Revisiting Rights-Free: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs

The Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) color photographs provide a vivid glimpse into life in the United States from 1939 to 1945 — a period more often viewed through a monochromatic lens. If you are familiar with the FSA/OWI photographs at the Library of Congress, chances are that the first images that come to mind are from the 175,000 or so black-and-white negatives, which include Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Florence Owens Thompson (“Migrant Mother”) and Gordon Parks’s of Ella Watson (“Government Charwoman”). The color images are less well-known, in part because they total only about 1,600 images, but together with the black-and-white photos they were part of the same project to paint a picture of life in the United States, first as Americans coped with the Great Depression and then as they mobilized to enter World War II. The color photographs are digitized and readily accessible through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

When I recently browsed through the images from the collection, photos of social gatherings particularly caught my eye, possibly because such events are less common in many parts of the world these days.

Getting ready to serve the barbeque dinner at the Pie Town, New Mexico Fair. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34145

Getting ready to serve the barbeque dinner at the Pie Town, New Mexico Fair. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34145

A Fourth of July celebration, St. Helena Island, S.C. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1939. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.69091

A Fourth of July celebration, St. Helena Island, S.C. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1939. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.69091

It should come as no surprise that Farm Security Administration photographers documented agricultural activity, with an emphasis on the farmers and families who made use of the agency’s loan programs.

Children of FSA-RR borrower? on their farm, Puerto Rico. Photo by Jack Delano, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34038

Children of FSA-RR borrower? on their farm, Puerto Rico. Photo by Jack Delano, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34038

<em> FSA - T[enant] P[urchase] borrower? in her garden, Puerto Rico.</em> Photo by Jack Delano, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34005

FSA – T[enant] P[urchase] borrower? in her garden, Puerto Rico. Photo by Jack Delano, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34005

As with the FSA/OWI black-and-white images, the color images include depictions of life in cities as well as in rural areas. This image of two young girls relaxing in a park near Union Station in Washington, D.C. caught my eye.

Two little girls in a park near Union Station, Washington, D.C. 1943. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a35457

Two little girls in a park near Union Station, Washington, D.C. 1943. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a35457

Row houses are a familiar sight to residents of Washington, D.C. — when my young son saw this image he assumed it was taken recently.

Children on row house steps, Washington, D.C. Photo by Louise Rosskam, between 1941 and 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34419

Children on row house steps, Washington, D.C. Photo by Louise Rosskam, between 1941 and 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a34419

Among the best-known images from the collection are those of women working to support the war effort after the U.S. entered World War II. The women in these photos are building bombers.

<em>Women workers install fixtures and assemblies to a tail fuselage section of a B-17 bomber at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant, Long Beach, Calif. Better known as the "Flying Fortress," the B-17F is a later model of the B-17, which distinguished itself in action in the south Pacific, Germany and elsewhere. It is a long range, high altitude, heavy bomber, with a crew of seven to nine men, and with armament sufficient to defend itself on daylight missions </em>. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a35337

Women workers install fixtures and assemblies to a tail fuselage section of a B-17 bomber at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant, Long Beach, Calif. Better known as the “Flying Fortress,” the B-17F is a later model of the B-17, which distinguished itself in action in the south Pacific, Germany and elsewhere… Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a35337

Switch boxes on the firewalls of B-25 bombers are assembled by women workers at North American [Aviation, Inc.]'s Inglewood, Calif., plant. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a35311

Switch boxes on the firewalls of B-25 bombers are assembled by women workers at North American [Aviation, Inc.]’s Inglewood, Calif., plant. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsac.1a35311

We hope these images give a sense of the variety this collection has to offer, and encourage you to explore more on your own.

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2 Comments

  1. Richard Hall
    April 1, 2021 at 3:35 pm

    Our C-SPAN American History TV American Artifacts series featured this collection in two half-hour programs with curator Beverly Brannan – she knew some of the photographers:

    1) https://www.c-span.org/video/?309557-1/discussion-color-photographs-1930s-1940s

    2) https://www.c-span.org/video/?309700-1/discussion-color-photographs-1930s-1940

  2. Jane Van Nimmen
    April 4, 2021 at 10:04 am

    A beautiful selection of these lovely photographs. And thank you to Richard Hall for the double links to the two parts of Beverly Brannan’s excellent summary on the creators of the color images. I had missed this presentation in 2020.

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