The American Worker’s ID Badge as Art and a Sign of the Times
Monday, February 3, 2014 | By Lyle Rexer
Who were they? Who was #994 of the Hercules Powder Company of Radford, Va.; #279 of the Eagle Lock Company (wearing a jaunty Irish cap); #225 of United Airlines — who, in fact, also had a name that has come down to us through the years: Eleanor F. Ewing. They, and countless others, were American workers across a wide spectrum of occupations, all unintentionally memorialized by their portrait-bearing employee identification badges.
An exhibition of some 250 of these badges, collected by Frank Maresca and imaginatively staged at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York City, introduces a new and engrossing type of photographic Americana. Made between the 1930s and the 1950s, the badges testify to a time when America worked its way out of the Great Depression and became an industrial powerhouse. Jobs were a critical definer of identity for people across the country, and having one’s picture taken was not at all the common occurrence it is today.
It’s hard to say which aspect of the exhibition is more poignant: the names of the companies themselves, now mostly long gone, or the startlingly vivid portraits of “ordinary” American working men and women. Most of the subjects are identified only by a number and a photo in a small round frame, but where there are names (and even where there aren’t), the viewer finds it impossible not to wonder: What was it like for bespectacled Clark Smith to work for the Timken Roller Bearing Company? Young Raymond Farley looks like a deer in the headlights; how long did he last with the Penn Fruit Company? And the stylishly coiffed and lipsticked woman who could have been a 1950s advertisement for the Green Duck Company of Chicago — what was her position with the firm? Executive secretary? Eye-candy at a retail counter?