The Visual Culture of Labor in the 1930s: A Visit to the George Meany Labor Archive

On February 8 and 10, 2022, the twelve students in ARTH488D: Mining the Visual Culture of the Great Depression visited the University of Maryland’s Special Collections to explore 1930s materials from the George Meany Labor Archive. Students leafed through folders of original documents and photographs, and worked together to select and analyze a key primary source of their choosing. Our goal was to ask what we could learn from these materials– especially their visual form–about how people experienced the economic crisis and labor struggles of the Depression era. Please enjoy our explorations below!

“No Help Wanted”

This cartoon from a periodical clipping from 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression, shows a man looking at a sign that reads “NO HELP WANTED”. He appears to be sad and dejected. A connection between the viewer and the figure in the image can be made by the way they are both reading the sign at the same time. The figure’s back is turned, directing the viewer’s eyes to the message, while also noticing his posture which shows emotions of dejection, tiredness, and worry. This item creates feelings of sympathy and sadness for the figure and feelings of wanting to help and support him. This image appears to be reproduced in a magazine or pamphlet of sorts to encourage workers to take action in protest for better working conditions, job opportunities, wages, and so much more. We believe this image was intended to resonate with people affected by the crash of the Great Depression. Having the opportunity to look at this primary source allows us to further understand the struggles that working and lower-class citizens endured during a time period of limited jobs and low pay. #GreatDeressionVisualCulture #NoHelpWanted #RouseHimToAction

–Jessica and John

Photographing Hooverville, Seattle

Have you ever worked or attended classes from home? If the answer is yes, we invite you to pause and consider the relationship between where you live and what you do. For the citizens of Hooverville in 1930s Seattle, working from home was neither possible nor desirable. Hoovervilles, like the one shown in this photograph from 1937, were makeshift towns where some of the most impoverished members of society lived. The title of “Hooverville” was coined out of contempt for President Hoover, who was blamed for the economic crisis of the late 20s and early 30s.

With virtually no human figures in sight, the photographer has strategically captured a moment in which the residents of Hooverville are away, perhaps at the large factory that looms just beyond the edge of the settlement. This factory, with its dark cloud of smoke alluding to the workers toiling inside, is a key element of the composition and represents both a physical and socio-economic barrier for the citizens of Hooverville.

Physically, the factory divides the poverty-stricken Hooverville from the elite city high rises. By positioning the factory about one-third of the way down in the composition, the photographer shows considerably more of the Hooverville dwellings than the city skyline. In creating this high horizon, they manage to visually represent the disproportionately high level of poverty, that existed during the Great Depression. The factory is also a metaphorical barrier in that it did not provide social or economic mobility to its employees. Mass unemployment during the Great Depression meant that work was scarce and wages were low. Factory workers, who were often barely making enough to survive, had virtually no means of moving out of these Hoovervilles and crossing the barrier into the big city. #GreatDepressionVisualCulture #MeanyLaborArchive #GreatDepression #Hooverville #WorkFromHome

Haley and Nicole 

The Hope in FDR

This image shows FDR in a car reaching out to shake the hand of a mine worker holding his pick and gear. This photograph also shows a visual representation of the relationship workers had with the new president at the time — showing hope and optimism on both sides. The miner is standing to the side of the car and facing forward more, perhaps toward another camera. On the back of the image there is a newspaper clipping cut out. It is from the same series and moment, but the image has them both facing forward. In this image the pair is also surrounded by a crowd, smiling, and looking hopeful and excited. There is a physical union of the two shaking hands, showing how that relationship connects and meets. Also, the image draws your attention toward the man in uniform rather than FDR. As a politician, attention may usually be trained on FDR, but here, there is dignity and importance to the man who he’s shaking hands with. Their relationship is the central message presented in the image, rather than the most famous person in the image. In the newspaper clipping on the back, the focus is more on FDR and his political ideals. But in this image, the focus is on a moment of connection — a moment which appears both staged and genuine. #GreatDepressionVisualCulture #FDR 

Priscilla and Zoe

What Union Organizing Looked Like 

These two images go hand in hand to represent the conditions that led workers to advocate for their right to unionize in the 1930s. The first image is a 1931 historical photograph showing the scale of the crowd of unemployed workers demanding aid at City Hall in Seattle, the second is a humorous cartoon illustrating the Textile Workers of America Union and their efforts to recruit members. Despite different mediums, both are visual representations of pro-union efforts during the 1930s. 

