From the LOC archives: Photos of the 30’s & 40’s

2179930812_1c734d4726 Over the weekend I discovered the Library of Congress flickr page. There’s thousands of photos, the ones I’ve seen thus far are from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Some are candids but I can’t help but think others were staged or scripted -as in the case of the one at right. Look how she’s dressed for work at her job checking electrical sub-assemblies. While it’s certain people dressed much better for work in those days, her blouse, hair, lipstick, pen -they all match. The level of detail is amazing. You can see this woman’s freckles.

2179910066_7ccb600368 Back to staging, much of it was political as one would presume considering the time. The ones taken of school children during WW2 are incongruous today with political overtones. In the background of this photo of the three boys is a poster that reads “Schools at War”.

The captions are original and tell another story. Forgive my post feminism but I can only be amused by descriptions of women working in factories. In photo after photo, each woman is described in the context of her relationship to men and her function. Such as, “Mrs. Angeline Kwint, age 45, an ex-housewife… Her husband and son are in the U.S. Army” or “Enola O’Connell, age 32, widow and mother of one child. Ex-housewife”. And this woman didn’t even merit her own name. She was described as “War production worker making guns for the U.S. Army. Ex-housewife, age 49, Son is Second Lt, Son-in-law, Captain in Army”. It is odd to read these captions today; wasn’t it conceivable that women might have been motivated to work owing to their inherent patriotism and economic interest? I wonder how Queen Elizabeth was described during WW2, perhaps “daughter of a nation at war, drives truck”. By the way, she’s the only sitting head of a nation who is a WW2 veteran. She joined the British Army the day she turned 18.

les_thomas_pie_town As ever, clothing is a testament to the times in many ways. This photo of Les Thomas, homesteader from Pie Town, New Mexico in 1940 is arresting. He’s wearing genuine Levi’s 501’s. Considering the mended shirt and broken buttons on his vest, I don’t think fancy designer denims would have withstood the treatment he was prepared to put them through. His coat is a hair on sheep. You don’t see that much these days.

Hope you enjoy the trip down memory lane, for many of us, times we never knew. And check out the clothes, there’s some great details. I love the bodice detail of this one. And recycling is nothing new either. Here’s a photo of Annette del Sur accessorizing with salvage (great outfit too). I kid, I kid but I have no doubt that some enterprising people today would think nothing of using this scrap metal as is. A bit sharp tho, bringing new meaning to “edgy” fashion.

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  1. David S says:

    The picture of the woman testing components is a studio shot. [well, it might have shot in the factory, but not when they were actually working] It’s shot on Kodachrome sheet film; the kodachrome that was available during the war was amazingly slow (insensitive to light.), and required massive flashes to expose. The quality of the images it took are just amazing (and it’ll look good long after we’re all dead). I’m sure she dressed up for the photo shoot. oh, and it’s not a pen she has in her hand, it’s a flashlight.

  2. Dia in MA says:

    I have a very strong suspicion that some of those photos are painted, i.e., artist colorations. This was a very common technique up until the mid to late 1960s. My family has some from that era. The artists were amazingly good at hand colorizing black and white photos to look lifelike.

    In particular, the picture of the 3 boys looks like this method was probably used. The colors and shadows are a bit too good and a bit too Norman Rockwell for a photo.

  3. David S says:

    Nope. These are scans of the transparencies, as they came back from the lab. I’m looking at the TIFF version of “Rural school children, San Augustine County, Texas” (not on flickr, but available from the LOC’s website. It’s 138 MB.) If someone were to have painted a picture like this, they wouldn’t have got the bits of stray thread on their clothes, the amazing collection of stains on the clothes, nor their general grubbiness.

    These color slides are mostly kodachrome sheet film (4X5, most likely). They’re of amazingly high level of detail, tonal range, contrast range. (In the full quality version, you can see that the topstiching of the kid in the tan’s shirt left pocket is coming loose. You can see the shadow the loose thread casts.) In a lot of ways, these are higher quality pictures that anything that’s shot today. You think they’re painted, because you’re used to looking at grainy color print film, and more recently, bad digital images.

  4. Dia in MA says:

    Thanks Carol. I did mean hand tinted like you said. It used to be a very common way of getting a color photo portrait before Kodachrome became common. Nearly every region had someone like your grandfather who did this professionally. It was even done to some of the earliest color movies, which must have been an incredible amount of labor.

    However, if you’ve ever seen a genuine Norman Rockwell close up, he actually did paint to an almost photographic level of detail. I grew up in the area where he lived. The local museum almost always had a few of his paintings on display and I remember reading articles of how the art world criticized his work for that photographic quality.

  5. Susan says:

    “In photo after photo, each woman is described in the context of her relationship to men and her function.”

    It isn’t so much their relationship to men but a depiction of their personal sacrifice. They are invested in what they are doing because their loved ones are in the war. It is real to them. Now days you would also see daughters, neices, moms, and aunts names listed.

    I know there are many things I actually do, instead of just thinking of them, because my son is a Marine. I know what it is like to have a loved one gone. It helps to feel connected to him even if it doesn’t directly affect him.

    Interesting, I never thought to ask my Grandmother what she did during the war while my Grandfather was gone. I know after the war she became a nurse and supported the family while he retrained for another profession.

  6. Lisa B. in Portland says:

    Some of these are really cool. They remind me of the (black and white) photos I looked at recently in a suitcase of my maternal grandmother’s. There was an envelope of photos my grandfather took during WW2 when he was in Tunisia and Sicily in 1943-44. Most are of scenery and the barracks and the towns but a couple are of I think General deGaulle and there’s one of a wrecked Nazi plane and one of a wrecked Nazi tank, on both of which you can clearly see the swastikas. One of my cool uncles took all the photos from my grandma’s house to protect them from my uncool uncle while my grandma’s in the nursing home.

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