A quilting party in an Alvin, Wisconsin, home

Russell Lee, Alvin, Wisconsin, 1937

A family of multiple generations, sit around a quilt frame, with a baby in a mother’s lap, while a toddler stands at the edge of the frame, staring intently at the grandmother as she slides her needle through the layers of the quilt. The quilt’s pattern—published as Rocky Road to Kansas by the Ladies Art Company—is perfect for using up scraps, and close examination reveals an abundance of florals and stripes, not dissimilar from the dresses and aprons worn by the women and children in this Wisconsin home. A typical 1930s scene, characteristic of a family pulling together to overcome hard times, making something beautiful and useful from leftover fabrics, that will both lift their spirits and keep them warm at night. Yet one detail in this domestic photograph is amiss: the women have their needles in the quilt where there are already clear lines of running stitches holding together the three layers of the bedcover. From the angle of the camera’s lens, the quilting appears complete, not in process.

This photograph, one of nearly 70 featuring quilts taken by Russell Lee, is carefully crafted. Lee clearly posed the women and children in the Wisconsin home, and likely many other of the quilt-related photographs he shot while working for the Historic Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). In some photos, quilts are just incidental, part of the domestic setting—including many of the shots he took of migrants sick in bed, curled up under quilts. But again and again, Lee composed photographs of women at work on quilts or with finished quilts, making clear links between his compositions and the messaging the FSA pursued. Perhaps Russell Lee was swept up in the quilt revival—the “rage of the hour.” Or perhaps he knew that quilts could be effective props in communicating the desired message of the FSA photography project.