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According to Etymonline the expression dust bowl refers to:

  • "drought-plagued region of the U.S. Midwest," first recorded 1936.

The following site www.pbs.org says that the expression was coined by a reporter of the Associated Press:

  • The Dust Bowl got its name on April 15, 1935, the day after Black Sunday. Robert Geiger, a reporter for the Associated Press, traveled through the region and wrote the following: “Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer’s tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent – if it rains.” The term stuck, spreading to radio broadcasts and publications, in private letters and public speeches.

Its immediate and wide popularity is confirmed by Ngram. enter image description here (www.english.illinois.edu) enter image description here (encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com)

Questions:

  • Does "bowl" refer to the shape of the geographical area affected by dust storms at that time?

  • Had "bowl" been used before to refer to a natural disaster in AmE or was it just specific to the above mentioned calamity?

  • 3
    I wasn't able to find any earlier usage of bowl in this sense. Rice bowl and *bread basket followed shortly. But Corn belt and wheat belt both became familiar journalistic terms around 1930, so a pattern may have already been present. – Phil Sweet Dec 28 '16 at 13:51
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    Keep in mind that the term was figurative. In the conception of many there was a roughly circular region of the country, with relatively few distinguishing features. It was in the center of the country and bordered on the west by mountains. To view it as a "bowl" was fairly convenient, both because it was reasonably descriptive and because folks outside the area could conveniently think of it as constrained to that region and not their concern. – Hot Licks Dec 28 '16 at 15:00
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    Josh, I am looking at a book by J S Bailey which suggests that the concept of "dust bowl" was heavily promulgated by New Deal Conservationists who were promoting the ideas of people like dry ecology experts Walter Lowdermilk and Paul Sears. Supposedly this effort was pushed through social-realism art, news photography and legislation simultaneously. (Remember that Luce Life came out in 1936 and featured the Dorothea Lange photos.) This would possibly account for the rapid spread of the expression. – Cascabel Dec 28 '16 at 21:55
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    @Cascabel the expression caught fire and its usage expanded rapidly immediately after its introduction, and by regular people in letters, etc. – AmE speaker Dec 29 '16 at 17:34
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    Given that plains have been called "bowls" (in fact "fertile bowl") since as far back as 1850 (example) the idea of using the the term "dust bowl" as a (one-off?) description for the broad expanse of the American plains that had succumbed to the great drought conditions seems likely. But the location or region of "the dust bowl" changed through the years. So it was at once a location and an event. – AmE speaker Dec 29 '16 at 17:41
7
+100

Use of 'dust bowl', with reference to some southwestern US states, appears at least as early as 20 Aug 1927:

dust bowl, 20 aug 1927

From an AP article printed in the Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), 20 Aug 1927.

The article is behind a paywall, so I also include this clipping showing the article in context, with the date at the top of the page:

dustbowl 1927 context

op. cit.

The quote marks around the term might be interpreted otherwise, but they may simply indicate a literal quote from "Supervisor Gordon L. McDonough". Either way, this use indicates the term 'dust bowl' was familiar enough to readers, in 1927, that the editor of this Reno newspaper, as well as the AP reporter and any AP editors involved, probably did not feel it necessary to elaborate or define.

The evidence shown above contradicts apocryphal accounts asserting that 'dust bowl' was coined either by Robert Geiger, the AP reporter whose 15 Apr 1935 article using the term was widely reprinted, or by Geiger's AP editor for that article.

Corroborating the evidence from 1927, on 11 Mar 1935 an earlier article than Geiger's of 15 Apr also used the term:

dustbowl 11 Mar 1935

The San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, California), 11 Mar 1935.

No direct evidence explicating the origin of the term 'dust bowl' came to light during a search of my limited resources. The indirect evidence is inconclusive. However, the two specific questions asked,

  • Does "bowl" refer to the shape of the geographical area affected by dust storms at that time?

  • Had "bowl" been used before to refer to a natural disaster in AmE...?

can be answered in the negative with a fair degree of certainty, because neither direct nor indirect evidence exists for either proposition.

