Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

International Harvester Glass Negative Series, 1900-1939 - Image Gallery Essay

Primary photograph collection of the International Harvester company. | Wisconsin Historical Society
Two telephone line repair men hanging from a line, one of them on a ladder.

Telephone Line Repairmen at Work, 1929

A crew of telephone line repairmen working on a rural line with their International truck parked below them. View the original source document: WHI 9105

EnlargeYoung woman poses in a dress and bonnet in a studio. She is holding two young pigs.

"Pigs in Clover", 1900

Chicago, Illinois. Young woman poses in a dress and bonnet in a studio. She is holding two young pigs. The image was likely used by the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company as the basis of an advertising illustration. An original caption scratched on the negative reads "Pigs in Clover." View the original source document: WHI 92002

The central image files of the International Harvester Company are available online. More than 500 photographs are available from its so-called Glass Negative Series, the corporation's primary photograph collection. This collection is a treasure trove of imagery for anyone interested in farmers, farm animals, factory workers, tractors, advertising, small-town life and dozens of other topics.

More Than Marketing

A century ago, the International Harvester Company was the largest farm equipment manufacturer in the world. It had 10,000 dealerships around the U.S. selling everything from tractors to baling twine. Its advertising department published a company magazine, brochures, posters and pamphlets.

The company's marketers needed images to tell their story, so they solicited photos from dealers and customers across the nation. The Engineering department also took photographs that documented recent inventions, and the Consumer Relations staff created images to use in parts manuals and catalogs. Executives were eager to show that the International Harvester factories were stellar examples of safe, clean, modern workplaces and that workers were happy and productive, and that they, too, took photographs.

EnlargeInternational Harvester advertising artist sitting at his desk in a studio office with a wistful look on his face. Graphics from Deering brand advertisements are propped up behind him. The photo was likely taken at the company's McCormick Works.

Graphic Artist in Office with Drawings, 1920 ca.

International Harvester advertising artist sitting at his desk in a studio office with a wistful look on his face. Graphics from Deering brand advertisements are propped up behind him. The photo was likely taken at the company's McCormick Works. View the original source document: WHI 9365

All these images flowed into a central file that eventually numbered 12,000 glass-plate negatives. These came to the Society 60 years ago with other company records. The best ones were indexed and microfilmed in the 1980s, and the cream of the crop are online at Wisconsin Historical Images. More than 500 are currently available and additional images from the glass plates will be added.

'Too Many Broken Negatives'

Dealers in small towns around the nation were eager to have their sales mentioned in the company magazine, Harvester World. They often posed a recently sold truck or tractor in an iconic local setting, hired a photographer to shoot it and then mailed the negative to Chicago in hopes of seeing their business promoted in the company magazine.

Editors insisted on 8x10 inch glass-plate negatives that captured extremely rich detail and produced excellent printed photos. Unfortunately, these often didn't survive shipping from Albuquerque or Bangor. Nearly half of them broke en route. This prompted editors to plead for better packing in this 1917 article. Since arriving at the Society, the fragile glass plates have been carefully housed in acid-free envelopes and moved from wooden crates into proper archival containers.

People as Well as Products

EnlargeA young girl sits in the seat of a farm implement and holds onto reins as an older bearded man assists. The image was likely used as a model for advertising art.

Young Child and Bearded Man, 1902 ca.

A young girl sits in the seat of a farm implement and holds onto reins as an older bearded man assists. The image was likely used as a model for advertising art. View the original source document: WHI 91804

Besides images of machine parts and motor vehicles, the Glass Plate Series contains thousands of images showing workers in International Harvester factories. Some were taken to illustrate working conditions and carefully staged to convey a message. Others were created mainly to document industrial processes but the staff, who were considered peripheral when the shutter was snapped, have unintentionally evolved into the most interesting elements in the photo. Still others appear to be deliberate portraits of workers, perhaps taken at significant events like anniversaries or retirements.

Taken together, these images are a tremendously rich source of information on working-class Americans at the peak of the industrial age. Because they were captured on large-format glass plates, the subsequent scans are unusually rich and vivid.

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