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COLLECTION Identifier: Mss:1412 1920-1941 B979

Industrial Life Photograph Collection


Photographs collected by the Business Historical Society to document major industries in the United States and industrial processes.


  • Creation: 1920-1941

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Materials stored onsite. Please contact for more information.


54 linear feet (58 boxes)

A collection of photographs containing 2,106 black and white prints of various sizes. The photographs depict the operations of more than 115 different companies. The images include men and women at work, production methods, research laboratories, factory exteriors, offices, completed products, and manufactured equipment, such as agricultural and road building machinery, in use. Most photographs illustrate factory operations in the early 1930s. Some appear to depict earlier scenes, possibly from the 1910s and 1920s. The majority of photographs represent American businesses, but companies in Sweden, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia are also represented. Many of the businesses contacted were exhibitors at the Century of Progress International Exposition, the 1933 world’s fair held in Chicago, so some photographs depict exhibition dioramas displayed at the fair.

The majority of the photographs are accompanied by captions written by the donor company. The information provided varies from a single line to extensive descriptions, including specifications for machinery. Most of the photographs were originally produced for use in publicity documents such as annual reports, picture books, and advertisements. The photographs were therefore controlled images, selected by the company to show its business in the best possible light.

The photographs are arranged by an industry number derived from the Industries List of the Baker Library Classification of Business Literature, followed by a Cutter number based on the name of the company. Related industries are grouped together to create twenty-six series, also derived from the Classification of Business Literature. For example, the Bethlehem Steel Company is listed as Steel industry, Group # :301 B563 in Series II, Mining and metallurgy industries. Each group list includes the company name, its industry and group number, a brief description of the photographs, and the date of gift. The names of any photographers appearing on the photographs are also included. The photographer may not be responsible for all images in a group.

Historical Note

During the expansion of industry between the end of World War I and the late 1930s, photography was widely used to promote industry. Throughout the 1930s, the Business Historical Society (BHS) made a great effort to collect photographs of all the major industries in the United States. Frank C. Ayres, executive secretary of the Business Historical Society, sent out numerous letters to businesses requesting “action photos of mechanical operations” for permanent deposit at Baker Library. Ayres explained that these photographs were very useful to the students of the Harvard Business School. The photographs helped the students to visualize the industrial operations that they would experience in the future. Potential donors were told that the photographs would be displayed in the corridors and lecture rooms of Baker Library. Ayers also stressed the importance of preserving such images for use by future generations.

A wide range of businesses, from automobile manufacturers to paper mills, contributed photographs. Typically, Ayres requested specific images that he found published either in a company’s promotional materials in Fortune magazine. Ayres also made an effort to contact companies that exhibited at the Century of Progress International Exposition, the world's fair held in Chicago, Illinois, in 1933. Many of the companies that listed as exhibitors in the Official Guide Book of the Fair sent photographs to the Business Historical Society.

Professor Donald Hills Davenport, Associate Professor of Business Statistics at the Harvard Business School, also played a key role in the growth of the photograph collection. Professor Davenport collected photographs that illustrated the human factor in industry. Davenport’s guiding purpose was building a foundation for better understanding of industrial relations, as he believed most students had only a vague concept of manpower in industry. Like Frank Ayres, Davenport acquired photographs from specific companies and from Fortune magazine.

Donor companies typically sent groups of photographs that illustrated their activities during the 1920s and early 1930s. Most of the photographs arrived in 1933 and 1934. In the March 1932 (Vol. VI, No. 2) and May 1934 (Vol. VIII, No. 3) issues, the Bulletin of the Business Historical Society published articles describing the photographs and their use at Harvard Business School. By 1936, Frank Ayres stopped actively collecting photographs for the Business Historical Society. The number of incoming photographs declined, although donations were received until the early 1940s.

Series Outline

The collection is arranged in the following series:

  1. Series I. Agricultural industries
  2. Series II. Mining and metallurgy industries
  3. Series III. Manufacturing industries – animal products (non-edible)
  4. Series IV. Manufacturing industries – foods and beverages
  5. Series V. Manufacturing industries – textiles
  6. Series VI. Manufacturing industries - paper
  7. Series VII. Metal manufacturing industries
  8. Series VIII. Machinery manufacturing industries
  9. Series IX. Automobile manufacturing
  10. Series X. Railroad equipment manufacturing
  11. Series XI. Handling and conveying machinery manufacturing
  12. Series XII. Air transportation equipment manufacturing
  13. Series XIII. Electrical power generation and transmission equipment and electrical appliance manufacturing
  14. Series XIV. Specialized metal manufacturing
  15. Series XV. Non-metallic mineral manufacturing
  16. Series XVI. Manufacture of chemicals and chemical manufacturing
  17. Series XVII. Rubber products manufacturing
  18. Series XVIII. Leather manufacturing
  19. Series XIX. Mixed manufacturing
  20. Series XX. Printing and publishing industry
  21. Series XXI. Recreation industries
  22. Series XXII. Engineering and building construction
  23. Series XXIII. Land transportation services
  24. Series XXIV. Air transportation services
  25. Series XXV. Communication services
  26. Series XXVI. Marketing services

Physical Location


Separated Material:

Publications were removed and cataloged as part of the Historical Collections Department’s book collection. These publications can be found by searching for the title in the Harvard Library Online Catalog.

Processing Information

Processed: January 2001

By: Maggie Hale

Processing Note:

The photographic prints were organized as a single collection during the Historical Collections photographic survey project of 1999 to 2001. The photographs were previously a part of the Historical Collections PM (Pictures of Manufacturing) picture file. They were reviewed and identified based on date, subject, and provenance. The collection was refoldered and reboxed. Individual photographs were placed into Mylar sleeves. When not attached, captions were photocopied onto acid-free buffered paper and placed behind photographs. Photographs were then placed in acid-free buffered folders and boxes. The photographs were boxed according to size, so photographs for an individual company might be found in several different boxes. The inventory indicates where photographs can be found. Custom-size boxes were used for large groupings of odd-sized photographs, and a few photographs required map case storage.

Some donors sent publications such as company picture books or other advertising materials along with the photographs. These related materials were physically separated from the photographs. Manuscript materials are housed in Box 58.


Business Historical Society. Industrial Life Photograph Collection, ca. 1920-1941: A Finding Aid
Baker Library
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Baker Library Special Collections and Archives, Harvard Business School Repository

Baker Library Special Collections and Archives holds unique resources that focus on the evolution of business and industry, as well as the records of the Harvard Business School, documenting the institution's development over the last century. These rich and varied collections support research in a diverse range of fields such as business, economic, social and cultural history as well as the history of science and technology.

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