January 2015 Object of the Month
Philip Mohr, curator
We are kicking off our new exhibit and blog series about World War II this month. Become a member to receive mailings/emails regarding our programs. You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. The exhibit opens in February.
The Benjamin Electric Manufacturing Company operated in Des Plaines for about half of the twentieth century, 1913-1964. The History Center is fortunate to have many issues of the company’s employee newsletter covering the World War II era. I would like to highlight three topics for historical discussion: employees in the military, women’s roles in the factory, and the factory’s role in the war effort.
Many Benjamin Electric employees joined the military. Benjamin called its list of servicemen the “Honor Roll.” Interestingly, the newsletter used language that made it clear that working for Benjamin was a career and serving in the military was a temporary necessity. Fighting in World War II was not an intentional career move for the vast majority of recruits and conscripts. It was a duty. Benjamin tried to maintain the employer-employee relationship with the language in their articles. After their service, men could return to work at Benjamin, and several did.
|Women workers in dresses, c. 1910|
|Woman worker in trousers, c. 1947|
We are probably all familiar with the roles women played in wartime industry. “Rosie the Riveter” is an important phenomenon in American history. What some people may not understand is that Rosie’s story is one chapter in the long story of women’s professional work. Women had always worked in factories, from the early days before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) to today. At different times, different expectations were placed on them, and we view the stages with different weight depending on the history we wish to emphasize. Perhaps too often, we ignore the existence of women in factories before the World Wars. Women had always worked in the Benjamin factory; they just had flowed more easily into manufacturing jobs as men left for military service. This was not quite the revolution that condensed narratives tell us. However, one might note that women’s attire changed from dresses to pants in the years between the 1910s and the 1950s.
Benjamin Electric produced various light fixtures and horns. They were both generally used in industrial and commercial settings: the lights for illumination, the horns to signal the beginning and ending of shifts and breaks. Benjamin’s products were used, however, in the factories that produced the weapons of war. The newsletter printed this article on a tank factory that used Benjamin lights. This way the employees understood their relationship to the war effort.
A note on links to Wikipedia
Many of you might have followed the links embedded in the text above. Most of them lead to Wikipedia articles. Wikipedia's accuracy is constantly decried because anyone can write an article, but I think it is the most important tool on the internet. The vast majority of the information on Wikipedia is basic, but correct. Always read critically, whether reading Wikipedia, the The New York Times, or this museum blog. Ask questions such as "does this make sense?" or "does it seem like the writer knows what they're talking about?" Use Wikipedia as a jumping-off point for exploration. The references and further reading at the bottom of each article is where you can really start to dig into a subject.