You Can't Go Home Again

Populating the idealized scenes of the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago with the child laborers of Lewis Hine. Romanticized past meets uncomfortable history, rich art patronage meets hunger wages. Art or charitable patronage? Art or muckraking?

“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.


A16: Pennsylvania Drawing Room, 1761 c. 1940


Mrs. Guadina, living in a dirty, poverty stricken home. On the trunk is the work of 4 days. She was struggling along (actually weak for want of food), trying to finish this batch so she could get the pay. There seemed to be no food in the house. The father is out of work. Three small children and another expected soon. New York City. 2/1/1912

The Thorne Rooms are two parts fantasy, one part history—each room a shoe box–sized stage set awaiting viewers’ characters and plots.

I am suspicious of the retrospective gaze of nostalgia, in doubt of the memories, the sanitized histories. And as instructed, I am creating my own scenes and stories.

I am putting real children into unreal rooms.

E-13: English Rotunda and Library of the Regency Period, 1810-20


Photograph of a Young Shrimp Picker Named Manuel, Biloxi, Mississippi

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.

A19: Maryland Dining Room, 1770-74


Minnie Pastor, 10 years old, tending stand in New York. New York City., 7/1910

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.

A7: New Hampshire Entrance Hall, 1799 c. 1940

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.

A32: Louisiana Bedroom, 1800-50 c. 1940

Rhodes Mfg. Co. Spinner. A moments glimpse of the outer world. Said she was 11 years old. Been working over a year. Lincolnton, North Carolina. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine, 11 November 1908.

Narcissa Niblack Thorne created traditional shadow boxes and doll houses for many fundraisers. To emphasize the difference, she excluded human figures from her rooms.

She had no problem to fill them otherwise, as “the shifting economic order left many a once-wealthy family in need of money. Precious artifacts, including miniatures which had once graced elegant dollhouses and private collections in Europe, came onto the market at prices undreamed of.”

E-22: French Provincial Bedroom of the Louis XV Period, 18th Century c. 1937

11:00 A.M. Newsies at Skeeter's Branch. They were all smoking. St. Louis, MO., 5/9/1910

The rooms are a meant to be a visual history of interior design, non-specific apart from time and region.

This room stands out since it is a replica of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, including the wallpaper that also graces the walls of Adelicia Franklin Acklen’s Belmont Mansion in Nashville. A lot of unpaid/underpaid labor created this wealth.

A-31 Tennessee Entrance Hall, 1835 c. 1940

A regular worker (doffer) in Richmond Spinning Mills. Photo during work hours. Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee. 1910

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.

A13: New England Bedroom, 1750-1850 c. 1940

Young Driver in Mine: Had been driving one year. (7 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. Daily) Brown Mine, Brown, W. Va. Location: Brown, West Virginia. 1908 September

Narcissa Thorne was entranced by the romantic idea that America’s colonial past was a simpler time, uncomplicated by industry, immigration, or urbanism.

After building a fantasy mansion in Santa Barbara, she commissioned the same architects to design the first formal Thorne rooms. High unemployment during the Great Depression made it possible for Mrs. Thorne to hire workers with highly specialized skills.

A9: Massachusetts Parlor, 1818 c. 1940

Marie Costa, basket seller, in a Cincinnati market. 10 A.M. Saturday. Cincinnati, OH., 8/22/1908

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.

A13: New England Bedroom, 1750-1850 c. 1940

Shorpy Higginbotham, a "greaser" on the tipple at Bessie Mine, of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Co. Said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful. Carries two heavy pails of grease, and is often in danger of being run over by the coal cars. Location: Bessie Mine, Alabama

“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

A22: Virginia Dining Room, c. 1752 c. 1940

Harley Bruce, a young coupling-boy at tipple of Indian Mine. He appears to be 12 or 14 years old, and says he has been working there about a year. It is hard work and dangerous. Not many boys employed in or about the mines of this region. Near Jellico, Tenn., 12/1910

Thorne drew inspiration for this lavish parlor from the elaborate antebellum plantation interiors depicted in the popular 1939 film Gone with the Wind. She was not interested in “wars and famines” but instead focused on style and taste. She celebrated the grandeur and prosperity of a Southern estate but chose not to address the uncomfortable source of that wealth.