The geomorphology of the principal area affected, for example, which centered on the panhandle areas of Oklahoma and Texas, is not bowl-shaped in either two-dimensional or three-dimensional representations; likewise the geomorphology of the entire area affected, which ranged over the great plains area in Canada and the US.

Putting aside those specific questions and considering instead the overarching question summed up in the title of the post,

What does "bowl" refer to in "dust bowl"?

the answer is clear.

Simply, 'bowl' in 'dust bowl' refers to a loosely (that is, not scientifically) defined area or subarea of an agricultural region. The sense of 'bowl' used is readily understood contextually, but is not (yet) well-isolated lexically, which is to say that 'bowl' in the sense of 'agricultural region' does not appear as a separate sense in the dictionaries I checked.

In the case of 'dust bowl', where 'bowl' in the sense of agricultural region is modified by the contrastive 'dust', the intended meaning is readily and intuitively grasped by analogy with similar and well-established terms used to describe sociopolitically or hydrogeographically bordered agricultural regions. Such terms include 'wheat bowl', 'rice bowl', 'salad bowl', 'breadbasket', 'wheat basin', 'corn belt', among others. The unifying and underlying ideas of these various similar terms include containment and agriculture.

The lexical sense of 'bowl' that I'm proposing might be attested, for example, by this use prior to the appearance of 'dust bowl':

wheat bowl, 1921

The Wall Street Journal (New York, New York), 26 Jan 1921. Here the region described as a 'bowl' is well-defined as the 'Canadian wheat-growing region between the Great Lakes and the Rockies'.

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    This answer provides decisive evidence refuting the widely asserted hypothesis that Geiger coined the term "dust bowl"—regardless of whether Geiger's much-cited article appeared in 1935 or 1936. Very nice research! – Sven Yargs Jan 2 '17 at 0:47
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    Thanks, @Sven. The evidence I examined, multiple publications, also conclusively proved Geiger's article was first published in 1935. – JEL Jan 2 '17 at 2:26
9

According to General Article: The Drought, the word bowl had been used before the phrase dust bowl was newly coined by the AP reporter as indicated in the following quote:

The SCS (Soil Conservation Service) Dust Bowl region included some surrounding area, to cover one-third of the Great Plains, close to 100 million acres, 500 miles by 300 miles. It is thought that Geiger was referring to an earlier image of the plains coined by William Gilpin, who had compared the Great Plains to a fertile bowl, rimmed by mountains. Residents hated the label, which was thought to play a part in diminishing property values and business prospects in the region.

[Source: www.pbs.org]

It seems that Robert Geiger changed the adjective fertile to the noun dust. In addition, No. 5 of 10 Things You May Not Know About the Dust Bowl states:

“Dust bowl” was probably a throwaway line for Geiger, since two days later he referred to the disaster zone as the “dust belt". Nevertheless, within weeks the term had entered the national lexicon.

[Source: www.history.com] (all emphases mine)

It's not certain whether Geiger wanted to write dust belt but ended up writing dust bowl or he deliberately changed the modifier to coin the phrase dust bowl. There is another explanation in the book Nature, Class, and New Deal Literature: The Country Poor in the Great Depression:

enter image description here

Conclusion: It is a metaphor and it can invoke some images such as the shape of the region, a bowl full of dust instead of grains that were devastated by the severe drought and dust storm, etc. at the same time.

  • 2
    +1 And the use of "fertile bowl" to describe a plain has existed since at least 1850 (example), well before the Great Drought on the American plains of the 1930s, so the (one-off?) usage by Geiger is not surprising. – AmE speaker Dec 29 '16 at 17:49
  • @JOSH I blush. Happy New Year! – user140086 Dec 29 '16 at 18:13
  • The fertile bowl cited by Clare seems to be surrounded by "bold hills", hence the word: I would not relate it to the Great Plains. – Cascabel Dec 30 '16 at 21:56
  • "Robert Geiger just changed the adjective fertile to the noun dust" assumes that "a great fertile bowl, rimmed by mountains" is a true direct quote from before Geiger wrote "dust bowl". However, older references make it sound like this is not a direct quote books.google.com/…. Willian Galpin wrote "North America presents towards heaven an expanded, concave bowl" but did he really use the term "fertile bowl"? – DavePhD Jan 3 '17 at 20:40
4

A bowl is a receptacle which normally contains some form of nourishment that could be fruit; the literary and apt expression ‘the fruits of the earth’ works well in this context, or it may contain liquid, such as soup, or simply water.

