You Can't Go Home Again
“Let your imagination take over on this journey through the Thorne Rooms—miniature and, as generations of Art Institute visitors have found, wonderfully transporting,” is how the Art Institute in Chicago advertises the Narcissa Niblack Thorne’s miniatures. They are not doll houses but while marveling at the details and the object d’arts you remember your own dollhouse (if you had one) and sigh over the artlessness of today’s Barbie’s castles, Lego Death Stars and metaverse mansions.
The Thorne Rooms are two parts fantasy, one part history—each room a shoe box–sized stage set awaiting viewers’ characters and plots.
Lewis Hine was born in 1874 and gave up a teaching position to become photographer for the National Child Labor Committee in 1908. His pictures and captions are kept in the National Archives and the Library of Congress.
Narcissa Niblack Thorne was born in 1882. Her childhood included doll houses, governesses and finishing school. Her uncle was a Rear Admiral who sent her miniatures from all around the world. She married into the Montgomery Ward empire and became a patroness of the arts.
Addie Laird, 12 years old. Spinner in a Cotton Mill. Girls in mill say she is 10 years old. She admitted to me that she was 12 years old, that she started during school vacation and now would stay. North Pownal, Vt., 2/9/1910
I peeked at the little boxes, admired the luxurious details, and was particularly intrigued by the use of light and the doors and windows that hint at worlds outside.
Narcissa Niblack Thorne created traditional shadow boxes and doll houses for many fundraisers. To emphasize the difference, she excluded human figures from her rooms.
The rooms are a meant to be a visual history of interior design, non-specific apart from time and region.
Lewis Hine was often threatened and had to use disguises to get access to workplaces. He was of the muckraker generation, who provided detailed, accurate journalistic accounts of the political and economic corruption and social hardships caused by the power of big business in a rapidly industrializing United States.
Narcissa Thorne was entranced by the romantic idea that America’s colonial past was a simpler time, uncomplicated by industry, immigration, or urbanism.
Child laborers barely experienced their youth, being paid a pittance, they were condemned to a future of illiteracy, poverty, and continuing misery. In industrial settings they began to develop serious health problems. Many child laborers were underweight. Some suffered from stunted growth and curvature of the spine. They developed diseases related to their work environment, such as tuberculosis and bronchitis for those who worked in coal mines or cotton mills. They faced high accident rates due to physical and mental fatigue caused by hard work and long hours.
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... […] back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting, but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” Thomas Wolfe
Lewis Hine’s efforts resulted in the establishment of a Children’s Bureau that became part of the Department of Labor. It wasn’t however until 1938, under the first female Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, that the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed.
Let them eat cake.
Narcissa Thorne rented a studio. "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," says Virginia Woolf. Narcissa Thorne had exactly that privilege and created over a hundred Rooms of her Own. She managed to comply to all social expectations to be feminine, charitable, unthreateningly artsy, interested in the domestic realm, and going her own thing.
A little spinner in a Georgia Cotton Mill. Location: Georgia. January 1909
In 1936 Hine was appointed head photographer for the National Research Project of the Works Projects Administration, but his work for them was never completed. His last years were marked by professional struggles, and he died in 1940 at age sixty-six.
Scott's Run, West Virginia. Miner's child - This boy was digging coal from mine refuse on the road side. The picture was taken December 23, 1936 on a cold day; Scott's Run was buried in snow. The child was barefoot and seemed to be used to it. He was a quarter mile from his home, 1936
“Home is a safe haven and a comfort zone. A place to live with our families and pets and enjoy with friends. A place to build memories as well as a way to build future wealth. A place where we can truly just be ourselves.” (Habitat for Humanity)
The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act did not cover agricultural child labor. Currently about half a million children pick almost a quarter of the food produced in the US.
E-15: English Drawing Room of the Modern Period, 1930s c. 1937
Is Narcissa Thorne an artist? Museums seem to prefer to call her a patroness, developing, commissioning, paying others.