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woman with children clinging to her holding blow torch while talking with another woman
"And then in my spare time ..." Drawing by Bob Barnes for OWI, ca. 1943.

Women at Work: Glimpses through Time

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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.

Workers shown working on two levels, with young women working on the upper level
The Leaders favorite chewing A&E manufactured by Allen & Ellis. Lithograph by Chicago Lithographing Co., copyrighted 1871.
Three girls and boy working in dark shed, handling tobacco leaves
10 year old leaf boy and three “stringers” 10, 12, and 13 years old. Tobacco shed of American Sumatra Tobacco Co. In these two sheds were 41 girls and boys from 10 to 15 years, and only 24 girls and women of 16 years and up. The leaf-boys get $1.50 a day and some of the stringers of 10 and 12 make $1.20 a day, according to the Sup[erintenden]t. Location: S[outh] Windsor, Connecticut. Photo by Lewis W. Hine for the National Child Labor Committee, 1917 Aug. 3.

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.

Large group with a policeman in front standing in front of buildings, a couple of men walking by
Triangle Waist Co. fire, N.Y.C.–Crowds outside pier morgue. Photo by Bain News Service, 911 March 26.

Group of women standing outdoorrs with ruins of building in background
Girls wanted. Drawing by Henry Glintenkamp, 1916.

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.

Woman wearing yellow overalls reaching towards airplane part.
Women are trained to do precise and vital engine installation detail in Douglas Aircraft Company plants, Long Beach, Calif. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer for the Office of War Information, 1942 Oct.

Women workers blending with machines they are working on
Home front. Lithograph by Jolan Gross-Bettelheim, 1942 or 1943.

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.

woman with children clinging to her holding blow torch while talking with another woman
“And then in my spare time …” Drawing by Bob Barnes for OWI, ca. 1943.

Woman typing on keyboard while talking with man standing holding a cigar
“I don’t know where your socks are, and if you keep coming in here with that cigar I’m going to call OSHA.” Drawing by Herblock, 2000 January 5. A 2000 Herblock Cartoon. © The Herb Block Foundation.

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.

Woman standing in the middle of row with shelves of reels on either side.
Employee taking reel of computer tape off shelves at the direct mail operation of Richard A. Viguerie Company, Inc. Photo by Thomas O’Halloran for U.S. News & World Report, 1979.

Woman sewing at sewing machine
Petra Gonzalez from Jalisco, 6 of her 8 children live in California, she lives with them. S. Central Ave. at 82nd St., Los Angeles. Photo by Camilo J. Vergara, 2000 March.

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.

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