Color photographs of the Great Depression: Living in a dugout house, New Mexico, 1940

1940 New Mexico dugout house FSA photographIf you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I get all sentimental about outhouses — finding it so hard to comprehend… to imagine… how many folks in America didn’t have indoor plumbing until the 1950s or even into the 1960s. I like to pinch my whiny self to remind how lucky I have it. In that same spirit, this photo just blew me away: It’s from 1940 — a dugout house in Pie Town, New Mexico.

photo from the depression taken by the farm security administration

Here’s the family that lived in the dugout. These Pie Town photos were taken by Russell Lee, in October 1940, as part of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information project to document the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations. Yes, there were color photos taken – but apparently not very many. 

kitchen in a 1940 dugout house in new mexico

Here’s the kitchen in the dugout house of another family in Pie Town.

african american farm 1940 during the depression

Down South: African American’s tenant’s home beside the Mississippi River levee, near Lake Providence, Louisiana, June 1940. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott.

Over on the East Cost, where settlements had been in place longer, I think a lot of housing looked like this. The caption indicates: tenement housing, Brockton, Mass., 1940. This photo by Jack Delano.

1940! Can you believe it? My mother was born in 1938. Her mother was born in 1911. My grandfather was born in 1900. Even with our hi-def big screens and 4G networks and solar panels and botox injections — we are still that connected to those times. I find this mind-boggling.  All of these photos are now part of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The Denver Post catalogued these photos and more — which were featured in the 2006 exhibit Bound for Glory: America in Color —  on their website:  The catalog is pretty darn amazing… riveting…. p.s. I hope you come back to me.

Oh, one more thing: The dugout house: Now THAT is a bona-fide “sustainable house.” Don’t kid yourself: We cannot consume ourself out of a consumption crisis. Well, my pea brain can’t comprehend how…

via Snowden Flood

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  1. Amy Hill says

    I thought you had pulled these from These phoyographs are on there, also. Shorpys has lots more old photos. My husband likes to look at the old cars & gas stations.
    The internet brings it all home in living color, but Shorpys is mainly Black & White.

  2. Gavin Hastings says

    I think that the quest of a successful life 75 years ago referred to basic human needs-and now addresses personal feelings.

    • Gavin Hastings says

      …I am not sure what your focus is here, but I think our society is suffering from a greater “Depression” than in 1940. “Things” are not the answer and usually get in the way of happiness.

        • Gavin Hastings says

          Poignant /adjective/ : Expressing a keen sense of sadness or regret.

          These photograghs are beautiful and each is very emotional.

          • pam kueber says

            So I have been thinking about this all morning: I am just utterly totally unexplicably fascinated with the way people lived as we moved into “modern” times, the times we are in today. The pivotal moment was right after WWII. 1940: Dugout houses, still? My brain exploded in wonderment.

    • Joy says

      I agree with Gavin.

      Also, in 1940 the country was still suffering and WW2 had only just started in 1939. The big American boom did not come until 1945, and only in larger metro areas. My mother was born in 1944 and picked cotton in the south with little change from before the war and this extended into the mid 60’s for most rural areas.

      Those who had family in larger cities may have experienced change faster but in the rural farm country across the US things changed very little until the 60’s-70’s.

      Guess what, I don’t need all those gadgets! I make my deviled eggs with a fork and spoon in the filling! I don’t need a food processor or a pastry bag and they taste just as good :)

  3. says

    I really like this post. Thanks for the pix! I love your last line … We cannot consume ourself out of a consumption crisis … so so true! The depression era really fascinates me how people became self-sufficient.

  4. Jenny says

    Thanks for sharing these photos and the link. My dad was born in 1934 and would have been around the age of the children in these photos. I really enjoyed looking through these.

  5. Patty says

    Our society was so much more self-sufficient then because so many people grew their own food. The “requirements” of basic living was food, shelter, and clothing…now it’s extended to cable TV, cell phones, computers, etc. Many families struggle financially because they have forgotton the basics and don’t want to acknowledge that there are ways to cut back. America has the richest poor people in the world.

    • says

      Patty, I can’t agree with you more! People will not admit that they don’t really need all their electronics and gadgets and will pay $100+ a month for a cellphone bill, just so they can play games on it while waiting in line at the fast food restaurant! $100 would cover at least a weeks groceries, if not more, but people just don’t see the connection.

  6. Amy says

    Great post. The depression era is inspiring. The ones that lived through it always seem to the strongest and most resourceful people. They are the ones you can look up to.

  7. Mark says

    Wow, Pictures 26 and 27, I grew up not far from where they were taken!
    The hill the car is going up is called ‘Freeze out hill’ and when I was a kid they used to have races to the top!

