31 March 2009

Rollling papers,1909

March 1909. "Widow & boy rolling papers for cigarettes in a dirty New York tenement." Photograph and caption by Lewis Wickes Hine.
With the economy is in the dumps and financial woes widespread, it may be useful to look back at how our ancestors coped. The photo above depicts a mother rolling cigarette papers (not cigarettes - just the tubes) in her tenement in 1909.

Her oldest child joins her in this endeavor, though his tubes appear less cylindrical than mom's. The photographer or editor captioned this as being a "dirty tenement," but I would note that mom is dressed in clean clothes, with a ?Gibson-girl hairdo and an earring in her pierced ear. The boy is also clean and nicely attired.

I'm also intrigued by the calendar, which has some days shaded. They are not "crossed-out" because the later days are darker. I presume this is a visual depiction of the phases of the moon, for a time period when outdoor lighting at night may have been minimal or absent. But why are Sundays blacked out altogether?

And what is the wood-and-rope domestic instrument hanging on the wall above her head?

The photo is from Shorpy; if it interests you, be sure to click it to fullscreen to explore.


  1. It is just a guess, but perhaps the shaded days are days of Lent. The calendar may have been given away by a church.

  2. It can't be Lent. In 1909, Ash Wednesday was Feb. 24 and Easter Apr. 11, so Lent in 1909 spanned the whole month of March. Full moon was on March 7, so the calendar may indicate days with less moonlight --- but next full moon was April 5, so it seems like the last few days of March should have lighter shading. The Sundays are probably printed in red, which shows up as very dark gray in B&W.

    The juxtaposition between the very clean and well-dressed mother and the second-youngest with the dirty face is strange. Did she dress up for the photo and, if so, why didn't she wash her kid's face while she was at it? Or did the photographer set this scene up somehow?

  3. I think the wooden and twine item above her head was a swing for the children, much like our "jolly jumpers". It would be brought down for the kids to swing, and hung up to get it out of the way - we did the same thing with our kids'"jolly jumper".

  4. Maybe the second-youngest has just successfully achieved what most kids of that age do: becoming as grubby as possible as efficiently as possible. It's the Done Thing.

    I agree with Tim about the swing. I think so, too.


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