Monday, 30 March 2020

New York City Landmarks No. 2 – Met Life Building

At the time (1909 -1913) of these postcards this was the world’s tallest building. It has a complicated history of building, rebuilding, partial demolition and consolidation but it retains the appearance of a pioneering skyscraper. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (Met Life) occupied the premises from inception in 1909 up to 2005. In its current form it operates as a hotel plus office accommodation for Credit Suisse. Met Life (No. 43 on the Fortune 500) still have their board room and some executive offices in the building. Company activities are proudly presented here with the emphasis on the sheer scale of operations. Kafkaesque interiors in which faceless clerks toil away, checking and collating, in the shadow of towering cabinets stuffed with bulging customer files. Deep in the basement, massive turbines generate power for heating, lighting and the elevators while visitors enter and leave the building via the intimidating grandeur of the vast Marble Court and Grand Stairway. Advertising examples illustrate the extent to which the insurance industry insinuates itself into the necessities of modern life from education to dentistry, from housing to health - there’s always money to be made from fear and insecurity. 

Monday, 23 March 2020

Railroads on Parade 1939-40

This card covered publication was published to accompany Railroads on Parade, a musical pageant celebrating the early days of American railroads at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40. The Railroad Building was the largest in area at the entire Fair. On the wraparound cover illustration we are shown how the power of steam left the ponies and oxen far behind - at the top an exotic streamliner represents the peak of contemporary technology. Famous mural painter, William A Mackay was the cover artist - it was his misfortune to die of a heart attack on a New York subway train in July 1939, less than 3 months after the Fair opened its doors on April 30th. It sets the tone for the anachronistic folksiness of the theatrical presentation. Kurt Weill was commissioned to compose the music. Since arriving in America in 1933, Weill had immersed himself in the American Songbook and mastered the idioms of the Broadway musical and popular song - this was his first opportunity to compose for a mass audience. Tickets were sold for only 25 cents and the auditorium could seat 4,000 spectators at up to 4 shows a day. The fair was a massive corporate jamboree designed to dazzle the American consumer with visions of future plenty. Major firms competed to offer the most architecturally extravagant pavilions in which to present the technology of the future. The railroad industry looked to the past and devised a historical pageant that catered to the public appetite for nostalgia as well as displaying the latest in locomotive development to build the market for future travellers. Please follow the links below for past posts on the World’s Fair.

World of Tomorrow
Meet the Middletons

Friday, 20 March 2020

The Factory in Postcards

When I grew up in the 1950s factories were everywhere. Large and small, in city centres and outer suburbs, alongside railways and arterial roads, mostly of vintage construction, they were impossible to avoid in the North East England of childhood. The industrial presence was greatly amplified by legions of coal mines, coking works, steel mills, chemical processing plants, shipyards and breweries. There were factories making toffees and boiled sweets, glassware and pottery, lemonade and potato crisps, turbines and tyres, and clothing and furniture. Clouds of sooty vapours streamed into the upper atmosphere from thousands of pipes, valves and chimneys. Beaches were black with coal waste dumped at sea and promptly washed back to shore. Through the eyes of a child, this was just the way things were and the entire spectacle could be transcended at nightfall when the serial radiance of a chain of blast furnaces was observed from a passing train or a blazing “Fighting Temeraire” sunset colourised the multiple emission plumes. These intense visions of the industrial sublime left an after-image that still resonates after all this time. 

Many of these postcards feature what rapidly became the favoured aerial view of factory premises extending to the far horizon that would be endlessly reproduced on company letter headings and advertising. Every smoking chimney was proudly delineated in all its pomp while vast railway networks brought raw materials in and finished products out. Designed to impress by virtue of scale, this approach to the visual representation of industry persisted for many decades. It took the post-war emergence of new technologies, early automation and data processing, together with the trend for green field garden factories to change this stereotype. Factory buildings became standardised designs and modular structures - efforts to develop their potential as architectural forms were rare. Honourable exceptions to this include the idiosyncratic Johnson Wax Buildings in Racine, Wisconsin, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in opposition to the auto industry buildings of Albert Kahn in Detroit, whose mastery of reinforced concrete, large floor spaces uninterrupted by structural supports and installations of vast areas of glazing achieved their grandeur by repetition of form. The theme of this post is to illustrate how the postcard became a valuable instrument for publicising industrial activity to a wide audience. Detailed consideration of factory architecture can be left to another time. 

