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Sunset School: 1921

October 7, 1921. "School in Session. Sunset School, Marey, West Virginia. Pocahontas County." View full size. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine.

October 7, 1921. "School in Session. Sunset School, Marey, West Virginia. Pocahontas County." View full size. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine.


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Today’s Top 5

Haves from Have-Nots

It's very easy to pick out the haves from the have-nots.

Some Had No Shoes

My dad often told me he and his brothers had no shoes. They had to walk on the railroad tracks, barefoot, to get to school. They lived in a log cabin with no floors. During the winter, their father dug a big hole in the ground and they slept in it to escape the cold wind blowing in through the cabin walls.

Mystery device

What is that next to the Water jug? A book stand? Someone's crutch? A music stand?

I love the comments on this one....

....probably as much, or more, than the actual photograph. My grandmother taught elementary school in the '20s in a farming town in California. Her stories remind me a lot of this photograph. The one thing she always emphasized was how much fun they had. Apparently, she and a couple of other teachers were known for their pranks. Thanks to everyone for their interesting and thoughtful comments!

Angel Angle

Notice the picture on the back wall with the little girl. On one side the "good" angel urging her to do right while the "bad" or "dark" angel urges her to misbehave. I know I heard that lesson a few times in my youth.


Larry K's comments sum up all the other comments so well. I grew up in Appalachia -- southeastern Ohio -- and my 75-year-old parents still live there, three miles from Route 21. Though my five brothers and I were far from rich, we certainly had it better than our parents, who were both born in the middle of the Great Depression. Mom's parents also rented a farm and her father worked in a coal mine to support the family of twelve. Mom told us bedtime stories about her childhood -- "undies" made of flour sacks that were stamped with "Pillsbury's Best," etc. I could detect no bitterness in her voice, only fondness and perhaps a little remorse for the loss of "the good old days."

Better or Worse?

Pocahontas County was actually booming in those days--far better off than it is today--with lumber being the main industry. Granted, the people weren't very well off, but most were working and for the most part this area was typical of rural America at the time. Shoeless kids weren't an uncommon sight anywhere back then when weather permitted.

Population figures

On a hunch I looked up the population of the county in Vital Stats. 1920 was the peak for population in Pocahontas County, WV with around 15,000, up a thousand or so from 1910 and again for 1900. Population declined to about half of that and was 9,000 in the 2000 census.

We are viewing the county at the peak! And I lived in WV in the mid, late 60s.

Funny how migration and whatever external factors will have on population. We always think more and more people are coming in and in this case, it is not. In my home county in Kentucky, the population was in the 15,000 range in 1840 and it took until the 1950 or 60 census to get back to that level. Now, we're overrun with people around here!

Winged Victory

A reply to ne_time_now:

The poster appears to be an old war stamps poster probably from WWI.


When this picture was taken my mother was 8 yrs old and sitting in a school house no doubt just like this within 40 miles of where this picture was taken(Elmira, WV). From the stories of my Mom and Dad we can not imagine the poverty. Most kids got one pair of shoes a year and had to make them last (and hand them down). The teacher is probably 18 or 19 at most. There would have been an outhouse and probably an outside pump. If lucky kids might have gone to 8th grade but most (especially boys) stopped at 4 to 6th grade. Many of these kids grew up to move north to Ohio and Michigan. They used to say WV schools taught the 3-R's = readin, 'rightin, and Rt 21 (the route to Akron and the Rubber factories). Others went to Detroit and built the cars to put the tires on.

The poverty was great but most of them didn't realize it. I once asked my Dad what the Depression was like and he said none of them ever noticed it since they were always poor. They had no cash and traded milk and eggs for what ever they couldn't grow or hunt on their own. Dresses were sown from flour sacks. He said that he and Mom rented an 80 acre farm for $40/yr when they were first married and never managed to make the payment. But they raised three kids, 8 grandkids, owned their own homes and cars. These kids had no idea how far (literally and figuratively) most of them would go in the next 60-70 years.

WV (and especially this part of it) was very poor and very isolated. Most at this point had never seen a car much less ridden in one. No imagination of electric lights, telephones, air-conditioning, TV. Some might had heard a radio but probably didn't own one. Travel was by horse and wagon at best.

