“The Way We Worked” Works

Cindy Clair knew that New Haven once made clocks and carriages and steam engines. At a new exhibit about the city’s work history, Clair discovered that New Haven even manufactured bird cages (“the finest furniture for the finest pets”)—right down the block from where she now works, as an arts administrator.

Clair made that discovery at the opening reception last Thursday night for The Way We Worked”.

The exhibition fills up the business and reference room of the library with five large multiple-sided portable display “pods” that carry 86 photographs, mostly black and white, from the National Archive, and a handful of artifacts including this nifty Underwood typewriter, manufactured in Hartford in the 1920s.

The show comes to us, the first of seven stops in the state, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Connecticut Humanities Council. It runs through Jan. 19 during library hours.

If you’ve worked a range of jobs in your lifetime, and most of us have, it’s like looking through a public family album. And as Clair’s discovery illustrates, it drives home how the nature of work has changed in New Haven. Bird cages were among a number of products made in factories on and around Audubon Street. The street has been reborn as an arts mecca, including the headquarters of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, which Clair runs.

Collection of Joe Taylor.

The exhibit’s photos, spanning the years 1857 to 1987, document the human side of work: You see what people were wearing, the conditions, the evolution of unions, the changing work scene for genders, races, ethnicities.

The photos themselves are reproductions—not works of art, but works of memory. The point is to spur discussion around town and the state on what work has been, what it means in our lives, and what it is becoming.

Library staffers Patrick McGowan and Allison Botelho have augmented the traveling exhibition at the main branch itself with lots of graphic New Haveniana.

Each town along the traveling exhibit’s itinerary is encouraged to do precisely that, supplement the national images of work with local ones, said Connecticut Humanities Program Officer Scott Wands.

Botelho, New Haven’s local history librarian, has digitized a dozen images of local business brochures of local companies from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.

Tap a red dot on the touch screen of the city map on a monitor, and a product made here appears along with options to learn about the neighborhood it came from.

That’s how Cindy Clair learned about the birdcages and other pet furnishings that the Andrew B. Hendryx Company fashioned for decades in what is now her work neighborhood.

I learned that my Bilco—make that Builders Iron Corporation—doors were likely made over on 167 Hallock Ave. I learned that they were built “so easy, even a child can operate a Bilco, truly it’s the most outstanding improvement ever made in the manufacture of sidewalk doors.”

Botelho also called on local collector Joe Taylor to bring in a selection from his collection of over 9,000 images of New Haven.

Don’t miss the two display cases by the main lobby elevator and one monitor he has set up there. His photos show a crew laying trolley track on Chapel Street around 1900. Might that happen once again?

There’s an auto plant at work back in 1896, workers on boats seeding oysters, a bicycle messenger shop, a piano company hoisting an instrument up to a second floor apartment in the 1860s. 

There is something very immediate and time-transporting about photographs; I found myself wondering what would happen if the horse pulling the piano-laden wagon suddenly startled.

On the monitor are extensive images of the city gas works and a dozen photographs capturing the sprawling flea market on Oak Street (pictured) before it disappeared in the building of the Route 34 Connector.

Related exhibitions, performances, and readings around town related to this project include “The Erector Set at 100” at the Eli Whitney Museum; The “Beyond The New Township: Wooster Square” exhibition at the New Haven Museum; and a photographic show on the Olin-Winchester factories mounted by the Greater New Haven Labor History Association at Gateway Community College.

Upcoming in January and February are other shows on how artists work, organized by the Arts Council.

Click here for the list of programs —book discussions, panels, performances—at the branches of the library throughout the winter.

“From your alarm clock going off in the morning to your tooth brush at night, there’s nothing you do between waking and going to sleep that doesn’t involve work, something you do, or done by others,” said Wands.

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posted by: Maryann Ott on December 18, 2013  10:16am

... and Bilco Corporation is still headquartered in greater New Haven. How fantastic is that?!