Online images of industrialization in the American Midwest
First Monday

Online images of industrialization in the American Midwest by Ruth Garner, Mark Gillingham, and Steve McShane

Someone who doubts that photographs, like paintings and drawings, are an interpretation of the world might study the two historical photo collections discussed in this article. The views of industrialization could hardly be more dissimilar. Looking at both collections — photos and captions — is instructive.


The U.S. Steel Gary Works Photograph Collection, 1906–1971
The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) Collection





We three have lived in the American Midwest, many parts of it, for many years. We have read the region’s stories and studied its history.

From somewhere — our schoolbooks perhaps — we’ve learned a few things about industrialization in the region. We know, for example, that about 100 years ago, mills were built here to turn iron ore into steel. We know that industrialists wanted huge, highly mechanized mills so that they could drive down costs, undersell the competition, and show a profit.

It is only recently that we’ve had the opportunity to examine two historical photo collections related to industrialization, one expressly related to industrialization in the Midwest. Each collection is online, accessible.

One, the U.S. Steel Gary Works Photograph Collection, 1906–1971, is industrial photography. It is a set of mostly unpeopled images of giant mill structures and machines in Gary, Indiana. The other, the National Child Labor Committee Collection, is social (or social reform) photography. It is a set of photos taken to document the working conditions of child laborers in textile mills, canneries, sweatshops, and beet fields.

The collections are interesting enough alone, fascinating when set alongside each other. By setting them alongside each other and focusing only on photographs taken during the same time period (1905–1920), we’ve seen in the photography what essayist Susan Sontag (1977) called "the didacticism of the whole enterprise" [1]. The photographers are in each case making strong pronouncements about industrialization. The thing is (and this is what we find so fascinating), they are making diametrically opposed pronouncements about industrialization. In the next few pages, we discuss each collection in turn, touching upon pronouncements along the way.



The U.S. Steel Gary Works Photograph Collection, 1906–1971

The U.S. Steel collection, like all photographic collections, is a set of linked images. In this case, the more than 2,200 images are linked by subject (the steel mill and adjacent company town in Gary, Indiana) and by photographer (a team of company photographers). Many of the photos in the collection are records of industrial equipment and activities not generally seen by the public.

The collection is currently held by the Calumet Regional Archives at Indiana University Northwest in Gary and was digitized as part of the Indiana University Digital Library Program. Visitors to a collection Web site can search the photographs by keyword (e.g., "ore docks," "blast furnace," "slag"), or they can browse the photos by subject or date. Given our interest in the years 1905–1920, we were particularly interested in the browse–by–date option. Using it, we found a number of early images. We also read historical texts located at a "contextual materials" link at the Web site.

We identified two themes in the early photographs: (a) rapid change from a natural environment to a man–made one; and, (b) building big.

As for rapid change, this 1906 photo (see Figure 1) shows some of the horses and mules brought in to do initial grading and leveling work at the mill site. The site was duneland and marsh, and millions of cubic yards of sand had to be removed before mill structures could be built.


Figure 1: Excavation for open hearth, August, 1906. Source: Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest, Gary, Indiana [ID number, CRA–42–100–019].


The sand proved useful during the construction period (Moore, 1959). Because U.S. Steel made no effort to provide housing for construction workers, the workers had to erect tents for shelter. They banked sand against their tent walls in an attempt to make them snug for 18–degree nights with rough winds off Lake Michigan. The workers eventually abandoned the tents for shacks built of tar paper, boards, tin, and other materials at hand.


Figure 2: Open hearth number 4 from SW corner (one truss up), April, 1907. Source: Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest, Gary, Indiana [ID number, CRA–42–101–008].


Note the dramatic changes visible in subsequent photos of the mill site. The grading and leveling for an open–hearth building had occurred in August, 1906. By April of 1907, one truss was up on open hearth number 4 (see Figure 2), and only one year after the grading and leveling, work on open hearth number 4 was nearly done (see Figure 3). Soon there would be over a dozen 60–ton furnaces installed in number 4 and in each of the other open–hearth furnace buildings being built at the site.


