As America struggled in the throes of the Great Depression, a team of photographers was dispatched across the country to capture moments of their lives.

The project was an attempt to win political favor for government programs, including Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration in 1935. The initiative aimed to aid the poorest one-third of displaced farmers through resettlement and low-interest loans.

The project, which became known as “The Files,” amassed some 170,000 images between 1935 and 1944, and included the works of famous photographers like Arthur Rothstein and Dorothea Lange. A team at Yale University recently geotagged the photos and created a searchable database.

A search of photos taken in Washington state yielded a glimpse into what HistoryLink describes as a time when “virtually every sector of the economy was hit.”

“There are no reliable statistics, but the best estimates hold that Seattle had 11 percent unemployed in April 1930, rising to 26.5 percent in January 1935,” HistoryLink states. “Statistics did not account for employees who worked, but experienced drastically reduced wages and could not consume goods and services as they had before.”

The photos show Grays Harbor County’s lumber mill workers, who were struggling to stay afloat amid massive cuts in the 1930s. Others show farmers and families trying to start anew in Thurston County.

In Yakima County, migrant fruit pickers worked in the fields as “fruit tramps,” harvesting cherries, onions and pears. Many slept in tents and makeshift camps with their families.

By 1942, with the men at war, women had taken over the production lines at the Boeing plant in Seattle. They assembled B-17F bombers, which were also known as the “Flying Fortress.”

The photo collection includes snapshots of Kitsap and Pierce counties and beyond. You can search the database at

6 Responses

  1. Carol Jackson Hamre

    I found a picture of my grandmother in 1939. She’s the woman in the sunbonnet (that she made) and was a migrant farm worker in Yakima. This picture was also in a schoolbook that my Uncle owned. I saw the picture once, thirty years ago and one of my cousins probably has the schoolbook now, if they kept it. Thank you so much for sharing the pictures!

  2. Aaron Fowler

    Fantastic article! I love the pictures!

    I think that it would be fabulous to see those pictures in color. There’s a group on Facebook that can bring color to old black and white photos, called “History in Color”.

    You should look into something like that.

    Thanks for reading this.

  3. Scott Larsen

    Such moving photographs with crisp, clean narration. Thank you Martha Kang, those photographers for ‘The Files’ photography initiative, and Yale University for preserving this important historical legacy of our nation.

  4. Roger Stephenson

    My family was one of the fruit tramp bunch and lived in Ramblers Park. Thanks for the memories, even if they represent some hard times for us. I’d also like to add that some of the same hardships we faced are still being endured by “immigrant workers” today. Thanks for the picts!

  5. Eilyne Lewis

    These black and white photos tell us a fantastic story of the life and times of these people. To add color would dilute their impact and change historical context. They are beautiful and meaningful as is. No color please.

  6. Yvonne Lindquist

    My folks were in Ballard actually on Crown Hill in 1939…. that’s the year they were married and built their first home on 95th and 12th NW…but their life wasn’t as bad…my dad was a meat cutter on Queen Anne Ave. and my mom worked at Swanson’s Nursery still standing and growing…and they their own gardening and canning.