Tuesday, November 12, 2019

How We Used to Work...

The recent Smithsonian traveling exhibit—The Way We Worked— that visited Drake Community Library this summer got me thinking about how work has changed over time in Grinnell. It is easy to think how computers have affected today's work, but what about further back in time? Had Grinnellians of an earlier age experienced similarly dramatic change in their work world? As I thought about it, I wondered if I might use the occupations identified in the Grinnell censuses to see how work in 1940—the most recent census available—could be distinguished from work in 1870 Grinnell. Today's post examines some of those changes.
Early Settlers of Grinnell (ca. 1870): front row, L-R: Ed Wright, Caerlis Fisher, R.M. Kellogg, Levi Grinnell; 
Back row: Henderson Herrick, W. M. Sargent, Ezra Grinnell.
Drake Community Library Archives, Miscellaneous photographs, Collection #17-6, People (Digital Grinnell)
The 1870 US Census found a total of 1482 people in Grinnell, a town that was not yet twenty years old. Many (most?) of the town's first residents were hardy individualists who had abandoned the social bonds of the east coast to hack out a living on their own. Founded on the rich soil of the prairie, Grinnell had from the beginning an agricultural bent, and the census gives some shape to this orientation. The 1870 census found in town 31 farmers and 17 retired farmers, along with another 16 men who described themselves as farm laborers. In the townships that stretched out from the town still more isolated farmsteads headquartered efforts to tame the prairie.

Although the lure of successful farming brought many settlers to town, J. B. Grinnell had another reason for choosing this particular spot to found Grinnell: he had word that railroads would pass through this territory, bringing with them new jobs as well as excellent connections for Grinnell's residents and nascent businesses. Of course, the railroads did come—the first train reached town in 1863—and they brought with them numerous jobs. The 1870 Grinnell census counted 35 railroad employees as well as a railroad ticket agent and four men involved in railroad construction. Over subsequent decades the railroads also brought new settlers to town, encouraging the growth of Grinnell.
Photograph of the First Train to Arrive in Grinnell, June 1863
Drake Community Library Local History Archive, McNally Photographs, Collection #1, Series #1-3 (Digital Grinnell)
If farming and railroads provided much of the original ballast for the new town, Iowa College, which officially moved to Grinnell in 1858, added substantial heft. The 1870 census counted 95 men and 46 women as attending the college. The town's public schools, which in 1870 were still in their infancy, accounted for another 60 male and 83 female students. Of the remaining men in town, 52 listed their occupation as "day laborer," which meant that on any given day they might—or might not—have work and a day's wages.
Horse-drawn Buggies at Service at Original Congregational Church (Before 1877)
Drake Community Library Archives, McNally Photographs,  Collection #1, Series #1-3 (Digital Grinnell)
In an age that preceded the automobile, trades connected to horses and horse-drawn vehicles were very visible—and necessary. In 1870 Grinnell there were 13 blacksmiths (and one retired blacksmith), five harness makers (and one apprentice harness maker), one saddler, and eight wagon makers. Five teamsters, two draymen and two livery stables also contributed to an economy that depended upon horses. Among the trades which in a pre-industrial economy governed production, carpentry was dominant: 32 men told the census-takers that they were carpenters. No one in 1870 Grinnell plied the trade of plumbing, because there was not yet either a central water system or sewer system.
Undated photograph of McNally's Meat Market, 915 Main St., Grinnell
Drake Community Library Local History Archive (Digital Grinnell)
Seven shoemakers worked in 1870 Grinnell, along with six butchers, four painters, and four tailors. Two glove-makers, two plasterers, two photographers, and two jewelers (and an apprentice jeweler) added to the local mix. Of course, there were lawyers—five—and physicians—five—along with four clergymen; there was just one dentist, but four hotel keepers. One college president, one superintendent of schools, 23 schoolteachers (mostly female), and three college professors helped round out Grinnell's 1870 professions.
Interior of Bailey-Rinefort Hardware Store, 914-916 Main Street, Grinnell (ca. 1902)
Drake Community Library Local History Archive (Digital Grinnell)
Grinnell in 1870 could also boast a variety of businesses. Eleven men counted as dry goods merchants—this when most clothes were still hand-made—and nine grocers had shops in town. Eight men ran lumber yards (thereby enabling carpenters to do their work), six owned hardware stores, five operated drug stores, and three men were produce dealers. But there was just one banker, two (male) bookkeepers, one postmaster, and one realtor. Similarly, there was just one printer, a single machine dealer, one gardener, one coal merchant, and a single cabinet maker, among others.
1881 Photograph of Alta Ingersoll Matteson (1829-1899) who "kept house" for her husband & family at 5th and West
Grinnell Historical Museum (Digital Grinnell)
1870 Grinnell offered women many fewer work opportunities, a reflection of a society that was strongly gendered. Far and away the most frequent calling attributed to women in 1870 Grinnell was "keeping house," to which the census assigned 226 women. Fifteen more told census-takers that they were "Assistant housekeepers," and another 40 worked as domestics. Other female occupations also hewed to the gender stereotype: seven women were milliners, two were seamstresses, and two were dressmakers. Fifteen other women were school teachers, and three more were music teachers. Several women operated boarding houses or rented rooms, but there was just one waitress, one washerwoman, one "kitchen girl," one cook, one (female) bookkeeper, and a couple of clerks. In other words, most women in 1870s Grinnell stayed close to the hearth, and relatively few worked within the town's cash economy.
By 1940 Grinnell's population had reached 5219, more than three times the size of the 1870 town. More important than the change in size, however, were changes in technology and therefore changes in what constituted work. Traces of occupations known to the 1870 census remained in 1940. For example, 1940 Grinnell still had blacksmiths (four), a single harness maker, and just one shoemaker. But liveries were no more, and wagon-makers, too, were gone. In their place the 1940 census included all sorts of jobs that had no mention whatsoever in 1870, and demonstrated a reorientation of work—away from artisanal trades and increasingly toward specialized factory work and the sale of manufactured goods. This change, in turn, encouraged a growing professionalization and stratification of labor.
Undated Photograph of Grinnell Canning Factory, founded in 1912
Drake Community Library, Local History Archive, McNally photographs. Collection #1, Series #1-3 (Digital Grinnell)
Some of Grinnell's earliest factories (like Spaulding and Grinnell Washing Machine) had already disappeared by 1940, but other factories in town—like the Canning Factory, the Morrison-Shults Manufacturing Co., and Lannom Shoe Factory—exerted a powerful influence upon the twentieth-century work force. For example, at least 28 men in 1940 worked as machine operators or machinists, and the census counted almost 200 men employed as "laborers" and another 18 as "employees" (all without the support of a union).