Figure 3: Open hearth number 4 from SW, struct. work nearly finished, August, 1907. Source: Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest, Gary, Indiana [ID number, CRA–42–101–082].


It wasn’t only among open–hearth furnace buildings at the mill that construction moved rapidly. Consider the ore docks, an essential part of Gary operations. It was at the ore docks where steamers from Minnesota and Michigan would arrive, carrying iron ore mined in the Lake Superior region. Construction on a harbor was already well underway in 1907.


Figure 4: Slip and harbor, under construction looking north, October, 1907. Source: Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest, Gary, Indiana [ID number, CRA–42–102–004].


The harbor was formed by construction of two parallel piers 250 feet apart, a mile long, and projecting 2,360 feet into Lake Michigan (Moore, 1959). Between the piers, the channel was excavated to a depth of 23 feet, with a turning basin at the southern end. Here (see Figure 4) is a 1907 photo showing harbor construction. Less than a year after the harbor–construction photo was taken, Hulett–style unloaders for taking ore off of the steamers were in place (see Figure 5), and an ore boat was able to enter the harbor with a first load of iron ore for the mill.


Figure 5: Unloaders and dock walls, May, 1908. Source: Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest, Gary, Indiana [ID number, CRA–42–102–109].


As for building big, the Hulett–style ore unloaders were huge. They greatly improved efficiency of ore unloading at Great Lakes ports, including Gary. A Scientific American article (1909) described the unloaders as machines consisting of a massive beam, at the outer end of which was a vertical arm ending in a 10–ton grab bucket. A steamer would be moored alongside a concrete bulkhead and as soon as the hatches were off, the unloaders would thrust their 10–ton buckets into the holds to bring up ore and deliver it to a conveyor car. The machines in Gary had a combined unloading capacity of 2,500 tons of ore per hour.

In a much more recent article (Lydersen, 2004), the ore unloaders were compared to giant praying mantises, and we admit that we see the resemblance, particularly in this 1907 close–up of the machinery (see Figure 6).


Figure 6: Ore unloaders, November, 1907. Source: Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest, Gary, Indiana [ID number, CRA–42–102–031].


There was of course a great deal more being built in the early years at the mill site, nearly all of it depicted in photos in the U.S. Steel photo collection and nearly all of it very big. There were blast furnaces and open–hearth furnace buildings in addition to number 4. There was a billet mill in which ingots were rolled down to suitable size for further manipulation. There was a rail mill — the largest in the world and capable of turning out 4,000 tons of rails per day. There was a blowing plant for furnishing air to the blast furnaces. There was an electric power plant and a water supply system for moving water from Lake Michigan to various buildings, both of these serving the mill and the company town.

Our favorite photograph depicting building big at the mill site may be this one (see Figure 7). Some of the few people actually shown in the photographs appear here — a few in the foreground, a few others moving around in the right of the photo — but they are tiny specks compared to the giant mill structures. This photograph is similar to many others in the collection. There are dramatic lines, angles, and shadows in the structures. There are few people.


Figure 7: Blast furnaces and stoves numbers 11 and 12. Domes on 5 stoves; 6 courses on number 11; cols. up on number 12, July, 1907. Source: Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest, Gary, Indiana [ID number, CRA–42–101–058].


To build the company town, U.S. Steel established a development company, the Gary Land Company. The same themes that we identified for mill development apply to town development. There were early and ambitious engineering projects in town, such as filling in swampy areas with material dredged from the bottom of Lake Michigan and construction of a sewer system (see Figure 8). All utility lines — water, gas, and sewer — were installed in alleys at the rear of commercial and residential lots.


Figure 8: 96" sewer looking north (excavation), town, December, 1906. Source: Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest, Gary, Indiana [ID number, CRA–42–100–077].


By the end of 1907, shops, hotels, and houses had been built in the first area to be laid out. Land for civic, educational, religious, and commercial uses had been set aside. There was a good start on a business district, and by 1908 (see Figure 9), whole residential neighborhoods emerged, complete with to–be–paved streets, sidewalks, young shade trees, and lawns. Private contractors built the homes for sale or rent to skilled workers or managers at U.S. Steel.


