What did rural life look like in 1910?

By Carol / January 13, 2014 /

Early 20th century photos inspire writing.

Whether writing memoir or novel, I’ve found photos a great source of inspiration. Today, almost everyone has the ability to take photos. Digital cameras allow us to take pictures with abandon, of subjects important and mundane. It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so.

Yet 50 years ago – at the time covered by my memoir – Mom used a box camera with rolls of film that only had twelve exposures. She brought the camera out on special occasions. One hundred years ago, during the time in which my WWI-era novel Go Away Home is set, though Kodak was working hard to bring it to the masses, photography was most often the purview of professionals.

Because photography was relatively rare, I consider myself lucky to have an album of photos my grandmother took between 1905 and 1915.  I grew up looking at these photos and they’ve been a constant reference point as I’ve written. Many of the photos have inspired scenes in my novel.

A good day hunting.

A good day hunting.

My grandmother was not constrained by the thought that everyone had to be dressed up to have their picture taken. This picture of two men just back from hunting made me think about clothes and dogs and rabbit stew.

GAH - Model T

One of the first cars in the neighborhood.

This picture of my grandfather and his car made me wonder how you drive a Model T and how anyone learned. I studied YouTube videos. My mother told me she and her sister taught themselves. Once they wound up in a ditch and a group of men simply picked up the car and set it back on the road.

GAH - Picking Corn

Taking a break.


Taking her camera to the field, Grandma captured this happy moment between father and daughter on a corn wagon. My father told me he could pick 100 bushel of corn a day. In case you wonder, that’s a lot when you’re picking by hand.

This picture of a log house in South Dakota was in my mind as I wrote about one of my characters who went to Wyoming to homestead. They lived a year in such a log home.

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Accurately portraying life in the early 1900s has taken me lots of places to do research. I count myself lucky to find details and whole scenes springing from our family album of old photos.


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  1. David Lawlor on January 13, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    These are great pictures, Carol. I can envisage the scenes form Go Away Home in which you used them, too. The fact that that they are all of relatives of yours makes them even more special. I use photographs a lot in my own research… photos and archive footage are a great way of bringing the past to life. Thanks for sharing.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 21, 2014 at 11:11 am

      When I talk with people about writing memoirs, I urge them to look at their favorite photos and tell “the story behind the picture.” Not necessarily who’s in the picture but why the picture is special. I guess I’ve done the same thing with these old pictures in Go Away Home. Created a story to fill in behind the names. Thanks for stopping by, David!

  2. Joan on January 14, 2014 at 6:31 am

    Carol – I love taking photos and photography often inspires me to write. However, having these vintage photos, is a blessing. I have several old family photos. I’ve never thought about using them to generate ideas for historical fiction. Thank you for this writing tip!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 21, 2014 at 11:12 am

      I’ve considered myself very blessed to have these old photos, Joan. That era is most often recorded in formal studio portraits. To be able to see everyday life is a treat and an inspiration. No go have fun dreaming up stories from your old photos!

  3. Stephen Crabbe on January 14, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Carol, how I envy you! To have a whole album of photos taken in that era showing scenes from everyday life, and to know the stories connected with them–what a trove of narrative, relationships and facts that is for an author. My fiction is set in the same period as yours and old family photographs have been helpful in developing characters and events. But my pictures are all studio portraits, far less rich in information and associations than yours. I don’t think cameras were used as freely in South Australia as they perhaps were in the USA at that time. I look forward to reading your novel; at present I’m enjoying your first book. Best wishes.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 21, 2014 at 11:19 am

      Cameras were not widely used by everyday people in the U.S. at the time either, Stephen. Though Kodak was working hard to change that by selling Brownie cameras for a dollar. I do have a few comments my mother made about these photos, but often I’m left to make up the narrative. That’s why my upcoming book Go Away Home is a novel. I never asked my grandmother questions about her life, so I’ve created a back story.

      Thanks much for reading my memoir! The memoir took me 50 years back in history. My novel steps back a century.

  4. paulette mahurin on January 14, 2014 at 9:46 am

    Great post and photos. You’re lucky you still have them.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on January 21, 2014 at 11:20 am

      Thanks, Paulette. I consider myself very lucky that my grandmother took photos and that my mother was so careful in preserving them. They’re a gift that never stops inspiring me.

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