Amazing Photos of Working-Class Americans You Won’t See in History Books
There was once a time in the United States when most people worked as self-employed artisans or farmers. But by the 1900s, Career Trend reports, most people had become employees, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of factories. Factory work “anchored the new industrial economy,” the publication notes. At the same time, more and more Americans were finding employment as secretaries, salespeople, and retail cashiers.
Below, discover what work looked like through much of the 20th century, courtesy of some fantastic photos that you won’t see in history books.
Workers iron shirts in a textile factory
In this photo, dated circa 1925, workers iron shirts in a New York textile factory. As Career Trend points out, many Americans worked in factories in the 1910s and 1920s. But “in the first decades of the century, factory employment offered minimal financial security, and the robotic nature of the work was famously parodied in the popular Charlie Chaplin movie ‘Modern Times.'” History cites the textile industry, along with the iron industry and the development of the steam engine, as playing “central roles in the Industrial Revolution.”
Next: Many Americans worked in this kind of factory.
Ford employees work on a production line
In this photo, dated 1927, American workers do their jobs on a production line at a Ford motor factory located in Michigan. History reports that Henry Ford’s assembly line first began rolling in 1913. The assembly line reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to just 2 hours and 30 minutes. Ford did everything he could to make the production process more efficient. But the assembly line was “the most significant piece of Ford’s efficiency crusade,” History reports.
Next: Plenty of people found employment in canneries.
Workers peel and core tomatoes
In this photo, dated 1930, a mostly-female workforce peels and cores tomatoes at a U.S. canning factory. History cites the production processes at “flour mills, breweries, canneries, and industrial bakeries, along with the disassembly of animal carcasses in Chicago’s meat-packing plants,” as an essential source of inspiration for Ford as he tried to make automobile production as efficient as possible.
Next: This company led the way to the modern work week.
Employees leave a Ford factory
In the photo above, taken circa 1930, Ford employees leave the company’s factory in Detroit. About four years earlier, in 1926, Ford became one of the first companies in the United States to adopt a five-day, 40-hour work week for workers in its factories, History reports. Henry Ford said of the decision to reduce the work week from six days to five days, “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.”
Next: Workers prepared these kinds of foods in factories.
Workers prepare peaches for canning
In this photo, dated February 1930, workers prepare peaches for canning at a Del Monte factory in the United States. Employees at canning factories were just some of the American workers who began to benefit from better pay as workers unionized. Career Trend reports that though factory work didn’t pay particularly well in the first decades of the 20th century. But “beginning with the Great Depression, the rise [of] industrial unionization dramatically increased the rewards of factory labor.”
Next: Americans also worked in this vital industry.
Construction workers build the Empire State Building
Factory jobs became one of the most common forms of employment in the 20th century. But working-class Americans also worked in construction, an industry that literally built some of the landmarks in major American cities. In the photo above, date mid to late 1930, a construction worker stands on a crane pulley counterweight during the construction of the Empire State Building. Behind him, you can see the Chrysler building.
Next: Americans built this famous landmark, too.
On the other side of the country, workers construct the Golden Gate Bridge
In the photo above, dated October 1935, two men work on the Golden Gate bridge in the San Francisco Bay. 9Construction began on the bridge in 1933, and Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated the bridge in 1937.) As Career Trend reports, the 1930s brought the mechanization of factories, which resulted in more jobs for semi-skilled workers. But factories weren’t the only place that people could look for work as the Great Depression dragged on. New Deal government programs increased the number of construction jobs available to working-class Americans.
Next: These business owners had a difficult time in the 1930s.
Farmers deal with tough times in the 1930s
In the photo above, taken circa 1935, three American farmers pose with a sheaf of wheat. Career Trend notes that farming was a way of life for thousands of families before the 1930s. (In 1929, 10.5 million people worked on farms across the country.) But a three-year drought between 1934 and 1937 devastated the majority of those farms. More than 2.5 million people migrated from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico, either to work as migrant labor on large farms in other states or to become semi-skilled labor in manufacturing plants in large cities.
Next: Unions also began to do this to secure better pay and safer work conditions.
Workers strike at a General Motors plant
In this photo, dated 1937, members of the United Auto Workers union (UAW) participate in a sit-down strike at the General Motors Fisher Body Plant in Flint, Michigan. History reports that the strike had begun late in 1936. Workers wanted to win recognition of the UAW as the bargaining agent for GM’s workers. They also wanted to make the company stop sending work to non-union plants. Plus, they hoped to establish a fair minimum wage scale, a grievance system, and procedures to protect assembly line workers from injury. The strike lasted 44 days.
Next: This started becoming an important industry.
