Smithsonian traveling exhibit explores 'The Way We Worked'

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On Sunday, Aug. 10, during the Coventry Farmer's Market, the ribbon was officially cut for the Smithsonian Institution travelling exhibition, "The Way We Worked." Part of the Smithsonian's "Museum on Main Street" series and adapted from an original exhibition developed by the National Archives, "The Way We Worked" explores how work became such a central element in American culture by tracing the many changes that affected the workforce and work environments over the past 150 years, according to the Smiuthsonian..

"We're very lucky to have an exhibit of this calibre here," said Bev York, site administrator for the Nathan Hale Homestead. This is the fifth of seven stops that the exhibition will make throughout the state. "The last 150 years hold stories about American workers that are too incredible to ignore…," reads a placard near the door of the antique barn housing the exhibit. "'The Way We Worked' calls us to look at these stories and to consider how we play a part in them."

Spanning the years 1857 through 1987, the exhibition's 86 black-and-white and color photographs document American workplaces, work clothing, working conditions, and workplace conflicts. They also reflect a workforce shaped by immigration and ethnicity, slavery and racial segregation, wage labor and technology, gender roles and class, as well as by the American ideals of freedom and equality. Near the back of the exhibit are some statistics regarding the modern workforce: an American worker averages a total of 10 different jobs before the age of 36 years; 50 percent of Baby Boomers (34 million) expect to work after age 70.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Nathan Hale Homestead, the local library and other historic and educational venues in the region will sponsor author talks, films, music, theater, art, conversations, storytelling, local history and book discussions relating to work. Every Sunday, there will be a demonstration of workers outside of the exhibit. On Aug. 10, there was a blacksmithing demonstration. Aug. 17 will feature wood-splitting and a two-man saw that visitors can operate. Aug. 24 will feature a farm work festival. "It's a bigger event," said York. There will be horses, mules and other farm animals. "Basically we're demonstrating how animals and people work together on a farm," said York. On Aug. 31, there will be a demonstration of waffle-making, with a collection of antique waffle irons. Sept. 7 will feature puppeteers at work. And on Sept. 14, musicians will be demonstrating their craft. "They'll play some work songs in the 18th century style," said York.

On Monday, Sept. 1 (Labor Day), the Windham Textile and History Museum will be hosting a strike re-enactment, beginning at 6 p.m. "We're encouraging people to come in costume, and we'll paint signs and learn songs," said York. Participants will then follow in the footsteps of 1912 strikers through Willimantic. Workers in the local mills, mostly women and mostly immigrants (French-Canadian, Polish, Italian and Syrian), were seeking an increase in wages. Workers were earning between $5 and $10 for a 60-hour week, according to York. Because women and immigrants were not allowed to be members of the local union, the strikers were aided by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a.k.a. The Wobblies. "They were known as the singing union," said York. "They tried to be non-violent."

Following in the footsteps of the famous and successful strike in Lawrence, Mass., which came to be known as the "Bread and Roses Strike," the Willimantic strike was initially successful; workers received a ten percent increase in pay. "They wanted to avoid all of the publicity," said York. "But then the managers reneged."

"The Way We Worked" can be viewed at the Nathan Hale Homestead at 2299 South St., Coventry, from noon to 4 p.m. on Wednesday though Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, through Sept. 14.

For a calendar of events related to the exhibition and more information, visit Connecticut at Work online at

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