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You Haven't Seen Their Faces: Eugenic National Housekeeping and Documentary Photography in 1930s America

  • SUE CURRELL (a1)

This essay explores the relationship between welfare, eugenics and documentary photography during the New Deal in order to explain how a set of government photographs taken by Arthur Rothstein in the Shenandoah became entwined in the rhetorical structure of eugenic ideology. The photographs discussed portray victims of forced sterilization before their incarceration, yet there is no evidence to show that the photographer was aware of, or complicit with, this fact. This essay responds to the questions this raises about the images: what historical and social contingencies were behind their production? What is the relationship between the photographer, the photographs, the New Deal and the subjects depicted? How did efforts to help America's poorest lead to their incarceration and sterilization? Why is the full picture impossible to see? And how do we read and understand them today?

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1 A Library of Congress prints and photographs search using the terms “Rothstein” and “Shenandoah” brings up most of the photographs from this shoot; see There is a brief discussion of the relationship between leisure, eugenics and the Shenandoah Park removals in Currell, Susan, The March of Spare Time: The Problem and Promise of Leisure in the Great Depression (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) 181–82. For more on these evictions see Perdue, Charles L. and Martin-Perdue, Nancy J., “Appalachian Fables and Facts: A Case Study of the Shenandoah National Park Removals,” Appalachian Journal, 7, 1–2 (1979–80), 84104 ; Powell, Katrina M., Identity and Power in Narratives of Displacement (New York: Routledge, 2015), 3859 .

2 Other folklife researchers, knowing the mountain people were being removed, recorded their unusual dialect. See Hench, Atcheson L., “Corbins and Nicolsons: A Preliminary Note”, American Speech, 13, 1 (1938), 7779 . Unlike most of the other 40 or so photographers who would be employed on the project, Rothstein was not a professional photographer at the time but a chemistry graduate from Columbia.

3 Roberts, Charles Kenneth, Farm Security Administration and Rural Rehabilitation in the South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2015). On FSA documentary photography more generally see Finnegan, Cara, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2003); Blair, Sarah and Rosenberg, Eric, Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); Curtis, James, Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989). On the relationship between the state modernization drive and eugenics see Ekbladh, David, The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 52.

4 The story of eugenic sterilization in the State Colony in Lynchburg is partially covered in the film The Lynchburg Story: Eugenic Sterilization in America (dir. Bruce Eadie, 1995). To be committed as feebleminded to Lynchburg did not mean automatic sterilization, yet it was the legal precondition for involuntary sterilization and allowed the decision to be taken by the Eugenics Board at the institution. Establishing the fact of sterilization is much harder to do as it entails investigating medical records. However, the presumption of sterilization in this essay is based on personal recollection by those who recognized some of the subjects in the photographs and confirmed that they were both institutionalized and did not have children, as well as court documents that show committal and release of some of the subjects.

5 US Census Bureau, National Archives and Records Administration website, Virginia, Amherst County ED5-10, at In addition, Fennel (at times recorded as Finnell) and Ernest Corbin (aged 74 and 35 respectively) were listed in the records for the Western State Hospital for the Insane, Staunton.

6 For the history and numbers of coerced sterilizations in the US from 1921 to 1980 see Largent, Mark, Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 7780 . See also Lombardo, Paul, ed., A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011). The relationship between the economic depression, welfare and national reform is discussed in Currell, Susan, “Introduction,” in Currell, Susan and Cogdell, Christina, eds., Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006), 114 .

7 Lombardo, Paul A., Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); The Lynchburg Story (dir. Stephen Trombly, Worldview Pictures, 1995). For personal accounts of the experience of sterilization at Lynchburg see Mary Bishop, “An Elite Said Their Kind Wasn't Wanted: How Social Judgements of the Day Forced Sterilizations,” Roanoke Times, 26 June 1994, E1. For a broader history of eugenics in Virginia see Dorr, Gregory M., Segregation's Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008).

8 Kidd, Stuart, “Dissonant Encounters: FSA Photographers and the Southern Underclass, 1935–1943,” in Crawford, Martin and Godden, Richard, eds., Reading Southern Poverty Between the Wars, 1918–1939 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 2547 , 30.

