Worlds Highest Standard Of Living Analysis Essay

“Here in the Dakotas with these farmers, I saw everything in a new light. How could I tell it all in pictures? Here were faces engraved with the very paralysis of despair. These were faces I could not pass by.”
Margaret Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself, 110

Margaret Bourke White was a photographer who rose to fame during the Great Depression. Her early work was primarily commercial, and provided a glimpse into industry during the Depression. She went on to work for news magazines, eventually helping to develop the photographic essay and adopting a documentary style. While she was not part of the FSA, her documentary and commercial work from the 1930s provides varying view points of the decade. While often controversial, her work was widely distributed and influential during the Depression Era.

The Early Years

©Estate of Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White’s professional career started in 1927, after she graduated from Cornell University. She had received her photographic training at the Clarence H. White School of Photography, an influential school that counted Dorothea Lange among its students. Her first work was commercial, photographing the bridges and skyscrapers in Cleveland, Ohio. (Corwin et al. 2010, 109) Shortly afterward, she turned her focus towards factories. As a child, she had toured factories with her father, and it influenced her greatly. She stated of the experience, “at that age, a foundry represented the beginning and end of all beauty” (Bourke-White 1985, 18). During the winter of 1927-28, Bourke-White began photographing the Otis Steel Mill with the approval of the owner, E.J Kulas. (Corwin et al. 2010, 109) She photographed for a period of time, her early work being disastrous. She had difficulty lighting her compositions, and eventually found a solution in magnesium flares originally intended for use in the movie industry(110). Her extensive shooting at the Otis Steel Mill helped her develop her distinctive style. The flares gave her images dramatic lighting, and she began using the motif of “tightly framed repetition of identical objects, often viewed across a diagonally receding line with no discernible termination” (111). It was the publication of these photographs that got Bourke-White first noticed.

The Fortune Years

Margaret Bourke White Collection, Syracuse University Library

After seeing Bourke-White’s images of the Otis Steel Mill, Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine, asked her to work on his forthcoming publication: Fortune (Smith 1983, 308). Bourke-White began working on several projects for the magazine. Fortune brought Bourke-White’s photographs a national audience. Her assignments gave her the chance to travel extensively, and cover a wide variety of industries (Silverman 1983, 12).

On October 24, 1929, the night of the stock market crash, Bourke-White found herself photographing the vault at the First National Bank of Boston. The image was a long exposure, and she continually had to recap the lens to prevent the images of bankers hurrying across the shot from appearing on the negative (Bourke-White 1985, 72). With the context of the crash, the image is particularly haunting. The vault seems to glow and appears almost otherworldly. Later, she wished she had the presence of mind to document the frantic bankers to have a historic record of Black Tuesday (Silverman 1983, 13). Bourke-White also worked on a story about the Swift and Company meat-packing plant. “Hogs” would become the lead story when Fortune debuted in February 1930. Bourke-White’s images lead the viewers though the meat-packing process, showing some elements of a proper photo-essay (Callahan 1972, 11).

Margaret Bourke White Collection, Syracuse University Library

During the early 1930s, Bourke-White split her time between assignments for Fortune and working on advertising commissions. In 1933, she cut back on her documentary work to focus on advertising (Callahan 1972, 35). She photographed commercial goods much like she did the factories – with endless repetition. While this does little to reflect the rampant poverty of the era, Sharon Corwin (2010) notes that these manic images reflect on the very causes of the Depression; consumers were unable to keep pace with production (112). She also notes that the images “advertised the promise of capitalist production,” despite the crumbling economy (112).

Estate of Margaret Bourke White

The drought of 1934 brought Bourke-White’s focus back to documentary work. Fortune sent Bourke-White to photograph the affected areas. Here, Bourke-White was exposed to human suffering for the first time, and it changed her work greatly (Callahan 1972, 35). Afterwards, she started refusing many advertising jobs so that her work could be more beneficial (Goldberg 1987, 160). While her photographs of the disaster were not particularly notable, her article on the Dust Bowl was the first of its kind to be published in the US. While other photographers had been working on social documentary, hers was the first to appear in print (Callahan 1972, 14). Beyond appearing in Fortune, Bourke-White also offered images to the left-wing journal New Masses (Corwin et al. 2010, 121). Bourke-White also published her observations on the Dust Storms in the May 22, 1935 edition of The Nation (Silverman 1983, 77).

