Imagine working in a coal mine.
Or in a steel mill.
Or at a telephone switchboard.
Work and workplaces have gone through enormous transformations between the mid 19th and late 20th centuries. You can view these changes through photographs held by the National Archives and Records Administration.
These historical photographs document:
The distinctiveness of America's workforce was shaped by many factors—immigration and ethnicity, slavery and racial segregation, wage labor and technology, gender roles, class, as well as ideals of freedom and equality.
Most importantly, these images honor those who built this country—the working men and women of America.
Americans have worked just about everywhere:
Where we worked affected when we worked, with whom we worked, and the nature of that work. For example, in 1870 only a handful of factories employed over 500 workers. By 1900, 1,063 factories employed between 500 and 1,000 people. During the first half of the 20th century, many African American women worked as domestics in private homes, but during World War II, they took advantage of new opportunities at shipyards and factories.
By the end of the 20th century, a dramatic shift took place, sending individuals who had worked in factories, plants, and mills into jobs in offices, stores, and restaurants.
Photographers have always been inspired by worksites. The camera can capture the size and power of the factory, the speed of the assembly line, the dark of the mine, and the close confines of the cubicle.
Deciding what to wear on the job would seem to be simply a choice of comfort, convenience, and safety. However, work clothes also:
Workforce clothing changed as work roles evolved. For example, as more women entered the industrial workforce, clothing was designed to meet their needs. During the 1950s, male office workers were expected to wear a white shirt and tie. By the 1980s, as workplaces became less formal, this style was less expected.
Traditionally, uniforms denoted authority and heroic professions, but today they are as numerous as the fast-food chains and supermarkets where they are worn.
For most of human history, people worked by hand or with basic tools. Beginning in the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution—which introduced labor-saving technologies and improved manufacturing methods—brought huge changes to the worker’s world.
Because of these changes, American workers produced more goods, more cheaply, in less time. They also moved into factories working long hours for low pay. The introduction of the assembly line, scientific management techniques, and automation brought higher wages and more affordable consumer goods. But these changes threatened to make work mindless, repetitive, and unsatisfying.
Photographs depict sharp contrasts:
Workers and managers have clashed over
Some have claimed that this conflict is inevitable. Others have argued that labor and capital share mutual goals and can learn to work together harmoniously. Strikes, lockouts, protests, and boycotts, as well as bargaining and settlements, have played a large part in shaping American history.
Labor conflict has also reflected broader problems within American society. Issues such as racial segregation and gender discrimination may not have started in the workplace, but they have profoundly changed it.
Some occupations—for example: infantryman, structural steel worker, or firefighter—are by nature dangerous. Other jobs—factory work, working with chemicals, or meatpacking—may be dangerous or unhealthy if safety or cleanliness are ignored. Children doing dangerous jobs has led to outrage and calls for reform.
There is a long tradition of documenting “the dangerous trades” in the United States. Social reformers have used photographs as evidence to ban child labor, reduce the hours that women could work, and expose unsanitary workplaces. Engineers have photographed the details of machinery and processes to improve operations and practices.
The Way We Worked is a collection of black and white and color images from the holdings of the National Archives.
This 92-page, 10.25" x 8.25" publication, is available from the National Archives for $22.50.
To place a credit card order by phone and have your copy shipped, please call 202-357-5271. (A small shipping and handling charge will apply.)
Most of the photographs in this exhibition document the actions of a Federal agency or are a part of its work. When an agency no longer needs the images, they are sent to the National Archives.
The National Archives Building in Washington D.C.
Federal agencies took photographs of work and workers for many reasons.
The photographic holdings in the National Archives are immense and continually growing. In the Washington, DC, area alone they consist of
All photographs in this exhibition are digital images made from the original media held by the National Archives. Captions in quotation marks are from the original record.