Boeing employees build a warplane
In this photo, dated April 1937 and taken at a Boeing plant in Seattle, employees work on the fuselage of a warplane for the United States Army Air Corps. Career Trend notes that the Great Depression left many skilled workers unemployed. Their jobs eventually came back. As machines took the place of unskilled laborers, it was semi-skilled workers, who could learn to operate specialized machinery in manufacturing plants, who were in demand. Their ranks “increased from 16.4 percent to 21 percent between 1930 and 1940,” Career Trend notes. “Many of the new jobs went to workers under the age of 45, who were able to more quickly grasp the new technology.”
Next: Many Americans also held this kind of job.
A fuel pump employee serves a customer
In the photo above, dated September 1937, a fuel pump employee in Danvers, Massachusetts, fills a car at a gas station. Career Trend reports that more and more Americans found employment in service jobs in the 1930s. Many people worked as housekeepers, waiters, and bartenders. Retail workers regained the jobs they had lost in the first few years of the decade as the economy recovered. And by 1940, nearly a third of working women earned a paycheck as retail clerks and salespeople.
Next: Female workers became a crucial part of the American workforce.
Female workers build tools
In the photo above, taken at an American tool factory sometime during the 1940s, numerous female workers build tools. History notes that the Japanese attack on the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, thrust the U.S. into World War II and changed everyday life across the country. “From the outset of the war, it was clear that enormous quantities of airplanes, tanks, warships, rifles, and other armaments would be essential to beating America’s aggressors,” History notes. “U.S. workers played a vital role in the production of such war-related materials. Many of these workers were women.”
Next: The U.S. needed to build tons of these.
Lockheed employees work on warplanes
In this photo, taken in March 1940, workers at the Lockheed Corporation aircraft plant in Burbank, California, put the finishing touches on wings and tail fins. They were building warplanes, which would be used by the Allies over Europe and Africa. You see men in this photo. But as Mashable reports, once the United States declared war on Japan — and Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. — tens of thousands of American men joined the Armed forces, and the floors of aircraft manufacturing plants were dominated by women.
Next: Women learned to produce all of these things.
Women build airplanes, tanks, warships, rifles, and other armaments
This photo, dated circa 1940, shows a woman working in a munitions factory in the United States. As History reports, when men headed into training and battle, “women began securing jobs as welders, electricians, and riveters in defense plants. Until that time, such positions had been strictly for men only.” And as History notes, the decrease in the number of men available to work also led to a surge in the proportion of women holding non-war-related factory jobs. By the mid-1940s, the percentage of women in the U.S. workforce had expanded from 25% to 36%.
Next: Many factories switched gears.
Automakers produce aircraft instead
This photo, dated October 1942, shows a riveter at work at Consolidated Aircraft Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas. As History explains, a woman working in the defense industry became known as “Rosie the Riveter.” These women often worked at factories that had been retooled for wartime production. American Machinist reports, “Automakers, for example, produced their last passenger cars on February 10, 1942. They then made aircraft — Chrysler built Martin designs, Ford made planes for Consolidated Aircraft, and General Motors produced aircraft for North American.”
Next: Women worked on many kinds of aircraft.
A woman works on a C-87 Liberator Express transport plane
In this photo, taken in October 1942, an employee at Consolidated Aircraft Corporation installs racks to hold oxygen canisters above the flight deck of a C-87 Liberator Express transport plane. American Machinist reports that the aircraft industry employed less than 47,000 people and produced fewer than 6,000 plans in 1939. The industry hit its peak in 1944, employing 2,102,000 workers and rolling out more than 96,000 planes.
Next: Female workers earned a lot less than male workers.
An employee checks electrical assemblies
This photo, dated June 1942, shows a worker at Vega Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California, checking electrical assemblies. Mashable reports that women who produced munitions and vehicles for the war effort “stepped up in great numbers, taking over strenuous, hazardous manual labor and handling complex, technical tasks” — even though they were typically paid just half of a typical man’s wage.
Next: The war created ‘boomtowns’ across America.
Workers leave a shipyard
This photo, dated June 1943, shows workers leaving the Pennsylvania Shipyards in Beaumont, Texas. A website of the City University of New York reports that Beaumont, like many other American cities, “became a boomtown during World War II, as new residents flooded in to take jobs at the city’s shipyards and petroleum production facilities.” But the increase in population resulted in some serious problems, including violence against African Americans.
Next: Working-class Americans continued to work in factories after the war.
A factory employee prepares a basketball
By the time this photo was taken in 1948, World War II had ended, and American manufacturers were producing consumer products again. The photo shows a worker at the Spalding plant in Chicopee, Massachusetts, preparing a basketball for baking and re-rubberizing. Ad Age notes that during the war, rubber and fuel had been rationed, and “there was virtually nothing for consumers to buy.”
Next: Some worked in factories that produced these patriotic products.