“I was deeply moved by the suffering I saw and touched particularly by the bewilderment of the farmers. I think this was the beginning of my awareness of people in a human, sympathetic sense as subjects for the camera and photographed against a wider canvas than I had perceived before. During the rapturous period when I was discovering the beauty of industrial shapes, people were only incidental to me, and in retrospect I believe I had not much feeling for them in my earlier work. But suddenly it was the people who counted.”
Margaret Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself, 110

You Have Seen Their Faces

You Have Seen Their Faces

After witnessing the Dust Bowl, Bourke-White decided it was time to reconnect with the people. She had heard that fiction-writer Erskine Caldwell was looking to produce a non-fiction work about southern sharecroppers to counter criticism of his novel Tobacco Road (Callahan 1972, 91). At first, her involvement seemed unlikely – Caldwell didn’t care much for her work and their early dealings were tense (91). However, in June of 1936, they set off together to start work on You Have Seen Their Faces. Caldwell would talk to their subjects, while Bourke-White would wait until the right expression crossed their face to take the picture (Goldberg 1987, 169). While she still directed her subjects somewhat, she took the pictures during spontaneous moments (69). During her second trip to the south in  Spring 1937, Bourke-White engaged more with her subjects, getting to know their lives and social conditions (Corwin et al. 2010, 127). Her pictures are  “an assortment of devastating images of environmental, social, and personal decay” (Callahan 1972, 15).

You Have Seen Their Faces

The book itself was a success when it came out in November 1937; it was considered the most important work of its day on the plight of sharecroppers (15). interestingly, The book’s success may have caused the delay in publication of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans, as at least one publisher cited the tome as a reason for rejection (16). The book was not without controversy, though. Bourke-White and Caldwell both contributed to the captions accompanying the pictures. These captions were “intended to express the authors’ own conceptions of the sentiments of the individuals portrayed; they do not pretend to reproduce the actual sentiments of these persons” (Caldwell and Bourke-White 1975, vi). Some of the captions are almost comical, and often represent southern stereotypes (Vials 2006, 96). The captions as well as Caldwell’s narratives ensured the reader understood the message that they were telling. While their documentary style was later criticized for being highly staged and exploitative, this style was precisely what made it popular among the masses – it “fit within the visual culture of the day” (Corwin et al. 2010, 122).


Life Magazine

Margaret Bourke-White was asked by Henry Luce to become involved with another new project, a photography based news magazine called Life. She joined the staff in August 1936 just months before its premiere issue, signing a contract for ten months out of the year (Goldberg 1987, 175). Her first assignment for the magazine was documenting the Fort Peck Dam, a WPA project started in 1933 (Callahan 1972, 17). While some of the photographs were typical images of industry and architecture, she surprised the editors by also documenting the boom towns that sprung up around the project (17). This story was chosen as the lead for the debut issue. The essay included bar scenes and pictures of ladies of the night (Goldberg 1987, 176). The image of a baby sitting on a bar caused uproar when it was published, leading to denials of neglect from a school official in New Deal and accusations that Bourke-White and Life were exploiting the girl (178). The first issue sold out within hours, and went through multiple reprints (181). Bourke-White’s article was considered historic; Vicki Goldberg (1987) stated that is was the first true photographic essay in America (180). Furthermore, it is a document of boom towns like New Deal, Montana, which would disappear entirely by the 1950s (180).

Life Magazine

Another of Bourke-White’s images, At the Time of the Louisville Flood, would become famous in the following year. Life sent her on assignment to photograph the flooding of the Ohio River. This disaster would be one of the worst floods in American history. One image in particular stood out – that of a line of flood victims waiting for relief in front of cheerful billboard declaring “World’s Highest Standard of Living: There’s no way like the American Way!” While the image is not of unemployment or chronic poverty, the stark contrast has caused the photo to be used repeatedly to “comment on inequality, poverty, and deprivation” (Callahan 1972, 19).

Life magazine became a format that attracted many imitators (Goldberg 1987, 181). Bourke-White herself had a large effect in shaping the style of the publication. She was responsible for setting up their photography labs (185). Her insistence of printing the entire negative without cropping also became commonplace within the magazine, though the pictures were not always reproduced without cropping (185).


