Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"There But for the Grace of God Go I"

Photos by Dorothea Lange via Shorpy.


The Whitfield family's kitchen, North Carolina, 1939. Mr. Whitfield was a sharecropper.

When I saw this kitchen on Shorpy, I was impressed with how clean and neat it was. I did a survey of kitchens in photographs on Shorpy, and although this was among the poorer kitchens, it was also probably the cleanest, including among tenement kitchens photographed. I do not believe that Ms. Lange photographed by appointment but photographed what she found. There is not much in this kitchen. A table, an oil cloth, a wood stove, a butter churner, a basin, a few pots, rags. But what is there is clearly where it is supposed to be, and everything, including the floor, looks like it is regularly wiped down. In fact, there is Mrs. Whitfield doing some wiping right there.


So, compared with many of the other kitchens you can view on Shorpy, many of which belong to poor people, this kitchen stood out. I think, "There but for the grace of God, go I," and ask myself, if I were the wife of a poor sharecropper with multiple children, how clean would my kitchen be? Would I be able to keep my house neat and clean? Would I be able to resist the temptation of despair? Would I be able to keep my life on the straight and narrow? These are questions I cannot answer for myself. But Mrs. Whitfield has answered those questions on the side of hope and courage.

Mrs. Whitfield tends to her youngest.

3 comments:

Stacie.Make.Do. said...

Mrs. Whitfield did not have the internet to suck all her free time away. I bet she prayed a lot, too. I should take a leaf from her book.

Suzanne said...

Thanks so much for the series on Maude Callen. The photos you have posted today are very evocative. My aunt lived and raised her children in such a sharecroppers house. They lived in the remotest section of the Florida panhandle. There was no plumbing inside the house, only a well and pump out in the yard. There was a large enameled metal pan on the side porch for washing up and a metal dipper for drinking water. Her husband burned down the outhouse in a drunken rage. She cooked on a wood burning stove and produced the most delicious meals. Later, when they moved into an apartment in town with an electric stove, she burned everything she attempted to cook! They lived in the sharecroppers house into the early 1960's, so this isn't ancient history. Her life was very, very difficult in many ways.

Mrs. Whitfield's habit of keeping her kitchen clean was probably an attempt to ward off disease. Infant mortality was staggering at this time. I notice that she is also very well groomed, which was not always the case in poor, rural America.

These photos raise more questions than they answer. But they are thought provoking.

- Suzanne, the Farmer's Wife

willow said...

Not too long ago I read "Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey" by Lillian Schlissel. Their courage and fortitude were unbelievable. I never complained about making dinner once after reading the book.