The Industrial Sublime

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Silk Factory
South Manchester, Connecticut

Keystone View Company, c. 1900-1910

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Although the 1920s and 30s "Machine Age" fixation on and celebration of the machine is perhaps better known as an aesthetic movement, a late 19th-century admiration and awe for functionalism and streamlined forms in machines has been clearly noted by historians as well (See Schaefer, Nineteenth Century Modern). David Nye discusses the development of a reverence for machines themselves and an understanding of the industrial environment as a new landscape to appreciate at length in The American Technological Sublime. As previously discussed, this fascination with the machine and industrial production was accompanied by an increase in visits to factories in the late 19th and early 20th century, as well as by the production of countless stereographs depicting factories and plants. In order to capitalize on the three-dimensional effect the stereographs offered, photographers focused on long lines and rows, giving the viewer a sense of the unending field of production.

SpeedersWhile the worker did not completely disappear from view, turn of the century photographs do seem to have emphasized machines or products over the laborer in industries as varied as textile, steel, lumber, mining, meat-packing, and dairy. This focus coincided with the increasingly popular, if often unsettling, notion that workers were "nothing more than parts of the machinery they work" (Schlereth, 56). According to Nye, accounts of industrial production after the Centennial (where the Corliss engine was unveiled) "often say little of workers, who tend to remain nameless servants of a larger process" (123). When employees of factories do appear in stereographs, they take on the role of a type; they are "labeled and tagged, as parts of a machine would be," (see right, for example) as one member of the Knights of Labor decried (Schlereth, 56). Comparing these stereographs to the photographs of social reform photographer Lewis Hine emphasizes the perspective, both visual and ideological, of this first mass photographic medium.

Not surprisingly, the uniform lines of spindles in the textile mills became a visual metaphor for the "promised cornucopia of industrial production" (Nye, 115). As the worker as an individual disappeared from views, stereo and otherwise, the machines themselves took on an astonishing power of their own: "The very extremes of effect lent to the machine an aura of supreme power, as if it were an autonomous force that held human society in its grip" (Trachtenberg, Incorporation, 41). Visitors to plants often tried to comprehend the scenes mathematically, but the system of linked machines were incomprehensible to many ordinary observers (Nye, 114-115). Seemingly endless rows of machines became stock images in stereographs of plants and mills at the turn of the century, prefiguring the later aesthetic movement of the 20s and 30s.

A Half Mile of PorkThe emphasis on the excess and bounty of the industrialized world is reflected not only in images of machines but also of other products being manufactured in the factory, such as the many stereographs of the "de-assembly line" of pork in the Armour Factory and cattle awaiting their fate in the Union Stockyards, both defining elements in Chicago's meat-packing industry. These scenes recall the opening of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (first published in 1905), when the protagonist Jurgis and his family tour the slaughterhouse that will have such a devastating effect on all of their lives in the future. In their first glimpse of this "machine", they are in awe of the industrial landscape before them:

They stood, staring, breathless with wonder. There is over a square mile of space in the yards . . . North and south as far as the eye can reach there stretches a sea of pens. And they were all filled—so many cattle no one had ever dreamed existed in the world . . . As for counting them—it would have taken all day simply to count the pens. Here and there ran long alleys, blocked at intervals by gates; and Jokubas told them that the number of these gates was twenty-five thousand. Jokubas had recently been reading a newspaper article which was full of statistics such as that, and he was very proud as he repeated them and made his guests cry out with wonder. Jurgis too had a little of this sense of pride. Had he not just gotten a job, and become a sharer in all this activity, a cog in this marvelous machine? (37)

Of course, the factory environment could only take on a sublimity of its own with a certain amount of distance from the mechanisms that made it work. As the factory tour allowed visitors to gaze in awe without having to experience the toil of a non-stop day with the machines, the factory viewed through the stereoscope allowed for even greater distance and decontextualization. Visitors to the factory through a stereographic tour did not have to even be bothered by the squeal of the pig and the stench of slaughtered entrails, the deafening noise of machines, or the extreme heat of the factory floor. As with Jurgis and his family, the fascination generally wore off for workers as soon as machines and mass production were no longer objects to be admired but to endure—as they controlled the movements laborers made, the hours they worked, and in many cases the years they lived.

Cotton Mills on Merrimac RiverNevertheless, for those who experienced the factory from afar, interest in the industrial landscape (either from outside the building or in) came to match fascination with the natural environment of the U.S. In fact, some visitors to Niagara Falls—one of the earliest sites to be photographed by stereographers— by 1900, found the turbines that powered the hydroelectric plants more interesting than in the falls themselves (Nye, 136). Stereographs of exteriors (though these not as numerous as interiors), often followed a formula for emphasizing one of two aspects of the industrial sublime. For mills, built earlier and near water, photographers emphasized the integration of industry with the natural environment. For newer and larger plants, the interest was in their shear expanse and almost monstrous emissions of smoke, fumes and sometimes fire that could not be ignored (Nye, 126). Sometimes elements of various features of the industrial sublime were combined.

If the machine emerged to fill the space of the industrial landscape, the pre-industrial workforce also came to the forefront in stereoscopic images. Rather than bringing greater respect for individualism, however, these laborers served as a way to further define, standardize, and naturalize the factory system by contrasting it spatially and, more significantly, racially.

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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