In early January 1937, the Ohio River began to flood. By the end of the month, more than seventy percent of Louisville, Kentucky was under water. Thousands of people were displaced from their homes, businesses were destroyed, and the geography of the city permanently shifted east, outside of the flood plain. In this photograph, taken by Margaret Bourke-White for Time magazine, a line of displaced people–adults and children, all of them Black–wait in line for food and dry clothing in front of an enormous billboard. In a terrible irony, the billboard depicts an idealized American family driving through a bucolic Midwestern scene beneath the words, “World’s Highest Standard of Living.” Over time, Bourke-White’s photo has been used to represent the wealth disparity and precarious socio-economic conditions of the Great Depression.
A tag line on the billboard reads, “There’s no way like the American Way.” How is the “American Way” depicted on the billboard? Is there such a thing as the “American Way” today? What is the same or different about today’s American Way from the 1937 American Way?
How is the family in the advertisement similar or different from the families lined up for disaster relief? How are they dressed? What expressions do they wear on their faces?
Who is the audience for this photograph? It was originally presented in a feature about the Ohio River flood. How might it have been read elsewhere in the country? Why do you think this photo endured as a symbol of the Great Depression?
How are people in different geographic areas affected differently by natural disasters? Does living in a particular geographic region have significance or is it random? How are class, race, and other categories of difference made present in the geography of a region?