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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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House Without Windows: 1938

House Without Windows: 1938

May 1938. New Madrid County, Missouri. "House without windows. Home of sharecropper cut-over farmers of Mississippi bottoms." 35mm nitrate negative by Russell Lee for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.

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The world was their "window"

People then spent most of their waking hours outdoors, not cooped up inside; that was reserved for cooking and eating, doing chores like mending, and sleeping. Today, most people spend much more time inside, and even when we're outside, it's most often in a city or suburb at best, not the open country they had.

Sad but true.

As sad as this picture is, as recently as 10-15 years ago there were still plenty of people living like this in "the Delta."

Not long ago, I was working not far from where this photo was taken. I was steering around an old shack in the middle of a cotton field and wondering how long it had been vacant. 1940? 1930? Surely, no one had lived in it for 50 years. The shack was identical to this shack only it had a few glassless windows, a corrugated tin roof and a porch.

After a couple days, I finally passed by when a lady was on the front porch enjoying the morning air from her rocking chair. It wasn't vacant, it was very lived in.

A funny thing about the Missouri side of the Mississippi Delta are the rural, non-engineered roads. You're driving in flat, treeless bottomland yet the roads meander all over. They began as paths meandering through the woods connecting shacks and clearings in the trees. As the shacks and trees were cleared off and the land turned to farming soybeans and corn, the meandering roads remain in place as they were 100 years ago.

Gimme glass!

I just pictured myself walking into that scene with an old storm window with intact glass. The smiles that would light their faces as Dad and Mom ran to get tools to cut the hole into which the new Real Glass window would fit. I'm sure the glass was simply too expensive for them and it was on the Wish List alongside a fine fat turkey and a bushel of apples. As tragic as it seems that they didn't have windows, they DID have a house, and it looks like they had food, far more than far too many families then, and now.

[These people were tenant farmers, or sharecroppers. Their landlord (the property owner) would have built the shack. - Dave]

Is that...

the family shoe I see out in the yard?

Low payments

True, it's a crummy house, but it's brand new (new boards still visible on ground) and cost little more than the labor in it. Remember labor?

"Missouri Delta"

That term threw me for a minute. I was born in Poplar Bluff and am somewhat familiar with the region even though we moved from there in my childhood. My confusion was from knowing that the Missouri River runs into the Mississippi at St. Louis, which is about 100 miles north of New Madrid. And there really is no delta there. So even for this Missourian, it was interesting to learn that bottomland of the Mississippi River as it meanders along the bootheel area of southern Missouri is indeed called the Missouri Delta. I would assume the vast expanse of the Big Muddy snaking back and forth through there gives it the look of a delta. But I'm calling it a technical misnomer, yet I wouldn't go so far as to start any arguments over it with the locals...especially since I was raised by a pair of them to be a polite gentleman.

In and Out

I think the children probably left the house instead of staying in to play video games. The solitary confinement is a bit of a stretch, and the lack of windows might have been handy in the wintertime.

A hole in the wall

Windows are not the be-all and end-all. That house looks pretty decent to me. It's solid, raised, with an amazing roof (beautiful hand-cut shakes), and it's pretty large. True, they had no washing machine, microwave, toaster, internet, and the other things that make us feel superior. Eskimos in Alaska, where I'm from (and many others), lived in mostly underground sod houses without windows; did this make them less connected to nature? Now that more than half of humanity is living in cities, I think the problem is pretty much the opposite you mentioned. It's impossible to tell from this photo, but maybe that family was more loving, aware, responsible, active, and connected to nature than anyone you or I know.

House w/o Windows

So they're running Linux?

Cut-Over Farmers

By the 1930's, Depression-ravaged farm families - both Black and White - were moving out of the Deep South to cut bottomland timber and farm cotton on shares in the cleared land of the Missouri Delta. The sharecropper would be paid in shares to clear bottomland (much of the timber was sold for fuel or to turpentine mills). After the bottomland was cleared of timber, it would be planted in cotton and corn. Much of this bottomland soil washed away once the timber was removed - so only a few years of cash crops were possible -- then the sharecropper would move on to the next wood-lot and start over.

Though Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi had more acres planted in cotton, the fields there were depleted and infested by weevils. The newly-cleared Missouri Delta cotton fields were marginal due to cooler weather, but outperformed the played-out croplands farther south. Still, the collapse of crop prices in the early 30's left many farm families living on relief or in poverty.

A good resource is "The Final Frontiers, 1880-1930: Settling the Southern Bottomlands" by John Solomon Otto.


Sometimes things do change for the better. It's amazing what was allowed or condoned and even thought "normal" just under 75 years ago.

You are my sunshine

How heartbreaking to know that these beautiful, innocent youngsters were in a home with no windows, no sunlight, no birds to look at, no flowers, trees, rain, only darkness, like solitary confinement. A home with no windows is like living in a bunker or an airplane hangar. I hope life became brighter for all of them at some point but it is difficult to see how they could have kept from getting depressed. They lived like ground moles.

SHORPY HISTORICAL PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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