By 1940 manufacturing itself had changed, the assembly line having displaced the artisan-like workshops that had prevailed earlier. Within a single factory one could discover a broad range of specialized tasks, none of which had existed in 1870. In the Morrison-Shults factory, for example, the manufacture of gloves now required numerous specialized jobs. The 1940 census found within the glove factory "cutters," "finishers," "polishers" and "glove liners." There were also stitchers, trimmers, lining sewers, fitters, and those who did hems and fancy stitches. Likewise, the shoe factory, organized on the bones of the old Spaulding works, had jobs with names like cutters, stitchers, eyelet operators, insolers [sic], sanders, rounders, hemmers, sewers, finishers and shoe trimmers. Overseeing all this specialized work were managers and supervisors, differentiated in title and pay from factory labor.
An undated photograph from the Glove Factory shows male supervisors overseeing women sewers
(Photographer unknown) Grinnell Historical Museum
No one in 1870 claimed the title of manager, but 1940 Grinnell had 38 of them, assisted by 20 foremen. Similarly, supervisors had been unknown to 1870 Grinnell, but in 1940 there were nine of them, as well as a handful of inspectors. Although there were a fair number of shop owners in 1870 Grinnell, there were no "proprietors" named in that year's census. The 1940 census, however, assigned that title to 62 men (along with 14 "owners"). The overwhelming majority of these proprietors operated stores that sold the increasing variety of manufactured products. For example, Ben Tarleton operated Ben's Tire Shop at 719 4th Avenue, and Frank Mitchell sold Buicks and Pontiacs at Mitchell Motor Company, across the street at 716 4th. Star Clothing at 918 Main and Preston's Clothing at 801 4th Avenue were just two of five stores and three department stores that sold ready-to-wear clothing.
Ben's Tire Shop, 719 4th Avenue (ca. 1950)
Digital Grinnell/Poweshiek History Preservation Project
A similar consequence of changed patterns of manufacturing was the growth of jobs in sales. The 1870 census identified nine men as "traveling salesmen," but in 1940 more than 100 Grinnell men counted as salesmen. Men like Virgil Jones (1912-1995) might drive all over the West in search of buyers for the output of the Lannom Shoe Factory. The numerous salesmen reflected both the arrival of mass production and the reorganization of the work force, assigning more jobs to people who sold the increased factory output.
1930s (?) Photograph of Delivery Truck for Grinnell Dairy, 934 Main Street
Drake Community Library, Local History Archive, Main Street Slides, p.8, slide 13 (Digital Grinnell)
Although horses dominated travel in the nineteenth century before trains supplanted them, the twentieth century gave birth to the automobile and its cousin, the motorized truck. This technological transition had its impact upon the work force in Grinnell:  in 1940 71 men listed their occupation as truck driver, and another 48 had jobs as mechanics. Of course in 1870 there were no gas stations, but in 1940 Grinnell a handful of "filling stations" (the 1940 city directory counted 16!) employed fifteen (or more) men as attendants. Horses, which had been at the center of transportation in 1870, had become instead a means of recreation and entertainment.
White Star Filling Station, Northeast corner of 5th & Main Streets (Opened in 1917; by 1940 known as Hunter's Garage)
Poweshiek Historic Preservation Project (Digital Grinnell)
The proliferation of electricity and telephone networks meant that in 1940 there were ten men who worked as "linemen," and another man who supervised them. Three men had jobs reading the meters that measured electricity and water use, jobs unimagined in 1870. The census also found a half-dozen men who worked as electricians and an electrical engineer was also at work in 1940 Grinnell. The census found three women who worked as telephone operators and several men ran the telegraph.
Catherine Haines at Switchboard (ca. 1950)
(Photographer Unknown; PHPP, Digital Grinnell)
Against this background of increased mechanization and industrialization, agriculture remained important in 1940 Grinnell. The census that year counted 50 farmers (both active and retired) who lived in town. But there were also "meat cutters," a livestock buyer, and a meat packer, who worked for a packing company, indications of how agriculture was increasingly penetrated by factory methods. Carpenters also had a strong presence: the 1940 census counted forty men as carpenters (compared to 32 carpenters in 1870). The frame houses that today still define most of the town's housing stock remind us that carpenters continued to play a vital role in twentieth-century Grinnell. And by 1940 many—although far from all—houses demanded the services of the sixteen plumbers known to the census. The backyard biffie was on its way to extinction as city sewer systems found their way beneath the city streets.

