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The perfect American family on billboards & the struggles of the ordinary Americans during the Great Depression

Goran Blazeski

The Great Depression of 1929 is undoubtedly the worst economic slump in US history. More than 40% of the American banks collapsed, unemployment rose to 25  percent.

Global trade collapsed by 60 percent and, in the next 25 years, the stock market struggled to recover from the devastating consequences.

Millions of people lost their jobs, and the country’s collective morale was at its lowest possible level, threatening to deepen the crisis. Many families were living below the minimal poverty level, and experts started losing confidence in unfettered capitalism.

It was at this point when thousands of billboards promoting the benefits of capitalism were erected across the country by the National Association of Manufacturers. One of the best-known was the billboard “There is no way like the American way,” created by Arthur Rothstein in 1937.

African American men, women and children line up at a relief station in Louisville, Kentucky. 1937 Louisville, Kentucky. Margaret Bourke-White  Photo Credit

African American men, women and children line up at a relief station in Louisville, Kentucky. 1937 Louisville, Kentucky. Margaret Bourke-White Photo Credit

Near Kingwood, West Virginia  Photo Credit

Near Kingwood, West Virginia Photo Credit

 

Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California. National advertising campaign sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers  Photo Credit

Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California. National advertising campaign sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers Photo Credit

The billboards displayed the claim that America has the “World’s highest standards of living,” presenting an ideal American family driving confidently in a brand new car. It promotes the family values of the time, a perfect American couple in the front seats and two children in the back seat of the new car, having the time of their lives.

However, for most Americans, things were far from ideal and so witnesses the photography of African American men, women and children standing in a line in front of the billboard.

National Association of Manufacturers sign, Dubuque, Iowa Photo Credit

National Association of Manufacturers sign, Dubuque, Iowa Photo Credit

 

Scavenging the city dump, Dubuque, Iowa  Photo Credit

Scavenging the city dump, Dubuque, Iowa Photo Credit

 

City dump. Dubuque, Iowa. In the background, there are shacks occupied by men who salvage anything marketable in the dump. Photo Credit

City dump. Dubuque, Iowa. In the background, there are shacks occupied by men who salvage anything marketable in the dump. Photo Credit

 

Residents of river bottom’s shacktown. Dubuque, Iowa  Photo Credit

Residents of river bottom’s shacktown. Dubuque, Iowa Photo Credit

Margaret Bourke-White, who was working as a photojournalist for the Life magazine, was covering the Ohio River flood of 1937 and composed the photo which eventually became an icon of the Great Depression and one of the most iconic photographies in U.S. history.

Margaret Bourke-White wasn’t the only photojournalist who witnessed the combination of propaganda billboards, proclaiming that America has the “World’s highest standards of living,” along with the struggles of many Americans and migrants. Other eminent photographers were Dorothea Lange, who was probably the best known female photographer of the New Deal period, John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein, and Edwin Locke.

National Association of Manufacturers sign, Dubuque, Iowa  Photo Credit

National Association of Manufacturers sign, Dubuque, Iowa Photo Credit

 

National Association of Manufacturers sign, Dubuque, Iowa  Photo Credit

National Association of Manufacturers sign, Dubuque, Iowa Photo Credit

 

Children are waiting in a line for soup given out each night by the city mission, a community chest- financed organization. Dubuque, Iowa  Photo Credit

Children are waiting in a line for soup given out each night by the city mission, a community chest- financed organization. Dubuque, Iowa Photo Credit

 

A resident of the river bottoms shacktown in Dubuque, Iowa  Photo Credit

A resident of the river bottoms shacktown in Dubuque, Iowa Photo Credit

Louisville was most damaged by the flood of 1937. More than 60 percent of the city was under water and 175,000 residents had to leave their homes. It was in Louisville where Margaret Bourke-White made the legendary photography.

However, this was not the only billboard in the United States and as Alex Q. Arbuckle wrote for Mashable, the National Association of Manufacturers erected 45,000 billboards nationwide which were placed in every city populated with over 2,500, reaching an estimated 65 million Americans daily.

Birmingham, Alabama. A billboard  Photo Credit

Birmingham, Alabama. A billboard Photo Credit

 

 

Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California. National advertising campaign sponsored by National Association of Manufacturers  Photo Credit

Billboard on U.S. Highway 99 in California. National advertising campaign sponsored by National Association of Manufacturers Photo Credit

 

Tracy (vicinity), California. U.S. Highway 99. Missouri family of five Photo Credit

Tracy (vicinity), California. U.S. Highway 99. Missouri family of five Photo Credit

Founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1895, the National Association of Manufacturers vigorously opposed labor unions and many of President Franklin D.Roosevelt’s government regulation proposals. In the 1930s, the NAM launched its first public relations campaign involving movie shorts, radio speeches, leaflets, films for schools promoting the benefits of capitalism and opposing state intervention.

Read another story from us: “BUGA UP” was an influential movement of graffiti artists who battled the promotion of unhealthy products

In a period of 13 years, the NAM spent more than $15 million for its campaigns. When the Great Depression came to an end, they continued campaigning against government investment comparing it with Nazism and Communism.