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Our 1940 Stories: Remembering Small Town America

My mom grew up in Caldwell, Idaho, a little town near the Oregon border.

The family home is gone now—replaced by a medical complex—but not my memories of it. As a young girl a trip to grandma’s always meant feasting on fried chicken, making dolls out of hollyhock blossoms, and getting candy from the Penny Wise drugstore.

When the release of the 1940 census was announced I knew my first stop would have to be in the town where I had so many good times. Not only will I find my grandparents, but it’s also the first census where my mom would be listed. To help pass the time until the records are released, I decided to do some online research of Caldwell and came across an amazing set of historical photos, which includes more than 100 images of the tiny Idaho town as it was in 1941, less than a year after the census.

The photos are from the Library of Congress’s online Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government hired a group of photographers to travel the country and document how New Deal programs were helping rural farmers. For almost a decade, photographers created thousands and thousands of images of everyday Americans during the Great Depression and WWII. In the words of Roy Stryker who managed the project, they “introduced America to Americans.”

Now, more than 160,000 of these iconic photos are available on the Library of Congress website. While you’re waiting for the 1940 census to go online, why not take a quick trip back in time and search the collection for the small towns in your family tree. You never know what—or who—you may find.

Tana Pedersen, Employee

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