Migrant Grandmother

Dorothea Lange, perhaps the most famous FSA photographer, took the most iconic Great Depression photograph, known as “Migrant Mother,” which along with the plight of the Joad family depicted in John Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath, made the migrant families now working in the agricultural fields of California well known to Americans. 

Dorothea Lange, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California,” 1932. Library of Congress.

Among the many California photographs she took of migrant farm workers and displaced families are of a woman she refers to as a “Oklahoma Grandmother,” posed with quilts. These pictures evoke the idea of home for one of the most iconic images of transplant: the so-called Okie—a person who migrated from Oklahoma or from neighboring states to California to escape the environmental damage of the Dust Bowl.

Dorothea Lange, “Grandmother from Oklahoma and her pieced quilt. California, Kern County,” 1932. Library of Congress.
Dorothea Lange, “Grandmother from Oklahoma with grandson, working on quilt. California, Kern County,” 1932. Library of Congress.

In conjunction with the California Division of Rural Rehabilitation, the RS/FSA created housing camps for migrant farm laborers, with the first camps organized in 1935.  Arvin Federal Migratory Labor Camp (also known as Weedpatch) in Kern County, outside of Bakersfield, was the first such camp erected.[1] Lange took many photographs in February and March 1936 in the camps in Kern County—including thrown together Hoovervilles, cabins owned by the large corporate farms, and in the new federal camp. She photographed the tents and temporary shelters, the cotton and pea pickers working in the fields, children and old women, and many migrant mothers in addition to her iconic shot of Florence Thompson, the unnamed Migrant Mother.[2]

The Oklahoma grandmother is likely not at the federal migratory labor camp, as Lange captured these photos just 6 months after the camp was formed, and this shack appears more substantial than the tents many camp residents lived in by February 1936, according to camp reports from that year. The wood framed rustic cabin suggests that this Oklahoma family may have been settled prior to the opening of the camp.[3] Lange was concerned about the plight of migrants in Kern County, and characterized the federal camp as “a democratic experiment of unusual social interest and national significance.”[4]

During her February-March 1936 trip through southern and central California, Lange took over 200 photos that ended up in the FSA archive, including these image of the grandmother and her quilts. With the woman’s stoic face, Lange must have posed this so-called “Okie” in her temporary housing as a way of evoking the grit of the migrant families who pushed their way west, but uses the quilt as a prop to domesticate and soften the rough housing conditions.  Not only had this woman survived, but her finished quilt, in a Dresden Plates pattern, as well as one in process that Lange photographed still in the quilting frame, suggested that she had found means of self-sufficiency as well as leisure time amid the trying circumstances. This Oklahoma grandmother was resilient.

These shots contrast starkly with many of Lange’s other photos featuring dilapidated homes of pea-pickers and other tent dwellers—including several photos in which quilts and other bedcoverings serve as part of the shelter itself.

Dorothea Lange, “Camps of migrant pea workers. California,” 1932. Library of Congress.
Dorothea Lange, “Camps of migrant pea workers. California,” 1932. Library of Congress

Scholars have suggested Lange in particular made her personal politics clear in her photos—she and her husband were strong advocates of New Deal engineering, particularly cooperative agricultural programs.  Her photos, more than those of any of the other FSA photographers, aimed to raise the visibility of the problems faced by the migrants, and in the words of visual rhetoric scholar Cara Finnegan, “her photography could play an important role on behalf of social justice, particularly for California’s poor.”  Lange wanted to show both the need for and successes of government intervention in the lives of migrant families.

[1] Brian Q. Cannon, “‘Keep on A-Goin’: Life and Social Interaction in a New Deal Farm Labor Camp,” Agricultural History 70, no. 1 (1996): 5–6.

[2] The Library of Congress has 270 digitized photos by Dorothea Lange from Kern County, California.

[3] According to Brian Cannon’s study of the Arvin camp, it typically attracted residents who had just moved to California, whereas others who had arrived earlier had found shelter in such cabins. See 7–8.

[4] Quoted in Cara A. Finnegan, “FSA Photography and New Deal Visual Culture,” in American Rhetoric in the New Deal Era, 1932-1945, ed. Thomas W Benson, A Rhetorical History of the United States, vol VII (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2006), 140.