First published in Life Magazine’s February 1937 issue, World’s Highest Standard of Living became instantly recognizable to many Americans during the Great Depression for its starkly ironic juxtaposition of an idealized America alongside the grimmer aspects of everyday reality. Often thought to be an unemployment line, the photo was actually taken in Louisville after the flooding of the Ohio River, which killed almost 400 people and displaced about a million more across four states.
I can vividly remember my first encounter with World’s Highest Standard of Living in a book my parents owned called The Best of Life. Published in 1973, The Best of Life chronicles life in the 20th century through photographs taken around the world. I became fascinated with the photos in this book and looked through it countless times; it became an early source of cultural and historical literacy for me. Selected from past issues of Life, the photographs varied between the celebratory, the joyous, and the violently horrific, providing me with my earliest impressions of how great and how terrible people could be to one another.
The photographer Margaret Bourke-White took World’s Highest Standard of Living along with many other iconic photos featured in The Best of Life. Other easily recognizable photos include Gandhi and his spinning wheel, families during the Dust Bowl, and prisoners of war during World War II, among others. Bourke-White’s contributions to photography in the 20th century were considerable by any standard. She was Life’s first female photojournalist; she even took the photo on the cover of the first issue. She was the first Western photographer allowed to take pictures of Soviet industry and she later became the first female war correspondent during World War II.
Though many of Bourke-White’s photographs hold iconic status in our pictorial history of the 20th century, World’s Highest Standard of Living remains one of her most famous. I can think of few other photographs that juxtapose prosperity and poverty in America in such black and white terms, literally and figuratively. Its implicit criticism of race and class seems to have enduring resonance in American culture. It was appropriated for the cover of Curtis Mayfield’s 1975 album, (There’s No Place Like) America Today.
It inspired a similar billboard in the future dystopia of the film Brazil, and was also recreated by graffiti art pioneer Freedom (AKA Chris Pape) in one of his murals in the eponymous Freedom Tunnel inhabited for years by New York City’s homeless population.