A30: Georgia Double Parlor, c. 1850 c.1940

Merilda, carrying cranberries. Rochester, Mass., 9/13/1911

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.

The Supreme Court had shown its essential favoritism and penchant for cruelty when it declared child labor regulations by the federal government unconstitutional in 1918 and 1923.

A29: South Carolina Ballroom, 1775-1835 c. 1940

Five year old Preston, a young cartoner in Seacoast Canning Co., Factory #2. I saw him at work different times during the day--at 7 a.m., in the afternoon, and at 6 p.m., and he kept at it very faithfully for so young a worker. Location: Eastport, Maine. 1911 August

Let them eat cake.

Marie Antoinette was Thorne’s particular inspiration because the French queen, before her execution, had been a leading patron of the arts.

The Art Institute tries to convince us that the “people of Chicago, many of whom were struggling to survive the devastating Depression of the 1930s, would have found the imagined perfection of this room especially captivating.”

E-25: French Bathroom and Boudoir of the Revolutionary Period, 1793-1804 c. 1937

In the group are: 2 four year old boys, 1 five year old boy, 1 six year old boy, 1 ten year old boy, 1 eleven year old boy, 1 twelve year old boy, 2 five year old girls, 1 six year old girl, 2 nine year old girls, 1 ten year old girl, 1 twelve year old girl. In front of shacks at noon, Florence colony [?], Whites Bog, Browns Mills, N.J. This is the fourth week of school and the people expect to remain two weeks more. E.F. Brown [Witness]. Location: Browns Mills, New Jersey. 1910 September

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.

A28: South Carolina Drawing Room, 1775-1800 c. 1940

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.

E-27: French Library of the Modern Period, 1930s c. 1937

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

Non sequitur

“We moved here from somewhere when I was fourteen

Worked this poor ground for bacon and beans

Landlord told me that the hard times are near

It didn’t mean a thing ’cause they’re already here” (Stanley Brothers)

During the censorship and police surveillance of the Biedermeier period, people tried to stay in safe territory, concentrating on the domestic and non-political, leading to a blossoming of furniture design and interior decorating.

E-28: German Sitting Room of the Biedermeier Period, 1815-50 c. 1937

K-0733 Black Sharecropper Family. Unidentified Farm. 3-1-1936

“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)

When people talk about home, they make it sound so solid, so permanent - until it isn’t.

A7: New Hampshire Entrance Hall, 1799 c. 1940

Members of the Mochida family awaiting evacuation bus. Identification tags were used to aid in keeping a family unit intact during all phases of evacuation. Mochida operated a nursery and five greenhouses on a two-acre site in Eden Township." In 1942 Executive Order 9066 ordered the removal of 110,000 civilians of Japanese descent, including 71,000 American citizens, from the western United States, placing them in internment camps.

By Dorothea Lange, Hayward, California, May 8, 1942

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.

The production of gold, bricks, sugarcane, coffee, tobacco and cotton are still relying heavily on child labor worldwide.


E-15: English Drawing Room of the Modern Period, 1930s c. 1937

“Sofia,” a 17-year-old tobacco worker, in a tobacco field in North Carolina. She started working at 13, and she said her mother was the only one who taught her how to protect herself in the fields: “None of my bosses or contractors or crew leaders have ever told us anything about pesticides and how we can protect ourselves from them….” Human Rights Watch 2015

Is Narcissa Thorne an artist? Museums seem to prefer to call her a patroness, developing, commissioning, paying others.

She wanted her rooms to serve as teaching tools. She hoped they would be inspiring examples of sophisticated taste, which she may have felt was lacking in Chicago at the time. Would she have felt the need to create rooms if she had had a different home herself?

There are approximately 100 rooms, which Narcissa Thorne donated to the Chicago Art Institute. 68 are still in Chicago, some were sold to IBM, which gave them to the Phoenix Art Museum and the Knoxville Art Museum.


Southeast Missouri Farms. Bureau in bedroom of sharecropper cabin. Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, photographer. 1938 May. FSA.


Narcissa Niblack Thorne in her studio, ca. 1950. Art Institute Chicago

You Can't Go Home Again