I stared at the search results, unable to make heads or tails of the metal contraptions on my screen. I wanted to be an archivist, not an engineer. I had no idea what I was looking at!
Hours after the excitement of finding out that I had been offered an archival internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History through the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, I was trying to figure out what exactly I was going to spend the summer working on. I had spoken to my soon-to-be supervisor, Alison Oswald, during the interview process and she had told me that the first collection lined up for me to process was the records of the Worthington Corporation, a key manufacturer of steam pumps during the twentieth century. Now that I had accepted the internship, I felt it was time to look up what exactly a steam pump was.
But as I looked at one after another, I began to worry. If I couldn’t figure out what these pumps did or how they worked, would I be able to make sense of the company’s papers? I had never processed corporate records before. I truly didn’t know the answer. By the end of the project though, I realized that I had been worried about nothing. The pumps were not the star of the show. To me at least, the slivers of Worthington’s company culture that peeked through in many of the files proved to be the most fascinating part of the whole collection.
So, what to make of this collection as a whole? I still can’t tell you all that much about the Worthington Corporation’s business practices. The collection was first acquired by the Division of Mechanical and Civil Engineering sometime in the 1960s. At that time, the Division’s collecting interests placed less focus on the history of companies themselves and more on the technological developments they brought about. Questions about their corporate structure, business practices, or annual profits can’t be answered by this collection. Do you want pictures of their products? That’s covered here. You want to see trade literature made to promote and sell those products? Of course! You want to learn about how Worthington pumps made their way onto the USS Monitor during the American Civil War? Well . . . no. That got left out.
None of this is to say that the collection lacks value to researchers. The collection’s trade literature, describing Worthington’s products from the 1890s onward, is quite extensive. There are also several drafts of a history of the company written by John F. Grace, a longtime employee at Worthington’s New York City office. While not the final word on the company, they provide insight into the corporation’s growth and some of its personalities.
For me though, the most enthralling parts of the collection were also the most visually appealing. Processing collections as a graduate student, I have come across administrative records many times. I had assumed that Worthington would have more of the same—dry correspondence, sales orders, things like that. What I hadn’t expected to find were the dozen or so pen and pencil sketches tucked into the collection.
John F. Grace, as it turns out, was also a fair amateur artist in his younger days. One of the first boxes I looked through held a trove of pencil sketches and ink drawings done by Grace. According to dates on some of them, the illustrations appear to have been created in the late 1910s and early 1920s, thirty-five to forty years before Grace wrote his company history.
Some drawings are stranger than others. One drawing, depicting a giant figure named “Lud” Weir who is about to scoop a man named Pulman out of his bed, created more questions than it answered. Who was Pulman? Was he a nervous employee or one known for having nightmares? Why did the moon have to look so creepy? Most pressingly, who or what was “Lud” Weir? I didn’t come across the name of this spectral figure haunting poor, old Pulman’s dreams anywhere else in the collection. Was he Pulman’s superior? A difficult customer? A business rival? And why was he looming over Pulman’s bed late at night, looking ready to eat his soul? There was some kind of inside joke here. That seemed to be the case with most of the drawings in this collection. Whatever the meaning of these jokes, they have been lost to history.Most of these drawings depict the work environment and poke fun at Grace’s coworkers and superiors. The collection as a whole does not contain much on Worthington’s New York office or its employees, leaving them shrouded in mystery. These illustrations are the closest we come to understanding them.
Some of these drawings aren’t all that different than the motivational posters found in a modern-day breakroom. Others, espousing the masculinity of factory work versus retail work or flouting child labor laws, seem less likely to appear in a cubicle near you today. Yet they certainly speak to the values of the early twentieth century and what the Worthington Corporation wanted to instill in its employees.I also got a kick out going through old copies of Deane News, the newsletter produced by Worthington’s Deane Works for its employees in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Most front pages of the Deane News featured mustachioed executives of yesteryear, but for at least a few months in late 1920, the newsletter started to feature gloriously “inspirational” cartoons on the cover. These cartoons provide a small window into the work culture of the factory and the values that the management at Deane Works wanted to instill in its employees.
So here’s to you Uptodate Engineer! The Archives Center now holds more than just your technical papers and advertising literature, it holds a few slices of what life working for the Worthington Corporation was like.
To learn more about the Worthington Corporation and its place in the history of technology, visit the Archives Center.
Miles Lawlor is a graduate student at the State University of New York, Albany.