Sunday, November 29, 2009

a farmhouse morning

In the fictionalized memoir, Run With the Horsemen, Ferrol Sams describes a household morning in the rural piedmont region of Georgia. He writes:
In the summertime the long mornings began before day and were filled with breakfast, housecleaning, churning, washing of clothes, feeding of chickens, and canning, plus the preparation and serving of dinner. After the definitive twice-tolling farm bell had brought the men to dinner and sent them back to the fields, after the dishes were washed and the kitchen floor was scrubbed with hot water and lye soap, after the victuals remaining from dinner were stored in the pierced-tin safe awaiting supper.
       -- p. 31
He also describes the interior of a small farmhouse:
The Fitzgerald house was a mean, four room wooden box set head-high on pillars made of native rock. It had a front porch with a tin roof and steep wooden steps leading up to it. It had been painted white so long ago that it was now softened and muted into a silver gray. There was a sandy front walk outlined with the sharp points of diagonally submerged bricks, and a huge old magnolia tree overhung the walk and almost shaded the porch. The yard was swept so clean and bare that not even a fallen magnolia leaf interrupted its austere surface. The inside of the house was even cleaner and almost as bare.

[Two school children] sat at the kitchen table, elbows propped on the cracking oil cloth, and did their homework. The planks of the bare floor were always a marvel to the boy. They smelled strongly of homemade lye soap and were bleached by such frequent scrubbings that they were almost white and the splinters in them were pliant and soft.
       -- p. 296
Dorothea Lange took the following photos at the home of the Whitfields, a sharecropper family with whom she visited in July 1939. She was accompanied by a sociologist who had almost certainly been there previously while researching her Ph.D. thesis and preparing a book on Mothers of the South. Although the geographic area is different — piedmont North Carolina rather than Georgia — there's much alike in what Sams described and Lange shot with her camera.

Lange's photos of the Whitfield's place show a house set on rocks but not so high as the one Sams describes. She shows the area before the house to be less well cared for than the Fitzgerald's. The sharecrop house in which the Whitfields were living was bigger than the one Sams describes, but this family of six lived in only three of its rooms.

In the three photos shown below, Mrs. Whitfield has finished the day's butter churning and is cleaning up. The first of the three is a high resolution scan; click it to view full size. You can see the family's patent stove, acquired when they married. Their cookware is sparse: two kettles, a coffee pot with cup atop, one covered and one open pot. The simple kitchen table with its oilcloth cover has the washbasin upon it. A sheet of linoleum covers part of the floor. There's a Shaker-like neatness and simplicity to what is shown. The second photo shows Mrs. Whitfield — Irene Isabel (age 35) — using boiling water to clean the churn. The third photo shows Colene, the eldest daughter, at the stove. The field notes for the morning say Colene's dress is a new hand-me-down from her aunt, received the day before. Lange has put an X on this negative indicating that she doesn't wish it to be used. The churn is covered with a clean cloth to keep off flies.

In the next sequence of three, Irene is wiping the oilcloth atop the dining table following the dinner meal (lunch). Her toddler, Dorothy Lee, the family's current "knee baby," has come in the door for a snack. In the third photo, baby Isobel is being dressed. The three are high resolution scans which should be clicked to view full size.

The next trio of photos are less interesting, mainly because Lange has used her flash rather than the window's natural lighting. In the first Mrs. Whitfield is clearing the table following the meal they shared with their guests. Field notes say dinner this day was tomatoes, snaps, and bread she had baked earlier in the morning. In the second and third shots she is washing up and putting things away after the meal. It's a shame the third one isn't high-res; you can see much of what's in the cupboard, but it's indistinct. On top you can see the flit gun (for combatting insects) and inside a small quantity of bottles, jars, and covered bowls. It's curious that their kerosene lamp lacks a glass globe.

This final interior shot shows that the family owned a rocker as well as at least one straight-backed chair and the bench they kept under the dining table. In background you can see the room's fireplace, the family's only source of heat in winter months. Field notes explain that Irene normally goes barefoot as do her children, but wore her good shoes for the photo session. They also say she prefers field work to house work and enjoyed following her daddy in his tobacco field when she was young.

Lange's photos of the front porch show its similarities to the one that Sams gave the Fitzgeralds. There's a tin roof and stacked stones for support, though there's only one step up from ground level.

The first of the following three shots is a high resolution scan showing the family following dinner before afternoon field work.

One of Lange's biographers, Ann Whiston Spirn, came back to the location of this farm and located Colene and her younger brother Millard not too many years ago. Spirn wrote:
Colene looks so much like Lange’s photo of her as a girl. The eyes and the cockiness. She and Millard have an easy, teasing relationship.

Lange mixed up Dorothy Lee and Colene (and misspelled the name). Colene was the oldest (nine years old in 1939), and Dorothy Lee was the “knee baby” (she died of cancer in the 1980s). The Whitfield mother’s name was Irene Isabel. She died only a few years ago.

When Lange photographed the Whitfields, they were sharecroppers who lived down the road from the Gordonton country store in Person County. Today no one in the family farms. “It’s too hard,” At five and six years old, the children worked very hard. They helped their father string tobacco, putting together three leaves and holding them up for him to string. In those days, the farmers graded tobacco themselves.
-- Source: Burlington, North Carolina.
This final photo (low resolution) shows the Whitfield's sharecrop house from the road.


Main sources:

All photos come from the FSA collection of the Prints and Photos Division of the Library of Congress. Click to view full size.

Daring to look: Dorothea Lange's photographs and reports from the field by Anne Whiston Spirn (University of Chicago Press, 2008)


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