The 150,000-square-mile area, I gather, was appropriately termed a “bowl” because the land affected by the drought between 1932 and 1937 contained only ‘dust’.

In 1932, the national weather bureau reported 14 dust storms. The next year, they were up to 38. The dust was so thick that people scooped up bucketsful while cleaning house. Dust blocked exterior doors; to get outside, people had to climb out their windows and shovel the dust away. Dust coated everything.

Nevertheless, farmers kept on plowing, hopeful that the rains would return in a matter of days, or perhaps months. In the spring of 1934, the massive drought impacted 27 states severely and affected more than 75 percent of the country. The Dust Bowl was result of the worst drought in U.S. history.

US.History.com

Wikipedia says

  • While the term "the Dust Bowl" was originally a reference to the geographical area affected by the dust, today it is usually used to refer to the event, as in "It was during the Dust Bowl".

The states affected by the drought; Texas, Oklahoma and sections of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas were (and continue to be) plains they are not a geographical basin as defined by the National Geographic Society: “A basin is a depression, or dip, in the Earth’s surface. Basins are shaped like bowls, with sides higher than the bottom. They can be oval or circular in shape, similar to a sink or tub you might have in your own bathroom. Some are filled with water. Others are empty.”

  • 3
    Bowl is another word for a geographical basin (see meaning #2). – Mick Dec 28 '16 at 12:12
  • You mean that "bowl" here is a metaphor for food? – user66974 Dec 28 '16 at 12:12
  • @JOSH No, I meant the bowl is a metaphor for land. If there is no water,m there is no harvest, hence the land doesn't contain its fruits. See Mick's comment, I had forgotten about its geographical meaning. – Mari-Lou A Dec 28 '16 at 12:17
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    Your interesting addition actually makes the meaning of "bowl" even more obscure. – user66974 Dec 28 '16 at 12:52
2

When was Robert Geiger's 'dust bowl' article originally published?

JOSH's question refers to this sentence from an Associated Press story by Robert Geiger—which (according to PBS and some other sources) was published on April 15, 1935—as the first mention of the term "dust bowl":

Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer’s tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent—if it rains.

But was that article published on April 15, 1935, or on April 15, 1936? Dayton Duncan & Ken Burns, The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History (2012) finesse the date issue by including a photo of the first bit of Geiger's story (bearing the heading "Three Little Words IF IT RAINS Echo in Dust Bowl" and the dateline "GUYMON, Okla., April 15," but no year) in their coverage of the infamous "Black Sunday" dust storm of April 14, 1935. But some circumstantial evidence suggests that Geiger's news story actually appeared a year later, on April 15, 1936.

First, the earliest version of Geiger's story that I've been able to find, in Frank Mott, Headlining America (1937), identifies the story's publication date as April 15, 1936—as does the much later reprint of the piece in Calder Pickett, Voices of the Past: Key Documents in the History of American Journalism (1977). Here is as much of of Geiger's story as I've been able to piece together from snippet views of it from Headlining America (preceded by Mott's introductory blurb about the circumstances underlying the story [combined snippets]:

IN THE DUST BOWL

BY ROBERT GEIGER

Associated Press, Denver, April 15, 1936

This story was written on an assignment from Edward Stanley, the division A.P. editor at Kansas City. Stanley borrowed Geiger and Photographer Henry G. Eisenhand from the Denver Bureau for a fifteen-hundred-mile tour through the southwestern Dust Bowl, starting at Denver and swinging through corners of Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. The Dust Bowl was just becoming big news and Stanley wanted stories of individual farmers and pictures to illustrate them.

