The entire world was going to hell. Decades of abusive farming practices and constant drought, birthed ripe conditions for monstrous, dark clouds of dust to swarm across the Midwest’s skies like an armada of warships. Lands once suitable for grazing turned into an area called the “Great American Desert”. “This is the ultimate darkness,” one diary grimly chronicled. “So must come the end of the world.” In addition, the stock market crash of 1929 continued to plunge the nation into further financial and economic collapse. Many families had found themselves impoverished, wandering, and destitute. Americans were now living in a dream unrealized.
Perhaps that what attracted the unassuming photographer, Dorothea Lange. With resolute determination, she sought to document the plight of the tenant-poor and dramatize that moment publicly.
It was 1939 when Lange passed through the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Along her journey, she paused to observe a nearby harvest of string beans. For a few weeks in August, large numbers of temporary hands were needed to pick the bean crop. Many migrants arrived from outside Oregon (namely Kansas) and worked from harvest to harvest. “We watch all the time for agitators,” one small farmer told her. “An agitator will turn the whole yard upside down in two hours.” Lange found the disorganization of migrant camps on the small farms attractive. “There is less formality and freer, more intimate relationship between small farmers and pickers than between the large growers and works in California,” she wrote. Sitting quietly reposed underneath one small tent, she came upon a couple which best exemplified what she desired. Lange steadied her camera and took this photograph near West Stayton, Ore. on August 17th. After asking a few brief questions, she put away her writing materials, probably thanked them, and walked away.
“Note social security number tattooed on his arm,” Lange observed. Perhaps only a small detail to the photographer, the U.S., Social Security Death Index (begun only four years prior) provides further information. A resident of Klamath Falls, Ore., Thomas U. Cave and his wife Annie, had fallen on hard times when Lange encountered them. That year, they had collectively worked a total of 52 weeks and earned $550. The couple was the only household who rented a small flat on Frieda Avenue ($12 a month). And now Thomas Cave found himself without a job. They were both twenty-seven at the time.
For many people who survived economic hardship, the New Deal programs that rose under the Roosevelt Administration were a welcomed relief. Especially the Social Security Act, implemented almost precisely four months before the Caves were photographed. The resolution read:
The Social Security Act (Act of August 14, 1935) [H. R. 7260]
An act to provide for the general welfare by establishing a system of Federal old-age benefits, and by enabling the several States to make more adequate provision for aged persons, blind persons, dependent and crippled children, maternal and child welfare, public health, and the administration of their unemployment compensation laws; to establish a Social Security Board; to raise revenue; and for other purposes.
But its services were only offered to those who applied and received a number. According to researcher Tiffany West, the U.S. government stressed the “outright necessity” of carriers to know their number. Thus, the craze to recall and document SSNs was in full phase after 1936. Thomas Cave was no exception and he decided upon a permanent way to never forget: tattooing. It’s interesting to note that two early artists, Red Gibbons and Sailor Walter, were doing just this from their Burnside Street-shop in Portland. In 1937, they reported to a newspaper that they were working overtime tattooing SSNs “on the arms and legs of folks who didn’t want to be caught without their numbers.”
It can only be assumed that the Caves received help after visiting the local postal office to apply. The extent of how much assistance relieved them from years of poverty is unknown. The following year, however, he managed to find work for a produce company as a truck driver. Annie also managed, picking fruit at a nearby farm. During the war, Cave enlisted in the army, becoming a sergeant. He returned to Oregon and worked for Consolidated Freightways, a trucking distributor, until his death in 1980. Annie died in 2000. Both were buried at the Willamette National Cemetery.
Thomas and Annie Cave were not simply products of their time, they were genuine personalities who had traversed hardship and incomparable odds during it. Lange’s fieldwork also sought to exemplify them and countless others during the Great Depression, but also subtly revealed the perseverance the lower-middle class continued to carry-on, just to make ends meet. And so, Mr. Cave casually sat, undressed, found relaxation in his pipe, and smiled.
 Spirn estimates that some migrants would cover 5,000 to 10,000 miles a year.
 “Identification,” Tattoo Archive, last modified 2000, accessed February 5, 2014, http://www.tattooarchive.com/tattoo_history/gibbons_artoria.html
- James West Davidson and Mark Lytle, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2009).
- Anne Whiston Spirn, Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 143, 154.
- “Social Security History,” Social Security Administration, accessed February 4, 2014, http://www.ssa.gov/history/35act.html
- Tiffany West, “The Taboo of Tattoos: Changes in Body Art during the New Deal and World War II.” Journal of Research Across the Disciplines (February 2012): 7-8, accessed February 5, 2014, http://http://www.ju.edu/jrad/documents/tiffanyw.pdf.
- Women’s Wisconsin: From Native Matriarchies to the New Millennium. Genevieve G. McBride, ed. (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2005), 321.