Figure 9: Jackson Street N from 8th Avenue, November, 1908. Source: Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest, Gary, Indiana [ID number, CRA–42–102–125].


We found few images in the entire collection that showed difficulties at the mill or in the company town. We explain that by noting that the photographs were taken by company photographers for U.S. Steel. Why would we expect disclosure of difficulties?

We did think that there might be images of accidents. After all, even though U.S. Steel was apparently known within the industry for showing concern about worker safety, the men worked long shifts, did dangerous work, and — especially in the early years — wore little protective gear. There were accidents. However, when we searched on the keyword "accidents," we located only five images in the entire collection. Of the five, two appear to show broken equipment, but not injured workers. The other three all depict the site of an accidental death at a town swimming hole.

Much the same thing can be said for images of substandard housing for immigrant workers. We’d read in various places (see, e.g., Mohl and Betten, 1986) that jobs in the steel industry accounted for most of the immigration to Gary at the start of the twentieth century. Unskilled workers from Italy, Greece, Poland, Russia, and the Balkans came first. Native–born African Americans from the American South followed. Mexicans came north when there was a shortage of workers during World War I.

We’d read that African Americans and Mexicans, in particular, were marginalized and isolated outside the workplace, and that housing for them was substandard. One writer described housing for most of the unskilled workers as "shacks" [2]. Shacks are obviously quite different from the housing for skilled workers and managers seen in Figure 9. However, when we did keyword searches on "unskilled workers" and on both an early–immigrating group to Gary (the Polish) and a later–immigrating group (the Mexicans), we found no images at all. A search on "shacks" yielded only a pair of construction–era images.

It seems that the company photographers, eager to show the mill and town as extraordinary achievements, had little interest in documenting substandard housing for unskilled workers. They simply didn’t take any pictures of the southern end of town, where shacks and overcrowded boardinghouses were the norm.

The fact is, all the implicit pronouncements about industrialization in the U.S. Steel collection photos are relentlessly optimistic: Rapid industrialization is good. Company towns are good. Unrestrained engineering of land, air, and water is good. Big is good.



The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) Collection

Like the U.S. Steel photo collection, the NCLC collection is a set of linked images. The more than 5,000 photographs are linked by subject (child labor) and by photographer (Lewis Hine, a talented photographer who did investigative and photographic work for the NCLC). The photos document working conditions for children in both industrial and agricultural settings in the early twentieth century.

The photos came to the Prints and Photographs (P&P) Division of the Library of Congress grouped by industry (e.g., canneries, mills, mines). All of the photos were digitized in 2003, and visitors to a collection Web site have the usual P&P Division search, browse, and preview options. Lewis Hine traveled across the country to take his photographs. We examined photos that documented work in industrial and agricultural settings in the Midwest and in other regions.

We were able to identify themes in the NCLC collection, just as we had in the U.S. Steel collection: (a) child labor as a social fact, and, somewhat entangled with that, (b) the power of a photograph and its caption to reveal social facts. In other words, we found an interest in the NCLC collection in both conditions being photographed and in the photography itself.

A few words about the photography: It is very different from the U.S. Steel photography in which people, if they appeared at all, appeared as tiny specks alongside giant mill structures. In the NCLC photographs, it is informal portraits of children, not images of structures and machines, that are featured. The children are seen up close, often only from the waist up. Viewers are invited to identify with them and with their situations.


Figure 10: Some of the young shrimp pickers at Dunbar, Lopez, Dukate Co. Sore, swollen, and even bleeding fingers are common among these workers on account of the acid in the shrimp, Biloxi, Mississippi, February, 1911. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection [reproduction number LC–DIG–nclc–00844].


About 300 of the images show children at work or just outside work at canneries. A few of the images document children's work–related injuries. Here are two cannery photographs, one from Mississippi inside the workplace (see Figure 10), the other from Indiana outside the workplace (see Figure 11). Note the comments about injuries in Hine’s caption for the Figure 10 photo.


