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Photo by Faith Moosang
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Blue Star Foods factory workers
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Factory workers in front of potato chip boxes
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Workers beside van / woman applying makeup
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Factory workers and Sachs brothers
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Drinking at a bar
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Women drinking at picnic table
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Man and woman
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Groups of three
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Factory employee at work
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Workers on break
Who compiled the found photo album of women who worked together at the potato chip factory in the 1940s? The answer is in the images, but you have to know where to look.
I forget how the photo album with these pictures in it came to me. Perhaps it was a purchase from my early forays into eBay, in which case I wouldn’t remember its provenance. For me, a collector of albums who once spent hours each week scouring thrift stores for such gems as these, eBay was like a casino where every machine paid out. I described each new acquisition by saying, “I won this on eBay.” I was gluttonous. Out of control. It is a common enough story. What do they say?—whatever happens on eBay stays on eBay.
Whatever did happen, I ended up with this album: 434 images arranged within one tooled-leather enclosure, almost all of which are pictures of women who worked in the Blue Star Foods potato chip factory in Rockford, Illinois, pre–, during and post–World War II. Women in large groups and small groups, in happy pairs and alone. Working at their potato chip machines, laughing in the lunchroom, eating cake at company picnics. And then the not-so-subtle shift: the men begin to appear as they return from the war. Until they show up, it is easy to forget that they have been dying elsewhere. The joy of female companionship captured here seems to deny that carnage. What men appear in the album during the war have a certain lack of presence: they are slight, old, even twerpy, and visually they do not intrude on the obvious matriarchy.
In this album there is clear evidence of a heavy hand, not only in the grouping of the people and the taking of the pictures, but also in the assembly of the entire album. Whose hand recorded this history?
Normally, a photographic album is created by one person. Normally, it is easy to discern who this person is, because not only do they appear in many of the pictures, but also they are surrounded by changing groups of family and friends. It is the one who is prevalent and continuous that tends to be the creator. But in this collection, there was no human anchor in the endless shifting of hundreds of individuals and groups. More than four hundred images, many of them densely populated (there are over 1,800 faces in the album)—the complexities of unravelling this mystery were vast.
In collecting and musing on albums, I have found that it is largely women who document their lives and the lives of their families. But with this album, an exuberance of women, I looked for other clues.
I carefully removed the images from the album, hoping that someone had annotated the backs of them. Indeed, someone had. Here existed a precise world of names, places, dates, events; people came, left, retired, married and went to war under the avid eye of this chronicler. That she (for the handwriting was feminine) was the de facto potato chip factory historian should have been obvious to me from the pictures themselves, both the number of them and the compact thematic focus—the socializing of female factory employees at work and at factory-sponsored events. But which one was she?
Early on in the album there are images of a woman who seemed to be a likely candidate: she carries a camera (indicating an interest in photography) and she takes command of the space in the photographs. In fact, her matriarchal qualities are everywhere in evidence. She seems to be the oldest woman on the factory floor, and although pictures are still, I sense that it is she who arranged people for presentation in the images. In many photos, her hand encircles the waists of the younger women, not in a friendly way but in a “you stand here” way. Am I imagining the fear in the eyes of the younger workers? As well, in the formal group portraits taken by a professional photographer, this woman is invariably at the front, near the Sachs family, who are the owners of the factory. Perhaps she was the foreman, at a time when few men were available to supervise operations. Perhaps she was the fastest chip-machine operator. But however palpable her power, I thought she could not be the album creator because in the annotations she is referred to in the third person. Her name is Ida.
My second candidate was a young Greek woman named Ronnie. The pictures of her in the album are fairly intimate: they include images of her home life and her family. Then, abruptly, Ronnie is seen with her co-workers, enjoying her post-war goodbye cake. Evidently it was time for her to return to the domestic sphere.
It took me a long time to study and record the information in this album. I pulled out all 434 photographs, one at a time, easing them out of their brittle black corners, which had been pasted onto the pages. I wrote down any words written on the backs, creating a schema showing what was written on which image and then returning each one to its original location. By image number 428, I still had no idea whose album it was.
Image 429. Finally. Written hastily on the page, in blue pen: “Arlene Parker and me.” I turned the photograph over. It had been taken in August 1960 at an amusement park, which the Blue Star Foods factory had probably leased for the annual summer picnic. Two women. Arlene Parker—who shows up in numerous images throughout the album—carrying her purse, a camera and a box tucked beneath her left arm. And right behind her, half-hidden, is Ida.
I was shocked. Until now, almost at the end, Ida had referred to herself in the third person. Who does that, in something as intimate as a photo album? That she puts herself on the same level as her co-workers—Aggie, Eleanor, Hazel, Pearl—might indicate a humble nature, but visually she is anything but. There are other possible answers. Ida may have been a born chronicler and the album may be a record, created not for personal consumption but purely as totem. The album, after all, is not much concerned with home and family. It is a sweeping record of the people working in a factory from May 1940, the year after the factory was opened by the Sachs brothers, to September 1960, when Ida either retired or died. (Indeed, one gets a sense that she literally had no life beyond the factory walls.) Perhaps she had the foresight to recognize the significance of women being marshalled for the forces of production. Perhaps she had been waiting for such a moment as this all her life. Perhaps she knew that albums outlive their creators and called herself Ida within its pages so that someone would remember her. In this vein, perhaps she had no family. Then again, she may have kept family albums as well, and the great sea that is eBay simply did not wash them up. Or eBay did wash them up, and they slipped past my watchful eyes.