Post Office Dept. Dead Letter Office, c. 1890. By Frances Benjamin Johnston. Library of Congress.

Tools of the Trade

America's Workplace Technologies

Two hundred years ago, there was no such thing as the “workplace” — and the tools of one’s trade were rudimentary by today’s standards. Since then, of course, America has witnessed the Industrial Revolution, the rise of white-collar work and, now, an age of digital devices that allows the workplace to follow us everywhere. So on this episode of BackStory, from utopian visions of the cubicle to video surveillance in law enforcement, the hosts size up some of the stuff Americans have worked with — and, in turn, how that stuff has shaped the lives of American workers.

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ED AYERS: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. In the 1930s, an average of one worker died for each million dollars spent on a construction job. It was in this period that engineer Joseph Strauss embarked on the $40 million construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

FEMALE SPEAKER: He did not like the idea of 40 people dying in order to cross the bay.

ED AYERS: To protect his workers, Strauss took advantage of a recent invention, an invention we’ll hear all about today from the inventor’s great-granddaughter. We’ll also consider the influence of the stopwatch on the American workplace, the rise of the cubicle, and the origin of a species, “office chairicus.”

MALE SPEAKER: Charles Darwin apparently was the first person to put wheels on a typical desk chair.

ED AYERS: Today on BackStory, Tools of the Trade– a history of the way Americans have worked, told through the things they’ve worked with Don’t go away.

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

ANNOUNCER 2: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN BALOGH: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER ONUF: I’m Peter Onuf.

ED AYERS: And I’m Ed Ayers. Picture, if you will, the cubicle. You may even be sitting in one right now. But chances are, you don’t just picture one cubicle. Instead, the very word conjures up rows and rows of identical work spaces, peopled by workers packed in like cattle in pens. Now these cube farms, as they’re known, are the embodiment of all that’s soul-sucking about office culture today, which is really too bad considering their origin.

DAVID FRANZ: The cubicle was actually intended to make the office better.

PETER ONUF: This is David Franz, a sociologist who was written about the cubicle’s back story. I started with a guy named Robert Probst at the Herman Miller Furniture Company. In the late ’60s, he came up with a new version of something he called the “action office.” The first one had flopped. It was a modular workspace that was intended to literally tear down the walls and encourage open communication among co-workers.

DAVID FRANZ: When you look at some of the early ads for cubicles, you have this really interesting and very active transfer of information. So you’ve got papers being passed in and around the dividers, so there’s gaps between them, and people standing up and talking over the top of them. So it was designed, really, with the idea that this was going to be a very convivial workplace.

ED AYERS: Within a few years, companies around the country were converting to an action office-inspired floorplan. But nowhere was it more popular than Silicon Valley, just beginning to emerge on the scene. In 1978, Intel CEO Andrew Grove gave up his big corner office for a seat of his own in the cube farm.

DAVID FRANZ: He’s got a cubicle right down the hall– not even down the hall, just kind of across the open space from the other employees at Intel. And so the idea is, there isn’t this fixed hierarchy and the hierarchy isn’t very high. So it’s a flat world and it’s a world that’s changeable and movable. And that’s true both from the perspective of a company that needs to be able to adjust to more employees or a different kind of set of working teams, or from the perspective of an employee, that they can see a path to a better future for them.

ED AYERS: It was a vision that had particular appeal as America moved into the 1980s. Manufacturing was on the decline, and a lot of analyst types were wondering why American companies were falling behind the global competition.

DAVID FRANZ: The sense that American business had become too big and too rigid and too bureaucratic was the dominant diagnosis, I would say, within the kind of business talk and business journalism, that this was holding American business back, the idea that offices and formal dress and all of these things were part of what was leading to Japan kicking our butt and just generally the failure of American business was all tied with that. And so there was– people were casting about for some sense of hope.

ED AYERS: And business journalists found that ray of hope in the new, more egalitarian office culture of the tech sector in the West. An essay in The Atlantic looked at Intel’s model and waxed whimsical. Could the tire companies, the machine toolmakers, the color TV industry learn to work this way?

MALE SPEAKER: It didn’t take long for the cubicle to lose its utopian luster.

DAVID FRANZ: It’s probably a couple of years before you start to see in those same newspapers, articles about how employees are sliding filing cabinets into the openings to try to gain some privacy, or using cardboard to raise their cubicle level just a little bit.

ED AYERS: It didn’t help, says Franz, that companies had more or less brushed aside the original idea of the action office. They found they could save money by cramming smaller and smaller stations in one space. Rather than coming in many shapes and sizes as Probst had intended, cubicles became more and more uniform and stifling.

The cube farm began to dominate office life. And the cubicle became a perfect symbol of corporate drudgery. It was lampooned in pop culture. Just think about the cartoon character of Dilbert, or the 1999 cult film Office Space.

MALE SPEAKER: We don’t have a lot of time on this earth. We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicle staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.

DAVID FRANZ: In some ways, they judge cubicles by the same ideals that cubicles were originally praised for, especially this sense of purpose, of realizing– like, you’re going to realize meaning both for yourself and with your fellow employees that you’re going to kind of have this moral community in the workplace. And what gets thrown at the cubicle dweller is you have a kind of meaningless existence that has no purpose. And you’re working with a bunch of jerks who you can’t get away from.