9 Richard Knox Robinson explores and raises some of these questions in his experimental film Rothstein's First Assignment: A Story about Documentary Truth (2011). This paper is a direct result of my efforts to answer Robinson's questions and respond to his queries. I am indebted to Robinson for making his research available to me on numerous occasions. See's%20First%20Assignment.html.

10 Kidd, 30.

11 Allred, Jeff, American Modernism and Depression Documentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 77.

12 Lombardo, Paul, “From Better Babies to the Bunglers: Eugenics on Tobacco Road,” in Lombardo, , ed., A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 4567 .

13 Estabrook, Arthur H., McDougle, Ivan E. and Carnegie Institution of Washington, Mongrel Virginians: The Win Tribe (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins Company, 1926). Sherman, Mandel and Henry, Thomas R., Hollow Folk (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1933).

14 Maxwell, Anne, Picture Imperfect: Photography and Eugenics, 1870–1940, (Eastbourne, great Britain: Sussex Academic Press, 2008), 126. On eugenics and photography see Squires, Anne Maxwell, Perfecting Mankind: Eugenics and Photography (New York: International Center of Photography, 2001); Green, David, “Veins of Resemblance: Photography and Eugenics,” Oxford Art Journal, 7 (1985), 316 . For a collection of eugenic portraits see “The Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement” at

15 Estabrook, McDougle and Carnegie Institution, 115. Full-text digital copies are available online at

16 Allred, 15.

17 As Jay Dolmage has shown in his study of Ellis Island photography, as public-health programs developed in the United States, “photography became a rhetorical tool of eugenicists and immigration restrictionists,” who used the images as a method of scientific inspection to establish “normality” and eligibility for citizenship and support. Jay Dolmage, “Framing Disability, Developing Race: Photography as Eugenic Technology”, Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing and Culture (published March 2014 online at

18 Maxwell, 127.

19 Lombardo, “From Better Babies,” 57.

20 Curtis, Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth, 10.

21 Allred, 14–15; 76.

22 See, for example, Turda, Marius, Modernism and Eugenics (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010); Childs, Donald J., Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); English, Daylanne, Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004); Armstrong, Tim, Modernism: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005).

23 See Rafter, Nicole Hahn, White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies 1877–1919, (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1988); Cuddy, Lois A. and Roche, Claire M., eds., Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, 1880–1940 (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2003); Smith, Angela, Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

24 Wolff, Tamsen, Mendel's Theatre: Heredity, Eugenics, and Early Twentieth-Century American Drama (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

25 Squires, Anne Maxwell, Perfecting Mankind: Eugenics and Photography (New York: International Center of Photography, 2001), 1314 .

26 Kidd, “Dissonant Encounters,” 30.

27 Fender, Stephen, Nature, Class and New Deal Literature: The Country Poor in the Great Depression (New York: Routledge, 2011), 9094 .

28 Elsie Weil, “Lost Communities in Blue Ridge Hills: Centres Where Intelligence Practically Is Missing,” New York Times, 9 Oct. 1930, 128.

29 John J. Daly, “Corbin Hollow Discovers America,” Washington Post, 6 Dec. 1931, MF7.

30 Joan Hampton, “The Primitive Life in Modern Virginia: A Crisis for the Hill Folk,” Baltimore Sun, 1 May 1932, magazine section.

31 Audrey J. Horning, “When Past Is Present: Archaeology of the Displaced in Shenandoah National Park,” National Park Service website at

32 Paul Popenoe, “A Debate on Sterilization: Intelligent Eugenics,” The Forum, July 1935, 26.

33 White, R. Clyde, Administration of Public Welfare (New York: American Book Company, 1940), 245.

34 Ibid., 245, v. For contemporary comments about the eugenics and modernizing the state in the early 1930s see Oswald, Frances, “Eugenical Sterilization in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology, 36, 1 (1930), 6573 .

35 See Michael A. Rembis, “Explaining Sexual Life to Your Daughter: Gender and Eugenic Education in the United States during the 1930s,” in Currell and Cogdell, Popular Eugenics, 91–119.

