Back in April, I posted a photo of a kitchen onto the Rural Spin Facebook wall, with little information beyond saying the photo was taken between 1935 and 1942 via the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information program. I asked people for their thoughts, and the photo was met with a wide variety of responses. Most shared positive memories and dreams, some took a practical look at the kitchen, and a small portion didn’t like what the photo represented to them:
- “It is a very servicable kitchen. I just LOVE the wood stove over in the corner – and the cast iron is FABULOUS!! It is a very sustainable kitchen. My great grandmother had a kitchen like this – as did my grandmother early in her life.”
- “This is when kitchens weren’t about decor, or high priced gadgetry, but the life center of the home. Well worn pieces that were tried and true, staples and cooking utensils within easy reach, a good, sturdy table where much of the preparations were done on, not to mention the eating! Let’s not forget the simple straight backed chair …a place to rest while peeling potatoes or having a quick cup of tea or coffee. All about simplicity and practicality.”
- “Thoughts? No one is stopping you from living like that.”
- “There is NOTHING wrong with this kitchen. I love it, and my wife wants that stove!”
- “It is way way way bigger than grandma’s but much the same otherwise….. loved it — Oh, and she had 2 lamps hung on the wall – one by the table (which was against one wall with a long bench) and the other was on the wall by the stove on the opposite wall….”
- “They’d need the woodstove, big time, the walls are uninsulated, only electric appliance appears to be the radio, no electric lights, unlikely that there is running water, most likely either a hand pump at the sink, with an outhouse somewhere well out of sight. I don’t know too many folks who would live like this today, at least voluntarily.”
- “No running water. What a dream.”
- “Absolutely beautiful….wish I had a kitchen like this.”
And so the comments ran. They are all valid opinions, and a testament to how an image can conjure up a wide variety of thoughts, but also deep emotions. Reading the comments we can feel the power of longing some feel about having a kitchen like this and how the photo speaks to them in words of warmth, love, caring, and simplicity. To others, they see this same image and realize that there is some hard work ahead in this kitchen, be it the need to haul water to what it would be like doing laundry on a hot summer day. Others feel more comfortable with Teflon and the immediacy of hot water on command. They are just differing viewpoints, and without differing viewpoints life would be boring, indeed.
The fact of this kitchen is that it was taken as part of the Farm Security Administration program in Depression-era Dust Bowl. Government photographers and writers at the time were tasked with documenting the lives of destitute farmers, and most of the famous Depression-era photos we have come from this program. The program was originally touted as a way to assist very poor farmers, sharecroppers, and tenants who were being hit hard during the Depression. The program was hotly debated, and this ‘spin is not about the the program itself. Instead, this is about the power that an image can have over us, and help us dream of what we want for ourselves, or what we don’t want.
One of the most famous photographs of the collection is undoubtedly that of this 32-year-old migrant pea picker in California. Florence Thompson, shown at right with three of her seven children, evokes strong emotions. We look at this photo and see worry and poverty.
But 40 years after the photo was taken, Florence was able to tell her story after having become aware of the photo’s existence. Florence’s daughter Katherine recalls a hard life that had its mix of good and bad, “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That’s one thing she did do.” (For the complete story of Katherine’s reflection on this photo, read the 2008 article “Girl from iconic Great Depression photo: ‘We were shamed”“
In truth, this kitchen belonged to a poor family in the Dust Bowl southwest. Life was very hard for this family, and this kitchen is one of the nicer ones photographed that are available in the image collection (the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives collection can be found here). But like Florence’s daughter shows, even in hard times, even with rough kitchens and uninsulated walls and hard work, there is the spirit that even if someone doesn’t have a lot, at least they have something. And sometimes that “something” is worth more than a modern kitchen. Sometimes that something is, indeed, about warmth, love, caring, and simplicity.