Pie Town

In 1940, Russell Lee ventured to Pie Town, New Mexico, to conduct what his Farm Security Administrator supervisor Roy Stryker called a “small town study.”  Stryker sought to capture the regional differences of what he called the “American institution” of  the small town, including its “agricultural methods, living standards, crops, clothing, folkways, local government, architecture, climate, etc.”[1] Stryker wanted to emphasize the positive aspects of rural life, images that could be “powerful antidotes to the malaise of Depression America” by showcasing  the “traditions of rugged individualism and community cooperation.”[2] Stryker developed a shooting script for use in documenting small town America with an emphasis on the home. While shooting scripts made no mention of quilts, sewing, or other needlework, quilts—a quintessential piece of domesticity—certainly embodied the values Stryker wished to capture in the FSA’s documentation of small town America.

Russell Lee, “Mrs. Bill Stagg exhibiting a quilt made from tobacco sacks which she ripped up, dyed, and pierced. Nothing is wasted on these homesteading farms. Pie Town, New Mexico.” 1940. Library of Congress.

Lee captioned one photograph, “Mrs. Bill Stagg exhibiting a quilt made from tobacco sacks which she ripped up, dyed, and pierced. Nothing is wasted on these homesteading farms. Pie Town, New Mexico,” celebrating the quiltmaker’s ingenuity and thrift, characteristic of the persevering attitude the Roosevelt administration wanted to cultivate in Americans nationwide. He has posed her, quite appropriately, in front a log home, another potent symbol of the self-sufficiency of rugged Americans, such as these so-called homesteaders. The log-cabin, however, likely was no longer in use, as residents of Pie Town typically had replaced these temporary homes with “second-generation structure[s]”; yet Lee knew that log-cabins represented ingenuity in the face of adversity and did not waste film photographing newer homes.[3]

Mrs. Stagg’s scrap quilt was one of five Pie Town quilts Russell Lee photographed in 1940. In addition to the quilt recycled from tobacco sacks, Mrs. Stagg posed for two rare color photographs with an embroidered state bird quilt, patterns for which appeared in a variety of magazines and syndicated newspaper columns, beginning in the 1930s.[4]

Russell Lee, “Mrs. Bill Stagg with state quilt that she made, Pie Town, New Mexico. A community settled by about 200 migrant Texas and Oklahoma farmers who filed homestead claims … Mrs. Stagg helps her husband in the field with plowing planting, weeding corn and harvesting beans. She quilts while she rests during the noon hour.” 1940. Library of Congress

One of these photos again featured the log cabin as a background, the other had the quilt hanging on a clothes line. Lee used the clothes line to photograph three additional quilts, including Mrs. Stagg’s appliquéd butterfly quilt, her unfinished Flower Garden variation quilt top, and a friendship quilt top with embroidered signatures. In the background of each of these photos appears a dry landscape, with scattered trees, and a wooden fence.

Russel Lee, “Butterfly applique quilt made by Mrs. Bill Stagg, homesteader from Texas and Oklahoma. Pie Town, New Mexico,” 1940. Library of Congress.

A wood constructed building also appears behind the clothes line. Aside from the scrap quilt made from tobacco sacks, the rest of these quilts are typical of the commercially circulating patterns from the era; they exhibit a wide array of calico prints, plaids and stripes, characteristic of the sorts of fabric scraps a housewife might pull from her scrap bag. Without question, these are posed photographs, intended to showcase the quilts themselves, and evoke the symbolism of these hand-made objects.

These quilt photos make up only a small amount of Lee’s Pie Town photographs, which also include a number of community activities. Among those are over 20 from a square dance held in a home. Lee makes note of one of the features of the room adapted into the dance floor: the quilting frame suspended tight to the ceiling overhead.

Russell Lee, “Figure in a square dance. Pie Town, New Mexico. Notice the quilting frame overhead,” 1940. Library of Congress.

In several of the photos, the quilting stitches are quite visible, and from one angle, the scrappy eight pointed stars pieced from printed fabric appear where the quilt has been rolled. These shots convey the community socialization aspect sought by Stryker and Lee in the small town studies, while simultaneously emphasizing the adaptability of these pioneers.

[1] “The Farm Security Photographer Covers the American Small Town,” June 13, 1940, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/coll/fsawr/fsawr.html#shooting.

[2] Drawing on correspondence between Lee and Stryker, art historian James Curtis summarized it as such. See Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 93.

[3] Curtis, 112–13.

[4] Rose Marie Werner, State Bird and State Flower Quilts: Identification Guide, 1 edition (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), 6–7.