36 Lovett, Laura, Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890–1938 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2007); also Lovett, “The Roots of Redlining: Racial Legacies of Eugenic Housing in the United States,” paper delivered at The Study of Eugenics: Past, Present and Future conference at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, 11 Nov. 2011; Molly Ladd-Taylor, “Eugenics and Social Welfare in New Deal Minnesota,” in Lombardo, A Century of Eugenics in America, 117–40; Ladd-Taylor, , “Saving Babies and Sterilizing Mothers: Eugenics and Welfare Politics in the Interwar United States,” Social Politics, 4 (1997), 136–53.

37 Ladd-Taylor, “Eugenics and Social Welfare,” 125.

38 Ibid., 136.

39 See the chart for numbers of sterilizations by state in Largent, Breeding Contempt, 77.

40 Cook, Robert C., “Eugenics at Greenbelt,” Journal of Heredity, 28, 10 (1937), 339–44.

41 Ibid., 339.

42 Ibid., 344. Resettlement of those living in “unfit” environments was termed “colonization” at this time; this term was also later used for the institutionalization of the “unfit” into asylums. Holt, John B., An Analysis of Methods and Criteria Used in Selecting Families for Colonization Projects: Social Research Report No. 1, (Washington, DC: USDA, 1937), 3950 .

43 Cook, 340, 342.

44 Loomis, Charles P. and Davidson, Dwight Jr., “Sociometrics and the Study of New Rural Communites,” Sociometry, 2, 1 (1939), 5676 . In fact this report was concerned with the reasons why so many had left the colony after a short period (40% had left in 22 months from 1936), many citing dissatisfaction and “non-adaptation” to cooperative living, showing that perhaps residents were less keen on living in a strictly planned environment.

45 US Department of the Interior, Division of Subsistence Homesteads, Circular No. 1: General Information Concerning the Purposes and Policies of the Division of Subsistence Homesteads (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1935), 5. See also Wehrwein, G. S., “An Appraisal of Resettlement,” Journal of Farm Economics, 19, 1 (1937), 190202 , 191.

46 US Department of the Interior, 11.

47 US Department of the Interior, Division of Subsistence Homesteads, A Homestead and Hope, Bulletin Number One (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1935), 4, 7, 15–16.

48 “Frederick Osborn Declares Home Standards Are Basis for Eugenic Selection,” New York Times, 7 June 1936, 49.

49 For a description of the training program for social workers in eugenics at the Eugenics Record Office see Bix, Amy Sue, “Experiences and Voices of Eugenics Field-Workers: ‘Women's Work’ in Biology,” Social Studies of Science, 27, 4 (1997), 625–68. See also the “Introduction” to Rafter, White Trash. On the prevalence of eugenics in high-school biology texts between 1914 and 1948 see Selden, Steven, Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999); Kohlman, Michael J., “Evangelising Eugenics: A Brief Historiography of Popular and Formal American Eugenics Education, 1908–1948,” Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 58, 4 (2013), 657–90.

50 May Lumsden, “Housing Management and Family Life: Tenant Selection,” paper presented at the Conference on the Eugenic Aspects of Housing of the American Eugenics Society, New York City, 1 April 1938, American Eugenic Society Records, Series 1: Correspondence and Records, Box 1, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

51 Funkhouser, W. L., “Human Rubbish,” Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia, 26 (1937), 197–99; quoted in Edward J. Larson, Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 1.

52 Lumsden, “Housing Management.”

53 Paul Popenoe, “Sterilization in Practice,” The Survey, June 1938, 202.

54 Huntington, Ellsworth, Tomorrow's Children: The Goal of Eugenics (New York: J. Wiley & Sons, 1935), 38. On garden cities and eugenics see Currell, Susan, “Breeding Better Babies in the Eugenic Garden City: ‘Municipal Darwinism’ and the (Anti)Cosmopolitan Utopia in the early Twentieth Century,” Modernist Cultures, 5, 2 (2010), 267–90.

55 Huntington, 39.

56 Ibid., 54.

57 Virginia Lee Warren, “Blue Ridge Hillbillies Get a Transfer – From 19th to 20th Century,” Washington Post, 3 Nov. 1935, B4.

58 Elspeth Huxley, “The Bare Lands Of America ‘Mountaineers’: Resettling the Small Farmer,” The Times, 16 Dec. 1936, 15.

59 The word “idiocy” is formed from the Greek root idios, meaning a private person unconnected to the polis and thus separated from civilization. See Allred, American Modernism, 110. Horning, Audrey, In the Shadow of Ragged Mountain: Historical Archeology of Nicholson, Corbin, & Weakley Hollows (Bridgewater, VA: Shenandoah National Park Association, 2004).