A worker produces an American flag
In this photo, dated to the 1950s, a worker sews the stars onto an American flag at a factory in the United States. Factory jobs might have looked different in the 1950s then they did at the beginning of the century. But for workers, that was mostly a good thing. Career Trend reports that by the 1950s, “unionized factory jobs paid high wages with generous benefits and elevated millions of Americans into the middle class.”
Next: Factories could produce many new items after the war ended.
Factories make many new products after the war
Ad Age reports that after the end of World War II, manufacturers “introduced a range of modern new products, many of which were the result of technologies developed during the war.” That included products like the aerosol spray can, nylon, plastics, and styrofoam. In this photo, workers at the National Latex Products Company in Ashland, Ohio, test balloons. Balloons weren’t exactly a new invention. But Slate reports that “Americans began twisting balloons to make animals in the late-1930s or early-1940s,” and demand for balloons increased through most of the 20th century.
Next: This kind of food became a staple in American kitchens.
Workers process pineapples to be canned
In the photo above, taken circa 1950, workers at an American factory process pineapples. The machinery would remove the shell and the core. Then, it would cut off the ends of the fruit, leaving it ready to be sliced into the rings you can still buy canned. The National Women’s History Museum reports that during the war, rationing limited the use of canned goods. But after the war, canned goods and other processed foods “became standard fare,” giving women more free time away from the kitchen.
Next: Men took these jobs back after the war.
Employees build aircraft engines
Aircraft manufacturers didn’t need to produce as many planes after World War II ended as they did at the height of the war, but production continued. Mashable reports that when the war ended, most female workers wanted to keep their jobs (and the independence and financial security that came along with them). But almost all were laid off due to the slowdown of military production and the return of male soldiers expecting jobs. In this photo, taken circa 1950, male factory employees work on rotary engines for aircraft, possibly helicopters.
Next: Factories started producing these machines once again.
Factories begin producing cars again
Also after World War II, American automobile manufacturers began producing cars for consumers again. In this photo, a worker does his job on the production line at a Ford car factory in the United States in 1950. American Machinist reports that in the five years after the war ended, “national production increased, as did worker income, and industries such as automotive had audiences hungry for new products.”
Next: Materials that had been rationed during the war could go into toys after the conflict ended.
A factory employee works on dolls for the Christmas rush
Many manufacturers had halted toy production during the war, focusing on machining tools instead. But after the war, they could produce as many toys as they — or consumers — wanted. The Museum of Play notes that during the war, factories could not produce toys that contained large quantities of critical materials, such as iron, steel, zinc, and rayon. “Once the war ended, manufacturers resumed their pre-war production, and the toy industry experienced a surge in sales from the post-war baby boom. Material shortages were a thing of the past.”
Next: Some workers had this fun job.
Workers test robot toys
In this photo, dated circa 1955, you can see two American workers enjoying what must have been a pretty fun job: testing toys at the Ideal Toy Company in New York. The photographer behind the image noted that the testers “control the seemingly self-destructive behavior of battery powered robots. These toys must survive all kinds of rough treatment in order to make it onto the toy shop shelves.”
Next: People continued working in factories.
A factory employee cuts out stars for an American flag
In this photo, taken circa 1955, you can see a factory worker cutting out stars of various sizes at an Abacrome factory in the United States. Those stars would eventually be affixed to American flags. The Atlantic reports that many American flags today are imported from China. Many people dislike that symbolism. As The Atlantic explains, “Importing flags is not just a matter of economics and global trade. To its critics, it represents an economy, and a country, on the decline.”
Next: Workers also produced items used for leisure.
A worker produces tennis rackets
This photo shows a worker at the Spalding tennis rackets factory in 1955. The photo was taken — and the racquets in the photo were made — when many legendary tennis players were active, including Pancho Gonzales, Tony Trabert, and Vic Seixas. At the time, tennis rackets were made of laminated wood, which Complex reports was a “game changer” at its 1947 introduction. It wouldn’t be until 1968 that Wilson would introduce the first steel racket.
Next: Some Americans continued farming.
A farmer inspects potatoes
In this photo, taken in 1955, an American farmer sorts the good potatoes from the bad potatoes. There’s just a single light bulb hanging over the farmer’s “spud line” in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. And at the time the photo was taken, it was becoming increasingly rare for Americans to make a living on a farm. The Living History Farm reports that between 1950 and 1970, the number of farms in the U.S. declined by half.
Next: Many women found employment in this kind of position.
Many women work as secretaries
In this photo, taken in 1960, secretaries work in the office of Topps Chewing Gum Factory in Brooklyn, blowing bubbles as they work. Career Trend reports that secretarial work became one of the most common jobs in the 20th century. “In the 1900s, women increasingly took over the clerical work that was formerly done by ‘office boys.’ It was the only job women were allowed to do in a company, and they were allowed to do it primarily because they could be hired for lower wages,” the publication notes. Eventually, the modern secretary’s job “entailed doing virtually everything for managers except their actual job.”
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