Farm Girls

Women on farms did wear a kind of uniform in the 1930s, during the depression and before the War: print cotton dresses, heeled oxford shoes (Cuban heels, these were called) or sandals, flat little sturdy hats, and very little jewelry. Below are women at a 4H fair, so dressed up a bit “for town”. But they are wearing what I remember older farm women in my childhood (1970s, women in their 70s so they were reflecting the dress style they fixed upon in the 1920s and 1930s, when they were teens to 20s). Print dresses with self-fabric belts, “sensible” shoes, flat hats, and a bulky purse hanging off one wrist. In the image below, I especially love that white slip peeking out from the hemline of the woman in center — and the fact she and the woman to her right are wearing dark-toned hose.

LOC marshalltown REA women

“Explaining the REA Program to Farm Women, Marshalltown, Iowa 4-H Fair,” by Arthur Rothstein, September 1939, Library of Congress

In today’s political climate it sure seems that white politicians whose families have been in the U.S. for generations are thinking that back in the day, immigrants were quick to “merge” into the “regular” population. Assimilation of language, styles, ways of living. This is a manufactured political narrative and at odds with the very real, documented ways European immigrants resisted assimilation for decades, sometimes generations. When World War I started up for the U.S. in 1914, almost 1/3 of public schools in Minnesota were conducted partially or entirely in German, for example. The sometimes violent backlash to German immigrants in 1914 effectively shut this down: Kids started speaking English, beer halls, turnvereins (a kind of gymnastic social club), and other German traditions quieted down. But well into the 1930s, especially in the traditionally-minded rural areas and ethnic enclaves in large cities, European immigrants stayed with their native languages, foodways, and even clothing styles.

So in the image below, we see a set of German-Russian women on election day 1940. Their styles should look a bit off to our eyes, because those hats, the lack of styled hair, the floral and stripes of their dresses, and even the ways they sit, are distinctly non-mainstream American. These gals are a far cry from the woman of American advertisements.

german russin women loc mcintosh nd

“German-Russian Farm Women in School on Election Day, November 1940, McIntosh County, North Dakota,” John Vachon, Library of Congress.

McIntosh County in North Dakota, it turns out, was an astonishingly unique county. Settled by German-Russian immigrants, it had a sizable and active Jewish population, a cohort of good old Lutheran, and some Orthodox mixed in. The sparsely populated county has a plethora of historical sites, mainly representing the various religious and ethnic traditions. These women, with their whiff of working-class European style, are exactly the kind of farm women that lived in the county. This wasn’t a melting pot of an American county — it was an American county settled by a patchwork of ethnic groups, each with distinct religious traditions.

If you want to learn more about the WWI and WWII Women’s Land Army in the U.S., a great place to start or end is Pamela Jo Pierce’s Masters Thesis, “That Dame’s Got Grit: Selling the Women’s Land Army,” written at Utah State University. This absolutely spot-on research thesis explains how the idea was marketed, from girly art to wonderful pics of undergrads from Oregon State in their knit shirts, blouses, and flannels with hoes and pitchforks hoisted.

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