Tarble Arts Center

Eastern Illinois University

Charleston, Illinois

217-581-ARTS (-2787)



Clara Brian: Home Bureau Photographs 1918-1926


A selection of documentary photographs titled "Clara Brian: Home Bureau Photographs 1918-1926" is on exhibition through January 16, 2000 at the Tarble Arts Center, Eastern Illinois University. The exhibition gives a glimpse of rural life in central Illinois shortly after World War I.

Clara Brian was the first Home Bureau advisor in Illinois. As she traveled to remote parts of McLean County she carried along a folding 3 x 4 camera with which she documented the women she served -- their families, homes, schools and other aspects of their lives. The prints on exhibition were made in 1991 from the original negatives by the exhibition's curator, Rhondal McKinney. They are on loan from the Illinois State University Rural Documentary Collection.

Brian served McLean in County from 1918 until 1945. Her role was to bring to rural women progressive ideas about all aspects of home life -- nutrition and health, child rearing, education and self improvement. Miss Brian was also a gifted and devoted photographer. As she made her rounds in the countryside she documented the people and places she encountered in her work -- farm wives and children, kitchens, parlors, barnyards, one room schools -- all with great sensitivity and insight.

When Clara Brian began her education in 1913 home economics was very new as a national movement. It was a time in American society when, as Richard Hofstadter described it, "that broader impulse toward criticism and change that was everywhere so conspicuous after 1900... effected in a striking way...the whole tone of American political life." Americans had a feeling of evangelical optimism, the conviction that by hard work and education, through the application of scientific principles and with the spirit of sacrifice and cooperative action, people could improve and reform society, each other, themselves, for a more spiritual and idealized order.

The Home Bureau was formally established in 1911 by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Its purpose was to bring to farm women the benefits of scientific and technological advances. As the first "home demonstration agent" Brian drove out into the county to twelve Unit meetings each month. At the Unit meetings she made presentations to rural women on progressive ideas about all aspects of home life -- cooking and nutrition, health, hygiene, childrearing, education, mental hygiene, self improvement, and domestic design and decorating. She told the members about current ideas from social psychology as she introduced them to the latest in laundry equipment or stoves and ranges.

And Brian impressed upon rural women the notion that they deserved some "down time" from their daily grind, that they should take time for recreation, reading, and other "self improvements." She also encouraged her members to spend more time with their children and to take a more active role in encouraging their education.

Some of Brian's photographs document conditions of deprivation in homes and rural schools. But other photographs show women who are obviously living under conditions of comfort and even ease with electrified parlors, modern, efficient looking kitchens, well tended flower gardens.

Brian took her photographs to use as slides to make her meetings more interesting. But Brian was naturally gifted in ways that made her a first rate documentary photographer. She saw clearly the facts that presented themselves to her. Her photography is straightforward. She reported facts without the adornment of sentimentality. What she brought to her photography was feeling, intelligence, and an intuitive picture making aesthetic.

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rev. 11/26/10

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