60 Brooks to Cammerer, letter dated 14 Sept. 1932. This letter and further information on Sizer's secret employment by the National Park Service and her full report, “Survey of Mountain Communities,” are held at the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, RG 79 Records of the National Park Service, General Records, Central Classified Files, 1907–49 [Shenandoah] 200 Admin and Personnel, 204 Inspections and Investigations, Box 442, entry P 10, entry 7.

61 Miriam M. Sizer, “Suggestions Concerning Some Types of Mountain People in the Proposed Shenandoah National Park,” RG 79 Records of the National Park Service, General Records, Central Classified Files, 1907–49 [Shenandoah] 200 Admin and Personnel, 204 Inspections and Investigations, Box 442. NARA.

62 Ibid.

63 This term comes from Baer's, Ulrich Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

64 Kidd, “Dissonant Encounters,” 38.

65 Ibid., 25–26.

66 Ibid., 27, 40.

67 Letter to Sizer from Cammerer, 12 July 1932, NARA. See also Radford, Gail, “The Federal Government and Housing during the Great Depression,” in Bauman, John F., Biles, Roger, and Szylvian, Kristin, eds., From Tenements to Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 102–20.

68 Powell, Katrina M., “Answer At Once”: Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 135, 144.

69 Sternsher, Bernard, Rexford Tugwell and the New Deal (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1964), 294. Radford, Gail, Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 191. See also Simmons, Dennis E., “Conservation, Cooperation, and Controversy: The Establishment of Shenandoah National Park, 1924–1936,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 89, 4 (1981), 387404 .

70 Kidd, 31.

71 Commission of Lunacy and Dismissals 1919–1935, Record of Insane, Epileptic, Inebriate and Feeble-Minded Persons, Vols. 1 and 2. Court records and proceedings held in the Madison County Courthouse, Virginia.

72 Ibid.

73 David C. Wilson, “Mental Hygiene Survey of the State of Virginia,” reprinted from the Virginia Medical Monthly, Jan, 1932, 4, 5, 6, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.

74 I am indebted to Richard Knox Robinson for locating these records and pointing out the proximity of this warrant to Rothstein's visit and the Post article. Warren, “Blue Ridge Hillbillies.”

75 See Miriam M. Sizer, 1926–38 (four files), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD: RG 79 Records of the National Park Service, General Records, Central Classified Files, 1907–49 [Shenandoah] 200 Admin and Personnel, 204 Inspections and Investigations, Box 442.

76 Powell, Katrina M., “Rhetorics of Displacement: Constructing Identities in Forced Relocations,” College English, 74, 4 (March 2012), 299324 . See 312–18 for a more detailed discussion focussing on the ethics and history of documenting the displaced families depicted in Rothstein's photographs. See also Powell, , Identity and Power in Narratives of Displacement (New York: Routledge, 2015).

77 Powell, “Rhetorics of Displacement”, 309–10.

78 Noll, Steven, Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900–1940 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 73.

79 Ibid., 113.

80 Powell, “Answer At Once”, 112.

81 Popenoe, “Sterilization in Practice,” 203.

82 Brilliant studies such as Dorr's Segregation's Science and Largent's Breeding Contempt mostly focus on the scientists, lawyers, politicians and institutions that implemented eugenic sterilizations. For a discussion on the difficulty of finding the voices of the sterilized see Kluchin, Rebecca M., “Locating the Voices of the Sterilized,” Public Historian, 29, 3 (2007), 131–44. I am especially grateful to Rob Wilson, director of the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada Project, for bringing my attention to the ethical issues involved in historical research on eugenics; see

83 On the issue of compensation and increased visibility for coerced sterilization in Virginia see “Justice for Sterilization Victims,” at Other projects are actively working to bring to light the history of eugenics, to make information available and to create dialogue between scholars, historians, eugenics survivors and people with disabilities. See the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada Project, at

84 Ann Youngblood and Richard Robinson, “Obituary: Donald, Mary Francis Corbin,” Madison Eagle, posted Thursday, 18 June 2015, at

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