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"The Way We Worked" Exhibition Explores America's Labor History

Bib Mills #1 Work and the workplace have gone through enormous changes between the mid-19th century, when 60 percent of Americans made their living as farmers, and the late 20th century. “The Way We Worked,” a new traveling exhibition opening on June 6, features 86 photographs from the National Archives focusing on the history of work in America and documenting work clothing, locales, conditions, and conflicts. The exhibition is part of a 14-city national tour.

“The Way We Worked” is drawn from the National Archives, home to thousands of photographs of work and workplaces taken by government agencies for many reasons: to investigate factory safety, track construction progress, office training or to emphasize the continuing importance of humans in a technologically modern environment. The images featured in the exhibition, though possibly taken merely for purposes of record keeping, often reveal much more about how social forces such as immigration, gender, ethnicity, class, and technology have transformed the workforce.

The exhibition is divided into five sections:

Pineapple factory • “Where We Worked” explores the places Americans worked, from farms to factories, mines to  restaurants, as well as how race and gender often determined roles and status.

• “How We Worked” examines the effects of technology and automation on the workplace with images of people on assembly lines or using their tools of trade.

• “What We Wore to Work” looks at the way uniforms serve as badges of authority and status, and help make occupations immediately identifiable.

• “Conflict at Work” looks back at not just the inevitable clashes between workers and managers over working conditions, wages, and hours, but also how social conflicts, such as segregation, have influenced the workplace.

• “Dangerous or Unhealthy Work” features many of the photographs taken by social reformers hoping to ban child labor, reduce the length of the work day and expose unsanitary workplaces.

Spanning the years 1857-1987, the images in the exhibition cover the entire range of photographs on the topic in the National Archives holdings. The exhibition will also present a video showing a variety of workplaces.

The National Archives and Records Administration serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. Among the billions of records at the National Archives are more than 11 million still pictures in the Washington, DC, area alone. In addition, there are millions of photographs in the National Archives Presidential libraries and thousands more among the records held by regional records facilities.

"The Way We Worked," was created by the National Archives with the support of the Foundation for the National Archives, and is organized for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).


"Bibb Mill No. 1, Macon GA.," 1909. Lewis Hine. Courtesy National Archives

"Canning Pineapple in Hawaii," 1928. Edgeworth. Courtesy National Archives


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