Connecticut

Flashback Photo: Meriden, Conn., Begins to Emerge From the Great Depression

Photographer Russell Lee took these photos of Meriden, Conn., in October 1939 for the Farm Security Administration. President Franklin Roosevelt started the FSA in 1937 as part of the New Deal. It aimed to fight rural poverty.

The agency then hired 11 photographers to record the plight of poor farmers. Some of the most famous Depression-era photographers (including Lee) got their start at the FSA. They included Walker EvansDorothea Lange and Gordon Parks.

The agency’s focus shifted to patriotic themes during World War II. It then moved to the Office of War Information (also known as propaganda).

'Rear of apartment house, Meriden, Conn.' Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

‘Rear of apartment house, Meriden, Conn.’ Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Meriden, Conn.

Meriden, Conn., was the biggest manufacturer of silver tableware in the world during the 1930s and 1940s. Independent New England silversmiths started International Silver  in 1898, and it grew through acquisitions. The Meriden-Wallingford area was transformed into a center of silver craftsmanship. Silverware production peaked in the late 1930s, but then lines of business were discontinued or sold.

Though silverware is no longer made in the area, Meriden is still known as Silver City.

'House with articles on roof of porch during fall house cleaning, Meriden, Conn.' Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

‘House with articles on roof of porch during fall house cleaning, Meriden, Conn.’ Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Meriden was hit hard by the Great Depression. Many people were in danger of losing their homes. President Roosevelt’s Home Owners Loan Corporation helped save 301 homes in the city for their owners by January 1935.

'Fruit vendor, Meriden, Conn.' Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

‘Fruit vendor, Meriden, Conn.’ Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The city gave make work to people who couldn’t find jobs. They cleared the reservoir and salvaged firewood for the needy. They also turned the dump into a playing field and expanded the golf course. The Works Progress Administration also put people to work — building the Chamberlain Highway, improving the airport, clearing streams and painting schools.

'Burning leaves, Meriden, Conn.' Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

‘Burning leaves, Meriden, Conn.’ Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

By October 1939, unemployment crisis began to ease. The relief rolls were shrinking. Four months after Lee took this photo, local factories began to hire for the war effort.

'Entrance to Odd Fellows Hall, Meriden, Conn.' Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

‘Entrance to Odd Fellows Hall, Meriden, Conn.’ Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a benevolent fraternal organization, dates to 17th-century Britain. It came to the United States in 1819, and the Odd Fellows established the Grand Lodge in Connecticut in 1846.

You just have to wonder if the fellow raking leaves went to the dance that night.

This story last updated in 2022.

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