  8. Melanie says

    Thanks for sharing the photos and the link. Awesome photos.
    The picture of the house with the flower garden beside it reminds me of a photo I have of my great grandmother’s house, scoured of paint by the wind and dust, but with a very carefully tended flower garden beside it.

    I agree so much with your line about our consumption crisis.

    • pam kueber says

      Melanie – would you be interested in sharing the photo on the blog? It sounds wonderful — if so, email it to me at retrorenovation [at] gmail [dot] com. Many thanks!

      • Melanie says

        Pam, I’d be delighted to share. Unfortunatley after an hour spent browsing photos, I realize I had that picture on my old computer that died. :(

  9. Stacy Otto says

    I don’t know if folks know this, but if you get hold of the negative numbers on negs held by the Library of Congress (which includes FSA, OWI, WPA, etc. collections and are found in the picture books of these collections…one is called A Vision Shared) you can pay to have prints made. I did this a few years ago and gave them as gifts…amazing to have, for instance, a Dorthea Lange print from the original neg. And I thought they were very reasonably priced at the time.

  10. samantha says

    I lovelovelove this story and the photos. I too am fascinated by the linking of our generations, and the transformation after the ww2 that has catapulted us into this modern age. i live in New Mexico but was born in the deep south, then moved west to San Francisco for most of my life until we moved here. there are so many connections….i think materialism and selfishness has bankrupted our society morally. we no longer view things as “us” but as “I” therefore there is no lasting family, and it unravels from there……. also, in hard times, you need to rely on one another, just look at what happens when there’s a disaster such as earthquake or 911, people will help one another, even right now with snowstorms the news is reporting how people are helping each other out. Prosperity has made us fat, lazy, greedy and selfish. how sad.

  11. Becky says

    I’m with you on the wonderment of how long people still lived like that while the “modern age” was exploding all around them. A key area for that is Appalachia; to this day there are still people living there in grinding poverty, with no running water in the home and outhouses.

    My paternal grandmother grew up in Clay County, KY in the 20’s and 30’s. My dad remembers going back to “the old home place” when he was about 4 years old, 1945. He can distinctly remember, from a child’s perspective, his confusion over why there was no electricity in his grandfather’s house, and absolute bewilderment at being told he’d have to go outside, to the outhouse, to relieve himself. He also remembers a candy bar having been bought and laid on the table, as a special treat, and he said “who’s that for?” and the answer was “it’s for all of us.” : /

  12. Jay says

    My mother grew up in Florida during the Depression, wood stove, kerosene lamps, and the outhouse – the works. They lived off the land. It was another era. Bears no resemblance to the tourist and retiremnt mecca that the state is today.
    WWII lifted the country out of the Depression and helped to usher in the age of consumerism and development that have continued to this day – witness the mega McMansions. Thanks for sharing your thoughts along with the pictures.

  13. Jeff says

    Superb posting Pam, the Brockton apartment building is Amazing- funny thing, in 1940 people would have done anything tho move out of that and into a “modern” home, and today, people would be clamoring to move back into that same building.

    I know from my own family’s history of how cyclical things are now, but then, life was marked by forward looking “progress” as the operative bon mot of the times. Out with the old, in with the new, until some people realized this was a mistake, but for many places it was too late.

    I know in Detroit where I was raised, they continued leveling Victorian mansions and public structures for decades in the name of progress- even the amazing sandstone federal building and courthouse was leveled in the 30’s and replaced by a WPA era stone and marble edifice, equally amazing in it’s use of materials, and shunned the Victorian era pile as “old fashioned.”

    The victorian mansard roofed Detroit City Hall was leveled as late as 1961 and replaced with a parking garage and park, later to become a steel and glass office building.

    • Patty says

      You bring up an interesting point. Something I’ve thought of with other pictures of the same era. These old tenement buildings look appealing now in these black and white photos — how old were those buildings at the time? Were they cheaply built as rental property that deteriorated quickly? I don’t know much about the history of tenement buildings in the late 1800s, early 1900s.

  14. Gavin Hastings says

    Jeff- I don’t want to get all political on RetroRenovation, but I think you would be hard pressed to find a young educated professional clamoring to live in this building.
    Brockton has almost 4,000 people per square mile, a poverty rate at 14% and a per capa income of $17,000.

    How many people are lined up for a move to Detroit? The ‘desirability” of city living is a multi-faceted issue, regardless of the architecture. Unless huge changes occur in our society, I doubt that we will ever once again be “city” based.