Work in 1940 Grinnell remained highly gendered, although the census reveals that the gender boundaries were breaking down. The category of "keeping house" disappeared from the census, but census-takers did find 45 female housekeepers and another 25 women who did "housework." Eleven women worked as maids; 26 as waitresses (the 1940 city directory identified 15 "restaurants and lunch rooms," another indication of a changed work world), and 33 as "seamstresses," work which brought women's labor increasingly into the cash economy. Industry also helped break down old gender stereotypes: in 1940 at least twenty-seven women reported that they worked as machinists or machine operators, occupations unknown to nineteenth-century Grinnell women.
1940 Photograph of Ina Sprague (1891-1979), longtime teacher and principal of Davis School
Grinnell Historical Museum; Roger Preston, Photographer (Digital Grinnell)
Teaching continued to attract many women: the 1940 census counted 67 women teachers (including five at the college). For a long time Iowa school districts required that women teachers not only remain unmarried (I. N. Edwards, "Marriage as a Legal Cause for Dismissal of Women Teachers," The Elementary School Journal, v. 25 [May 1924]:692-95), but some even demanded that they "not keep company with men." It was no coincidence, therefore, that female teachers like Nettie Bayley (1878-1961), who taught for fifty years in Grinnell, went their whole lives without marrying.
Undated Photograph of Nettie Bayley (1878-1961), Longtime Teacher and Principal of Parker School
Professionalization within the economy also meant employment for people who created and curated business records, coincidentally bringing more women into the public work force. Skilled work as bookkeeper, for instance, in 1940 pulled eighteen women into the same work environment as men. Sales had a similar effect, occupying 22 Grinnell women in 1940. Another twenty-eight women worked as clerks, fifteen were secretaries and fifteen more worked as stenographers, all of them keeping track of orders, invoices, and correspondence that mushroomed with the local economy. Women in 1940 Grinnell were also found within the professions. Wilma Rayburn, for example, was one of the half-dozen lawyers in town, and Martha Derr practiced dentistry (although the 1940 city directory does not include her among the seven dentists it lists).

