“MEET THE NEW BOSS, SAME AS THE OLD BOSS”: HARVEST OF SHAME REVISITED FROM A WOLFSONIAN PERSPECTIVE
I was listening this morning to NPR this morning as I shaved, dressed, and otherwise readied myself for work. Scott Simon was speaking with ProPublica’s Michael Grabell about his new Harvest of Shame documentary series. The new exposé deliberately reused the title of one of the most famous American investigative reports of the twentieth century, a scathing CBS report produced by Edward R. Murrows airing the day after the Thanksgiving holiday in 1960 that focused on the “migrants, workers in the sweat shops of the soil – the harvest of shame.” In it, one farmer was quoted as saying that “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”
Unlike the original Harvest of Shame piece, the new investigative series focuses more broadly, but now less forcefully, on the disgraceful and often hazardous working conditions, unrelieved poverty, and poor treatment of blue-collar and temporary workers in the “Land of Milk and Honey.” Whether working in pizza kitchens or on assembly lines, Grabell’s modern investigation shows that America has made little progress on her “wars on poverty,” as it documents the growth and plight of the “Permanently Temporary” unbenefited workers in the wake of the Great Recession.
Arriving at my own job, I began thinking about both the original and revisited Harvest of Shame reports, and just how much they echo some of the same issues and concerns as reflected in the objects and artifacts in our museum. And so with that as my starting point, I present for your consideration a Wolfsonian historical perspective on the exploitation of labor from the Gilded Age through the middle of the twentieth century.
Although the museum mainly focuses on the period, 1851 through 1945, the inequalities of wealth that characterized the Gilded Age and Progressive Era are less well represented in the collection than in the era of the Great Depression. There are, for example, only a few works in our collection that document one of the deadly industrial disaster—the March 25, 1911 fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building in Manhattan which resulted in the loss of lives of 146 garment workers (the vast majority of them young women).
WPA MURAL STUDY, VICTORY OF LIGHT OVER DARKNESS
A few other works in the rare book and special collections library document other labor struggles, such as the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912 provoked by mill employers who attempted to reduce workers’ weekly pay after the State of Massachusetts lowered the maximum hour-work week from 56 to 54.
The library also holds only a few works relating to the trial and execution of pro-labor agitators and anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
Socialists and Communists saw in the Wall Street Crash and the onset of the Great Depression proof that Capitalism had sown the seeds of its own destruction. Left-leaning artists like Hugo Gellert, Rockwell Kent, William Gropper, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patrí, and others created artwork that documented in black and white the dangerous working conditions, unfair labor practices, disparities in wealth, shabby living spaces, and captured the despair of the millions thrown into the ranks of the unemployed and dispossessed, the under-employed and temporarily employed workers.
HUGO GELLERT (1892-1985)
ROCKWELL KENT (1882-1971)
WILLIAM GROPPER (1897-1977)
LYND WARD (1905-1985)
GIACOMO PATRI (1898-1978)
This last image by Patrí comes from a graphic novel titled White Collar, which sought by illustrations alone to convince the “professionals” that their white collars blinded them to their true class interests which actually lay with their blue collar working class brethren.
The museum collections are rich with materials documenting the struggles of farming folk and industrial laborers in the period of the Great Depression. Ironically, it was during the era that saw one-quarter of the American workforce thrown out of work, that the nation’s artistic attentions were focused on the worker and manual labor. Much of the art produced during the New Deal era, for example, celebrated the physical labor of the toilers of the fields.
FARMER BOY FIGURINE BY GRACE LUSE, FOR THE OHIO ART PROGRAM
COTTON FROM AMERICAN IMPORTS AND EXPORTS SCULPTURE
BY WAYLANDE DESANTIS GREGORY, 1938
AGRICULTURE MAQUETTE BY HELENE SARDEAU, FOR THE FEDERAL ARTS PROJECT
If American sculptors (either independently or under the auspices of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Art Projects) suddenly appear to have rediscovered the plight of the “forgotten man,” they were not alone. Other artists inspired by FDR’s New Deal for the “common man,” also used their talents in making art with a social conscience.
GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA
GIFT OF CHRISTOPHER DENOON
Their compatriots in the Federal Theatre Project were simultaneously putting on plays such as the Living Newspaper production, Triple-A Plowed Under, and musicals such as Marc Blitzstein’s controversial pro-Proletarian opera, The Cradle Will Rock set in Steeltown, USA.
MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. PROMISED GIFT
As President Roosevelt worked to build national support for his programs, his Administration dispatched Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers and FWP (Federal Writers’ Project) writers around the country to document conditions in the countryside and factory towns. Cheaply produced government books combined muck-racking journalism, exhaustive research and statistics, and documentary photographs to educate the public about the problems of poverty and inequality and his New Deal solutions for unemployed urban and rural youth, dispossessed families, Mexican migrant farm laborers, etc.
MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR PROMISED GIFT
GIFT OF CHRISTOPHER DENOON
Many of the FSA photographs were reproduced in non-governmental books and pamphlets designed by union organizers or social reformers to call attention to the continuing problems faced by agricultural and industrial workers.
MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. PROMISED GIFT
Another pamphlet used illustrations instead of photographs and an allusion to characters from John Steinbeck’s reform novel, The Grapes of Wrath to remind Americans that the problems faced by displaced farming families like the Joads had not suddenly been fixed. A few of the images are eerily similar to the opening shots of the 1960s Harvest of Shame documentary, suggesting that little or nothing had really changed in thirty years!
Recognizing the transformative power of photographic images to galvanize support for social change, union leaders organizing West Coast longshoremen, stevedores, and other dock workers published magazines to win public sympathy for their strike and counter anti-union propaganda in the press.
PURCHASED WITH FUNDS DONATED BY MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR.
The original 1960 and updated Harvest of Shame investigative reports also recognize the power of photography and film to convey the message that not much progress has been made in improving the lives of the most economically and socially vulnerable of America’s working class. Ironically, some of the film footage of the dock workers taken today suggests that much of the gains made by labor towards the close of the Great Depression have been erased and reversed in the post-Great Recession era.