The cartoon intends to represent the power of the worker heroically overcoming a wide range of issues in the workplace, such as a lack of overtime pay or freezing of wages. Facial expressions and text highlight the emotions of a gleeful hypermasculine worker, contrasted with the small, frantic opposition. The cartoon represents the Union through a stereotypical white male, failing to account for others affected by these issues.  In contrast, the photograph shows the widespread desperation that required the advent of Unions. 

Some things that we do not see in these documents include the lack of context/setting for the strike, and the lack of individualization of the workers. However, on the other hand, they do portray power in unity through early grassroots organization.  When analyzed in conjunction with one another, these images illustrate the scale of the difficulty faced by workers, and the methods in overcoming opposition to improve working conditions and combat unemployment. 


–Stella Johnson & Daniel Trujillo

The Miner and the Cartoon

This image is a cartoon published in  The New Yorker Magazine, 1933. The New Yorker aims to discuss the most recent current events with a generally leftist perspective. Its audience tends to be middle to upper class liberal individuals. The sketch depicts two miners holding shovels in a cave. The figures are generic male figures wearing baggy clothing. The two men gaze up from their work as their flashlights glare towards the entrance of the cave. The reader is informed that the miners are in shock because as they look up from their mining, they see Mrs. Roosevelt.  Under the sketch of the two working miners is an anonymous quote, “For gosh sakes, here comes Mrs. Roosevelt!”. This satirical sketch pokes fun at Mrs. Roosevelt’s prominent championing of workers in the period. It also suggests a sense of disconnection between laborers, elites, and the Executive Branch. To the viewers of the New Yorker Magazine, it might seem nice, if a little silly, that Mrs. Roosevelt put efforts into visiting laborers around America, since from the cartoon miner’s perspective, they were hardly expecting a visit from the first lady. In a sense, this complete shock from the miners belittles their knowledge and further creates a sense of hierarchy between the reader and the men in the sketch. Ultimately, while a visit from the first lady may seem like a genuine gesture, there are underlying themes of hierarchy and belittlement to the laborers.. #SURPRISE! #WHATSSHEDOINGHERE??

–Pearl Katz

The Fight for Social Security

The four images seen within this article detail the reactions some had to the implementation of Social Security. Much of this listed information was spread by popular news sources, such as the Hearst Press and the New York American, which often wrote for a wealthier demographic that worried their money would be distributed to a lower class. Image 1 details a doctored Social Security application, spread to make people falsely believe that the government would require overly personal information such as the “church attended” and “physical defects.” Image 2 is a propaganda poster, claiming wages would be permanently decreased, and depicts a white, male college graduate, as if to directly point to the poster’s target audience. Image 3 depicts again a white male, clearly labeled “YOU,” wearing a Social Security dog tag, as if to invoke fear of government overreach. Lastly, Image 4 is a sample SS card sold within a wallet. Whether through ignorance or with intention, thousands of people used this sample as their own Social Security number for up to four decades. We often forget that social programs we take for granted now, like Social Security, faced opposition at their time of introduction. President Roosevelt introduced Social Security as part of the New Deal after people began to worry about their futures during the Great Depression, These documents help to provide context and understanding of different viewpoints and understanding on social issues at the time, and show fear mongering and how misinformation spread.


–Katerina and Lizzy 

“Women Work, Women Vote”

The “WOMEN WORK WOMEN VOTE” flyer is a print with a central female figure powerfully flexing her right bicep. The woman wears a uniform, which includes an identifiable (potentially) hat, and thick gloves (as seen on her right hand). She is looking at her bicep, rather than straight into the viewer/camera, and has a big grin on her face. 

At the upper left corner of the flyer, there is a date marked August 1944. 

At this point in time, women had voting rights. The ‘VOTE’ pertains to voting procedures outside of governmental elections. The slogan, then, makes use consider and visualise women’s acceptance and space within the workforce and unions. 

This can be further supported by the lack of representation of women as active workers in much of the visual imagery (paintings, flyers, of this period).

Raising questions like “who is the working class?”, “who are unions for? And who organises them?” We might even wonder, are women actually not active in them, or, simply, not the targeted audience–even if active participants?”

Additionally, I want to include this cartoon from a newspaper, which illuminates a contrasting perception of working women of the time.

It is worth considering how visual images like these from the 1930s and ‘40s carry to today’s workforce scene. From overworked and underpaid women sweatshop workers to sexism occupying any and all occupational sectors, it is tragicomic to see these still images be as relevant today as they were eighty and ninety years ago.



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