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Dark Room: 1938

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

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


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I met a family similar to this in many respects only about five years ago. They lived in a small condemned neighborhood which is no longer there. The house was not clean but rather filthy with rooms open revealing deep piles of dirty clothes. The floors were greasy and dark. There were two children very much like this pair. They were well fed but dirty and unkempt. The walls and floors and pretty much every inch of the home was covered in not flies but roaches. The two babies scurried outside to play with a couple of fat dogs out on the dirt porch. I gingerly and half afraid sat on a stool to talk with them. I was afraid the roaches would climb all over me. I am an IT guy and offered to help them fix their computer. I had no idea this is how they lived. There was the mom, a young daughter about 17 and a son in-law about 19 who had just got out of jail and the two children. They were by far some of the kindest and nicest folks I have ever had the privilege to have met but their lives was something I don't think I could have been able to deal with. They moved to Oklahoma and I have not heard from them since. I wish I could have photographed them as this image is not unlike what I saw but better in some ways.

1938 - Same year I was born

I was born just outside of Fornfelt, Missouri (now Scott City), in 1938 in a house not much better than that one appears to be.

My dad was a deck hand on the Mississippi river. My mother stayed at home to take care of house and kids as most women did in those days. We were poor but apparently more prosperous and (judging from my memories and the family pictures) somewhat cleaner than this family appears to be.

My mother was a fanatic on cleanliness. But then, my mother could afford to be. She never had to work in the fields. I suspect this woman did fieldwork all day, then took care of the family's needs.

Flies may have been a problem, but mosquitoes were worse. Even in the hottest weather we stayed covered up with a blanket or quilt at night. The skeeters could poke right through a sheet. There was no air conditioning in those days and we sweltered through the summer nights.

Before My Time

by four years. I was born in a one room cabin in the coal mining area. I suspect the cabin was similar. Morgantown, Ky. Dad worked the mines for a dollar a day.

Wooden washboards

I was born in the 60s and I remember seeing those wooden washboards. I haven't seen one in many years now.

Product Placement

Honey Dew Brand Pure Lard!

Like an oven

Without cross-ventilation, this little shack must have been stifling in the hot, humid summers of the Mississippi bottoms. The table is covered with a cloth to keep the flies off the food. The flies were a misery, yet closing the door would made the house an oven.

The flies remind me of something an elderly fellow in Kentucky told me about his childhood in a house without screens. On summer nights, even when it was very hot, they pulled the sheet over their faces to keep the flies off.

Every single one...

Has got creepy hands!


So many flies in there.

Words fail me

I can't find words to express the heartache of this photo.

Happy endings.

I love this picture. So many unanswered questions. Mom looks healthy and the children well fed. The boy would be about 72 today and his sister 74. Young by today's standards. I would like to think they both succeeded in life and have done well.

Shoo Fly

Judging from the number of critters crawling on top of the tables amongst the food and dishes, there was little in the way of screening on this house. When the one door opened all the flies came right in.


Those kids would be in their seventies now. Wonder if any of them are still alive and browsing the internet.


That little baby's face is pretty comical, but it's hard to laugh when you notice the squalor surrounding the family. With everything we're privileged with today, it's hard to remember people used to live like this not too long ago.

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