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[Detail] United States Capitol [ca 1846]

Tools of the Trade

Workers during the first half of the nineteenth century faced a series of transitions in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Inventions such as the steam engine and the cotton gin prompted the creation of assembly lines and factory systems as Americans began discovering the benefits of mass production.

At the same time, many craftsmen faced a transitional time as mechanization threatened their livelihoods. A search on occupational portrait yields a number of images documenting the different disciplines of this industrial age. Traditional workers such as a blacksmith, carpenter, latch maker, watchmaker, clergyman, and stonecutter are featured along with people whose jobs were byproducts of the Industrial Revolution such as a woman working at a sewing machine, a man in front of an engine, and men on a crank handcar on the tracks of a railroad.

  • How do different workers pose with their tools?
  • How are these people dressed compared to other people featured in this collection?
  • What do you think that the clothes and mannerisms of these craftsmen imply about their social class?
  • How do these images of craftsmen differ from others in the collection (clothing, facial expressions, etc.)?
  • What do you think is the relationship between the worker and his or her tools?
  • Do you think that there is a difference between the depiction of traditional crafts and new industrial efforts? Why or why not?
  • Considering that these workers are anonymous, do you think that the people or the trades are the real subject of the portraits?
  • How do these portraits reflect nineteenth-century attitudes towards the value of work?
  • How do these images compare with how tradesmen are depicted today?
  • Do you think that these portraits appeared in studios alongside images of politicians and other famous people?
  • How does the way these portraits may have been presented impact their significance?