The True Story Of The Iconic “Migrant Mother” Photograph

After The “Migrant Mother” Photos

Migrant Mother Later Life


Owens’ life stabilized in middle age. After World War II, she married a hospital administrator in Modesto, California named George Thompson. He made enough money to support his wife, now known as Florence Owens Thompson, at a reasonable level, and in later years her now-grown children pooled their money and bought her a house in Modesto.

Oddly, Owens Thompson later sold the house, explaining that she preferred living in a trailer. It was in that trailer, in 1978, that a reporter for the Modesto Bee caught up with her and showed her the photo that had made her unwittingly famous.

The feature ran in the Bee and on the AP under the title: “Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo.” She really wasn’t, but “Mother Slightly Miffed She’s Been the Face of Poverty For Decades Without Knowing It” probably didn’t fit.

The “Migrant Mother” photo never made any money for Dorothea Lange. Per her contract with the government, the photos she took became the property of the government, and she wasn’t entitled to sell any of them. The photographs were good for her reputation, however, and she went on to a reasonably successful career later on.

The original negatives were nearly destroyed when somebody at the San Jose Chamber of Commerce threw them out. After being fished out of the dumpster behind the Chamber’s building, and sitting in an attic for 30 years, the negatives sold at auction for $296,000. In 1998, “Migrant Mother” was chosen for a stamp to commemorate the 1930s.

Florence Owens Thompson didn’t live to see any of this. In the early 1980s, her daughters announced that their mother was sick with cancer and a non-specific heart condition.

She died in her trailer in 1983, age 79, and was quietly buried in Modesto. Her headstone reads:

FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.

After this look at the “Migrant Mother” photos, see these Dust Bowl photos and learn about why one particular group of Americans that was disproportionately impacted by the Great Depression.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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