This photo didn’t jump out at me at first when I came across it in an album I recently picked up, but in looking at it again it struck me as possessing that simple beauty that snapshots are sometimes able to so singularly capture. There is a Minnesota processing stamp on the back dated April 1939, and so much about it conveys that Depression-era feel, from her dress to the house on blocks with no step up to the screen door. The dusty car in the background, her expression, the composition — it doesn’t, to be sure, scream “Great Depression” like some of the well-known images from that time, but it is, I think, deeply evocative in it own understated way.
In what has been called the “worst natural disaster ever to strike Cincinnati–and the Ohio River Valley,” the Ohio River flooded (from about Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois) for ten days in 1937, causing a loss of almost 400 lives (though only one in Cincinnati itself) – as well as, in today’s dollars, $7.8 billion of property damage. Cincinnati.com published an absorbing article on the event in January of this year – the flood’s 75th anniversary. The piece recounts the local library’s request for photos of the disaster, and says that they expected about 200 photos, but ended up receiving more than 700.
“Families that weathered this disaster squirreled away images of the rampaging river, of houses upturned, of people waiting in line for hours for some safe water to drink. They preserved these memories in their mind’s eye and on film. Some could only save the mental images. Not everyone could afford a camera in the middle of the Great Depression. But, they could remember. And, as these stories have been passed down from generation to generation, they have not been forgotten.”
Indeed, the article contains several eye-witness accounts from people still alive who retain vivid memories of the ice-cold water (it even snowed during the flood), months spent living elsewhere while homes and businesses dried out, and the fire that occurred on what is called “Black Sunday,” when gasoline storage tanks were knocked over by rushing water and a fire was ignited by a spark from a short circuit.
“Black, toxic smoke choked the air. Factories and houses in the beleaguered neighborhood burned to the water level. Telephone service and electricity stopped. The water works shut down. Natural gas lines were turned off. The city want dark, except for the flames burning into the night. More than 100,000 Greater Cincinnatians were homeless.”
As 79-year-old Lou Jacobs recalled, “It was miserable in Northside during the flood. The water was a filthy mix of oil and sewage and dead carcasses. It stunk. But that did not stop people from coming down to get their feet wet to take pictures.”
98-year-old Dan Henry lives in California and is another who remembers the flood – and may have had a better view of it than just about anybody. He was a pilot who took to the air to capture images for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and was shocked at the devastation he saw. He took the photo below of Crosley Field, the baseball stadium of the Reds at the time. The field had had sand placed on it before the waters came, and was rather amazingly ready for the start of the season a little over two months later.
Lou Jacobs remembered his parents returning to their clothing store some time after the waters receded. The shop would stay open for another fifty years, and “from time to time we tried painting the walls…But every time we did, the paint would peel off. Those walls got so wet in The Flood, they never dried.”
And in a reminder of how times have changed, Jacobs also recalls that drinking water was rationed for months afterwards, so he and other kids were sent down to the river each day to collect water in bottles to use to flush the toilet. “Nobody worried about us little kids being kidnapped…It was the Great Depression. People had too many kids of their own.”
This shot is dated February 11, 1930, notes the streets on the back and also mentions “Bay in background” – and you can indeed see it if you enlarge the photo enough. A quick check online reveals that unfortunately nothing in this photo seems to exist today. The block in the middle is open space, and the surrounding streets are occupied by the typical contemporary mishmash of larger buildings. Another step “forward” in American urban planning.
This photo is dated August 1937 on the stamp on the rear – the year the Great Depression deepened after actually having eased somewhat in the previous few years. By the following year unemployment would hit 19%. I don’t know if five cents was a great deal back then for what they were offering, but I would imagine it must have been a pretty good price or they would not have featured it so prominently. In any case I like the directness of the sign: what else, really, did you need to know?
Apart from that, though, the photo is just pretty stunning for a snapshot, I think: the lines, the angle, the light, the lone automobile, the hulking building looming over the hamburger stand, and where the 5-cent sign ended up being placed compositionally. But was the photographer perhaps actually making a photo of the large building, and the corner of the diner just ended up getting in the way?