The Great Emancipator

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Loading Steel Beems into Cars, Cranes Lifting 10 Tons
Homestead, Pa.

H.C. White Co., c. 1900-1910

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According to Trachtenberg, one of the ways in which Americans dealt with rapid industrialization in late 19th-century America was through the popular social theory of the machine as “human benefactor” and the “great emancipator of man from the bondage of labor” (42). While this theory was by no means universally held, in their aesthetic orientation of the viewer towards machine images and factory workers, mass-produced stereographs of American factories and mills sustained the idea that machines and industrialization in general freed humans from the toil of pre-industrial production. In order to do this, they necessarily neglected the seedier elements of industrial labor, such as 12-hour days, poor ventilation, extreme temperatures, and "speeders" who compelled workers to produce more, faster. The widespread use of images displaying empty factories, sparsely populated mills, or machines laboring while workers look on (as in the image above) promoted the notion of the “machine that would go of itself”.

In a similar stereograph to the one above, lumberjacks, barely visable on the flatbed car following the engine, ride in style as the Iron Horse labors for them. Since the workers are in the background of both views, when seen through the stereoscope, the machines would have emerged to overpower the image to an even greater extent.

If labor in industrialized societies in general and the U.S. in particular had become less demanding for the inhabitants of those countries, labor in pre-industrial societies, on the other hand, was arduous. Within both the tours of individual countries and the educational sets marketed to high schools and colleges, stereographic images characterized the lives of many in countries where mass-production and mass-transportation of goods were scarce as defined by back-breaking labor such as the image shown on the right of women transporting wood up a hill in India. Mechanization of transport in particular was "seen as a way of gaining a new civilization from hitherto worthless (because inaccessible) wilderness" (Trachtenburg, Incorporation, 59). The factory system not only gave individuals a less physically challenging form of labor but also was a mark of the progress of American civilization.

Missing from the text and images, of course, are the strikes, the fluctuating patterns of unemployment, and the fact that the majority of the working class was near the poverty line at the turn of the century (Schlereth, 34). According to Trachtenberg, 45% of industrial workers barely held on above the poverty line and 40% lived below the line of tolerable existence during this time period (Incorporation, 90). Nor did mass-produced stereographs take into account the "bitter irony of the image of machinery as 'labor-saving': not only did machines threaten the usefulness of craft skills, but, employed by capital to increase productivity as rapidly as possible, they often increased the amount of physical exertion over time" (Trachtenberg, Incorporation, 91).

These elements of the factory system simply did not enter into stereographic representations of industry. As evidenced by an extended perusal of mass-produced stereographs at the end of the 1800s, "In the U.S., many stereographers practiced a form of self-censorship. There were occasional views of the appalling working conditions in many factories," but rarely (Loke, 17). Stereoscopic photographers seem to have omitted representations of urban poverty as well: "The one facet of American life that appears to not have been photographed were the 'solid and sordid slums that had already marred the land'" (DeLeskie, 46). In creating photographs geared toward a mass, primarily middle-class audience, "to a large extent, stereographers reflected in their work the conservative mind-set and tastes of the vast middle class that purchased their views" (Loke, 17).

'King of the Beggars'While arguments against many aspects of industrial capitalism were not uncommon in this period, even the “fiercest antagonists” of the factory system often shared “common assertions of the ‘dignity of labor,’ the value of diligence and regular habits, the importance of discipline and ‘character’” (Trachtenberg, Incorporation, 78). Industrial labor in particular was touted by Carroll D. Wright of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor to bring better morals, better sanitary conditions, and to drive out poverty (Trachtenberg, 42). The beggar or tramp, often an unemployed railroad or factory worker, was a figure of derision to many: "'As we utter the word Tramp, there arises straightaway before us the spectacle of a lazy, incorrigible, cowardly, utterly depraved savage'" (Trachtenberg, 71). Not surprisingly, stereographic tours of the U.S. did not include beggars and tramps (who would later become so endearing to Americans), but these "types" abounded in the images of daily life in pre-industrialized countries. Underwood's Tour of China was especially marked by images of poverty, as seen on the left. Photographic depictions of these "elements of the factory system" were left to social reformer photographers such as Jacob Riis, though they were met with no greater sympathy.

As the stereographer's eye shifted from the human worker to the "labor-saving" machine in America, the machine itself captured the fascination of a society becoming more and more industrialized.

Choose a 'tour' from the library by clicking on a title Introduction The Stereoscope in America The Great Emancipator The Industrial Sublime Racial Division of Labor Conclusion and Sources
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