Domestic work, with its long hours, low pay, and low status, was the most common form of employment for women until the 1920s. An unknown photographer took this view of a maid with two children in Washington, DC's Meridian Hill Park around 1910. National Archives and Records Administration


Archived exhibitions are no longer available for booking but are maintained as a virtual record of past Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) programs.

U.S. Postal Service workers listen to music while sorting mail to relieve the monotony and noise of their work and machines in this ca. 1973 photograph by George J. Szabo.

Work and the workplace have gone through enormous changes between the mid-19th century, when 60 percent of Americans made their living as farmers, and the late-20th century, with its shift from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. The Way We Worked reveals the effects of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, labor unrest, wars, and economic depression on ordinaryworking Americans, whether they toiled in a coal mine, on a tractor, at a typewriter, or on an assembly line.

Spanning the years 1857-1987, the exhibition’s 86 black-and-white and color photographs document, in rich visual detail, American workplaces, work clothing, working conditions, and workplace conflicts. They also reflect a workforce shaped by immigration and ethnicity, slavery and racial segregation, wage labor and technology, gender roles and class, as well as by the American ideals of freedom and equality.

The Webber Center Gallery looks forward to hosting another exhibition from SITES! The major strength of The Way We
Worked comes from its relevance to a community like Marion County, Florida. Hosting this exhibit provided the Gallery with
a chance to work with our community in examining our local
labor history and address future challenges and the trends
that we currently face.
- Webber Center Gallery, Central Florida Community College

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Exhibition specifications

Contents 86 framed black-and-white and color photographs, text and graphic panels, 5 large photo murals, labels
Supplemental Catalogue, videos, education and promotional resources
Participation Fee $8,000 per 10-week booking period
Size 300 running feet, est. (90 running meters)
Crates 5
Weight 1,350 lbs. (612 kg)
Category History & Culture
Security Moderate
Shipping Outgoing
SITES Contacts Ed Liskey, 202.633.3142 (scheduling)
Toured Through December 2010
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Visitors at the National Archives Southeast Region in Atlanta.

Tour itinerary

Dates   Host Institution Status
10/28/2006 2/18/2007 Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OR Booked
3/10/2007 5/20/2007 National Archives and Records Administration - Southeast Region Archives, Morrow, GA Booked
6/9/2007 8/19/2007 Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, MO Booked
9/8/2007 11/18/2007 Central Florida Community College, Ocala, FL Booked
12/8/2007 2/17/2008 Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Staten Island, NY Booked
3/8/2008 5/18/2008 Historical Society of Long Beach, Long Beach, CA Booked
6/7/2008 8/17/2008 Amherst Museum, Amherst, NY Booked
9/6/2008 11/16/2008 East Tennessee Historical Society, Knoxville, TN Booked
12/6/2008 2/15/2009 East Tennessee Historical Society, Knoxville, TN Booked
3/7/2009 5/17/2009 California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento, CA Booked
6/6/2009 1/3/2010 National Heritage Museum Lexington, MA Booked
2/27/2010 5/8/2010 Lorenzo Cultural Center, Macomb Community College
Clinton Township, MI
Extension 1      
9/18/2010 11/21/2010 Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, Kennesaw, GA Booked
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Related publications

The Way We Worked: Photographs from the National Archives is a collection of black and white and color images from the holdings of the National Archives.

This 92-page, 10.25" x 8.25" publication, is available from the National Archives for $22.50.

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Press Release

Oct. 11, 2006

Media only: Stephanie Montgomery (202) 633.3122
Public only: (202) 633.1000

National Archives and Smithsonian to Launch Traveling Exhibition
Exploring America’s Labor History

Work and the workplace have gone through enormous changes between the mid-19th century, when 60 percent of Americans made their living as farmers, and the late 20th century. A new traveling exhibition, The Way We Worked, will feature 86 photographs from the National Archives focusing on the history of work in America and documenting work clothing, locales, conditions and conflicts. The exhibition will open Friday, Oct. 27, at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, Ore., the first venue on a 14-city national tour continuing through 2010.

The Way We Worked was created by the National Archives with the support of the Foundation for the National Archives, and is organized for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). The exhibition was previously on view from December 2005 through May at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

As the depository for historically valuable Federal records, the National Archives is home to thousands of photographs of work and workplaces taken by government agencies for many reasons: to investigate factory safety, track construction progress, office training or to emphasize the continuing importance of humans in a technologically modern environment. The images featured in The Way We Worked, though possibly taken merely for purposes of record keeping, often reveal much more about how social forces such as immigration, gender, ethnicity, class and technology have transformed the workforce.

The exhibition is divided into five sections:

  • “WHERE We Worked” explores the places Americans worked, from farms to factories, mines to restaurants, as well as how race and gender often determined roles and status.
  • “HOW We Worked” examines the effects of technology and automation on the workplace with images of people on assembly lines or using their tools of trade.
  • “What We WORE to Work” looks at the way uniforms serve as badges of authority and status, and help make occupations immediately identifiable.
  • “CONFLICT at Work” looks back at not just the inevitable clashes between workers and managers over working conditions, wages and hours, but also how social conflicts, such as segregation, have influenced the workplace.
  • “DANGEROUS or UNHEALTHY Work” features many of the photographs taken by social reformers hoping to ban child labor, reduce the length of the work day and expose unsanitary workplaces.

Spanning the years 1857-1987, the images in the exhibition cover the entire range of photographs on the topic in the National Archives holdings. Supplementing the exhibition at various locations will be a video showing a variety of workplaces, and audio segments in which workers from different eras discuss their experiences on the job.

The National Archives and Records Administration serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. Among the billions of records at the National Archives are more than 11 million still pictures in the Washington, DC, area alone. In addition, there are millions of photographs in the National Archives Presidential libraries and thousands more among the records held by regional records facilities.

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 50 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play.

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Exhibition Specifications

Tour Itinerary

Exhibition Images

Related Publications

Press Release

More Exhibitions from SITES


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