Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Thousand Words…

Another guest post from Gerry Fitzgerald. This time he points us towards research tools (and cool photographs). And there is a really nice philosophical underpinning about the way Gerry pursues his passion for railroading - revealed in what Gerry believes is the purpose of history.  -rt

A Thousand Words...

by Gerard J Fitzgerald

One of the many seismic changes to American culture caused by the entry of the United States into World War II was the flood of women into the workforce on the home front. Many jobs, including positions in the industrial sector such as on the nation’s railroads, were filled by women who labored in spaces vacated by men who had been drafted or had volunteered for formal military service. Long standing cultural and gender bias was checked, if only in the short term, by the expediency of a global wartime emergency.

Evidence of such radical change is seen in the photo above. Taken in Clinton, Iowa, in April of 1943, this snapshot of industrial life along the rails shows Mrs. Viola Sievers working as a roundhouse employee, preparing (I believe…) a Chicago and Northwestern H-Class 4-8-4 “Northern” for service. Dwarfed by the driving wheels and boiler of this Baldwin built giant, Mrs. Sievers is understood in this photo to be a small yet vital part of a dedicated national rail transportation network focused on American and Allied victory. Without the onset of war Mrs. Sievers -or for that matter any other woman-would rarely, if ever, have been allowed near a locomotive in that particular capacity as a railroad employee.

The person behind the camera was Jack Delano, and his name, not to mention his photographic style and artistry, is recognizable and familiar to many in our hobby. Perhaps best remembered today by some for his wonderful contributions to cinema and folk music in Puerto Rico, Mr. Delanao was, in 1943, working for the United State’s Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information as a field photographer. His mission, which was just as important as Mrs. Sievers and the crew of C&NW 3034, was to record on film life in these United States for posterity. Delano’s federal patronage gave him access not only to restricted areas such as railroad property, sites which were generally off limits to all forms of photography during the war because of national security concerns, but also to exotic materials such as color film, which at the time was exceedingly difficult to obtain because of war time shortages. This project had been initiated in 1935 to capture the toll of the Depression on the lives of rural Americans and was continued on into the war years through various government agencies until 1944.

The use of color in lieu of black and white film during this period was another indication of changing times, here a reflection of the impact of science and technology on consumer life in the early twentieth century. For better or worse science marches on and in 2014, much like in 1943, people are working to create and make available new devices and systems to enhance/complicate our way of life. At the same time the tools and methodologies that people use to investigate the past also continue to expand and evolve. This includes how we access and process photographs such as the ones taken by Mr. Delano back in the 1930s and 1940s.

Since at least the 1980s -and one can argue that the origins of this type of research goes much further back in the last century- work by scholars who were at the time considered outside of the traditional scope of social scientific research, much less the humanities, have worked synergistically with historians, anthropologists, archeologists and other academic types to create an entire new field called Digital Humanities. The field is considered so promising that in the United States the National Endowment For the Humanities (NEH) launched a formal initiative to encourage and fund this type of research in 2006. This sequence of events is, for a select group of humanists, very similar to when physicists were surprised to find out in the late 1930s that an understanding of neutron capture and fission was a license to print money. But I digress…

What the digital humanities is exactly, much less what the field can do, or what some practioners hope the field can accomplish in the future …is a very complicated and often contentious question. From a practical standpoint those issues are not really a pressing concern for any model railroaders reading this blog post. Although if you are really interested consider going to the page entitled “A Guide to Digital Humanities at Northwestern University ( or “Debates in Digital Humanities at CUNY ( but pack a lunch because you’ll be reading for some time, possibly for at least a few weeks. Be forewarned! If a sentence which reads in part “Despite the significant trend in Digital Humanities towards networked and multimodal spanning social, visual, and haptic media…” sounds like it was lifted from an Onion article (it wasn’t!), or just gives you a headache (it shouldn’t), just skip down one paragraph where I get to the point about how your tax dollars are paying off to facilitate your hobby needs.

For the record, Digital Humanities is defined on Wikipedia for the folks still reading in the peanut gallery in the following way:

An area of research, teaching, and creation concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. Developing from the fields of humanistic computing, and digital humanities praxis (dh praxis) digital humanities embrace a variety of topics, from curating online collections to data mining large cultural data sets. Digital humanities (often abbreviated DH) currently incorporate both digitized and born-digital materials and combine the methodologies from traditional humanities disciplines such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archeology, music and cultural studies) and social sciences with tools provided by computing (such as date visualization, information retrieval, data mining, statistics, text mining) and digital publishing. As well, related subfields of digital humanities have emerged like software studies, platform studies, and critical code studies.

