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Memphis, Tenn. Mar. 1939. Families at Dixie home, a US public works administration project covering 42 acres of former slum area. Photo by Peter Sekaer, 1939.

Here’s Looking at You, Mom

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The following is a guest post by Kate Fogle, Assistant Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division.

Mom. Simple to say, this monosyllabic version of ‘mother’ entered the American lexicon in the mid-1800s, and its ease of use has yet to waver, as moms throughout the U.S. can attest.

It’s a palindrome that conveys comfort and acceptance. A moniker that evokes the maternal ideal—that of untempered safety and unconditional love. And with Mother’s Day approaching, it’s interesting to take stock of mom-specific imagery held within the Prints & Photographs (P&P) Division.

Laura Kimpton’s statue “Who Gave Birth?” featured at Burning Man in 2009, was a shout-out to every mom, especially Mother Earth.

Ode to Mom at the Burning Man festival in Black Rock Desert, near Reno, Nevada. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2009.

What better—or homier—place to grab a drink than at Mom’s Auburn Lounge?

262 AUBURN AVENUE (Mom’s Auburn Lounge) SOUTH ELEVATION – 126-255 Auburn Avenue (Commercial Buildings), Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, Fulton County, GA. Photo by James R. Lockhart, 1979.

When considering Mother’s Day’s humble—and admirably non-consumerist origins—tracing its evolution is possible through images in P&P’s Biographical File. The Biog File, as our seasoned staff calls it, contains a plethora of portraiture, from engravings to photographs and other pictorial formats, and is freely-accessible to patrons in our reading room.

From Mother’s Day’s initial intent as an annual way to promote global pacifism to its later incarnation as a national holiday honoring mothers themselves, the American women responsible for the holiday’s trajectory can be found within our holdings.

In 1870, suffragist, poet and author Julia Ward Howe wrote what later became known as the “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” It advocated for a global coalition of women to work together toward world peace.

Julia (Ward) Howe, 1819-1910, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing right. Photo, 1904.

Anna Reeves Jarvis—whose vision of a national Mother’s Day holiday evolved from child care demonstration clubs into a day to honor all mothers—was posthumously successful due to the dogged work of her daughter, Anna Jarvis. Congress officially recognized Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1914.

Anna Reeves Jarvis. Photo, copyrighted 1909.
Anna Jarvis. Photo, 1909.

While P&P’s most well-known image of a mom is that of Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of the iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph captured by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1936, many other mothers populate the photographic prints of the expansive FSA/OWI collection.

Photographed in 1939, this Depression-era mom flashes a smile that lights up the image with a warmth that radiates. Times were tough, and with the road ahead uncertain, she’s projecting positivity for her toddler and her babe in arms.

Memphis, Tenn. Mar. 1939. Families at Dixie home, a US public works administration project covering 42 acres of former slum area. Photo by Peter Sekaer, 1939.

FSA photographer Peter Sakaer shot this image to promote the progressive building programs enacted by the U.S. government to improve people’s lives. Ultimately, he also captured the essence of motherhood: in the face of adversity, moms comfort and calm, and this mother is no exception.

How many different moms can you find in Prints & Photographs Online Catalog? Share your favorites in the comments below.

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  1. Wonderful perspective on an old theme and featuring rarely seen photos!

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