    • pam kueber says

      Gavin, when I read Jeff’s comment, and not knowing Brockton personally, I took it as “urban professionals into gentrification.” In economically sound cities, I think this is very much the case — I have experienced that in my personal life. Re your comment about the ‘desirability’ of city living — a super fascinating topic. Occasionally I comment on other blogs that diss suburbia. In my experience researching and understanding the era (my whole life with this blog haha) I see multitudes of reasons people prefer the suburbs. In my mind it’s: Different strokes for different folks… AND there are really valid reasons for both choosing either.

      • Gavin Hastings says

        Agreement on all counts.

        As stated, this is a multi-faceted topic: I have lived in the hilltowns of Western Mass. and the cities-large and small. Each has their appeal and downside.
        “Economically sound” and all that entails is a huge part of the picture.

        “Maude” will stop with the politics, now…..I promise.

    • Jeff says

      Hi Gavin, not knowing Brockton personally, it was an observation that such a wonderful building in most cities where even the most remote chance of gentrification exists would render this building a treasure. With Brockton in the shape it’s in, naturally the neighborhood and attendant services would speak volumes as to it’s viability.

      As to Detroit, my hometown, you’d be surprised at how many people are moving from other cities and suburbs to renovate the city’s amazing residential architecture.

      Neighborhoods like Indian Village, Palmer Woods, the University District, Boston-Edison/Arden Park Historic District, all have homes from 5k to 20k sq ft, really, and you’d be hard pressed to find one more than 200k on a good day. Some can be had for back taxes- one little arts and crafts gem I missed(!) went for 4 thousand bucks in liveable condition.

      I have, in addition to my midmod on the nature preserve in Southfield, a 1923 Tudor in raw unfinished stucco and pitch-coated half/timbered pegged construction with 3200 sq. ft, and bought it for 35,000 in foreclosure.

      It even had a new multi-dimensional roof! It’s currently rented to a professor at University of Detroit Law School. My favorite features are the recessed radiators with ornamental iron grille work and corner hooded fireplace shaped like a medieval crown.

      Detroit is really a hidden treasure with larger residential historic districts than most cities in America.

      OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now!!

  15. Nina462 says

    Thanks for the links & photos. I like to review old catalogues for those pictures as well. My Dad was from the city and had indoor plumbing by the time he was born in 1930….my Mom was from the county and she didn’t have indoor bathrooms until she moved to the big city for a job and sent money back to her parents to add their tiny bathroom. I ask my mom all the time about that – where was the outhouse? (out back next to the chicken coop); where did you take a bath? in the kitchen, where else? I think I could do it …. but wouldn’t want to.

  16. Danielle Griggs says

    I love it! espically slide 54. My uncle just gave me the blue and red thermos for christmas. To see the thermas in use really makes it real for me. Thank you for the link

  17. Kay says

    Very thought provoking post!

    I was more or less raised by my grandmother who was born in 1893. She and my grandfather saw her family through both the Depression and Dust Bowl years in Oklahoma. Then, of course, came WW2 – her sons served 4 plus years overseas. She didn’t become self-sufficient during these hard years, she was already living a self-sufficient lifestyle. The people of her generation were so tough, I keep looking around for the grown-ups that we need now. Unfortunately, all we have are old flower children. I really hate to say it, but all of the things that we love about the post-war era, I think, are also part of our undoing. I found this quote once and have it posted on my refrigerator:

    “With the appearance of the two-bathroom house, Americans forgot how to cooperate. With the appearance of the two-car family, we forgot how to associate, and with the coming of the two-and three-television home we forgot how to communicate.” – Dr. John Baucom

  18. Lauryn says

    Great photos, Pam, thanks for sharing them. I’ve always been fascinated with that time period in our country’s history and recently finished reading Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dustbowl”. It is an absolutely mind blowing and riveting book and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in how vastly different things were such a short time ago. Vivid detail of what living in those dugouts was like, especially for the people in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. (And kind of puts fretting over finding the right countertop for our 1939 kitchen — how I found your fabulous website — into perspective.)

  19. Vera ( Grasz) bottrell says

    I was born in garden co. Neb. 1937. (Bigsprings is on my birthcertific -born in the dougout– the sister that was with mom when i was born still lives) we lived in a home in the ground close to lewelen ne. we had a cestern for house water and i do remember getting water with my Brother– know that i think of it i wondered wheren it came from ( the water) is there any one that can help me Vera

  20. Julia says

    When my family moved to Alaska in 1961, there was a family we befriended that lived in a dugout house. It was very easy to heat with a wood stove. Cinderblocks were reinforcing the outerwalls. After a few years, they were able to save up enough money to build a very nice log cabin. There were others that did the same thing. I think that was smart. They didn’t go into debt and were able to live fine in the mean time.

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