Recently, while preparing to present a virtual orientation offering a sampling of Prints & Photographs Division collections for representations of work, workers and labor themes, I found myself selecting image after image that showed women working in a variety of industrial and office settings (at the same time recognizing that for centuries women have also performed work inside the home). While single images can hardly tell the rich and complex story of women’s participation in the workforce, I realized that some images from different collections depict related experiences and, sometimes, in their similarities and differences, help us reflect on how intent shapes content and composition.
The seemingly pristine environment in which the young girls operate in the 1870s advertisement for chewing tobacco below on the left stands in contrast to the rough conditions in the shed where Lewis W. Hine photographed tobacco stringers in 1917 in the right-hand image. But both images attest to the youth of the workers, which was what Hine’s work was meant to drive home as part of the National Child Labor Committee’s campaign of “promoting the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working.” The photos often emphasized the small size of the workers and their unsafe or unsanitary working conditions. Together with the detail Hine incorporated into his captions, which often include the names, ages, wages, working hours, and sometimes addresses of those depicted, Hine suggests pictorially and in words that there is little dignity and education conferred to young workers in the tobacco industry.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was major news in March 1911, and George Grantham Bain’s news service, a subscription photo service supplying images for newspapers and other publications, offered grim visual testimony to the tragedy. I sought out one of the less harrowing images from the aftermath of the fire, which killed 146 garment workers and exposed unsafe practices in the industry. It later occurred to me that the image I selected from the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Foundation Collection offered a parallel, more consciously artistic commentary on the disaster–one that was published in the magazine The Masses in 1916. Ben Goldstein worked as a labor adviser and adjudicator before becoming a factory owner in New York City’s garment district, and his print collecting focused on working people, American industry, and political issues.
Wartime and the departure of men for military service in conflicts through World War II regularly drew women into work roles not open to them in peacetime. Alfred Palmer’s photographs for the Office of War Information, which often highlight the glamor rather than the grime of industrial work, supported the agency’s domestic propaganda goals of heralding (for the space of the war anyway) women’s entry into non-traditional fields like aircraft production. It’s not clear to me whether Jolán Gross-Bettelheim’s print, Home front renders an opinion on the nature of the work or its goals, but in its abstraction, I think it successfully conveys the mechanized rhythm and repetitive movement of factory labor.
I’ve always been curious about the message of Bob Barnes’s cartoon for the Office of War Information; why would a U.S. government agency exhorting women to join the war effort exhibit a cartoon that would seem to imply a failure on the part of American industry and government to address women workers’ needs? Whatever the explanation, it is interesting to reflect on how effectively cartoons raise the issue of work-life balance generation after generation, as shown in Herblock’s editorial cartoon from 2000 highlighting a work trend many of us now know all too well as telework.
And, possibly in the “more things change” category, samples from photo collections that cover more recent decades caused me to pause and reflect. The U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection documents developments in the American economy and industry between the 1950s and the 1980s in images made for possible publication in U.S. News & World Report; photographers noted the incorporation of automation into the American workplace as well as the growing presence of women in the workforce. Camilo J. Vergara, has been drawn photographically to the “urban fabric of America’s poor inner cities — to the buildings that composed it and the life and culture embedded in its structures and streets.” While his focus has very much been on change over time, and he noted that at the turn of the 21st century he started a new phase of combining research–often on the Web–with his photographic efforts, I was also struck by how his image of Petra Gonzalez suggests that some types of garment work may not have changed much from production methods a century earlier, and how the biographical detail Vergara offers in his captions is reminiscent of the information-packed captions Lewis W. Hine supplied in his investigative photographic work.
Images of women workers through time not only spur explorations of what the image makers intended to express, but they also invite questions about the nature of the work and working conditions that may or may not be communicated visually. And by inspiring questions, they may have done their most important work.
- Read about the work of Lewis W. Hine for the National Child Labor Committee and have a look at more young tobacco workers in the collection.
- Explore a variety of Library of Congress offerings about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:
- Newspaper coverage from Chronicling America.
- An Inside Adams blog post highlighting the fire’s impact on workplace safety: “A Factory, A Fire, and Worker Safety.”
- A Teaching with the Library of Congress blog post about working with primary sources: “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Exploring Tragedy and Reform with Primary Sources.”
- A discussion of Henry Glintenkamp’s drawing in the context of an exhibition of Goldstein Collection items and the political views they expressed: “Life of the People: Realist Prints and Drawings from the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Collection, 1912-1948“–the drawing is discussed at the bottom of the section on “The Radical Impulse.”
- White women workers so far predominate in the division’s pictorial coverage of women at work, but the Office of War Information made a point of photographing Black and Hispanic workers in the World War II labor force. Sample an illustrated list of images: “Rosie Pictures: Select Images Relating to American Women Workers During World War II.”
- Have a look at Camilo J. Vergara’s discussion of his use of photography as a means of inquiry.
- View a research guide on the U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection.
- Orientations enable staff and researchers to make discoveries in the collections–we list our regularly scheduled offerings on our Tours and Orientations page–please join us! And even if you can’t attend live, you’re welcome to contact us through Ask a Librarian to see if we have a slideshow to share.