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Collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1940

Rank and File

The Federal Writers' Project of the 1930s recorded more than 10,000 life stories of men and women from a variety of occupations and ethnic groups. The following is a sampling of these interviews, which include audio excerpts read by modern actors.

Anna Novak, Packing House Worker

Twins Amy and Mary Rose Lindich
Surrogate image: Pitcairn, Pennsylvania. May 1943. Twins Amy and Mary Rose Lindich, 21, employed at the Pennsylvania railroad as car repairmen helpers, earning $.72 per hour. They reside in Jeanette, Pennsylvania, and carpool with fellow workers. Marjory Collins. Photograph, 1943. (LC-USW3-30027-E).

Name: Anna Novak

Birth: Wisconsin, about 30 years ago

Ethnicity: Polish

Family: Married with two children, boys, ages 10 and 13

Education: 8th grade and one and a half years of high school in St. Hedwig's Orphanage

Occupation: Packing House Worker

Location: Chicago, Illinois

Date: April 25-27, 1939

Interviewer: Betty Burke

Interview Excerpt: "How long have you worked in the stockyards?"

Listen to Anna's response

"I've had eight years of the yards. It's a lot different now, with the union and all. We used to have to buy the foremen presents, you know. On all the holidays, Xmas, Easter, Holy Week, Good Friday, you'd see the men coming to work with hip pockets bulging and take the foremen off in corners, handing over their half pints...Your job wasn't worth much if you didn't observe the holiday "customs." The women had to bring 'em bottles, just the same as the men. You could get along swell if you let the boss slap you on the behind...I'd rather work any place but in the stockyards just for that reason alone."

Transcript #07051009

Jim Cole, Packing House Worker

Hormel meatpacking plant
Surrogate image: Hormel meatpacking plant, Austin, Minnesota, 1941. John Vachon. Photograph, 1941.

Name: Jim Cole

Ethnicity: African-American

Occupation: Packing House Worker

Location: Chicago, Illinois

Date: May 18, 1938

Interviewer: Betty Burke

Interview Excerpt: "Where do you work in the packing house?"

Listen to Jim's response

"I'm working in the Beef Kill section. Butcher on the chain. Been in the place twenty years, I believe. You got to have a certain amount of skill to do the job I'm doing. Long ago, I wanted to join the AFL union, the Amalgamated Butchers and Meat Cutters, they called it, and wouldn't take me. Wouldn't let me in the Union. Never said it to my face, but reason of it was plain. Negro. That's it. Just didn't want a Negro man to have what he should. That's wrong. You know that's wrong."

Transcript #07050602

Irving Fajans, Department Store Worker

R. H. Macy and Company department store during the week before Christmas
Surrogate image: New York, New York. December 1942. R. H. Macy and Company department store during the week before Christmas. Marjory Collins. Photograph, 1942. (LC-USW3-13113-D).

Name: Irving Fajans

Occupation: Department Store Employee

Location: Union Headquarters, 112 E. 19th Street, New York City

Date: February 1939

Interviewer: May Swenson

Interview Excerpt: "Were Macy's employees unionized when you worked there?"

Listen to Irving's response

"When I first started there [at Macy's], they were just beginning to try to organize, and everything pertaining to the union had to be on the q.t. If you were caught distributing leaflets or other union literature around the job you were instantly fired. We thought up ways of passing leaflets without the boss being able to pin anybody down. Sometimes we'd insert the leaflets into the sales ledgers after closing time...In the morning every clerk would find a pink sheet saying: 'Good Morning, how's everything...and how about coming to Union meeting tonight...' or something like that. Another idea we had--swiped the key to the toilet paper dispensers in the washroom, took out the paper and substituted printed slips of just the right size! We got a lot of new members that way--It appealed to their sense of humor."

Transcript #24020905