August 13, 2010

Steel Men: When America Built Things Other Than Web Sites

Mike Evans, a welder, at the rip tracks at Proviso yard of the Chicago and Northwest Railway Company. Chicago, Illinois, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano.

Welder making boilers for a ship, Combustion Engineering Company. Chattanooga, Tennessee, June 1942. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer.

From the stunning Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943

Posted by Vanderleun at August 13, 2010 12:00 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Something besides websites. Indeed.
I suppose the flow of industry to lower labor rates is inevitable - why spend $200 on a clock radio from Philadelphia when one costs 19 bucks from Asia - but it makes for painful transitions. And we are witnessing a very, very painful transition. The need to manufacture and produce put a national character and work ethic in place, and it is that loss that weakens us as much as anything else. We went from "Hey, buddy! You got a busted radiator? Need tires? Bring it in; we can fix it!" to "Busted mortgage? The government has a program for that". And it seemed to happen while we slept.
Just like Pearl Harbor.

Posted by: Dan Patterson at August 13, 2010 3:22 AM

This did not happen while we were sleeping. This happened over a period of time, and greed was the motivating factor. It will take generations to pull ourselves out of this.

Posted by: Cilla Mitchell, Galveston Texas at August 13, 2010 4:32 AM

The man in the picture expresses a no nonsense demeanor. Haunting. Honest.

Posted by: Cilla Mitchell, Galveston Texas at August 13, 2010 4:35 AM

Those guys are still around. Their numbers may be smaller, but I meet them every day. The two young men who installed my wireless internet transceiver two days ago got it done, and done well, on a tin roof in the Texas summer sunshine.

The difference is not that there are no boiler-welders. The difference is that anybody who has a shipyard is "rich", and "the rich" exist to be plundered to Feed the Children. A clock-radio manufactured in Philadelphia would be $2 if the factory were suffered to exist. The money that could've built that factory went to Good Works instead.


Posted by: Ric Locke at August 13, 2010 5:47 AM

God, I love American Digest, and here is an example of why...

Posted by: Captain Dave at August 13, 2010 7:09 AM

Further thoughts, if you can tolerate the self-aggrandizement.


Posted by: Ric Locke at August 13, 2010 7:43 AM

You people are all nuts, and worse, probably all kids or dreamers who have not themselves done hard, heavy industrial work. I have and I repeat, you're nuts.

Hard labor is a bug not a feature.

It's particularly idiotic that welders are shown. Welding had, and has, a nasty habit of killing welders from the production of noxious gases and particulates. The poor buggers in the photos probably both croaked at age 50.

Far better to let foreigners have the 'dignity' of hard, heavy, dangerous labor, a laborer's wage and an early death.

No wonder America is toast - left wing maniacs in charge and a right wing which 'labors' under dreamlike anti-commerce delusions. The greatest commercial nation ever reduced to a major right wing blogger posting drivel about 'when America built things other than web-sites'. You seem to have swallowed the communist fallacy that labor=value, that doing it the hard way has some inherent good, without even knowing it.

Commerce is trading value for value, and value is what people want, that's it, that's all, and if people want web-sites then they are valuable, and if they do not want hand welded steel railroads, preferring ones welded by big foreign machines, provided by the foreigners in exchange for a measly few web-sites or copies of Windows, then it's all good.

Sorry about the rant, woke up with a sore back caused by dignified, productive labor from 30 years ago, back when I was in my twenties.

Posted by: Fred Z at August 13, 2010 7:46 AM

Fred Z -- you are of course correct, but you miss the point. Gerard is celebrating the attitude, not the Labor Theory of Value or the "dignity of (hard nasty) work".

The whole point of productivity is that Dad applies strenuous labor to build the tools to build the tools, and his son does the "same" work using a robot -- and is healthier, happier, and vastly more productive as a result. Industrialization requires time-binding. The initial stages are nasty and brutish, but going by the current evidence they are also short, and what comes out at the end produces wealth without the nastiness.

But running a robot requires the same attitude toward task-orientation that the hand-welder did, if it to produce wealth. I'm much more sanguine that that attitude is still found in American society than Our Host is, but the decline is worrisome none the less.


Posted by: Ric Locke at August 13, 2010 8:13 AM

Fred Z: Please take the Prozac your doctor has ordered. You sound bitter and angry.

Posted by: Cilla Mitchell, Galveston Texas at August 13, 2010 8:25 AM

By the way Fred Z: The picture of the welder's face has more character than probably your entire body. Character, Fred Z, is what many human beings are sorely lacking. Including you, sir.

Posted by: Cilla Mitchell, Galveston Texas at August 13, 2010 8:36 AM

What struck me was that, like today, Washington D.C. in the 40's still looked like a slum. The residents of D.C. have no pride in their hometown.

Posted by: Blastineau at August 13, 2010 9:54 AM

Fred, It's not called "Steel Labor," but "Steel Men."

Posted by: vanderleun at August 13, 2010 10:10 AM

America may well reindustrialize, but in a different way. New prototyping technologies and manufacturing tools may well spawn an age of customized, decentralized industrialization, where customization of even big-ticket items like cars can be made affordable for the non-rich.

It's not a fantasy; it's already started happening. An "Army of Industrial Davids" may bring back manufacturing to America, which -- by the way -- still has the largest manufacturing base in the world (China is about to overtake us, but that still leaves us with a lot of tooling and facilities, so take heart).

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at August 13, 2010 11:38 AM

I don't think we want to know the details of your secret obsessions any more than your wife does.

Posted by: vanderleun at August 13, 2010 4:18 PM

Come to block 74 in Salt Lake City. Or 75 or 76.

I'll introduce you to the grandsons of the men you see in those pictures. Some granddaughters, too.

Posted by: TmjUtah at August 13, 2010 7:23 PM

Several things are striking about these color photos. The people are real. Most of them are "my people". My folks and their folks. and.. you see a common thread.. everyone essentially sharing the same experience of the time.. everybody was poor.. everyone worked.. there seems to be no sense of entitlement... it was conceded that "WE are in a fix and we are gonna have to bust our asses to get out of it.." A thousand words for each image....

Posted by: Bill Henry at August 13, 2010 7:47 PM

Yes, there is still some manufacturing going on in America. I work in a printing shop, and I believe that counts as manufacturing.

Just this week I printed 10,000 prescription forms for a major hospital. Granted, it's not quite the same as building Hoover Dam, but thanks to computers and other machinery (which I didn't make), I was able to typeset, print, individually number, cut, pad, shrink wrap, and box them for shipping, all by myself. I like my job.

This may or may not tie into what Don Rodrigo said earlier.

Posted by: rickl at August 14, 2010 9:45 PM

There's so much in this slide show that simply doesn't pass PC muster today.

Two examples: #42 "Children aiming sticks as guns", #55 "Children stage a patriotic demonstration".

Instead, we have below the pictures a comment capturing the spirit of 2010:

Ustabee says: August 5, 2010 at 6:34 am (Edit) Nice older photos. Interesting to note that in photos of Caucasian children, they are described as “children”, and in photos of black children, they are described as “African American children”. Why not describe the whites as “European American children”? or all of them as “children”?

Yeah, that's all that's important nowadays.

The Race Obsession. It's how you get from Steel Men to Manchurian Steals in seventy years. White man's guilt fuels a country's leftward tilt.

Posted by: Ferenc D at August 15, 2010 6:34 AM