"The problem," writes Mr. Geiger, "was to cover four hundred miles a day with stops at a dozen or more farm homes on the side roads; to interview farmers, their wives and children; to obtain pictures for A.P. photo and mat services. From the time we left Lamar, Colorado, to our return to that point, I should say that we saw the sun for less than four hours. As we drove, it was impossible to see more than the distance of two telephone posts ahead most of the time. In towns, bright lights were burning during the day, but could not be seen across the street.

"Picture taking was difficult under such conditions, but one of those Eisenhand took on this trip was given second award in Editor & Publisher's annual news picture exhibition of 1935.

"This story was written in about thirty minutes, and filed by telegraph to Kansas City. Stanley personally handled the rewrite on it, and most of the credit should go to him. It is merely an example of the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance teamwork that always prevails in the A.P."

Guymon, Okla.

Three little words—achingly familiar on a western farmer's tongue—rule life today in the dust bowl of the continent—

If it rains ...

Ask any farmer, any merchant, any banker what the outlook is, and you hear them — if it rains ...

If it rains ... some farmers will get a wheat crop.

If it rains ... fresh row crops my flourish.

If it rains ... pasture and range for livestock may be restored.

If it rains ... fields quickly listed into wind-resisting clods may stop the dust.

If it rains ... it always has!

The next three weeks will tell the story.

Black and saffron clouds of dust, spectacular, menacing, intensely irritating to man and beast alike, choking, blowing out tender crops, and lasting without mercy for days—have darkened everything but hope and a sense of humor in the dust sector of the Southwest.

The Southwest is big and the dust area is only a small chunk of it. Roughly, it takes in the western third of Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle and northeastern New New Mexico.

It always has been a region of sparse rainfall. The World War, with its high wheat prices and urgent demands, sent the plow into the sod and turned this into wheat country. Before then it was range land, and the crop was native buffalo grass, which held the soil firm against insistent winds.

The last three years have been years of droughts, with this Spring's field-eroding dust storms their stifling climax. But dust storms are nothing new in the Southwest. Forty years ago—decades before the wheat farmers came with their combines—a dust storm of such violence swept western Kansas that it stopped trains, just as they were stopped last week.

"This is a tough, hardy country," its farmers say. "It will come back overnight."

"Dusters" approach the prairie country in two ways. Sometimes they start when a gigantic yellow-and-red cloud floats across the country, high in the air, blotting out the sun.

The wind is gentle, growing in velocity very slowly. This type of storm carries a fine, powdery silt that seems soft and hazy — until you start breathing in it.

The other type starts with a blast, and a huge black cloud approaching across the plains at tremendous speed. It strikes all at once along a well-defined front. It carries sand and on hands and face feels like the blast of chaff from a threshing machine.

When at its height, bright lights in towns are invisible across the street, visibility is zero and, within buildings, lights must be turned on as at night. Motorists continuously crawl along at 5 and 10 miles an hour, unable to peer ahead for more than 10 or 15 feet. Busses are stopped—sometimes trains.

The fine silt penetrates motor blocks and, if motorists are unwary, grinds out bearings.

These are the storms which leave drifts of dust along the highways and fences—sometimes dust drifts up to the eaves of farm buildings.

It can't be kept out of a house, and dishes have to be washed—not three times, but six times daily—before and after every meal.

Housewives don't like them, of course, but the dust belt grins and bears it.

Merchants do business as usual, unless the storm gets too severe. Then they hunt a fourth hand at bridge, lock the front door and retire to the back room to play it out.

It gets into your clothes, literally in your hair, and sometimes it seems in your very soul. Certainly it gets under the skin. But, despite the hardship and a generally unencouraging prospect, not a single one of more than a hundred farmers interviewed by your correspondent was leaving the country. Each one had hope of getting a crop.

Take Charles Hitch, an elderly rancher-farmer, living south of Guymon, who came here in 1886.

