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Behind Painted Smiles: Depression Era Billboards

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Behind the painted smiles on the ubiquitous billboards erected by The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) to advertise the American dream, reality bit hard. In January 1937, one billboard declared that Americans enjoyed the “WORLD’S HIGHEST STANDARD OF LIVING”. But not all Americans were born equal. The poor black faces stood before the smiling white nuclear family in Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph presented a painful juxtaposition. The billboard spoke of myth making and a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of America’s wealth.

Designed by the Campbell-Ewald Company, NAM billboards were positioned in every city with a population of over 2,500. Nearly every American would have seen one. They were part of the American home’s furniture. Bourke-White and her colleagues recording the American tableaux for the Farm Security Administration – Dorothea Lange, John Vachon, Arthur Rothstein, and Edwin Locke – spotted the jarring chasms between the image and the reality.

 

Walker Evans, Houses and Billboards

Depression billboards 1937 African-Americans displaced by the Great Ohio River Flood line up at a relief station in Louisville, Kentucky.

1937 African-Americans displaced by the Great Ohio River Flood line up at a relief station in Louisville, Kentucky.

Depression billboards

1937 Near Kingwood, West Virginia.

1940 Dubuque, Iowa.

1940 Dubuque, Iowa.

1940 Dubuque, Iowa.

1940 Dubuque, Iowa.

1940 A man scavenges in the Dubuque city dump.

1940 A man scavenges in the Dubuque city dump.

1940 Dubuque, Iowa. b

1940 Dubuque, Iowa.

1940 A sign in the river bottoms shacktown in Dubuque.

1940 A sign in the river bottoms shacktown in Dubuque.

1940 A resident of the river bottoms shacktown in Dubuque, Iowa.

1940 A resident of the river bottoms shacktown in Dubuque, Iowa.

1940 Children living in the river bottoms shacktown in Dubuque.

1940 Children living in the river bottoms shacktown in Dubuque.

1937 Memphis, Tennessee during the Great Ohio River Flood.

1937 Memphis, Tennessee during the Great Ohio River Flood.

1937

1937

February 1937 Birmingham, Alabama.

February 1937 Birmingham, Alabama.

February 1937 Birmingham, Alabama. a

February 1937 Birmingham, Alabama.

February 1937 A migrant encampment in Birmingham, Alabama.

February 1937 A migrant encampment in Birmingham, Alabama.

February 1937 A migrant encampment in Birmingham, Alabama

February 1937 A migrant encampment in Birmingham, Alabama

March 1937 Highway 99 in California.

March 1937 Highway 99 in California.

March 1937 Highway 99 in California.

March 1937 Highway 99 in California.

February 1937 Birmingham, Alabama.

February 1937 Birmingham, Alabama.

February 1937 Birmingham, Alabama. a

February 1937 Birmingham, Alabama. a==

February 1937 A migrant encampment in Birmingham, Alabama.

February 1937 A migrant encampment in Birmingham, Alabama.

February 1937 A migrant encampment in Birmingham, Alabama

February 1937 A migrant encampment in Birmingham, Alabama

March 1937 Highway 99 in California.

March 1937 Highway 99 in California.

March 1937 Highway 99 in California.

March 1937 Highway 99 in California.

March 1937 Highway 99 in California.

March 1937 Highway 99 in California.

November 1938 A family camps out behind a billboard on Highway 99 in Kern County, California.

November 1938 A family camps out behind a billboard on Highway 99 in Kern County, California.

 

Via: Mashable