Like Dorothea Lange, but inside and without people.
January 1, 2016 4:54 PM   Subscribe

Please help me find photos of poor to middle class living space interiors, in everyday condition vs. spiffed up for the photographer, from the Victorian era through the 1940s? American settings primarily, Western Europe okay too. Stipulation: no corpses.

I'm looking for everyday, ordinary home interiors, which seem to be mostly overlooked and too mundane in their own time to document. I seem to only be able to find photos of interiors which are not ordinary at all - opulent mansions, historic sites, or idealized examples of fashion trends. I know there have always been photographers who sought to document subjects otherwise ignored, but I'm unsuccessful searching. Historical museums with room exhibits are more like life-sized dollhouses or showrooms for antiques, and short on verisimilitude: I hope to see half-filled ashtrays, second- or third-hand furniture, magazine pages used as wallpaper, socks drying by the radiator. It's funny that I can see lots of settings like this in period films, but don't know what references set designers draw from to create them.

I've found some of what I want to see by accident, but don't know how to search purposefully. I can see for instance the background in a Dorothea Lange photo of people eating supper, but that's a matter of sifting through all her photos and I think I've explored her work pretty well.

It's morbid, but vintage crime scene photos have been the closest so far to what I'm looking for. I can find all manner of street scene, portrait, and fancy house photos, but when it comes to the inside of a shabby 1920 rooming house, the only context in which such a banal, private space was photographed was if a murder happened in it. I really don't care to trawl tragedy to indulge what amounts to vintage voyeurism, though, so - suggestions? Thanks.
posted by Lou Stuells to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Gabor Szilasi has done house interior shots in Quebec. Here's a few from 1977.
posted by zadcat at 5:51 PM on January 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

A GIS for "Lewis Hine tenement photos" will start you off with lots of images from inside homes on the Lower East Side NYC at the turn of the century.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:57 PM on January 1, 2016

Mrs. Haubeil in her kitchen of her home, Ross County, Ohio. From the Library of Congress's collection of Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. (Try "home" as a search term.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:27 PM on January 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also try 'home interior" in the search; the photos seem to be tagged with these terms.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:34 PM on January 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you aware of Jacob Riis? He took photos of tenements in New York in the late nineteenth century. There are people in the photos, but you can see a lot of the environment around them.
posted by Adridne at 7:20 AM on January 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Temple University's urban archive has a photo collection from the Housing Association of the Delaware Valley with many images of dilapidated housing. They may have other resources as well.
posted by sepviva at 9:58 AM on January 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Leslie Jones collection at Boston Public Library's Flickr account is a good example of this. They have a lot of albums of various photographers who were doing sort of local joirnalism where you could find a lot of these. (they also have other albums with crime scenes but you said that is not what you are looking for). Dorthea Lange was just one of the WPA photographers and you can see a lot of their stuff in the Documenting America collections at the Library fo Congress (color, B&W) which has a lot of other stuff as well. You can browse some of the Library of Congress's other collections here.
posted by jessamyn at 10:28 AM on January 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

So many wonderful trails to explore already!
posted by Lou Stuells at 11:05 AM on January 2, 2016

Hi Lou Stuells - we met in Nashua at a meetup,
Mefi's own Postroad has a blog called good shit ( where he posts lots of good vintage photos. He might be willing and able to point you in a good direction. Happy searching!
posted by Hobgoblin at 11:54 AM on January 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some decades after you're asking for, sorry, but I enjoy this sort of thing too and immediately thought of a book called Suburbia by Bill Owens (1973). There are some photographs from it here.

Some museums are way better than others for this -- one of my favourites has a man-mannequin napping on a sort of makeshift bed in a kitchen while a woman-mannequin cooks nearby.
posted by kmennie at 4:15 PM on January 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Have you explored Shorpy? For instance, here's the search for "interior." Most of the photos are obviously spiffed up, but you might be able to find something.
posted by spelunkingplato at 4:23 PM on January 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

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