The Way We Worked


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:

  • clothing,
  • locales,
  • conditions, and
  • conflict in our workplaces.

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.

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Where We Worked

Americans have worked just about everywhere:

  • on farms, boats, and skyscrapers;
  • in mines, offices, and factories;
  • and at home,restaurants, and hospitals.

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.

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What We Wore to Work

Deciding what to wear on the job would seem to be simply a choice of comfort, convenience, and safety. However, work clothes also:

  • Serve as badges of authority and status
  • make occupations immediately identifiable, and
  • distinguish male and female roles.

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.

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How We Worked

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 posing heroically with tools as the symbolic “heart of the turbine.”
  • operatives sitting numbly along assembly lines and in typing pools, or trying to block out the sounds of machinery around them.

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Conflict at Work

Workers and managers have clashed over

  • wages,
  • hours of work,
  • working conditions,
  • work rules, and
  • union recognition.

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.

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Dangerous or Unhealthy Work

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.

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Visit the Traveling Live Exhibit
The Way We Worked Live Exhibit Interior
Morrow, GA
March 10 – May 20, 2007
National Archives and Records Administration – Southeast Regional Archives
Kansas City, MO
June 9 – August 19, 2007
Kansas City Public Library
Ocala, FL
September 8 – December 18, 2007
Central Florida Community College

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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.

Shop Online Now Place your order online at The National Archives Web Store and we’ll ship The Way We Worked directly to you. Shop Online Now

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.)

The Archives Shop is located in the National Archives Building, just below the Rotunda, between 7th and 9th Streets, NW Washington, DC 20408.

Why Are These Photographs in the National Archives?

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.

  • As part of investigations by the Department of Agriculture into hygiene at meatpacking plants, and by U.S. Senate probes of labor unrest.
  • The Labor Department may have created illustrations for a publication on workplace training.
  • Workers appear in pictures of Government construction projects such as courthouses, dams, bridges, and post office buildings.
  • Armed forces photographers show the wide variety of military occupations, and the changes in employment patterns on the home front during wartime.

The photographic holdings in the National Archives are immense and continually growing. In the Washington, DC, area alone they consist of

  • 14 million photographs in the still picture stacks,
  • 23 million aerial and satellite photographs among cartographic records,
  • thousands of photos interfiled with textual records.

Also, millions of photographs are in the Archives’ Presidential Libraries, and thousands more are available among our National Archives locations nationwide.

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.