So what does any of this have to do with that Sunshine kit you squirreled away five years ago into that secret closet in your basement and which has been gathering dust ever since? Well quite a bit as it turns out. There is a new Digital Humanities initiative at Yale called Photogrammar ( which is a “web-based platform for organizing, searching, and visualizing the 170,000 photographs from 1935 to 1945 created by the United State’s Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI).” This is without doubt the niftiest thing to come out of the New Haven campus since Cole Porter.

From a model railroading standpoint this means that all those wonderful Jack Delano color photographs taken in the wintery Midwestern hinterlands during the 1940s, photos which RPM types love to drool over and incessantly argue about, are available in a new and more interesting format. Plus hundred of other photos Mr. Delano took which you probably haven’t seen. Not to mentions tens of thousands of other photos taken by greats such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and some other not so famous names, all of whom worked on what was the largest photo project ever undertaken in American history. (For a new PBS documentary on the life and work on Dorothea Lange please see the following: These artists and visionaries bequeathed to us a photographic vision that not only shaped our understanding of the terrible effects of the Great Depression on the nation, but, in so doing, also created a visual collective memory of the American landscape that guides our hearts and minds to this day.

Aside from the photographs the Yale site makes use of Digital Humanities software that allow users to find photos by state, by date, by photographer and also provides graphic analysis of photographs by category ( The site is very easy to use and builds upon the collective experience of mining the photo page at the Library of Congress: (

What modelers do with this wonderful new resource remains to be seen but time will tell. How “history” is employed within the hobby, and to what ends, is a topic that holds a great deal of interest for me and to be honest sometimes gives me a headache. Historical evidence comes in various forms and a photograph is a particularly accessible type of evidence especially in the age of the Internet. And yet a photograph can often be a very tricky primary document to wield, much less interpret, even as it remains a potentially powerful tool.

One of the other photographers involved in the FSA-OWI project was the late great Walker Evans who is a hero of mine. Evans, along with the writer James Agee, produced a book on the eve of American entry into World War II that chronicled their work exploring the lives of impoverished white tenant farmers in Hale County, Alabama, in 1936. Of the many works produced by scholars, writers, artists, photographers and journalists about the dramatic impact of the Great Depression on life in the United States, Agee and Evans’ 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, has achieved the status of a modern classic. One of the most unique and idiosyncratic publications of its day, the book combines Agee’s words and Evans’ photographs resulting in arguably the most significant documentary examination of the era of rural American life in the impoverished South. The book draws readers into the lives of those who labored and also into the spaces in which they lived. By focusing in part on rich descriptions of the sensory, spatial, material, and architectural aspects of a particular vernacular landscape, the authors created a powerful and often indelible historical image that, even today, has purchase in how Americans remember the rural South at that time.

Amazingly enough James Agee and Walker Evans went south to Hale county under contract for Fortune Magazine (yes THAT Fortune Magazine!) to chronicle the lives of enervated and near penniless sharecroppers. Apparently the editors passed on assigning the piece to Karl Marx as he was still dead and John Dos Passos was still editing the proofs of The Big Money. Agee realized early on his prose would probably not find a home in Fortune, knew he could still sleep soundly at night if that was the case, and bided his time. Both his words and the Evans photos reached a limited audience five years later when the 600 copies of the first edition made their way out into a country that was gearing up for war. It languished for a time but a small audience of astute observers recognized upon release that the book was a classic. Over time the book has become somewhat controversial, especially to the descendants of those photographed. Regardless, the book’s importance in American history flows out of photos and text that bore witness to forms of rural poverty and extreme material deprivation that was startling to many Americans in 1936. Such poverty, which still exists today in various locales, is equally disturbing almost eighty years later.

The photographs in the collection that the Yale platform has so graciously repackaged for everyone’s use provide a wonderful opportunity, not only as a visual and historic resource, but perhaps more importantly as a stepping-off point for objective analysis, discussion, and perhaps even personal introspection on the various meaning of American history. To paraphrase what I said on a model railroad chat group last year (when I was discussing the inherent complexities of modeling the Jim Crow South…): While some in the hobby do seem to want to embrace the nuance and complexity of American history when it increases the realism of their modeling endeavors when it comes to technologically determinist features such as rivet detail, prototypically correct paint schemes, operational minutiae, layout design, signal systems, and chronologically distinct weathering effects to name but a few examples…many place very specific limits on how much of the larger American cultural experience they really want to model. The type of details found for instance in a close reading of the photos taken by Delano, Evans, and Lange, among others back in the day.

