The Family and Domestic Life in Western NC of the 1930s

Background About Faye Watson

Can be found on Faye Watson's personal page here.

Nuclear Family 

Faye Watson comes from a family structure known as a nuclear family, a very common family set up in rural North Carolina in the early to mid twentieth century. In fact, “the basic kin group in the mountains was the nuclear family” (Eller 1982). There were a few exceptions, where the family unit would also include another relative such as a grandparent or a single aunt (Eller 1982). In 1949, the term “nuclear family,” meaning a married man and woman living with their children, was coined by the anthropologist George Murdock. These nuclear families forged in the 1930s and 40s were particularly stable. In the nuclear family model, the husband was the breadwinner who provided for the material needs of the family such as food and shelter, while the wife was the homemaker who tended to the home, children, and expressive / emotional needs of the family. As long as the husband and wife fulfilled their respective roles, the family was a functional unit that contributed to the stability of society as a whole (“The Changing American Family”). There was no doubt that Faye Watson’s family followed the nuclear family set up, being that she lived with her homemaker mother, working father, and siblings.

This nuclear family unit was, “as in most traditional rural societies, … the central organizing force of social life” in preindustrial Appalachia (Eller 1982). The family was not only “the basic economic unit within the self-sufficient agricultural setting,” but it also “set the matrix within which politics and government, as well as organizations for religion, education, and sociability, developed” (Eller 1982). Nearly every aspect of life in Appalachia felt the influence of family units. The nuclear family, however, was part of a “larger network of kin relationships that formed the substance of community life” (Eller 1982). Though an informal network, when functioning together, these family units provided fellowship and association for the mountain people of Appalachia. The social implications along with the influence on economic, political, educational, and religious facets of life demonstrate why it was so important for these individual family units to function as a nuclear family, be self-sufficient, and remain stable. Without the stability of the nuclear family, the basic needs of living would be much harder to meet and the social fabric of life would unravel.

Farm Life and Work

While Faye Watson herself did not live on a farm while growing up in her parents’ household, both of her parents did. The mountain farm was the primary self-contained economic unit within Appalachia: it was “a family enterprise, the family being the proprietor, laborer, and manager; the satisfaction of the needs of the family was the sole objective of running the farm” (Eller 1982). Growing up on a farm was nothing out of the ordinary, in fact, it was unusual for Faye Watson and her siblings to not grow up on a farm during the early twentieth century in Boone, North Carolina. Most families were dependent on the farm for food, beverages, and income (Eller 1982).. Everything produced on the farm, whether it be crops or livestock, either went towards the family’s meals or was sold for money towards other necessary resources such as clothing, shelter, and tools. Thus the family unit was entirely self-sufficient. Being self-sufficient does not come easily, however, and it means the family unit takes first priority always: “individuals were free to pursue their own needs and interests, but these were not allowed to displace the collective needs of the group” (Eller 1982).

Gender Roles: Male

George Marshall Watson was Faye Watson’s father. He was born on December 18, 1896 in Watauga County, North Carolina to his father, Dalton F. Watson, and his mother, Rebeckey Payne Watson ( 2004). George Marshall Watson had an interesting family situation in that he lived not only with his parents and siblings, but also with his grandmother, aunt, and uncle on his mother’s side. Together, the eight of them lived on a farm, and his father worked as a farmer ( 2004). Other than the extended nuclear family set up, George Marshall Watson lived in a typical family farm setting.

Often times “in agricultural areas, children were often farm workers on a part-year or part-day basis, and this work did not preclude schooling” (Walters 1993). Clearly, as a growing boy, George Marshall Watson was able to attend school through seventh grade despite living and working on his family farm. Perhaps as he got older and his ability to work on the farm became more crucial to providing for the family, he had to drop out of school and take up farm work full time. Boys were preferred as farm laborers in agricultural settings.

Gender Roles: Female

Faye Watson’s mother shares a similar story to her husband’s story of her educational attainment. Just like George Marshall Watson, she grew up on a farm under the same expectations of providing for the family before anything else. Lester Neoma Miller Watson was Faye Watson’s mother. She was born on December 31, 1900 (she shared a birthday with her daughter Faye Watson) in Watauga County, North Carolina to her father, Thomas Calvin Miller, and her mother, Vina C Watson Miller. She lived in a typical nuclear family setting with her mother, her father, and her five younger siblings (three brothers and two sisters) (Stafford 2013).

Being the eldest of six children in the house and a girl, she likely had to care for her younger siblings. While the males of the family worked on the farm and enrolled in school on the side when possible, the females of the family were required to stay home and care for the younger children and the house. There was a lower school enrollment for white girls than for white boys, reflecting an interesting paradigm of gender segregation of unpaid labor in the home. When there were young children who required care, “there was a greater need for family members to work in the home, … and girls more often performed this unpaid labor” (Walters 1993). Unfortunately, the responsibility of child-care placed on Faye Watson’s mother as the eldest child interfered with her school enrollment. As Lester Watson grew older and more younger siblings came along, she likely had to drop out of school in order to care for her family.

References 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc., 2004.

Eller, Ronald D. "Chapter One: On the Eve of a Remarkable Development." Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 1982. 3-39. Print.

Stafford, Aleta. "Lester Neoma Miller Watson." Find A Grave Memorial. Find A Grave Memorial, 3 Mar. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. 

"The Changing American Family." The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 May 2001.        Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Walters, Pamela Barnhouse, and Carl M. Briggs. "The Family Economy, Child Labor, and Schooling: Evidence from the Early Twentieth-Century South." American Sociological Review 58.2 (1993): 163-81. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

The Family and Domestic Life in Western NC of the 1930s