The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2000

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Our Jobs as History


Robert G. Koch

Reflecting recently on part-time and summer jobs that I have had over the last half century made me realize the inexorable speed of change that reshapes our world. Each job was part of a developing history. Since this is anything but unique, it indicates exactly why we should continue to collect reminiscences of work, descriptions of how tasks are accomplished, and evidences of their shifting cores and contexts. Let me illustrate my points.

My first summer job, with permission from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, was in 1941 in the Heller-Heumann-Thompson Clothing factory (later Timely Clothes) one of the many that made Rochester a major producer of men's clothing. My first couple of weeks were spent under the skylights next to the hissing machines that sent neatly pressed suits into the world and the pressers out to their homes by noon in that July heat wave. Working by the hour with every nickel meant to help defray upcoming college expenses, I labored on at my menial task. Then I got a break, tracing armpit, shoulder, and front shapes onto the slick, tough paper that clothing cutters used to lay-out their work on long tables piled with several layers of precious cloth. I was also allowed to punch holes for their marking and to cut out the patterns along the lines that I had traced.

Today that Rochester manufacturing presence in (principally) men's clothing has all but vanished and what there still is, at Hickey-Freeeman, has changed radically with considerable computerized automation.

The following summer, at the end of my freshman year at the University of Rochester, I developed x-ray films in Strong Memorial Hospital, after working a week with the previous operator who was leaving for the Navy in that first summer of our involvement in World War II. Since we were on a sped-out academic schedule, I spent four months in that darkroom. The films were developed in individual vertical tanks that accommodated more than a single shot, provided they were not allowed to touch and produce suspicious spots that might be misread. After timing them correctly, I fixed, washed and dried them before passing them on to be read by the doctors. One job satisfaction was occasionally being able to watch and audit that process, learning more about our insides. Full body pix of infants were especially beautiful, with their tiny bones floating in flesh, their joints not yet fully joined. I also learned to sequence x-rays of incisors and molars.

Today my job would be done automatically by machine and the power of the x-ray to probe the body has been augmented by a whole family of devices that I can only guess about.

My sophomore year I was University greenhouse keeper with responsibility for watering and for climate control by opening and closing windows daily. I also mixed soil, squashed bugs, repotted plants, and as a result scrubbed hundreds of pots, especially to service the Mendelian experiment that used a thousand goldenrod plants in the back third of the greenhouse. We also had a tropical room, and the greenhouse keeper's alluring perk was permission to harvest mature orchids. My girl friend benefitted, almost ad nauseum. An eye opener was the cannibalism of white rats kept for lab table sacrifice. I got to know every cavity, crevice and covert of the three rooms, when scores of salamanders escaped by ramping on themselves at the end of a rectangular holding tank when somebody (I swear not me) did not return the retaining weight to the top of a screen that covered it.

I suppose many of those tasks have not changed much in the labor intensive world of gardening, but consider those goldenrods in this dawn of the Genome Age.

The following summer, being a vetted darkroom worker, I went to Kodak Park to work in the Kodacolor print-processing darkroom. Kodacolor was a new product, placing its color-capturing images on paper, instead of, as in Kodachrome, on slides. Although these snapshots seemed marvels then, how often weak and unstable they were, far cries from the hues and keeping quality that we have grown to expect. We worked on continuous processing machines that developed, fixed, and washed hours-long lengths of photographic paper, three vertical shots wide, made up of rolls, as I recall, perhaps ten to sixty feet long that we sewed together butt end to butt end. Trimming the roll at precisely 90-degrees to its sides and matching that precision each time with the next butt end kept the sliced-up roll from wandering too much as it worked its way up and down from top roller to bottom roller the length of the long machine before exiting onto a large heated drying drum, where each roll was cut off and sent to be sliced and the individual shots chopped out.

When I later worked on that take-off drying drum, after inspecting for gouges, wrinkles, and bubbles, I learned to make color corrections by the naked eye, following the day's standard sample step-chart and image. Incidentally, the rolls of Kodacolor film were developed by another labor-intensive continuous process that started with unsorted rolls of different length, for different numbers of exposures, being attached to rods with clips and then anchored to weighted stainless steel straps of compensatory length.

Again, how old fashioned it all seems now. Other parts of the overall process also evolved. For example, densitometric reading of the film for color correction during printing, was done by women operators on, at first, jerry-built plywood and tin stations at which they read the values and coded the results into the edge of the negative. Those early stations, which I later calibrated and maintained, evolved into sophisticated semi-automatic machines. Today, how many hands enter into any such operations?

My last two undergraduate years, questionnaires and clipboard in hand, I pounded the pavements part-time in consumer research to find requisite sampling numbers of both genders in various age decades and at specified socio-economic levels judged by neighborhood characteristics. The beverage surveys included innocuous questions but led inexorably to preferences among products of the four local breweries. When those questions hove into view, I sometimes received a temperance lecture and no pay for an incomplete questionnaire. In one village outside Rochester, a father professed abstemiousness, but a couple of hours later bought me a beer as I waited for the bus to return home. I don't remember what I did with his interview. We also took a test-flight survey on possible interest in small, foldup-wing airplanes that might be tucked away in post-war garages, but the automobile remained king, except for the Edsel, which they also surveyed later.

Today's commercial accessibility to credit card, mail order, license, census, and who knows what other records, feeds fast-as-light sortings that lead up to that supper-hour telephone call to elicit consumer information.

Finally, one more part-time job, as a young new academic and father, was occasional seasonal work on evenings and Saturdays in a paper product factory building at the Genesee High Falls, now a jewel in the historical crown with which the City has been honoring the site. I was not one of the skilled operatives, but from my bench I looked down at the falls, and back at a sense of Rochester's flour milling history. We produced wax-coated paper for continuous recording charts and waxed typewriter copy paper without carbon smudges. About then, a couple of blocks away, the Haloid Company was developing something called xerography.

How our work entwines with history!

© 2000, Robert Koch
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