Skip to main content

Puerto Rico's Plantation Economy: Snapshots from the Library of Congress

This research guide provides access to historic photographic and film documentation, as well as related print and electronic resources, illustrating the 20th century efforts to transform Puerto Rico from a plantation to an industrial economy.

Introduction

Between 1935 and 1944, photographers working for the U.S. government's Farm Security Administration (FSA) and later the Office of War Information (OWI) created approximately 1,600 color photographs and 175,000 black-and-white film negatives to depict every-day life in the United States, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. These efforts helped document how the shift in Puerto Rico's economy from a plantation to an industrial model affected family structures, public health, education and work. This guide highlights key photographic collections from two couples, Jack Delano and his wife, Irene; and Edwin Rosskam and his wife Louise. These couples documented these everyday impacts in their photographs of Puerto Rico.

Delano recounts his experiences as a FSA photographer in the book Puerto Rico Mio: Four Decades of Change - Cuatro Decadas de Cambio.

Our travel took us through every one of the seventy-six municipalities of the island, photographing coffee haciendas, tobacco farms, sugarcane fields, and grinding mills. We recorded the misery of tiempo muerto, the dead season, when the breathtaking, silvery fields of guajana, the sugarcane flower, obscured the ugly brutality of unemployment and want. And we witnessed the zafra, the sugar harvest, when men and oxen strained every muscle under the broiling sun and forty-three sugar mills spouted black smoke into the sky day and night.