Which is fine…as far as it goes… although history makes less sense if one cherry picks or filters culture through a cheesecloth. To be more precise and to the point, history is not supposed to make you comfortable - it is supposed to make you THINK! Which is why the new online archive from Yale is such a useful tool. This wonderful treasure trove of photos, coupled with the powerful new graphic and search capabilities available on the Yale webpage, will give all of us the opportunity to think carefully about what we see in these images of the American past. Because in the final analysis how we see the past, and how we struggle to objectively interpret history, ultimately tells us a great deal about how we view ourselves.


  1. I agree about selective history...of course it is one of the evils of the time we live in, but applying that to the smaller orbits of our modelling lives and viewing everything through the historical lens of one's specific interests is dangerous too. My other hobby is slate mine history and tramways. I was researching in the local record office the other day and was deeply shocked by a document from a doctor of the time on the slate miner's health and well-being in 1870. I tend to think of the mines as sites of immense visual grandeur and fascinating activity...but this document exposed the real conditions...miners with no protection from the dust, having no food or water for washing, often having to wear the same clothes for two weeks...etc. I had been blinkered by my horizons and the cosy parameters of my particular fascination with the industry. I'll never look at the old quarries round here in the same way.

    I love Jack Delano's work and I'm grateful for your insights here. Here in Wales, the National Library has released a collection of Geoff Charles' work, which includes significant records of the quarries and the workers in the fifties, but also socially historical shots...the NLW has a Flickr stream... similarly Tyne and Wear has a collection. It's wonderful how these important collections are coming online, so that everyone can use them and draw their own thoughts from the images....and as you say, find out something about themselves into the bargain.

    1. Mr. Robinson,

      Thank you for the lead on the Geoff Charles collection over in Wales. I have bookmarked it and started to study the photos which are quite interesting. In my “real” historical research I deal with the impact of industrialization and war on the body and the land and it is NEVER a pretty story. It is not a topic that makes most model railroaders comfortable but is also part and parcel of the story of any stamp mill, mine, chemical plant, textile mill, slaughterhouse, etc… that someone locates on a layout. Hopefully I’ll be touching on some of those issues in more historiographic detail in the future.

      People often use the term “seeing is believing” but not everyone “sees” or is even capable of seeing the same things, which makes life interesting, complex and sometimes problematic. This of course has direct impact on how we model and set up the boundary markers within our hobby.

      I am very much enjoying the seemingly endless discussion on your blog dealing with your recent “Print and Pixels” post and have learned a great deal.



    2. Gerard,
      thank you for your very kind words...I'm very flattered that you have enjoyed my blog and glad you enjoyed the words of the good folk who took the time to contribute.
      It is a major pre-occupation of mine, this business of the post- industrial landscape and the veritable palimpsest left on the ground. I tend to view the surface in the way a crime-scene investigator would, tying the clues together until often something becomes obvious. I am often guilty of looking for "character" for the sake of it...and any railway I modelled would have very rusty own particular historical lens! Thanks for your very thoughtful and insightful writing, I hope not to miss another post.
      all the best,

  2. Mr. Fitzgerald,
    Another fine post which I have read several times and one I will read several more before feeling I've fully benefitted from the depth of the writing.

    A thought occurs surrounding the image of that C&NW caboose. To model railroader eyes conditioned to accept the excessive weathering of everything, its freshly shopped pristine condition seems totally unrealistic given the gritty surroundings.

    Self-styled experts would expound at length on how wrong it would be yet, there it is, frozen in time for as long as the original negative, prints and digital replicas exist. In reflecting on such images and these commentaries, I feel that much of our modeling resembles an amusement park version of reality rather than the truth of it. It highlights the power of our preconceptions and the necessity of approaching any modeling subject as a student who is genuinely ready to learn from the object in front of him.

    Mike Cougill

    1. Mr. Cougill,

      I am glad you enjoyed the post and very glad to know you are even rereading it. It is interesting about the C&NW color caboose shot. It was just sort of throw in ( I sent Riley extra photos and he has a better eye than I do) but it matched well with the section on color film. I was really only writing about the first photo but the caboose shot is a very interesting RPM type shot. Everything you say is spot on about how that photo would be interpreted and perhaps even argued about by some in the hobby. If a gifted modeler were to stage that particular shot on a layout, module, or diorama modeled as is, with the caboose looking like a brand new penny, it would so stand out it would be the focal point of discussion. And you are no doubt correct someone would probably throw a flag and question the authenticity of the scene. Which gets to the larger point I was hoping to make, and which Trevor also amplified about the importance of how we “see” the past and conceptualize authenticity. Sometimes the most simple and obvious aspects of reality are the hardest to reproduce in model form.