Sunday, 15 March 2020

The Factory

For more than two centuries, the image of the factory has stood as an emblem of manufacturing and mass production. Carefully planned or simply improvised and extended as required, factories were an essential element in the iconography of industry and economic activity. Social historians divide them into two categories - basically pre-Ford and post-Ford. In a pre-Ford factory a single product was processed from raw materials. A post-Ford factory brought together a large number of components, many of which were made off-site, and combined them into something much greater by means of an assembly line where every intervention and activity was calculated to maximise efficiency and boost profitability. In the years of neo-liberal ascendancy, the post-Ford bargain with organised labour that ensured the workforce was sufficiently remunerated to afford to purchase the goods they produced has gradually withered away. Two powerful forces have emerged over the last 30 years to transform the modern factory - the first being automation and the second, the business of global outsourcing to secure the cheapest supply of labour. The image of the sprawling factory, often visualised from above, has completely lost the sense of awe and wonder that it once inspired. And very few remain embedded in urban areas where their presence once served as beacons in the local community as well as product advertising. It’s far more common to see images of the demolition of factory premises than to see the inauguration of new factories with the promise of employment and prosperity. To recapture any sense of that lost wonder we have to look to Asia where mega-factories such as Foxconn in China have borrowed the Victorian idea of the industrial settlement or company town and expanded it on a stupendous city-wide scale. 

Today’s employers rarely concern themselves with the welfare of their workforce - their responsibilities being confined to the simple transaction of remuneration for labour. Coercive control is the preferred model for improving productivity and the favoured tools are intrusive surveillance and real-time monitoring of performance against ever more demanding targets. Victorian paternalists had a sense of their duty to contribute to the health and education of their employees by establishing schools, colleges, libraries and clinics and paying their taxes. Little of that impulse has survived into the present where a reductivist view of human relationships dictates that business must be unimpeded by social concerns. The costs of ensuring a continuity of healthy and educated workers are for the taxpayer while business exercises its moral duty to pay as little tax as possible. Taken to its extreme this requires workers to accept terms that reduce them to anonymised units of labour with unending responsibilities and no rights. Not even assets, they are mere utilities, like water or electricity to be turned on and off as required. 

The story of the rise and fall of the factory, and the battle between capital and organised labour is told in Joshua B Freeman’s book, Behemoth - a detailed account of the birth and development of modern industry that presents a wealth of fascinating material. It was a surprise to discover that when American business began to construct textile mills on the British model they first had to evade the restrictions that Britain imposed on the emigration of skilled workers in an attempt to defend its technical advantages. New England mill owners relied on child labour and payment in vouchers redeemable at company-owned stores, just as in England. Labour shortages followed as the mills expanded in size and located to less populated areas. This lead to the large-scale recruitment of female workers and the provision of hostel accommodation with leisure and educational amenities attached. Perhaps a response to the example set by Robert Owen at New Lanark. In the absence of economically viable supplies of coal for steam power, New England operations continued to depend on water power with the result that the smoke darkened skies and atmospheric pollution of industrial England were several decades late in arriving. The result was that the early American industrialisation was a much more humane and utopian operation than its English counterpart. I had lazily assumed that the ultra-aggressive turbo-capitalism that erupted in the Reagan-Thatcher era was an all-American construction but it seems that its roots lie much closer to home. 

The images of factories displayed here are mostly taken from mid-century American advertising post-1945. This was an atypical period when organised labour briefly held the upper hand as the US economy shifted rapidly to a peacetime footing and chronic labour shortages placed unprecedented power in the hands of unionised workers. The pushback was not long in coming as employers campaigned to equate trade union activities with the new universal enemy - Soviet communism - throughout the Cold War 1950s.