Figure 11: Noon hour at an Indianapolis cannery, Indianapolis, Indiana, August, 1908. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection [reproduction number LC–DIG–nclc–00744].


There are 100 images in the collection showing boys in mine interiors and exteriors. Many of the mine photos were taken in coal mines in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, but this photograph is of zinc mining in Aurora, Missouri (see Figure 12).


Figure 12: A boy (may be over 14) at heavy work, shoveling ore at Daisy Bell Mine, Aurora, Missouri, October, 1910. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection [reproduction number LC–DIG–nclc–01089].


There are a great many images of mills and of related manufacturing — 1,815 photographs in all. Here are just two of them, one of a very young girl working in a mill in Loudon, Tennessee (see Figure 13), the other of a boy employed in a paper box factory in Cincinnati, Ohio (see Figure 14).


Figure 13: This little girl (like many others in the state) is so small she has to stand on a box to reach her machine. She is regularly employed as a knitter in Loudon Hosiery Mills, Loudon, Tennessee, December 1910. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection [reproduction number LC–DIG–nclc–02002].



Figure 14: Boy, employed in a paper box factory, Cincinnati, Ohio, August, 1908. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection [reproduction number LC–DIG–nclc–01311].


As for agriculture, among the 700 or so photos of agricultural activities, there is this rather amazing photograph of a young girl topping beets in a field near Sterling, Colorado (see Figure 15).


Figure 15: Nine–year–old Pauline Reiber topping beets, a dangerous and hard job for such a child, vicinity of Sterling, Colorado, October, 1915. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection [reproduction number LC–DIG–nclc–00347].


Because Lewis Hine wanted viewers to accept these images of child labor as fact, he supplemented them with detailed captions about the children and the settings in which they worked. Note this example of two barefoot newsboys in Texas (see Figure 16). In the caption we learn the boys’ names, the age of one (probably the younger), and the hour when the boys began work.


Figure 16: Sonny and Pete, newsboys. One is six years old. They began work at 6:00 a.m., San Antonio, Texas, October, 1913. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection [reproduction number LC–DIG–nclc–03877].


The extended captions interest us. It seems that Hine, believer in the power of the photograph to reveal social facts, also appreciated the power of the written word. Perhaps it’s that he thought that a detailed caption would direct a viewer’s attention. "Look at this" (the children, the working conditions), he’d say with a caption, "not that."

It’s also the case, of course, that Hine could include non–visual information in his captions. An example is information about children’s truancy — how many children were not attending school because they were working, how many of these children became what Hine called "repeaters." Another example is information about parental attitudes about child labor. Consider this photo of a young boy (see Figure 17), an injured mill worker from North Carolina. We can see that the boy has been injured, but his parents’ attitudes would remain a mystery if Hine hadn’t included the very long caption about the boy, his injuries, and his parents’ reactions to the injuries.


Figure 17: Accident to young mill worker. Giles Edmund Newsom (Photo October 23rd, 1912) while working in Sanders Spinning Mill, Bessemer City, N.C., August 21st, 1912, a piece of the machine fell on to his foot mashing his toe. This caused him to fall on to a spinning machine and his hand went into unprotected gearing, crushing and tearing out two fingers. He told the Attorney he was 11 years old when it happened. His parents are now trying to make him 13 years old. The school census taken at the time of the accident makes him 12 years old (parents’ statement) and school records say the same. His school teacher thinks he is 12. His brother is not yet 11 years old. Both of the boys worked in the mill several months before the accident. His father, (R.L. Newsom) tried to compromise with the Company when he found the boy would receive the money and not the parents. The mother tried to blame the boys for getting jobs on their own hook, but she let them work several months. The aunt said "Now he’s jes got to where he could be of some help to his ma an’ then this happens and he can’t never work no more like he oughter," Bessemer City, North Carolina, October, 1912. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection [reproduction number LC–DIG–nclc–02697].


