Bleak House

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When Nora Kelly-Polinsky of New York City sent in three pictures last winter, she also wrote that she found them “very painful to look at now.” Her mother lies in bed at the right, recuperating from an illness and about to receive tea from a housekeeper sent by a city agency to help out until she recovered. As Mrs. Kelly-Polinsky recalls, the woman asked if the family would pose for a city photographer to document these social services. The result is more than a simple propaganda effort. In this 1934 picture of the young Nora gravely serving a make-believe tea on toy dishes to her younger brother and sister while her mother looks on, the photographer has managed to suggest that serious adult concerns loom. Indeed, Mrs. Kelly-Polinsky goes on to write, “the photo was taken in a tenement house that was being demolished to build the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx. We were given notice to move within a certain date. My father moved all the furniture across the street to another tenement all by himself. He died shortly after that from a brain hemorrhage, leaving my mother a widow at twenty-nine years old. The photo captured for us our bleak poverty in the mid-1930s, which became even worse after my father’s death.”

We continue to ask our readers to send unusual and unpublished old photographs to Carla Davidson at American Heritage, Forbes Building, 60 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10011. Please send a copy of any irreplaceable materials, include return postage, and do not mail glass negatives. We will pay one hundred dollars for each one that is run.