The 1940 census also offers a contrast with 1870 in another way: the Depression and election of Franklin Roosevelt meant that the federal government got into the business of creating jobs. In 1940 27 men worked as laborers for the Works Progress Administration (WPA; later Work Projects Administration). One man told census-takers that he did road work for WPA, but it seems likely that many of the 21 ditch-diggers the census found were also working for WPA. Here, too, however, work-place stratification was visible. One man reported his job as a WPA administrator, for instance, and another man was a WPA foreman.

Women, too, gained wage employment from the WPA, although many of these jobs perpetuated old stereotypes. There was, for instance, a WPA female cook and two WPA housekeepers. Six women were WPA seamstresses, and three were WPA-funded teachers.
Grinnell boys at work in NYA workshop
(Pictorial Highlights on the Iowa NYA, Theodor P. Eslick, State Administrator [n.p: Federal Security Agency, n. d.), p. 28.
Federal dollars also sustained Grinnell jobs in the National Youth Administration (NYA). According to newspaper reporting, NYA supported as many as 40 local men between the ages of 18 and 25. "The Grinnell project offers workshop training in wood working and refinishing, mechanics, welding, painting and other types of vocational training," the newspaper announced (Grinnell Herald Register, September 19, 1940). As elsewhere, some men landed supervisory jobs, but most of the youth worked further down the ladder. The 1940 Grinnell census found one man working as an NYA administrator, another as an NYA county foreman, and a third as an NYA recreation supervisor. Among Grinnell women the census identified an NYA-supported typist and an NYA-funded teacher. NYA also supported sewing projects, involving at least two women identified as NYA seamstresses and two more who identified their NYA job as "sewer." Late in 1940 the Grinnell sewing room (829 1/2 Broad Street), which had been headquartered above the Broadway department store on Broad Street, was closed down in favor of a new NYA project intended to "give girls between the ages of 18 and 25 practical experience in cooking, sewing and other phases of homemaking" (Grinnell Herald-Register, September 19, 1940).
Census reports cannot fully describe the changes in work over time; inevitably some occupations bleed across these chronological boundaries. But a comparison of 1870 Grinnell jobs with those reported to the 1940 US Census does show an enormous transition over those seventy years. Most work in early Grinnell depended upon the individual: farmers and artisans in the main could control their work space and output, and, like the many day-laborers available to the market, found themselves vulnerable to changes in the larger economy. Work in 1870 Grinnell was also strongly gendered, with most women confined to the domestic sphere, working outside the cash economy. Although the railroad reached Grinnell soon after its founding, most men and women of 1870 Grinnell depended upon horses for most of their travel, which is why small barns or carriage houses (along with outhouses) stood behind so many Grinnell homes.

By 1940 Grinnell was much more closely tied to the world beyond the city limits. One world war had already affected town, and another was imminent. The trains came and went with ever greater frequency, and airplanes had become common sights in the sky. Grinnellians rode trains and planes, but also drove their cars and trucks all across the country. Increasingly automobiles occupied those backyard carriage houses, and outhouses disappeared as indoor plumbing became common. Production processes gave men and women new specialized jobs, and called others into jobs selling factory output. The larger factory labor force gave rise to differentiation within the workplace as managers, supervisors, and directors scaled the ladder. Although the bonds of the domestic sphere remained strong in 1940 Grinnell, the new economy, thirsty for factory hands, drew many women away from the hearth and into the public work force, a trend that World War II would hasten and expand.


  1. I found your piece on “How We Used to Work…” in Grinnell fascinating. Things change a great deal in a relatively short time span.

  2. The coal merchant in 1870 makes me think: Was wood scarce enough in central Iowa that coal was the main heat source? Where did it come from? (Dubuque area?) As we think of fossil fuel use today, it is interesting to see how heat and power was done in earlier days.

    1. At the time most lumber was imported too. I am not sure of the origin of the coal, but nineteenth-century Iowa had a number of coal mines not far from Grinnell, so I suspect that the coal (soft coal, I assume) came to town from several sources.