As they stand, the NCLC photographs with extended captions are, as Alan Trachtenberg (1989) suggested, little "stories." They are images linked by long captions — and by still more text when they were published in various periodicals. Trachtenberg noted that Hine felt that images, words, and numbers (dates, ages, hours of work, earnings) were needed to publicize the facts surrounding the approximately two million children in the U.S. workforce by 1910.

In getting many of his pictures, Lewis Hine had to do something that resembled detective work. Business owners and supervisors were suspicious of a man carrying photographic equipment and a notepad into their workplaces, so he assumed various personas to gain entrance. A note about the collection at the Library of Congress Web site mentions Bible salesman, postcard salesman, and industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery. When this sort of thing failed to get him inside, Hine waited outside the workplace and photographed children as they entered and exited.

Unlike the pronouncements about industrialization in the U.S. Steel collection, Hine’s pronouncements in his various photo captions are neither implicit nor very optimistic: Machinery is dangerous. It is particularly dangerous for children to operate, and a number of them have suffered serious injuries. Owners and managers of factories do not protect workers. Hine endorsed legislative change fostered by enlightened public opinion. His job, he felt, was to provide images, words, and numbers that might enlighten.




Debate about industrialization in the U.S. antedates the two photo collections we’ve examined here. As Margaret Crawford (1995) observed, the conflict between a market rationality of profit–oriented industrial development and a social rationality supported by religious, ethical, or democratic principles is as old as the nation. For centuries, one side has celebrated productivity and profit, while the other has pointed to the wretched conditions in which some wage earners live and work.

Response to the rapid industrialization in Gary, Indiana and elsewhere at the start of the twentieth century was a continuation of the debate. One of the photo collections we’ve examined was created by and for those subscribing to a market rationality. The other was created by and for those subscribing to a social rationality.

The debate continues today — in the U.S. and in many other places. End of article


About the authors

Ruth Garner, a professor for 25 years, is spending this year easing into a post–academic routine of full–time writing. Most of her published books and articles address understanding of text. A more recent interest is understanding of photographic images.
E–mail: garner [at] loftnet [dot] com

Mark Gillingham is Vice–President of Technology for the Great Books Foundation in Chicago. His published work addresses children’s use of technology in both school and out–of–school settings. A current project involves digitizing of a family photo collection as a means of protecting and providing access to the old photos.
E–mail: mark [dot] gillingham [at] greatbooks [dot] org

Steve McShane is Archivist/Curator for the Calumet Regional Archives in Gary, Indiana. Steve has been deeply involved in work on the the digitized U.S. Steel collection discussed in this paper. He wrote an introductory essay, "The Magic City of Steel," for the collection Web site.
E–mail: smcshane [at] iun [dot] edu



1. Sontag, 1977, p. 7.

2. Crawford, 1995, p. 44.



M. Crawford, 1995. Building the workingman’s paradise: The design of American company towns. London: Verso.

"Gary: The largest and most modern steel works in existence," 1909. Scientific American, volume 101, number 24, pp. 441, 450–451, and at, accessed 12 August 2005.

K. Lydersen, 2004. "Chicago steelmaking: Dead but not forgotten," Washington Post (27 December), p. A03.

R.A. Mohl and N. Betten, 1986. Steel city: Urban and ethnic patterns in Gary, Indiana, 1906–1950. New York: Holmes & Meier, and (an excerpt) at, accessed 18 August 2005.

P. Moore, 1959. The Calumet region: Indiana’s last frontier. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, and (an excerpt) at, accessed 1 August 2005.

National Child Labor Committee Collection, at, accessed 2 September 2005.

S. Sontag, 1977. On photography. New York: Picador.

A. Trachtenberg, 1989. Reading American photographs. New York: Hill and Wang.

U.S. Steel Gary Works Photograph Collection, 1906–1971, at, accessed 1 May 2005.

Editorial history

Paper received 25 September 2005; accepted 18 October 2005.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2005, First Monday

Copyright ©2005, Ruth Garner, Mark Gillingham, and Steve McShane

Online images of industrialization in the American Midwest by Ruth Garner, Mark Gillingham, and Steve McShane
First Monday, volume 10, number 11 (November 2005),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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