Hubert W. Johnson A look at American Employment in the 1930's

By: Therese Mendoza

Hubert Johnson, a 1930’s American photographer, grew up around Gastonia, North Carolina. He was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project and his interviewer noted that he drifted from job to job before buying a photography studio. The title of Hubert’s life history, “The Photographer,” indicates that Hubert finally settled into a job after several years of a lack of direction. Throughout his life, Hubert struggled most with employee apathy in many of the places in which he worked and the general unemployment caused by the lack of jobs in his area.


Hubert Johnson was born on August 28, 1905. He was an only child and his mother died when he was seven years old, so having only his father left he felt "lost, friendless," and lonely for a significant period of time (Abner 3679). His father was often too busy with work to watch over Hubert, so he sent Hubert to live with Hubert's grandmother and uncle.

As a child, Hubert was always eager to begin making his own living and becoming independent from his family. He never finished school because he was eager to make a living for himself as early as possible, and neither his uncle nor grandmother pushed him to continue his education. He drifted from job to job throughout the course of his life. He first worked for a paper route before quitting school, then worked for Boyle’s Newsstand in Gastonia, North Carolina for two years after quitting school. He left the newsstand for six months to work in a tent show selling drinks, then returned to the newsstand. He was not asked to return to work after he took a spontaneous trip to Kamer and forgot his boss’ drawer keys in his pocket. He “took a job” collecting accounts until he decided to join the Navy (Abner 3680). After backing out of joining the Navy “because he was "in love with a girl” (Abner 3681), he was unable to find a job for several months. He finally decided to sell for a store until it closed, then went on a road trip with some of his friends. He spent all of his money, then sent a telegram to “his guardian” asking for money and hitchhiked home (Abner 3682).

When Hubert returned home, he worked for a printing shop until he “got mad and quit,” then got a job with the Mortimer Book Company (Abner 3683). He traveled around with friends again, but this time tried to avoid losing all of his money. He got a job in a stationary store and worked there for six months, then became homesick then returned to the printing shop and worked there until the manager left the place and opened up a photography studio. Hubert attempted to work a traveling job selling seeds but returned to the studio when he realized he preferred staying in Gastonia. The manager wished to leave the studio, and Hubert was interested in the workings of the camera, so he bought the studio in 1936 and remained in the studio (Abner 3687).


During the Great Depression, people wished to make a living no matter how boring, taxing, or low-paying a job was. Often times, employees did not take into consideration the conditions their workers were performing in. Additionally, not all jobs were able to provide to their workers an adequate amount of pay or incentives that they would intrinsically enjoy. Such a situation led to a fair amount of employee apathy in 1930 America.

The protagonist of "The Photographer," Hubert Johnson, demonstrated a lack of attachment to most of his jobs through his constant shift from job to job over the course of his adulthood and his occasional expressions of dissatisfaction in regards to different workplaces. Hubert turned down a job offer due to its low pay relative to the cost of living in the job area. He was offered $25 a week to wrap bread, but “Everything was so costly that I did not think I could live on that, so I did not take it” (Abner 3682). Although the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 “sets minimum wage and maximum hour standards for all employees ‘engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce’” (“The Federal Wages” 646), the minimum wage was still apparently not enough to adequately sustain individuals. Noting that the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted because employers had been abusing the work force in order to gain more profit for themselves, such as through child labor and very low wages, a general appreciation for the workers’ productivity was not expected.

Hubert also “got mad and quit” after running a press in a print shop for a year (Abner 3683). Although compared to other places in which he worked, he kept the job for a considerable amount of time, he still never really was attached to the printing place or had any motivation to stay there. Unlike how he “did not want to leave” the photography studio, he described working at the print shop as “not much of a job.” An article titled “Some Notes on Incentives in Industry,” written in 1932, stated that “the best results are obtainable only when financial and non-financial incentives are combined” (Lee 180). Although running the printing press gave Hubert money to support himself, there were never any “non-financial incentives” at the print shop, such as interest in the workings of the press, that encouraged him to remain there.


Pictured above is a large crowd of unemployed Americans in the 1930's. Finding a job was difficult during these times and many people were unable to support themselves with basic needs such as food and shelter. Such conditions pushed people to take whatever job they could find, whether or not they preferred it.