"For the first time since I have been on Coldwater Creek—and I was the first settler — we are thinking of shipping cattle to greener pastures," he said.

"Recent dust storms are not much more severe than others in former years," Hitch said, "but the drought is worse.

"My ranges have supported as many as 10,000 head, but I have only 800 head now and they cannot find sufficient feed. We have to feed them cottonseed cake.

"But cattle prices are on the upgrade and I am not discouraged. We even will get a wheat crop if rain comes If there is no rain we will have to start shipping cattle in a few weeks."

A. L. Thoreson lives over the line in Texas and is a big wheat producer. He raised 90,000 bushels in 1931, got only 25 cents a bushel for it. The best he can hope for, he thinks, is a half crop.

"But we are not suffering acutely," he added. "The Government is paying better than a dollar an acre to us in wheat benefit payments and, in addition, we can sell what wheat we raise. That will keep the farmers going. The Federal wheat program is O. K., and if it wasn't for that the farmers would be in an awful hole. They can hold on indefinitely with wheat payments."

And then there is I. R. Bryan, farmer northwest of Guymon, who could have left 10 years ago, after 30 years of farming in the Panhandle, "with $35,000 in my pockets."

"I made it in row crops and lost it in wheat.

"I could have left here wealthy and I'll be damned if I am going to walk out of here broke now."

The very obvious, very odd thing about this story is that it isn't a news report in any proper sense. Instead, it's a feature story—a news essay, a Sunday edition kind of broad-brush piece. And yet it coincidentally appeared (if the original publication date was in fact April 15, 1935) one day after a famously terrible dust storm swept across the region, blackening the sky and making travel by automobile virtually impossible—an occurrence that the reporter doesn't mention at all in the article, and that (after the fact) he seems to have viewed primarily as a visual hindrance to traveling 400 miles a day by car. Also, if "Dust Bowl" was a neologism at the time that the article appeared, why did it appear in the headline without quotation marks? Wouldn't such usage have mystified readers not already familiar with the term?

It seems more likely to me that the famous Geiger article that everyone quotes as containing the first use of "dust bowl" was written for publication a year later, either intentionally or coincidentally on the anniversary of the original AP reports about the terrible "Black Blizzard" dust storm.


Confirmed articles from April and May 1935 that use the term 'dust bowl'

Meanwhile, the following article, with no dateline and with the generic byline "By the Associated Press," appeared in the Orange [Texas] Leader of April 15, 1935, under the headline "Southwest Is Hit by New Dust Storm":

Residents of the southwestern dust bowl marked up another black duster today and wondered how long it would be before another one came along.

Already cheered by two days of blue skies and a respite from the choking silt and sand, they were enjoying what started out to be a balmy Sunday when the duster swept out of the north over western Kansas and eastern Colorado, and rushed on over the Oklahoma panhandle and into Texas.

Hundreds of Sunday motorists were caught when the dense black cloud bore down upon them at a rate of 60 miles an hour. Some Oklahomans rushed for their storm cellars as day was turned into night.

Many motorists who attempted to drive through the cloud of stinging gravel and sand, found that static electricity, generated by the dust particles, had disrupted the ignition systems on their engines.

Residents of Perryton, Tex., where there have been 50 dust storms in 104 days, described the storm "as the worst in history." Old timers in Oklahoma and Kansas agreed.

After the main cloud had passed, the air still was full of dust. The haze spread far out to the east and west.

At Trinidad, Colo., Santa Fe railroad officials detoured trains over a southern route in an effort to avoid the storm.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this story is its relatively matter-of-fact tone. The "black duster" may have been the worst one ever, but for the people in Perryton, Texas, it was the latest in a string of 50 dust storms over the preceding three months. It's rather as if an especially strong earthquake struck central Oklahoma today—the news would be significant, but far less shocking than if it had happened out of the blue, say, fifteen years ago.

