Labor through the Lens

Before we get to the bittersweet pictures of closing summer, we need to acknowledge that this is Labor Day weekend. I know that this holiday came about because of labor organization, particularly manifest in the 1880s when workers marched “to show their numerical strength in order to satisfy the politicians [of this City] that they might not be trifled with” (The New York Times, September 4, 1882), but I prefer to simply celebrate work. There is strength in numbers but you can more accurately gauge the intensity of effort when you gaze into the eyes of the worker. We have an iconic photograph in our family of my Italian great-great-grandfather, Gaetano, standing next to my great-grandfather, Anthony, who stands next to my grandfather Thomas and my father, also Thomas, as a little boy. They all wear dark suits and hats (even little Thomas) and are standing against a background of marsh and buildings that I assume is Winthrop, Massachusetts, where Anthony eventually settled after Gaetano put him on an American-bound ship when he was 13 years old. When I look at these men, the very first thing I think about is what they did: Gaetano was a fisherman in Campania, his son Anthony was a gifted tailor who evolved into a sought-after coat designer who made enough money to bring his Italian family to Winthrop and send all four of his children, including the two girls, to college. My grandfather was a physician, my father a college professor, like myself. So there’s a lot of effort, a lot of labor, in the picture, the labor that built our family, and I’m not even including that of the women, who also, of course, worked in their homes. For this Labor Day weekend, I have selected several pictures of Salem workers and their settings from the later nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries which reflect this same individual commitment, at least to me. I must admit that the two ladies of Pequot Mills don’t appear to be working all that hard–especially when one is dancing–but they still illustrate the more personal experience I am always seeking (and I just love these photographs!)

Labor Day 8

Labor Day Pequot Mills Buffer

Labor Day Pequot Mills

Labor Day Pequot Mills 2

Labor Day Shelby Shoe Co 1942

Stunning stereoview of workers by J.W. and J.S. Moulton Photographers of Salem, who operated from 1873-1881, from Jeffrey Knaus Antique Photography; Man operating the buffing machine and workers on the floor of Naumkeag’s Pequot Mills, 1930s-1940s? and workers at the Shelby Shoe Company in Salem, 1942, all from the Nelson Dionne Collection of Salem Images at Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.


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