Telephone line repairmen at work, August 15, 1929 WHI 9105
International Harvester Glass Negative Series, 1900-1939
The central image files of the International Harvester Company have begun to come online. More than 500 photographs are now available from its so-called Glass Negative Series, the corporation's primary photograph collection. It 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.
A young woman poses in a studio
with two young pigs, 1900
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.
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 now the cream of the crop are coming online at Wisconsin Historical Images. More than 500 are currently available and additional images from the glass plates will stream online in months to come.
'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
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.
View the Gallery
Subscribe to Wisconsin Historical Images Email Updates
To learn more about the Society's online image collections, subscribe to our monthly email newsletter. You'll never miss a featured gallery again.