It is impossible to identify the author of this "Southwest Is Hit by New Dust Storm" piece, but the reporter's voice doesn't seem at all similar to Geiger's in his "In the Dust Bowl" piece. This may reflect the difference between a quick-turnaround, on-the-scene article and a more reflective, what-I-saw-on-my-trip-through-the-Dust-Bowl article. Or it may indicate that different people wrote the two items. In any event, the author of the AP story in the Orange Leader may very well have used the term "dust bowl" because that's what at least some people in the southwestern part of the affected area were already calling their region in April 1935.

Three days after the April 15, 1935, article in the Orange Leader, another article, again credited to "the Associated Press" with no dateline, appeared in the same newspaper, under the title "Rain Falls on All Sides of Mid-west Dust Bowl Area" (April 18, 1935). Here it is:

Farmers and stockmen of the nation's dust bowl looked hopefully today for a share of the spring rains which were falling on nearly all sides of the sector.

Light showers and sprinkles invaded scattered parts of the affected area, but the fall was far short of the amount needed to settle the dust and supply moisture with which to start spring crops and revive the grass lands. Over most of the sector—embracing parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado—a dust haze still lingered along with tantalizing clouds.

There was hope in showers which fell Wednesday at Scott City, Kas., and Syracuse, Kas., and dust-laden sprinkles at Dodge City, Kas., and Beaver, Okla. Early today a promising storm cloud was moving down the Arkansas river valley in Colorado. It left both rain and snow along the upper reaches of the stream.

A heavy fall of snow on the slopes of Pike's Peak relieved an acute water shortage at Colorado Springs.

From the east showers came near the affected area. Blackwell, Okla., had 1.7 inches of rain, and there were showers to the north as far as Beloit, Kas.

In Morton county, Kansas, the standing order was: "No rain, no school."

Acting upon the request of parents, who feared that school buses migh[t] be stranded in the [dust] storms, school boards announced schools would not be reopened until it rains.

And three days further along the Orange Leader had this story under the headline "More Rains Needed in High Plains States of West" (April 21, 1935):

KANSAS CITY, April 20. (AP)—They still are looking for more of those clouds with the wet lining out in the high plains states of the west.

Clouds left downpours ranging up to two inches in sections of Oklahoma and Texas. They have favored eastern Kansas, Missouri and section of Nebraska with lighter showers, and left much snow in the Rockies of Colorado.

But they have passed up most of the nation's dust bowl with nothing more than tantalizing gestures. During the week hazy clouds of dust have moved over the area, comprising southwestern Kansas, the Oklahoma panhandle, the Texas panhandle, northeastern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado.

Outside of this sector, especially to the north and east, more moisture is needed.

The outlook by states: ...

Within 50 days of the first AP story's appearance in the Orange Leader, stories referring to the "dust bowl" appeared in the [Champaign-Urbana, Illinois] Daily Illini (May 1 1935), the Healdsburg [California] Tribune (May 18, 1935), the Minneapolis [Minnesota] Daily News (May 18, 1935), the [Adelaide, South Australia] News (May 18, 1935) and three other Australian newspapers, the [Des Moines, Iowa] Wallaces' Farmer (May 25, 1935), and the Mexia [Texas] Weekly Herald (May 31, 1935).

H.L. Mencken, Supplement I: The American Language: An Inquiry Into the Development of English in the United States (1945) has this interesting note about the term:

On Oct. 13, 1941, Albert Law, editor of the Dalhart (Texas) Texan, broadcasting from Station KGNG at Amarillo, offered a reward of $50 for information as to who first used dust-bowl in print. There were various claimants, but the man whose claim seemed most valid to Mr. Law was nominated by others and refused to take the money. He was Robert Geiger, an Associated Press staff writer, who used the term in the introductory matter to a dispatch from Guymon, Okla., April 15, 1935. His disinclination to accept credit for originating it was due to fear that he might have picked it up from some one else. But the evidence seems to be clear that it was new in 1935. The money was handed to the Last Man's Club of Dalhart, which gave it to the Boys' Ranch at Old Tascosa, nearby. I am indebted here to Mr. Law.


