History Piece

 
The Making of Power and the Land (1939-1940)

BEAUTY IN THE SERVICE OF A POLITICAL AGENDA

By Dr. Ruth Schwartz Cowan




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Thus, as they watch Power in the Land my students tend to transplant all their assumptions about the present into their understanding of the past. As a consequence, they almost always miss the subtle ways in which Power in the Land exaggerates or ignores the realities of farm life in the 1930s in order to make both electrification and modernization attractive. They never notice the tractor—or wonder how it came to be that at the beginning of the film, Bill Parkinson and his sons go out to the fields in a wagon drawn by horses, but by the end of the film the wagon and the horses have been replaced by a tractor. They never think of the expense—or ask how the Parkinsons managed to purchase a whole suite of kitchen appliances, as well as a milk cooling system, a radio, a water pump, water heater, sink, toilet and shower, not to speak of indoor and outdoor lighting systems--all in the course of one season. And they never comment on Hazel Parkinson’s enigmatic expression--or wonder why she isn’t smiling broadly as she lifts the roast that she has just cooked in an electric oven and looks across the kitchen table at her husband.

Recent scholarship in the history of technology, the history of gender roles, the history of agriculture and the history of housework can provide the complex background information needed to understand what led the directors to create a documentary which doesn’t quite reflect reality but which has, nonetheless, enormous persuasive power.

Historians of technology have told us, for example, that horses, as draft animals, began disappearing from America’s roads several decades before they began disappearing from America’s farms; in Iowa, for example, in 1930, 90% of farm households owned automobiles but only 30% owned tractors.[ i ] A large part of the reason for this, of course, is that automobiles were considerably cheaper than tractors. By the late 1930s, as the country was slowly pulling out of the Depression, the question of whether to purchase a tractor and retire the draft animals was a live one for many American farmers; it was also a crucial one for New Deal bureaucrats, who were trying, in any way that the could, to stimulate the consumption of manufactured goods. Thus, the shift that occurs between horse and tractor in Power in the Land would have been symbolically meaningful to rural audiences: in one brief image it conveyed the notion that electrification leads to prosperity and prosperity leads to tractors and tractors—of course—will make life easier for farmers.

[ i ] These figures come from Fifteenth Census of the United States 1930 as reported in Katherine Jellison, Entitled to Power: Farm Women and Technology, 1913-1963 (Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993) p.54.


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