Margaret Bourke-White’s work has often been criticized for its lack of feeling. C. Zoe Smith (1983) criticized Bourke-White for her not understanding man’s role in society (309). Her early work often only included people for scale. These people were often stiffly posed by Bourke-White. Other critics, like Sharon Corwin (2010) defend the cold portrayal of employees, stating that her “photographs give visible form to the contingent status of Depression-era labor through the marginalized and diminutive bodies found in her images” (109). Her later documentary work has been described as “pathetic to the point of bathos” by historian William Stott (1973), who found her work to be overly dramatic (32, 279). Though her work may have been dramatic, works such as You Have Seen Their Faces brought awareness to the extreme poverty that existed during the Depression

After the Depression

As the Great Depression ended, and the United States became involved with World War II, Bourke-White’s attention shifted to Europe (Callahan 1972,19). She became a photographer for the Air Force in 1942, her photographs being used by both the military and Life (20). She continued to work for Life until she retired in 1969.

For More Information

This site only contains a brief overview of Margaret Bourke-White’s images of Depression Era photographs of the United States. Additional resources can be located on the bibliography and links pages.

Margaret Bourke-White’s papers are available at the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Library.

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AS WE showed in a previous blog post, Europe went through a period of astonishing growth after about 1760. The level of income that Europe has today could not have been reached without the Industrial Revolution.

In fact, people often refer to two revolutions (though historians bicker about terminology). The First Industrial Revolution was about the introduction of machines, often powered with water or steam. It lasted from roughly 1760 to 1850. The Second Industrial Revolution used more advanced technologies, such as the internal combustion engine and electricity. It lasted from roughly 1850 to 1910.

We know that the Industrial Revolution made Europe rich. But what was it like to live through it? Britain has the most complete historical records when it comes to this kind of thing, so this post will focus on that country.

The question boils down to how you measure living standards. Historians are divided over what happened to wages during the Industrial Revolution. Everyone agrees that they did increase; the question is, when.

Research focuses on real wages—wages that are adjusted for inflation. Getting data on wages is tricky. But accounting for inflation is even harder. (For example, workers often paid rent informally, meaning that there are few records around).

And so it is unsurprising that researchers differ in their estimations of real wages. Some, such as Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson, suggest that full-time earnings for British common labourers, adjusted for inflation, more than doubled in the seventy years after 1780. But Charles Feinstein argued that over the same period, British real wages only increased by around 30%. It’s a bit of an academic mess.

Most people agree that after about 1840, real wages did better. Nicholas Crafts and Terence Mills shows that from 1840 to 1910, real wages more than doubled. Their findings are mirrored by other researchers (see below right). Improvements may be due to technological innovation, which led to big increases in labour productivity and hence higher wages. Others reckon it is because the cost of living did not increase so fast. And the massive economic impact of the Napoleonic Wars—where, due to naval warfare, exporters suffered and imports were more expensive—gradually wore off.

So, while the Industrial Revolution ultimately led to big increases in wealth, progress was unsteady. For much of the period, the average person was not reaping the benefits of economic change.

So much for wages. Other measures of standard of living should be considered.

There is increased enthusiasm for biological measures of standard of living, such as people’s height. Height is a useful measure for a number of reasons. It indicates how well someone is nourished. And people who do less manual labour, or who are less afflicted by disease, are likely to be taller. A person’s height is not perfectly correlated with their standard of living—after all, Bill Gates is not a physical giant. But 20-40% of the difference in height between individuals is determined by environmental factors. And so at an aggregate level, height data are pretty helpful.

Researchers find height data from different places, including army archives; it is common practice to measure the stature of new recruits. Data can also be found in school records. Academics have even consulted records of people transported from England to penal colonies in Australia.

Some research presents a rather alarming picture. Below is a graph which shows the height of English soldiers from 1730 to 1850—a period which captures the First Industrial Revolution.

There are many different explanations for height declines during this period. Some people reckon that diseases in cities exploded. Other people think that unsteady economic growth led to increases in the frequency of unemployment, which had an impact on nutrition. And growth of agriculture may have lagged behind economic growth—which meant that the relative price of nutrients increased at a time when transportation was poor and food preservation was primitive.

Other research has shown that city dwellers tended to be shorter than rural folk, even though the urbanites were generally richer. Access to food was easier for those living in rural areas, and so they were better insulated from the effects of harvest failure.

