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Picturing Modern America

By Pedro Ponce | HUMANITIES, September/October 2003 | Volume 24, Number 5

From the invention of the telephone and moving pictures to the gas-powered automobile and the first flight at Kitty Hawk, the world expanded between 1880 and 1920 at an unprecedented speed. “It’s a dramatic change in the size of the area you can legitimately consider your community,” says Michael O’Malley, professor of history at The George Washington University. “Before your community was what you could reach in a day’s walk or, maybe, a ride on a horse.”

Expanded railroads connected East to West. By 1913, Henry Ford was producing Model Ts on an assembly line at the pace of one car about every hour and a half.

How these changes affected Americans is the subject of a new website, “Picturing Modern America: 1880-1920.” Students are learning to scrutinize archival images for evidence about the advent of the modern age. The website, which can be found at, will launch in November.

“You can get underneath the big terms such as ‘industrialization,’ ‘urbanization’ and get a sense for what this new society really looked and felt like,” says project director Bill Tally, a senior researcher at the Center for Children and Technology. “You see the prideful shots of factories and belching smoke, but you also see the devastation wrought in the physical landscape by strip mining.” Using photographs and other primary documents of the time, the site gives middle and high school students practice analyzing historical evidence from a period of intense change.

“People experienced more change in that era than at any other time maybe in human history--certainly a faster pace of change even than now,” says O’Malley, a project consultant.

At the turn of the century, cities were home to 40 percent of the United States population, compared to 28 percent twenty years earlier. The economy was bolstered by Andrew Carnegie’s advancement of the steel industry and J.P. Morgan’s financial and industrial expansion, as well as by gains in lumber, textiles, and agriculture.

Besides the technology and economic possibilities emerging at this time, there were also subtle yet important changes in the way people viewed the world. “The tension between a speeding reality and a slower past generated sentimental elegies about the good old days before the rush,” writes Stephen Kern in The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918. He uses cinema as an analogy for the speed-conscious culture evolving around the turn of the century. Noting that movies were often manually projected, with the result that the rapidity of the film varied, he writes, “It was an age of speed but, like the cinema, not always uniformly accelerated. The pace was unpredictable, and the world, like the early audiences, was alternately overwhelmed and inspired, horrified and enchanted.”

The website is the result of a five-year collaboration between teachers, historians, and designers. Recognizing the number of historical documents being made available online by the Library of Congress, the site’s developers decided that rather than just present information to students, they would try to show students how to scrutinize and make informed conclusions using these primary sources.

For O’Malley, the site’s approach is just as significant for students as its historical content. “A lot of what they get in high school is the Power Point Illustration school of history,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘And then there was the Civil War. Here’s a picture of Grant. And the first battle was fought here. This is a picture of Antietam.’ There is no attempt to have the pictures do anything other than illustrate or decorate. The great thing about ‘Picturing Modern America’ is that it is part of an attempt to teach how to read a photograph closely, how to make sense of it, how to interrogate it basically, so you can get more useful information out of it. The photograph has a point of view and an editorial stance.”

Public fascination with the photographic medium has left behind a trove of images for historians. Cities and towns wanted to record their growing parks and squares for posterity, while industrialists and farmers wanted photographs of their possessions. Industry was as much a source of exploitation as progress. In some businesses, competition was eliminated by joining with rivals in order to monopolize an industry. Tensions between business and labor escalated as workers tried to protect their rights in the workplace. “A premodern society, a preindustrial society, is one where people wake up whenever they want, there’s a lot of work but that isn’t set off from leisure,” says Susan Smulyan, associate professor of American civilization at Brown University and consultant for the website. “They go to the fields. Their lives are organized by the seasons and the sun. A modern society is one where the bells ring at a certain time and we move from one place to another and people just become parts of a machine which has a very well thought out, pre-thought out way of working.”

The PMA Image Detective link provides a forum for exploring one aspect of this complex history. The detective icon on the main page leads to a menu of nine topics: industrialization, immigration, children, women and suffrage, leisure and amusement, progressive reform, the West, the growth of cities, and World War I.

