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Kitchen Nightmare: 1937

June 1937. "Child of Earl Taylor in kitchen of their home near Black River Falls, Wisconsin." Photo by Russell Lee, Resettlement Administration. View full size.

June 1937. "Child of Earl Taylor in kitchen of their home near Black River Falls, Wisconsin." Photo by Russell Lee, Resettlement Administration. View full size.


On Shorpy:
Today’s Top 5

These poor people are my family.

The little boy in the kitchen was my father. You have his name wrong, it was not Ersel, it was Cecil Taylor. Yes my fathers family was extremely poor and my grandmother was not the best house keeper in the world, but she was a very hard worker as was my grandfather. While they were strict with their children they were very good loving parents. Their circumstances did improve after the depression. When my grandfather Earl married my grandmother Edna he had four children, Earl Jr., Albert, Evelina & Duane. His first wife had died after giving birth to my Uncle Duane as she had a burst appendics that they thought was just after birthing pains, after this happened he sent the two smaller children to live with his wifes sister, this was before he had met my grandmother. My Grandma Edna's husband had been killed in a hunting accident and she had two boys, Howard & Larry Simplot. Together they had Ronald, Cecil, Gary, Jackie, Roger and twin boys Tommy & Terry (Terry died as a baby). They also cared for my Grandpa Earl's mother and took in other family members during these tough times. They had no indoor plumbing, no electricity & heated with wood at the time of this picture. Thank you for sharing the pictures, I don't think I had ever seen that particular picture of my dad.

Doing what they can

A lot of judgment going on here on Shorpy, unfortunately. I agree the kitchen is awful - no argument there. But I did a little research on the family.

Earl Taylor was a younger son of a farm family in the area (1910 census). By 1920, he was 22 and the only one left at home (1920 census). In 1930, his father had died, and his mother was the widowed head of household. Earl had also been married and widowed, and he lived on the farm with his mother and his three children, two sons and a daughter (Earl Jr., Albert, and Evalina). I believe they are the three oldest kids in the family photo Dave posted (1930 census). Earl apparently remarried in about 1921 to a woman named Edna (pictured), who was a widow with two sons (Howard and Garvey Simplot, the two on the far left, I'm guessing. He was 43 and she was 29 in 1940 (1940 census). Together, they had the two smallest boys in the photo, Ronald and Ersel, followed by another son, Garry, around 1938. The little boy in the kitchen photo would be Ersel, age 2 at that time. The census shows the father as a laborer for the WPA. Their home was valued at $200 and his earnings for 48 weeks of work in 1939 was $420.

No conveniences... a large (blended) family, extreme poverty, and little hope -- pretty bleak picture. But I think they also probably had a lot of love going on. I hope they eventually did well.

Sometimes you just can't do it all.

The place looks awful. But the little boy looks clean and well-fed, and he looks like he was loved and cared for. I have seen similar in the year 2013.

Not quite a thing of the past

I have witnessed similar scenes in rural Maine not too long ago. Poverty and neglect knows no age.


Nobody knows what was really going on here but there are so many possibilities. After looking at Michael L's comment and photo, it seems the kids are all withdrawn, shy and very timid so they may be afraid of Dad. Or perhaps one parent had a mental or physical illness and the other parent was expected to do all the work alone, impossible for one individual with seven needy kids a year or two apart. There were no disposable diapers, baby wipes, cleaning wipes, convenience foods or Swiffers. Both parents are young, could have been a teen marriage and Dad appears to be indifferent and disinterested in any of them while Mom looks embarrassed and stands away. Clearly there is extreme poverty there but for whatever reason, keeping a neat, clean home and nine people contented was not possible. A family needs both a head (usually the father) and a heart (usually the mother) and together, both need to be strong enough to handle the needs of a family of nine. There were probably even more future babies to come but none of us know the real problems here. It may be a heartbreaking story but we can only hope it had a happy ending. Seeing this picture should make you stop feeling sorry for yourself and count your blessings, knowing things can always be a lot worse.

In the South, we say

"They're doing the best they can, bless their hearts."

My mother always said

soap and water are cheap, no excuse for filthy, that little infant standing in his own filth and pouring in more tugs at my heart. The mother must be overwhelmed to allow this condition, and to let it be photographed. RIP Dear Lady, assuming she has gone to her final reward.

What might have been

If they could have cleaned up that oven.

Slackers or not

This photo and the accompanying family scene certainly do reveal a nightmare of poverty during the Great Depression. The little boy doesn't look particularly dirty to me, especially considering the fact that he has no shoes. He apparently had just wet his pants (which certainly haven't had time to dry), but I know that a child as young as he might do that about 60 seconds after being changed.

Consider the likelihood that there is no indoor plumbing or no running water. The kitchen doesn't look any more dirty than the kitchen we can see in Homeless Cooking, when you account for the fact that one uses diesel/gas and this one uses wood or coal which is a much dirtier heat source.

And apparently this family has managed to hold out renting an actual building to live in at the time of this photo rather than live in a tent as pictured in the referenced second photo. Does that make the parents bigger or lesser slackers than those who live in tents?

I know it's an American passtime to blame poor people for all their problems (and often for society's problems) but if you haven't walked in someone else's shoes and don't have any details of their circumstances other than their abject poverty during the Great Depression, please try to restrain yourself from condemning other folks. And I've seen pictures of filth from Europe before -- do I really have to provide links to prove that?

Lastly a thought: Consider a wealthy family with inherited money of this period who don't work and who pay other people to do all their cooking, cleaning and child caring. Slackers, or not?

Too busy

The Mrs probably had a busy week and got a little behind on the house cleaning.

Hygiene did not come from the genes

Some people forget that the concept of hygiene is not something that stems from spontaneous generation, it is taught until is ingrained into the culture. These parent’s parents –obviously as poor as them- grew up into the XIX century when the concept of hygiene just began to get hold and just in the most urban and educated areas. Education apart, isn't that obvious also that these folk didn't have all the modern appliances and cleaning products that today we take as granted and cheap? Or that caring for seven children –no pills back then- set the priorities in other orders? When all of the children are barefoot, how come people get disgusted or offended by untidiness or some dirt? Furthermore, think that unless you have royal blood (and to a certain degree), all your ancestors lived in worse conditions.

maybe, maybe not

Maybe they are slackers, maybe not.

Obviously, dyfunctionals and messies are not a new phenomenon.

My personal take would be that the parents have other and larger problems besides being dirt-poor. Back then it could have been moonshine, today maybe it would be meth.

The kid's bibs could need a wash, too.

On second thought, please let me elaborate and add some other possible / probable problems:

- Just being overwhelmed by adverse conditions. It might be the economy, after all.
- Living way out in the boonies where nobody ever drops by, nobody cares, no social checks and ballances, no Joneses around to whom one might need to keep up with.
- Or having lost all pride.
- Any number of others.

So which one of them is Andy?

You know, Opie's Dad.

Nightmare is Wrong.

Just because you are poor doesn't mean you have to live like a filthy pig. The parents are slackers.

No excuse for this filth.

I knew many very poor people when I was growing up in Europe, but that did not preclude their keeping a neat, clean house.

As I recall

There were several posts of the Taylor homestead. Most if not all of their children grew up and had families of their own. Probably without any government assistance.

[Actually, many if not most of these people were Resettlement Administration clients. That's why their photos are in a government archive. - Dave]

Needs a woman's touch

I'm guessing that Mr. Earl Taylor may have been a widower.

[Nope. - Dave]

Nightmare is right

There's poor and then there's poor.

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