Another paper suggests that it was only in the latter part of the 19th century that growth in heights took off. Wages rose and advances were made in food safety and public health. And for the last 150 years, Britain has been on a steady upward path (see below).

You can tell a similar story about life expectancy. The “expectation of life at birth” (its official name) is calculated by looking at death registrars. If you know the distribution of ages at which people die, you can work out the most likely age to which people will live.

Once again, the picture is not rosy. For instance, in almost all British cities, mortality conditions in the 1860s were no better—and were often worse—than in the 1850s. In Liverpool in the 1860s, the life expectancy fell to an astonishing 25 years. It was not until the two subsequent decades that rises in life expectancy were found (see below right).

Economic history now has very advanced ways of measuring quality of life. But quantitative wizardry does not capture the experience of living through such rapid change. Less maths-y history is needed too. EP Thompson, an English historian, was not a great fan of numbers. He was more interested in getting inside people’s minds. One of his most famous papers, published in 1967, tries to understand what it was like for people living through rapid economic change. As Britain shifted to fully-fledged capitalism, Thompson reckons that people felt under more pressure to work hard:

Time is now currency: it is not passed but spent.

The English worker in the throes of industrial capitalism was marked by

his regularity, his methodical paying-out of energy, and perhaps also…a repression, not of enjoyments, but of the capacity to relax in the old, uninhibited ways.

Hard-nosed economic historians (sometimes known as cliometricians) sneer at Thompson’s style of history. For them, using poems as source material, and writing lyrical sentences—as Thompson is prone to do—is not good scholarship.

But we need both the number-crunchers and the artsy types if we want to understand the consequences of economic growth. That is as true today as it was during the industrial revolution. Wages might be rising, but other social indicators might be doing awfully. This was highlighted in a recent book, written by Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze, which looks at India. Economic history is not just about hard economics, but also about how people experience economic change.

Suggested reading list:

Allen, R. C. (2007). ‘Pessimism Preserved: Real Wages in the British Industrial Revolution’. Oxford University Department of Economics Working Paper 314. [Very advanced paper on how to calculate real wages].

Clark, G. (2005). ‘The condition of the working class in England, 1209–2004’. Journal of Political Economy, 113(6), 1307-1340. [Looks at real wages over a (very) long time-frame].

Drèze, J., & Sen, A. (2013). An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions. Allen Lane. [Discussion of how economic growth does not necessarily lead to social progress].

Feinstein, C. H. (1998). ‘Pessimism perpetuated: real wages and the standard of living in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution’. Journal of Economic History, 58, 625-658. [Paper from an ex-economic history prof at Oxford. Also has some useful discussion on alternative measures of living standards].

Lindert, P. H., & Williamson, J. G. (1983). ‘English Workers’ Living Standards During the Industrial Revolution: A New Look’. The Economic History Review, 36(1), 1-25. [According to some, such as Charles Feinstein, a “super-optimistic” assessment of living standards].

Hatton, T. J., & Bray, B. E. (2010). ‘Long run trends in the heights of European men, 19th–20th centuries’. Economics & Human Biology, 8(3), 405-413. [Good overview of height trends in Europe during part of the Industrial Revolution].

Komlos, J, (1998) ‘Shrinking in a Growing Economy? The Mystery of Physical Stature during the Industrial Revolution’, Journal of Economic History, 58, p. 779-802 [Good overview of how economic growth can influence height].

Nicholas, S., & Oxley, D. (1993). 'The living standards of women during the industrial revolution, 1795‐1820'. The Economic History Review, 46(4), 723-749. [This work tries to address a major gap in the literature—women's heights].

Szreter, S., & Mooney, G. (1998). ‘Urbanization, mortality, and the standard of living debate: new estimates of the expectation of life at birth in nineteenth‐century British cities’. The Economic History Review, 51(1), 84-112. [Rather horrifying discussion of urban mortality during the Industrial Revolution].

Thompson, E. P. (1967). ‘Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism’. Past & Present, (38), 56-97. [Seminal paper on how capitalism influences people’s understanding of time. For a rebuttal of this, see the fascinating: Glennie, P., & Thrift, N. (2009). Shaping the Day: a History of timekeeping in England and Wales 1300-1800. Oxford University Press].

Voth, H. J. (1998). 'Time and work in eighteenth-century London'. Journal of Economic History, 58, 29-58. [Innovative paper which uses court records to work out how people’s working hours changed over time].

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