and a tremendous social upheaval. Great billowing clouds of dust swept across the plains, stripping fields of their topsoil, choking livestock, and burying farms and towns under heaps of dust. Unable to make a living, more than 400,000 people fled the Great Plains, many heading to the west coast, and the populations of California, Washington, and Oregon, along with other states, swelled dramatically.

At the same time, however, the Dust Bowl was the subject of a major effort in social documentation. New government agencies launched projects to aid those affected by the catastrophe and to make a record of the devastation. Photographers and oral historians scattered across the Great Plains and beyond, recording the stories of displaced farmers and capturing images of the destruction.

In the decades since, the photos, interviews, and songs that resulted from these projects have become some of the most iconic representations of the Dust Bowl, and of the Great Depression overall. As a result, students today can hear first-hand accounts of Dust Bowl survivors, listen to songs written in migrant labor camps and look into the careworn faces of refugees on the road.

Migrant Mother. Dorothea Lange, 1936.

One of the greatest sources of Dust Bowl photographs in existence is the Library’s Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, which includes more than 150,000 photographs taken from 1935 to 1944. In addition, hundreds of oral histories and musical recordings from Dust Bowl survivors are available in Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection.

Teaching Ideas

  • Have each student select a photo of a Dust Bowl refugee and write a letter that this refugee might have written to friends or family to tell his or her own story.
  • The government projects that produced these photographs and stories had a purpose. Students research the background of these projects, including in this presentation, and explore how that purpose is expressed in the materials found in the collections of Library of Congress.
  • The songs in Voices from the Dust Bowl are often very personal, describing events that the singer experienced himself or herself. Students can examine the different emotional impact that a personal song like these might have, as opposed to a third-person account, like in a textbook.
  • Some of the images and stories that are now in the Library’s collections have influenced the way people think of the Dust Bowl. Students can select photos, songs, and oral histories and compare them to novels or movies that deal with the Dust Bowl, such as Out of the Dust or The Grapes of Wrath, and identify similarities and differences between the primary sources and the fictional accounts.

Farm Security Administration Camp. Robert Hemmig, 1940.

The Library has a primary source set for teachers on the Dust Bowl that includes a selection of some of the most powerful primary sources on the topic, along with a teacher’s guide.

What images of the Dust Bowl are the most iconic for you? If you have used them in your teaching, how have your students responded?

4 Comments

  1. Sue Wise
    July 21, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Here’s an idea: How about having students study the sources and research the time period and then write a journal entry for “Migrant Mother” or some other evocative image? Reading related literature can help students get a feel for the “voice” of their journal entry, too.

  2. Lynn Schott
    July 22, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    I would have my students try to find information on a family, or individual, who made the move to the west coast to learn about how their life changed as a result. It may be interesting to learn about the resiliency of the American spirit.

  3. SL Dwyer
    August 7, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I found your website very interesting since I just published a novel that takes place in the Dust Bowl in 1933. It is for Young Adults and follows a young boy and his siter trying to survive as orphans.
    I tried to be as accurate as possible as to the harhships and how people tried to stick together to survive.

  4. madison Walker
    March 13, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    How could people survive during this period of time with so much dust. I find this page interesting because it taught me more about what the Dust Bowl days were like.

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