Farm women working on quilt. Near West Carlton, Yamhill County, Oregon [2]

Dorothea Lange, Yamhill County, Oregon, 1939

Dorothea Lange took this series of photographs of women identified in the caption as the farm women of the “Helping Hand” club. In her field notes, Lange described how these women—“wives of them members of the West Carlton [Oregon] chopper cooperative”—met once a month in one of their homes to quilt. Lange reported that this particular quilt was for one of the women who was expecting a new baby. The group raffled a previous quilt for $17.00, funds held by the Helping Hand Club “for something that may come up.”

In this same community, in addition to taking photos of the quilters, Lange pictured a group of farmers with the caption: “Here are the farmers who have bought machinery cooperatively.” Cooperative farming, like quilting bees, represented a mentality Lange and her husband, agricultural economist Paul Taylor, supported: working together to lift the common good. An FSA loan made the purchase of the ensilage cutter possible, which the farmers moved from farm to farm with the whole group working collectively to process and store the grain. Lange’s mission in part entailed documenting the success of FSA initiatives, and the images of the community coming together productively demonstrate this achievement.

In addition to documenting how women came together to quilt in an effort to raise a modest amount of money to help the community, the photographs also harked back to imagined notions of preindustrial communities in which neighbors looked out for one another, without the need of government assistance, a sort of yeoman farmer utopia. Lange’s observations about both the Helping Hand Club and the cooperative farm implements could have doubled as evidence in Marie Webster’s nostalgic notes on the lives of the pioneer quiltmakers; she wrote “without friendly cooperation, the lot of the pioneer would have been much more difficult than it was.”

The agrarian myth with its yeoman farmer certainly represented self-sufficiency rather than dependency. And the FSA walked a tightrope as it promoted self-sufficiency while providing government assistance. The quilt long had served as an emblem of self-sufficiency, a reminder that women could lift them families out of poverty with a little creative ingenuity.

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