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Kaufman’s Brooklyn: May 25: Eight ‘Scenes from the Great Depression’

May 25, 2020 Phil Kaufman
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My father, Irving Kaufman (1910 – 1982), was a professional photographer who started in Brooklyn in the mid 1930s working for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He captured thousands of images of Brooklyn through the 1950s. I have recently digitized a great many of them. My father’s profile can be found here.

This week’s theme:

As last week’s pictures showed, a lot of people were “Having Fun” back in the late ’30s. But, literally at the same time, the country was in the midst of a decidedly not fun economic disaster. I call this week’s photos “Scenes from the Great Depression.”

These are not just sights of misery or reminders of very difficult times. As always, the intent is to offer images that are interesting, informative and often beautifully done. A few display the overtly painful sights of the period, but most show people trying to do something about it, being as constructive as they can in the face of a grim reality. You might not smile as much as you did with last week’s collection, but I hope these photos allow you to find new perspectives and inspiration.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Today’s photos:

Though even during the Depression most Americans maintained an acceptable standard of living, extreme poverty was faced by millions. A few of the photos illustrate this reality. But most this week will show some of the reactions people had. The final two extra images shown today are repeats from two weeks ago. They belonged in that week’s selection of “People, one at a time,” but they come back as unmistakable “Scenes from the Great Depression.”

Destitute family, 1936

This is a sad but all too common image of the Depression. My father’s note on the envelope of negatives from this site says “Poverty 1936 Destitute family living in a shack on Jamaica Bay.” I don’t know what brought him to this scene or whether the photos were ever published in the Eagle or used for anything else. There are two pictures of the mother and children, and five of the outdoors. The location was almost certainly Barren Island, part of which had been turned into Floyd Bennett Field, but a small part remained occupied until 1942.


Shacks called home, 1936

One of these buildings, or one like it nearby, housed the family shown above. The five exterior photos show a total of seven dwellings, some two-story like these, others one-level and smaller. The rickety walkways connect them to each other, but there’s nothing to be seen that suggests how to get to the world beyond. The 1930 census overlooked Barren Island entirely. Later in the decade the census bureau was convinced to return and count the remaining 416 residents.


Shanty town taken down, undated

Another possibility for the desperate, called shanty towns (or “Hoovervilles”), became common in almost all cities and towns. Homeless people created makeshift shelters however they could on public or vacant land. Some expanded into dozens of dwellings. Occupants were sometimes evicted and shacks demolished by police or other officials for any number of reasons, some benign, some cruel, almost all controversial.


Beachcomber, November 22, 1936

Another sign of desperation, and a response to it, is what this man is doing. My father’s words say he is a “beach comber, sifting sand for valuables.” We still sometimes see a similar hunt on beaches, but with a hand-held metal detector, not with a shovel and a sifting box. I can’t imagine a very high success rate for finding valuables using this slow and strenuous method. But many people tried it, so it must have produced some benefit. Better than nothing.


Mortgage protest, c. 1939

This remarkable gathering, on Court Street near Boro Hall, illustrates the reach of the Great Depression. The group looks middle class, well-dressed and apparently homeowners — not the people hardest hit by the depression. By most measures, the worst of the disaster occurred earlier in the ’30s. Still, these people are looking for help in the form of a moratorium on mortgage payments for 1940. Times were still so bad, and meeting mortgage payments still such a struggle, that many felt they had no choice but to take to the streets.


Odd job for mailmen, late 1930s

In an attempt to find a new and creative way to track unemployment in New York, postal workers were given the task of delivering “Report cards” to the homes on their routes. The instructions say “If you are unemployed, or partially unemployed, fill out and mail your report card today.” There’s not much evidence that this process yielded any new or reliable information, and the experiment didn’t last. We’re still not confident we have a reliable way to count – or even define – the unemployed.

These next two photos were part of the “People, one at a time” display two weeks ago. They are repeated here since they are so clearly a part of this week’s topic.

Solitary striker, c. 1935

Labor conflicts during the Depression were often large, hard-fought and sometimes violent. Here’s one that was small and local but no less contentious. The lonely picketer claims the shop refuses to hire union workers. The shop calls the organizers corrupt liars and claims the strikers are not even beauticians.


Little lady alone, c. 1935

I found this negative among many other Brooklyn scenes from the mid-1930s, but it had no specific documentation. It’s an evocative, painful image of a young girl who appears to be among the “one third of a nation” who were (as FDR put it) “ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-clothed.” Despite the anonymity, I find it one of the most moving of all my father’s works.

An index of Kaufman’s Brooklyn posts may be found here.

Irving Kaufman’s profile may be found here.

I invite you to submit comments, memories, images of Brooklyn, and especially any additional background information you can supply about the photos posted here to [email protected]. I’d also be glad to supply information about buying prints of any of the images seen here. Many of my father’s images are also available for viewing and purchase at All prints purchased will be the product of professional scanning and editing.

Weekly collection 4: ‘Scenes from the Great Depression’

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  1. Phil Kaufman

    Thanks for the comment and kind words. It’s especially nice to hear from a Brooklynite far away who stays in touch this way. Stay tuned; there will be lots more ahead.

  2. it's onlymoney

    Interesting, these are truly “treasures” in that it’s part of history, history not often talked about anymore, like the Depression, partly because so many of those around then are gone, remember when much younger, older people spoke of these things, how life was in times past in our NYC (speaking as a native myself).