Racial Division of Labor

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Blacks Picking Cotton in Texas
Underwood & Underwood, c. 1900-1910
Keystone-Mast Collection
University of California, Riverside

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As Thomas J. Schlereth writes in Victorian America, "traditional hand-labor tasks done by blacks, both men and women, coexeisted with innovative machinery usually operated by whites . . . Black women received half the wages the white women earned" (46-47). These statements about the tobacco industry describe the condition of many African-Americans, especially those living in the south and west. Justification for labor divisions by race relied on racial ideologies derived from evolutionary models that included hierarchical notions of "civilization," which varied, by race, on a scale from "primitive" to "modern". 6) While these notions began to be questioned at the turn of the century, in part due to new anthropological models advanced by Franz Boas and others, they were still very much a part of the status quo. Stereographs helped to naturalize and standardize this phenomenon in a variety of ways, including an emphasis on the racial characteristics of non-white workers, a connection of these individuals with pre-industrial production, deliberate juxtaposition of labor methods of whites and non-whites, and suggestions that the methods used by these individuals were instinctual or chosen. All of these tendencies helped to confirm the predominant view that industrialization was connected with white "civilization" and progress.

The arrangement of subjects in factories and in fields was often very different as well. Whereas industrial sites offered viewers the organized lines of machines or products, pre-industrial sites frequently presented them with an unorganized, if not chaotic, composition. When workers were present in industrial views, not only the machines, but the workers might be organized into long lines. Nye indicates that these lines might be "the most impressive fact of the mills [:] ... the cohorts of workers who seemed to be marshaled into an ideal order" (Nye, 115). Along with the orderly composition came a perspective on acceptable behavior as well. According to Schlereth, "new industrial culture often forbade singing, drinking, joking, smoking, or conversation on the job" (55). Workers at a hemp mill in the Philippines are contrasted with American industrial workers by their "disorderly" conduct: "The workmen at a hemp press behave very strangely from an American point of view. All the time the press is in operation a bell is kept ringing and the men shout and sing. One disgusted visitor compares them to 'a pack of coyotes'". The images and text, thus, confirmed ideas of the industrial workplace providing order both physically and morally.

When a line of workers or a lone employee was present in stereographs of plants or mills, invariably they were white. Although one-third of these workers would have been immigrants, this generally does not seem to be a focus of titles or descriptions on the backs of cards. Although stereotyping of Irish immigrants, for example, was a feature of the "comedy" series (and of course this kind of stereotyping is apparent in many other cultural documents of the time), in depicting the industrial workforce, ethnicity did not seem to be a suggested way to read the images, perhaps to deflect attention from current notions that this segment of society was becoming more and more "foreign" (Trachtenberg, Incorporation, 88).

Girl Weaving in the PhillipinesOn the other hand, images of pre-industrial labor around the world brought race and ethnicity to the forefront, in titles and descriptions, while also emphasizing the "primitive" features of the task. As Robert DeLeskie's close study of Underwood & Underwood stereographs reveals, images of the U.S. generally showed "technological and scientific innovations, natural wonders, fertile farmlands, busy factories and modern cities. In contrast, scenes of the Middle East, South America and Asia prominently featured "people, frequently working with 'primitive tools'" (124). One major exception to this rule is apparent. Although stereographic images of prominent African-Americans such as Booker T. Washington, African-American college students, and black regiments in wars did exist, in mass-produced stereographs, blacks were overwhelmingly depicted either as objects of ridicule or as plantation workers: "Social stereotyping was common. When blacks were not cast in comic sets, they were shown as laborers" (Loke, 17).

Teacher's GuideIn the 1911 Teacher's Guide to the Keystone 600 Set, reputedly the most popular of the educational stereograph sets, instructors are encouraged to juxtapose methods of production across racial and national lines. The company frequently used titles like "Tilling the Soil as in Ancient Days, Egypt," and "Ancient Mode of Threshing in Mexico" for their stereographs. Even in Japan, the country that confounded stereotypes of Asia with its industrialization, examples of "primitive methods" appeared. In the text's chapter on "Races of Mankind," which, not surprisingly, includes a "White Division," "Yellow Division," and "Negro Division," the only commentary of length in the section offers these directives: "As the negroes above are doing primitive field work it is interesting to compare the white Factory Hands of the same region [the U.S. and Caribbean]" and "The following numbers [each stereograph was numbered for ease of use in the classroom] show excellent contrasts between American or European occupations and ways of doing things, and those in the lands of other races" (267). Clearly, the guide suggests that children and young adults read these stereographs as a method of racial differentiation. William Darrah cites laborers as one of the most richly documented subjects of stereographs, not just for students but for all audiences, with the emphasis being on "contrasting cultures: primitive, traditional, and automatic machined" (178).

African-Americans picking cottonEven when images of black and white agricultural workers do appear together in stereographs, African-Americans are the focus of interest. Although it is impossible to discern from the version on the right, another print of the same image, housed at the Archives Center in Washington, D.C., reveals white field hands in the last row. Whether or not the image was deliberately modified for the printing above is not clear. What is certain from the title at least is that African-Americans, cotton, pre-industrial labor and the South were linked together in this stereograph. Free and Happy in His Crude Prosperity echoes other titles of similar images emphasizing the "primitive" life and labor of African-Americans. While black Americans fought to secure their own identity as economically diverse photographs of their own, mass-produced images such as those found in these stereographs naturalized not only prevalent racial ideologies but also what the faces of industrial and pre-industrial labor looked like.

Husking coconuts in Puerto RicoThe notion that African-Americans were content to use pre-industrial means of transportation and labor extended to other non-whites as well. In the relatively few extended studies of stereography in America, the confluence between American imperialism and the interest in stereographs has received considerable attention. Certainly the major stereograph producers, Underwood & Underwood, Keystone View Company, and H.C. White and Company seized an opportunity to capitalize on Americans' interest in the newly annexed areas of the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the building of the Panama Canal. It is also clear that many of the images, along with the mediating text, supported and justified American presence in each of these areas of the world. Much of the commentary discussed the labor practices of these countries and the benefits industrial capitalism would bring to their inhabitants. The text generally characterized native populations as racially different through their complacency about pre-industrial labor and lack of motivation to produce on a grand scale.

The following is text from Underwood & Underwood's stereoscopic tour of Panama:

As we have already noticed in this journey through Central America, the native population in most of these countries is neither enterprising nor progressive. Panama is no exception to this general rule, although the contact of the business people of the Unites States with its inhabitants in the Canal Zone, has led to some improvement in the people of that district. Although Panama is naturally very fertile, and should be one of the great sugar producing countries of the world, native production is hampered by poor methods of cultivating the sugar cane, and by poor machinery for pressing out the juice (Text from Strain, Sugar-Making Plant, Isthmus of Panama).

The idea that the native population was unable to exploit the material or commercial wealth of the region was reiterated in numerous images and texts throughout the Panamanian tour. Similar language was used to describe Philippinos in the context of the lumber industry:

This curiously primitive contrivance is not any temporary makeshift—it is the customary form of sawmill . . . This method is not extravagant, as you might suppose, for this grade of labor is pitifully cheap; there is actually no great economic incentive to put European or American machinery in place of a clumsy device like this.

Other examples can be found in images of countries not colonized by the West, such as China and Ecuador. As in the Philippines, the saw mill proved a useful tool to juxtapose with American methods of processing lumber.

Through visual and textual arguments stereographs of pre-industrial labor reinforced stereotypical notions of race, ethnicity and nationality while bringing workers to the forefront. Instead of providing viewers with a critique of industrial society, however, these images confirmed the connection between technology and racial progress.

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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