Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/Jennie Chambers

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A housewife preparing cornbread biscuits during the Great Depression in San Augustine, Texas

This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories

Overview:[edit | edit source]

Jennie Chambers was a housewife and mother during the Great Depression. She lived in Newton, North Carolina with her husband, Bud, and two children, Junior and Thelma. Ethel Deal interviewed Jennie Chambers in 1939 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project implemented by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide jobs for writers during the Depression.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Jennie Chambers lived with her husband, Bud, in Newton, North Carolina. Mrs. Chambers was morbidly obese and claimed to weigh about 350 pounds, but a doctor never confirmed this. Mr. Chambers was a former textile worker who was forced to quit working at the mill because of his health, which his doctor called “T.B. of the bone.” Mr. Chambers only weighed 124 pounds, nearly a third of his wife. He was very sickly and had all of his teeth pulled at one time. Mrs. Chambers was also a former textile worker, but was no longer able to work because of her responsibilities at home. The Chambers had two children, Junior and Thelma. Deal described Junior as being “fat and chubby” and Mrs. Chambers explained that Thelma was a sickly child.

When the Chambers stopped working at the textile mill, they moved to a small farm at the doctor’s recommendation. The house did not have an indoor toilet, an indication that the living conditions on the farm were not ideal. On their farm, they grew a few acres of cotton, corn, and potatoes. They did not own the farm, and part of the earnings from their crops went to the owner of the land. Since her husband was sick, most of the household and child-rearing responsibilities fell on Mrs. Chambers. Her large number of responsibilities and living on a farm without close neighbors caused Mrs. Chambers a lot of stress and loneliness, which likely contributed to her weight gain.

Both Mrs. Chambers and her husband voted a straight democratic ticket in the 1938 midterm election because they did not want their relief checks to be terminated by Republicans in office. Mrs. Chambers had to take care of her two children with their welfare assistance since their only income was profits from their tenant farming. The Chambers did not attend church and received no financial assistance from the Methodist church other family members attended.

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Unemployment during the Great Depression[edit | edit source]

Mrs. Chambers and her husband were both unemployed in 1939, which meant their income came from government assistance. In 1939, unemployment rates were close to 25% in general and as high as 49.6% for the service industry.[1] The Depression hit the textile industry particularly hard and it no longer held an important place in American manufacturing.[2] In response to these record high unemployment rates, the government implemented an unprecedented amount of social welfare programs to assist families.[3] President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs provided opportunities for work with programs like the Works Progress Administration and social welfare programs such as Social Security.

Health issues during Great Depression[edit | edit source]

The Chambers family dealt with multiple health issues, particularly with Bud’s tuberculosis and Jennie’s obesity. There was a greater risk of disease for working class families during the Depression because of poor access to proper nutrition and medical care.[4] The large unemployment rates made it difficult for families to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves, leading to lowered immune systems. Jenny Higgins said in an online article for the Memorial University of Newfoundland, "Malnutrition became rampant and facilitated the spread of beriberi, tuberculosis and other diseases."[5] Inadequate access to proper nutrition could also lead to an unhealthy weight. These conditions during the Depression facilitated disease, but many families still did not have the money or resources to get proper medical care.

Gender Roles in 1930’s[edit | edit source]

Because of Bud’s poor health, Jennie took on the role of the matriarch of the family. She had to take on extra duties around the farm, since Bud was not well enough to do as much as he once could. An article on EyeWitness to History explains that traditional gender roles in working class families were challenged during the Depression.[6] This family dynamic was characteristic of many working class families during the Depression because a husband’s unemployment often led to the wife becoming the breadwinner of the family. For many men, this shift in gender roles was depressing, which often caused them to no longer want to look for work.[7] Women, on the other hand, felt empowered by these new gender norms.

Issues of Historical Production[edit | edit source]

The Federal Writers’ Project came into existence as part of the Federal Arts Project in the summer of 1935 as a way to employ arts professionals during the Great Depression.[8] The project was not very popular during the 30’s when many saw it as a waste of money on nameless faces, but was better appreciated after the Depression because of the historical accounts kept as a result. Mrs. Chambers’ interview is currently in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Ethel Deal’s interview of Jennie Chambers was written as a narrative. Because of this format, it is difficult to tell if any information was left out or if any details were fabricated to make the Chambers family appear more interesting. Writing the interview as a narrative left room for Deal to take creative liberties, and because the Chambers family was not documented for any reason other than the Federal Writers’ Project, it is impossible to know how much validity the interview holds. The interviewers of the Federal Writer’s Project were not formally trained in interviewing and were given loose guidelines to follow.[9] When interviewing the subjects, everything was handwritten by the interviewer and later typewritten instead of using a tape recorder, which was a common medium, for a more accurate account.[10] This left room for both human error and poetic license.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Bernstein, M. A. The Great Depression: Delayed Recovery and Economic Change in America, 1929-1939. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Print. p.34.
  2. Bernstein 75.
  3. Fishback, Price V, Michael R Haines, and Shawn Kantor. “Births, Deaths, and New Deal Relief During the Great Depression.” The Review of Economics and Statistics. 89.1 (2007): 1–14. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/rest.89.1.1>. para. 2
  4. Fishback para. 1
  5. Higgins, J. (2007). Great Depression - Impacts on the Working Class. Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2000. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.heritage.nf.ca/law/depression_impacts.html>. para. 1
  6. “The Great Depression.” Eyewitness to History. Ibis Communications, Inc., 2000. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/snprelief1.htm>. para. 3
  7. "The Great Depression" para. 3
  8. Current-Garcia, E. “American Panorama: (Federal Writers’ Project).” Prairie Schooner 12.2 (1938): 79–90. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40622837?seq=1>. p.79
  9. Dittman, Michael. “The Federal Writers' Project and the Creation of Hegemony.” 49th Parallel. Web. 20 Apr. 2010. <http://www.49thparallel.bham.ac.uk/back/issue2/dittman.htm>. para. 18
  10. Dittman para. 18