I’m now in the last day of a very relaxing Labor Day weekend: the weather has been glorious but the fact that we started classes before the holiday rather than after has definitely contributed to my more peaceful state of mind. Instead of fine-tuning my syllabi I have been gardening, shopping, boating, bicycling, walking, eating and drinking. Salem is full of tourists; everyone is commenting that if seems more like October than September. However, they seemed quite spread out to me: never in the way but filling the shops and restaurants with festive energy. September means the weddings resume next door at Hamilton Hall (no air conditioning over there, thank goodness, which makes for very peaceful summers for us) but even yesterday’s wedding was small and tasteful (as compared to over-capacity, purple-clad bridesmaids, and a unicorn plastered on the horse harnessed to a festoon-clad carriage). We have a couple of new shops in town, including one called Hauswitchwhich looked so attractive that I had to go in even though I disdain anything kitschy witchy and they have spell kits (among lots of other things) for sale! Gorgeous store–the polar opposite of kitschy–it definitely put a spell on me. And even though, sadly, I can’t eat cheese, I had to go into the brand-new Cheese Shop of Salem which was packed with both cheese (among lots of other things) and people. We finally made it out to the now-accessible Baker’s Island (more in my next post), and skirted the fringes of the Gloucester Schooner Festival on the way back. Alas, I do have to work a bit today.
Labor Day Weekend in Salem 2015: a tale of three gardens– flowers from the still-vibrant late-summer garden at the Ropes Mansion, the fading herb garden at the Derby House, and mine, kind of in-between; Hauswitch and the brand-new Cheese Shop of Salem, absolutely packed on Saturday afternoon, the new coffee shop on Derby Street, the fishing pier at Salem Willows; approaching, on (looking back at Boston), and departing Baker’s Island.
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!)
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 Archivesand Special Collections.
The artwork produced by the artists of the Federal Arts Project, the major visual initiative of the New Deal Works Progress Administration, is always accessible and often compelling. I think this because of the complete lack of abstraction in the works, but also because of their timeliness. During the period that the Project was operational (1935-43), the artists it employed produced over 200,000 works of art, including the iconic poster that informed the public, their employer, how and on what they were working.
Where the federally-employed workers worked in 1936: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
I like how the FAP artists visualized work, both their own and that of other contemporary sectors. In advance of Labor Day, I was looking through their occupational posters, and thinking about work in the past, work in the present, and work in the future. For me, the Labor Day Weekend and Labor Day itself has always been less about the end of summer and more about heading back to work/school, whether as a student or a professor. This year, I’m going back as chair of my department, so I’m thinking about work in a different way altogether: rather than my own work, I’m thinking about how I can support and evaluate the work of my colleagues and facilitate the path of our students towards gainful and satisfying employment. As chair, I will also have to answer that dreaded question that always comes from students and their parents: what can you do with a History major? There’s a long-winded answer (basically anything and everything), and I wish I had one of the FAP’s occupational posters to help me animate it! I just might have to commission one.
FAP/WPA Posters from the collection of the Library of Congress.