In the lower left of the screen, Randy Bass, an English professor at Georgetown University, models the process of how to look at a photograph critically. Clicking on Bass’s photo leads to a sample investigation of what looks like a family sitting together at a table.

The process he demonstrates is both intuitive and methodical. He begins by noticing what is going on in the picture. The family does not seem to be eating; in fact, they appear preoccupied with whatever they are doing with their hands. Some form of material is being worked with, and finished items are stacked on a nearby cabinet. Bass takes these intuitive observations and combines them with his own knowledge of the period, a time when immigrant families worked at home putting together hats and other kinds of piecework for low pay. From these considerations, Bass makes a reasoned conclusion that these are immigrants making candy or artificial flowers in their home. According to the site, Bass is correct--the picture shows Italian immigrants in New York making artificial flowers, earning six cents for every 144 blooms produced.

On the “Image Detective” page, the “Industrialization” link leads to a photograph showing rows of workers standing in a huge factory. What appear to be rolls of cloth lie piled as far as the eye can see. Nothing is labeled or explained outright. Links to the left of the picture prompt students to “Pose a Question,” “Gather Clues,” “Get Background Info,” or “Draw a Conclusion.” Once a question is posed--either a new question or one provided--clues can be gathered by running the cursor over the picture. But rather than providing explanations, the student is prompted to explain what is going on in each section of the photograph.

Users can consult background information for a general idea about what appears in the image. In this case, there is a discussion of the cotton industry and how it employed women and child laborers. After gathering a series of clues, the student can “Draw a Conclusion,” justifying his or her response while comparing it to what is known about the picture and how others who have used the site analyzed the same image. It turns out that the photograph shows part of the Magnolia Cotton Mills in Magnolia, Mississippi, and was taken by Lewis W. Hine, a photographer who recorded the plight of child laborers.

“The difference between talking about child labor in the abstract and talking about child labor with those documents is tremendous,” says Ansley Erickson, a high school teacher who participated in the development of the website.

Following the site’s “Compare your conclusions” prompt brings up a view of other students’ responses. One middle school student discusses how the photograph’s wide view of the factory shows both the industriousness and exhaustion of its workers. A high school student reflects that the owner of the factory would extol the virtues of its efficiency and access to cheap labor.

“People at the time weren’t necessarily sure that they wanted to work in this way,” says Smulyan of the factory system. “They hated factory work.” According to Smulyan, the factory was central in producing everything from textiles to clothing to houses.

Using further close reading of photographs, the “Investigations” section helps students explore the lives of modern women, prairie life, and new technology at the turn of the century, as well as child labor and Indian relations. Using the “Exhibit Builder,” students can gather historical documents into exhibits of their own creation.

Besides photography, the site features other primary documents such as newspaper articles, political cartoons, speeches, and maps. Most are culled from the Library of Congress’s American Memory Historical Collection. After drawing conclusions about the Italian immigrant family discussed by Bass, students can access interviews with immigrant laborers through the American Memory site. Those who complete the “Industrialization” inquiry can look for more pictures of factories and interviews with Southern cotton workers, also by accessing the Library of Congress online.

O’Malley hopes that the Picturing Modern America site will give students an appreciation of what historians really do, and a more complex view of the era.

“There is a misconception about history among people who don’t think very much of it and only remember it from a survey course--that is, that it’s sort of the facts in a line,” says O’Malley. “If you can get people to juxtapose images and think about the connections between them, you’re doing the work of history. The thing I have to get them to learn is that the answer to the question isn’t going to reveal itself, the way Indiana Jones scrapes away at a rock and there’s the answer. It’s not like that. It’s a lot of undifferentiated material and you have to figure out what coherence there is in it. That is the major advantage of this project.”

About the Author

Pedro Ponce is a writer in Canton, NY.

Funding Information

The New York-based Center for Children and Technology, a division of the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts, has received $230,000 in NEH support for the “Picturing Modern America” website.