Quilt made by Mrs. Bill Stagg. Pie Town, New Mexico

Russell Lee, Pie Town, New Mexico, 1939

In 1940 Russell Lee, at the direction of Stryker, ventured to Pie Town, New Mexico, to conduct what 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 make 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. 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 her 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. 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 appliqued 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. 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.

[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 (Temple University Press, 1989), 93.

[3] James Curtis, Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 112-13.