So don't look at the poverty --- look at this as the starting point of a great adventure. I can not imagine my life progressing as far and as differently as the lives of my parents and this generation.

Living Dead

I'm with you on that one - it reminds me of "memorial photographs" from the Victorian era.

I wonder if the bottles

I wonder if the bottles contain preserved frogs or similar for dissection? It reminds me of an old one I had once, and would perhaps explain the variety of queasy and mischievous expressions.

Fancy Boots

Check out the boots on the child hidden by the flowers. His dad must have been the town millionaire.

Quite the contrast with Shoeless Joe and Shoeless Jill to his immediate right. By October 7, it was getting a wee bit chilly in that area. Just about time to start lighting up the big stove just behind Mr. Fancy Boots.

Old photography

Oh, that effect of seeing the eyes and the closed eyelids is so creepy.

Bare feet

West Virginia was very poor then so the bare foot kids probably had parents that couldn't afford shoes. They were just lucky to be able to even go to school.


Looks like it is prayer time or they are trying to visualize something. We could learn a lot by going back to some of these old ways... The new ones don't seem to be working too well...

Creepy, retouched eyes?

What a great photo.

That classroom must have been dark in that classroom when the flash powder ignited as it appears that most of the students blinked, only to have their eyes applied to their eyelids in post production. This detail gives the photo an unsettling quality.

["Post-production"? You've been watching too many movies. The eyes look the way they do because the camera shutter is open longer than the duration of the flash. So you get open eyes superimposed with closed eyelids (when the flash makes everyone blink) in the same shot. - Dave]

No shoes

I had heard people from that era saying they hadn't had shoes until they were 18. Kinda rough to see it on these kids.

Questions: Do you think that

Questions: Do you think that they knew that a photograph was being taken that day? The young, unmarried teacher is nicely dressed and has flowers on her desk, along with two bells and a pencil sharpener. A few of the students are dressed up too--love the little girl with the huge bow in her hair. However, it's October 7th and two kids are, of necessity, barefoot, The girl is crossing her feet almost in a hiding manner. Please tell me that they had outhouses and not just the overturned bucket in the back of the room. What do you suppose the teacher is holding in her hand?

WV school

No wonder these kids ended up in the mines, with a dour looking teacher like that. what a depressing look at their lives. I hope some of these children rose above their poverty.

My Great-Great Grandfather....

...taught at the Milhoan Ridge School in Jackson County West Virginia. I have a great old picture of him with his hunting dogs. His name was William Tack Milhoan. Don't know why the Archivist would want to ruin the shot of the school by putting a title over it.

BTW, what is the Winged Victory figure in the poster near the window wearing?

One Room Schoolhouse

My mom was taught in a similar class of various ages and said that the teacher took each age group while the others worked on something else. I see the older looking kids in the back on the right are reading, while she appears to be explaining something to this somewhat younger group while showing them something in a bottle, taken from a kit of similar items. Are they paints? Can you see what is in her hand? Oh, if only we had a real time machine, huh? There must have been a well outside as seen by the bucket inverted next to the crockery water vessel. Either one of the big boys or the teacher would have to bring in water each day. Be glad we have shoes for our kids in October, since it isn't really summer. A beautiful and thoughtful photo of the "roaring twenties" when NOT all of America was prospering. West Virginia's employed people at the time were probably coal miners and not everybody was dancing and partying.

Wireless Schoolhoue

No sign anywhere of the schoolhouse having electricity. Dark window shades are drawn also. Yet there seems to have been a good source of light somewhere in this classroom.

Avenging Angel?

Great pic - some barefoot students, tatty shades, but a jar overflowing with fresh flowers! - is that a picture of an angel with a sword on the side wall? Also, any clue as to what the cylinders are that the teacher is using (appears to be a set in a special case)?

It's the water

Did someone dump arsenic in the well? Most of these kids look like they came out of "Night of the Living Dead".

That vial is a temptation

A fantastic photo. The flowers on the teacher's desk are touching. I like the pail next to the water jug in the back. I do hope the teacher didn't swallow what was in that vial she's contemplating so earnestly.

Boys will be boys

My new favorite photo. Everyone is posing stiffly in their Sunday go-to-meeting clothes except the rascal on the left. But why are their eyes closed?

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