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Two Dolls: 1936

Two Dolls: 1936

December 1936: "One of Edgar Allen's children playing with doll. The couch and sewing machine are the two most substantial pieces of furniture in the house. The farm is one hundred sixty acres and rented from private party. Near Milford, Iowa." View full size. Medium format nitrate negative by Russell Lee.


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Not bad

Actually that's pretty clean compared to my house. We live in a small trailer and clutter accumulates easily. They sure did have a hard life, didn't they?

Old House & Young Girl

I think this house was built in town not the country. You can see walls have parted from dry weather, letting sunlight shine through the wallpaper in the corner.

The girl's dress may be a gift from someone who wanted a picture of her wearing it. The coat & clothes nearby could be her only belongings, with her doll from childhood. The room looks like it was not used for awhile, but will become her bedroom. Her appearance & clothing piled beside her made me wonder if she had been adopted from the Adoption Train. Perhaps a new dress was purchased on the way home to reassure her she was wanted.

[She's not adopted. The Allens lived in a rented farmhouse on 160 acres. See photos and captions below. - Dave]

Winter fuel supply on Edgar Allen farm. They hauled old stumps from highway construction, being too poor to buy fuel. This family is being helped by Resettlement Administration, one hundred sixty acres, crop share lease -- two-fifths crop, two hundred dollars rent. Allen has had poor crops and has been ill with bronchitis. Near Milford, Iowa.

Edgar Allen, wife, and children. They are tenants of private party on one hundred sixty acre farm near Milford, Iowa. This is an extreme case of poverty in northwest Iowa. Children are very smart and seemingly very happy.

Sand hills of Nebraska

I will guess that your grandmother and my dad may have at least known of each other. My family homesteaded up in the anselmo/merna area.

Dust and Dolls

Those commenting about dust know what they are talking about. I spent most of my life in Florida where my furniture seldom got dusty and sand on the floors was "clean dirt" easily removed. I now live in rural NC and could dust *hourly* during dry summer spells.

Granted that most photos are, to some extent 'posed', this one surely is. The girl is entirely too old to be playing with dolls, even in the 30s (I think I see a hint of a bosom there.) and certainly too old to let a doll get in such deplorable shape. That doll has been loved nearly naked by a small child.

Also, the girl is wearing a clean, ironed, possibly new, dress, not something she'd be wearing to play in.

However, I think the contrast of the spic-and-span dress of the child with the obviously well-used furniture makes the picture unusually poignant...which might have been what the photographer had in mind.

I really like this one.


They probably have a radio somewhere. There's a vacuum tube on the window.


Two things about this photo intrigue me. The first is the vintage sewing machine. My mother had one of these 1912 models from as far back as I can remember and right up until she died in the 1980s. When I was very little, I used to sit on the pedal and rock. If I could get it going, it continued rocking for several seconds, providing me with a little ride. My sister has that machine now.

The other thing is the moonlit lakeside picture in the upper right corner. The scene first caught my imagination at a neighbor's farm house when I was a little boy, circa 1954. It must have been a popular scene, for I've seen it on a lot of other items since then. I found a marred but framed large print of it at a flea market in the 1980s and have it put away for safekeeping.

It's still a beautiful picture to me, and I've love to know more about it. Its title is "My Blue Ridge Mountain Home", artist unknown.

True Grit

My 86 year old grandmother, who grew up in the sandhills of Nebraska during the 1930s, describes pinning wet tea towels to the screen door in an attempt to keep the dust out during the dead heat of a depression era summer.

Also, I'm wondering if the surface of the floor is more worn down than dusty. It is unlikely that the residents of this farmhouse could have popped on over to the Home Depot to rent a floor sander and some polyurethane to refinish their floors or a Swiffer for daily maintenance. For a lot of people living in the 1920s and 1930s, wooden floors were a hard-to-maintain nuisance. A lot of people also felt that bare wooden floors signified poverty. If you look at housekeeping and homemaking magazines from this era, there was a big trend in covering wooden floors with large rugs or with linoleum and asphalt tile.

Heavy duty

That is some gesundten sofa! I don't think even house construction is that solid nowadays!

Re: Edgar Allen Household

As the original commenter on the Allen household, I am duly chastened by the responses. You have made me see that my comments were ill-considered and inappropriate. I offer my apologies. A Lesson Learned for me. Thank you.


Just looking at that messy pile of clothes on the couch, I'm sure glad no one is taking photos of my house as it is today.

We live in a rural area. Ants coming out of hibernation and mud coming in on shoes are the issues today. Dust will be the issue in the summer. Clutter is a year-round problem.

Ever Heard of The Dust Bowl?

From the previous commentator:
"But that house looks like it hasn't been cleaned in years."

The house was probably cleaned and dusted the day before. Did you see that this picture was taken in 1936 in Iowa? It was called the the Dust Bowl for a reason. My grandmother grew up on a farm in Kansas during this era. She said there was always a fine layer of dust constantly. It was in your hair, on your clothes and they would moistened rags and stuff them in the crevices of the windows to try to keep the dust out.

Allen House

For a 1930s farmhouse, I think it looks pretty good. Even in modern times, try keeping a country home dust-free with all the dirt blowing around and getting in through every nook and cranny. To this day, we set the table with the glasses turned upside-town until they're ready to fill. It's a habit picked up from my grandmother, who developed the habit herself while living on a Dustbowl-era Kansas farm. She said that you had to do it that way to keep the dust out.

1930's Victoriana

What I find interesting about this picture is that it was taken in 1936, yet the decor looks more like the 1890's or 1900's.

I realize the couch may be as late as 1910, and that they didn't have the money to replace large items like this.

But even the art prints on the wall seem to convey an older time and place. The "New Home" sewing machine adds a level of irony. All of this is to say, our mental image of "1930's" may feature progressive streamlining in autos and architecture, but many folks lived daily lives with a far more traditional appearance.

1936 was a hard year to be clean in Iowa

The middle part of the United States suffered drought in the mid-1930s, with 1935 and 1936 being particularly bad. Dust storms would have coated this house and dust may have worked its way in through the walls, around the windows, caking the clothing of everybody who lived there.

The entire family was probably working long hours in conditions of particular dust and dirt, in a house that could not keep that out, in an era before vacuum cleaners.

Besides, why should cleanliness be a qualification for compassion?

The Allens Again

There are more pictures at the Library of Congress. These people were fighting for their lives and probably not concerned with dust on the floor.

The Allens

I don't think it serves any good purpose to judge these people, whom we know almost nothing about, other than several 70-year-old photos, and Russell Lee's brief comments. Under one of the other photos of the Allens, a touching portrait of the whole family, Lee says: "Edgar Allen, wife, and children. They are tenants of private party on one hundred sixty acre farm near Milford, Iowa. Crop share lease, two-fifths of all crops and two hundred dollars rent. This is an extreme case of poverty in northwest Iowa. Children are very smart and seemingly very happy."

Cut them some slack.

Edgar Allen Household

No doubt Mr. Allen and his wife (if there is a Mrs. Allen) were exhausted from farming 160 acres. But that house looks like it hasn't been cleaned in years. If a six-year old could shuck oysters or work in a textile mill, the Allen children could certainly push a mop and use a dust cloth. I don't mean to sound judgmental, but it's hard for me to feel any compassion for this family, poor as they may be. Maybe we will see some more photos of them that may alter my thinking.

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