An antecedent use of 'dust bowl'

From "'Bird Hotels' Will Be Erected for City's Feathered Tourists," in the Harrisburg [Pennsylvania] Telegraph (March 26, 1915):

The "bird hotel" is really a big, modem, highly decorated birdhouse that can be placed on a tree branch. The plan has been tried out in other cities with splendid success in that it brings birds a-plenty to the city parks and encourages nesting, and Commissioner Taylor believes it will work out nicely in this city. So , if one of these days you should spy a lot of sparrows, for instance, busily and excitedly chattering about something obviously important, don't be surprised: they might be discussing the advantages of the piazza sun bath as compared to the private dust bowl in one's own suite.

The "dust bowl" here presumably refers to a shallow concavity in the ground in which small birds kick up dust and flutter their wings—an activity familiarly known as a "taking a dust bath." When I was young, my grandparents kept a small number of guinea fowl on their farm in southeastern Texas. These guineas' most memorable behavior was to excavate cereal-bowl-size pits in a yard covered in carpet grass and then take dust baths in them.

The term "dust bowl" doesn't not seem to have been widely used to describe these excavations, however, and there may be no connection between them and the naming of the vast dust-storm-plagued area of the Great Plains in the 1930s.


Conclusions

The vast area of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico to which the term "dust bowl originally applied isn't a bowl in any topographical sense. It's essentially the southern end of the Great Plains, bounded on the west by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, on the east by the forested areas adjacent to the Mississippi River, on the south by the gently rolling hills of central Texas, and on the north by more of the Great Plains.

In the absence of any geographical basis for referring to the area as a dust bowl, it seems to me, we must look for alternative explanations. One possibility (and the one I think is most likely) is that the people who lived in the affected area simply felt as though they were living in a vast bowl of dust that stretched from horizon to horizon, with nothing to prevent the dust from blowing away (or accumulating) every time the wind rose. Another is that the environment reminded people (on an immensely magnified scale) of the hollows that birds sometimes dig out of the soil to take dust baths in.

Whatever the actual origin may have been, it is not at all obvious that Robert Geiger was the first to use it. The article by Geiger that people most frequently cite as containing the first instance of "dust bowl" in print reads to me much more like a followup story about life in the dust bowl written some time after the dust storm problem in that part of the country was widely known across the United States. Two sources list the date of the article as April 15, 1936, while others say that it is exactly a year older.

Regardless of when Geiger's article appeared, a different AP story containing the term "dust bowl" most certainly did appear on April 15, 1935—the day after the infamous Black Sunday dust storm of April 14 turned the sky in the affected area dark—and we know this because The Portal to Texas History website has posted a copy of that story as it appeared in the Orange [Texas] Leader. Orange, Texas, by the way, is in the far southeast corner of the state, near Beaumont, on the Gulf Coast and was never subject to the dust storms that raged farther north and west.

  • Poor Ozark mountains, they get no respect. The bowl is between the Ozark mountains and the Rocky mountains. Just my opinion though. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozarks – DavePhD Jan 4 '17 at 14:11
  • Actually, a 1942 Los Angles School Journal article agrees "now better known as the Dust Bowl, includes that portion of the Southwest bounded by the Ozarks and woodlands on the east, by the foothills of the Rockies on the west," books.google.com/… – DavePhD Jan 4 '17 at 14:18
  • @DavePhD: You're right that the Ozarks and the Ouachitas are legitimate mountain ranges, but they are hardly a complement to the Rockies in north-south extent. Especially in the southern portion of the Dust Bowl, there are no mountains to the east. And even if we accept the Ozarks/Ouachitas as forming an eastern bowl edge, we still have what looks more like a trough than a bowl, because the north and south sides of the bowl are essentially as flat as the bottom of the bowl. – Sven Yargs Jan 4 '17 at 16:59
  • I mostly agree, but I don't think the dust bowl was further south than the Ouachitas english.illinois.edu/maps/depression/images/dustbowlmap.gif The Black Sunday dust storm was at the same latitude as the Ozarks. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Sunday_(storm) – DavePhD Jan 4 '17 at 17:19

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