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Chicken Dinner: 1942

Chicken Dinner: 1942

May 1942. "Lancaster County, Nebraska. Mrs. Lynn May, FSA borrower, cleaning a chicken." Acetate negative by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.


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Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Company

Calendar above the phone is from a crop insurance company founded in 1893 and still in business today in West Des Moines, Iowa.

The Last Chicken Dance

I remember when we'd visit my grandparents on their farm in SW Oklahoma my grandmother would always kill a chicken for dinner. My sister and I would watch her wring its neck and then the chicken would do that crazy dance that chickens do when they lose their heads. One time she did this to two chickens at the same time ... now that was a big deal. (Talk about a macabre scene!) I will never forget that smell that would fill the kitchen when she'd then bring the chicken inside and drop it in a tub of steaming hot water which would make it easier for her to pluck the feathers.

Big crowd on the way

Looks like a crowd coming for Sunday dinner: Mom's hair, still wet and rolled and set; five (or maybe six) chickens awaiting their later fate in the frying pan; everything spotless. I remember scenes just like this in my own family. The telephone with a ceramic bunny on top, wooden high chair with another bunny as a stencil, and most of all, the chicken being prepped on a newspaper on the kitchen table—it all looks like it stepped out of my own memories. Thanks for this nostalgic visit, and for all the rest.

Rural Party Lines

This family probably shared a party line with a dozen other families, and could call them directly on the same line by cranking the handle with a series of long and short rings, such as two long and one short. The phones would ring in everyone's home at the same time. A few people might pick up the phone that was not their ring code to eavesdrop. Phone numbers looked like 3-r-21, for line 3, ring two long- one short. Some places used a letter code, such as 3-X.

They would have to call Sarah the operator for people on a different phone line or to make other calls. You can read more about it here.

Chicken anonymous

Those chickens probably had names. And, contrary to these days, almost certainly were multi-purpose chickens. Laying eggs, and when the eggs ran out changed from being involved in setting the dinner table to being committed.

To most people who have leisure
Raising poultry gives great pleasure:
First, because the eggs they lay us
For the care we take repay us;
Secondly, that now and then
We can dine on roasted hen;
Thirdly, of the hen's and goose's
Feathers men make various uses.
Some folks like to rest their heads
In the night on feather beds.

That 'come hither' look

Those chicken feet look like they're straight out of a zombie movie.

No phone book

All you had to do was crank the handle and tell "Sarah" who you wanted to talk to.


Similarly. as a youngster I watched my Mom processing our backyard-raised chickens on countless occasions. Plucking the birds (outdoors) seemed the easy part, the reason being, she told me, for the very hot bath they had received shortly after their beheading. I'm quite certain Mrs. Lynn May also knew that.

The light fantastic

John Vachon accomplished something extraordinary with the milky light in this room. Yes the chickens are sort of crass with their nubbly skin and the scrawny feet sticking up every whichaway, and the hard-working lady of the house doing the mundane task is rather ordinary. But the white door with its white knob, and the white wainscoting, and the white bunny, even the white of the wallpaper and the oilcloth on the table, and the gleaming high chair, and the luminous purity of the child's face and hair, are all suffused with such radiant light that the few shadows are welcome or it would all be too much.

Coils & Curls

Coiled telephone cords were invented in 1937 to replace the less forgiving woven fiber-covered ones but the new cords still didn't solve the problem of annoying twists and tangles. Also twisted (but hopefully not tangled) are the pin-curls in the mother's hair.

Egg Noggins

Please don't show us the act of harvesting the birds. I watched my grandfather chop the heads off and let them run around well, like headless chickens. I was maybe 7 but will never forget that!

But they tasted so good when fresh! And everything tasted so good when Gramma cooked in Mississippi on the farm.

A not-so-gentle reminder

... that chicken doesn't start out on a Styrofoam tray at the supermarket.


Chicken being cooked with their own hearts and livers in the stuffing.

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