The Great Depression caused the economy to become stagnant and led to many workplaces closing since no one would buy their products. A lack of workplaces led to a smaller amount of jobs, which led to a large amount of the American population suffering from unemployment. It became difficult for Americans to obtain a job, much less one that they truly enjoyed.

Hubert Johnson’s opportunity to be introduced to the photography industry was in part due to its rise during the late 1930s. In a magazine article published in 1938, the photography industry was coined a type of “hobby industry,” since people could “turn to it to forget their troubles and to find surcease from the cares and disappointments of business” (Murphy 8). Although many traditional jobs were going out of business, hobbies such as photography and various sports were becoming popular. They did not provide a secure amount of income for the participating individuals, but the pastimes were enjoyable and gave people a sense of purpose.

Despite the economy being unstable and jobs being scarce, people did begin finding jobs. In an accounting article discussing the amount and cost of cases for rollover relief between June 1935 and June 1936, “the number of cases was reduced 63 per cent” and “the cost of caring for the cases was reduced nearly 80 per cent” (“Amazing Effect” 83). In other words, less people began applying for rollover relief and those who were still applying were applying for lower amounts. People were beginning to find jobs that enabled them to stop applying for relief. Photography, in the late 1930s, developed into a popular work industry. A 1939 article titled “A Hobby Can Pay Yon Dividends” noted that “Photography becomes profitable” (Chamberlin 26) and listed a few individuals that became well-known for their contributions to the industry. Even if there were not many photography studios available during his time, Hubert benefited from this excitement. He stated that “The camera is a most interesting instrument” (3687). The general rising interest in photography brought not only the interest of others to his work, but also Hubert’s own interest to his work.

Many qualified individuals were unable to find jobs due to the extremely low amount of job offerings during the Great Depression. Rather than stores and industries looking for workers, individuals were marketing themselves to the employment world.


The Federal Writers’ Project was formed to give “work relief for approximately ten thousand people during its seven-year existence” (Biles 252). Writers were given the task of writing out the life story of individuals from different workplaces in different areas, be it someone they know or someone completely random. It gives readers a snapshot of what life was like during the early 1900’s in America.

John Abner, Hubert's interviewer, may not have been emotionally attached to Hubert. John Abner did not try to elaborate on the large amount of quotes he recorded from Hubert. He simply relayed Hubert's story as if it were his own, keeping the narrative in first person and never disrupting Hubert's consistent, list-like flow of words.

It is unclear as to whether or not he omitted parts of Hubert's story or asked questions for clarification but did not include his own input. Hubert's interviewer never took note of Hubert's expression or gestures as he relayed his story, small forms of communication that may have provided a better indication of what Hubert was feeling as he recounted his life story to John Abner.

(Above is a screenshot of the original life story written by Abner.) "The Photographer", Hubert's story, is entirely in quotes. This may indicate that Hubert's interviewer simply recorded Hubert's summary of his life story, without asking for any elaboration on a particular subject or making his own inferences on Hubert's emotions.


Abner, John (interviewer): The Photographer, Folder 278 in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

“Amazing effect of economy.” Journal of Accountancy, vol. 62, no. 2, 1936, pp. 83. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

Biles, Roger. “Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project.” North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 81, no. 2, 2004, pp. 251-252. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

Chamberlin, Jo. “A Hobby Can Pay Yon Dividends.” Nation’s Business, vol. 27, no. 8, 1939, pp. 24-26. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

“The Federal Wages and Hours Act.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 52, no. 4, 1939, pp. 646-679. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

Lee, Christopher A. “Some Notes on Incentives in Industry.” Human Factors, vol. 6, no. 5, 1932, pp. 180-186. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

Murphy, John Allen. “Why Hobby Industries Outride Depressions.” Barron's, vol. 18, no. 42, 1938, pp. 8. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.


“Garment factory in Jersey Homesteads.” Garment Industry, Library of Congress, 1936,

(Cover photo) Pictured are American workers in a garment factory in the 1930’s. Employers were not often concerned about what conditions their employees labored under.


“Unemployed Workers in the Great Depression.”,,

(First picture)


“Desperate Americans stand in soup kitchen lines and look for work.”,, circa 1929,

(Second picture)

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