PETER ONUF: And so it is that the noble aspirations of workplace design come crashing up against the realities of work. The action office was hardly the first time this has happened. And we all know it won’t be the last. So today on the show, we’re considering this dynamic through three centuries of American life. It’s a show we’re calling “Tools of the Trade,” and it’s all about, well, things like cubicles and chairs, or the hard hats won by generations of construction workers.

BRIAN BALOGH: We’ll kick things off with an object you may not associate with the workplace per se. And yet, it’s had a huge impact on the way a whole lot of our workplaces are set up. That object– the stopwatch. Our story begins in the late 1870s, when a young man named Frederick Taylor became an apprentice in a Philadelphia steel factory.

MALE SPEAKER: It was in the factory that he first became acquainted with the basic mass manufacturing production process.

BRIAN BALOGH: Nikil Saval wrote about Taylor in Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace

NIKIL SAVAL: And Taylor was fascinated and repelled by it. He was fascinated by the process and he was repelled by the people doing it, namely the workers.

BRIAN BALOGH: Taylor had little patience for workers who did anything other than work. It drove him nuts when they did their jobs inefficiently or when they took place to talk to each other. You may not be surprised to hear that Taylor was eventually promoted to a supervisory position. And once promoted, he wasted no chance to make his frustration with his fellow employees known.

NIKIL SAVAL: Taylor became a kind of demon in this workplace. He was hated by the workers for just constantly berating them, for insisting that what they were doing could be done faster, their motions could be reduced. He was kind of coming into this sense that there was a process that needed to be instituted. And this process needed to be taken out of the hands of the workers themselves.

BRIAN BALOGH: Taylor was coming to understand that it was just human nature to want to slack off. What those workers needed was a system for setting goals, and incentives to achieve those goals. In 1898, Taylor was hired as a consultant by the Bethlehem Steel Company. That gave him, finally, a chance to put his system into practice. He came to call it “scientific management.”

NIKIL SAVAL: Taylor begin to outline the process of making steel. And he began to break it down into its constituent parts. And what he basically did was compared workers’ efficiency in doing so and tried to come up with the speediest time for doing a particular process, by measuring it with a stopwatch.

BRIAN BALOGH: With that stopwatch, Taylor could show that many workers doing one task each were much more efficient than if they each did a series of tasks. Where before, they would need to, say, walk around the factory floor to complete their tasks, the Taylor system anchored them to a single spot.


If you’ve ever seen the classic I Love Lucy assembly line scene, you’ve seen Taylorism in action.

LUCY: This is easy.

ETHEL: Yeah, we can handle this OK.

BRIAN BALOGH: Lucy and Ethel had been tasked with wrapping chocolates on an ever more crowded conveyor belt. And before long, they just can’t keep up.

ETHEL: I think we’re fighting a losing game.

BRIAN BALOGH: Under Taylor, Bethlehem Steel became that factory, without the humor or the calories. But in his mind, it wasn’t all gloom and doom. To the contrary, Taylor thought this actually would be liberating for workers. For the first time, Taylor thought, workers would have a real incentive to work harder, rather than to goof off or just talk to their fellow employees. And that’s because although stopwatch measurements would, in the end, be tied to pay.

NIKIL SAVAL: So a scientific manager would time each part of the process. And if a worker lagged, they would get paid less. If they beat the time, they would get paid more. Implicitly, the productivity of it would eventually guarantee not only individual workers more, but would guarantee productivity would lead to increased prosperity for all.

BRIAN BALOGH: A greater social good.


BRIAN BALOGH: Taylorism took off in the 19-teens. Neatly dressed scientific managers with stopwatches flooded across factory floors, producing a deluge of scientific data. And that data in turn produced a tier of office workers whose job it would be to crunch more data.

NIKIL SAVAL: The kind of logic of Taylorism is in its way unstoppable. Once you have this group of people who are themselves creating this work process and managing it, they too have to be managed in turn. And they too suddenly have this work process that is much more elaborate and also has to be rationalized.

BRIAN BALOGH: Dare I ask if they were exposed to the stopwatch themselves?

NIKIL SAVAL: They too actually endured the terror of the stopwatch, or they came to.

BRIAN BALOGH: “There are millions of unnecessary motions, and most of them are in the office.” This is from a lengthy manifesto on applying Taylorism to the office. It was written in 1917 by a Taylor disciple by the name of W.H. Leffingwell.

“Watch a clerk rushing through his work, throwing the papers in a disorderly heap as he goes. And then, when he’s finished, watch him spend a few minutes straightening things up. A trained expert will do as much as four or more untrained workers. Yet only half of the difference is in the speed, the other half being in the elimination of waste motions.”

This manifesto goes on to outline, in minute detail, the most efficient ways to tackle a whole range of office work and to design the office space itself– what kind of lighting to use, how to arrange the desks, even where to install the water fountains.

NIKIL SAVAL: What he would do is he’d observe people walking from their desks to the water cooler. And you would think, that’s about 100 feet, let’s say. And then he would calculate the amount of time that it took. And then he would imagine how many times a worker got water each day, and how many days a week they did that.

And he would just add that all up over the course of a year, and he’d think, they’ve walked, like, hundreds of miles. And this was the kind of mind that Taylorists had. They would think, well, there’s a lot of money being lost by the amount of time that people are spending goin–

BRIAN BALOGH: Time is money.

NIKIL SAVAL: Time is money.

BRIAN BALOGH: This, says Saval, is the period in which the modern office was born. Once, where a handful of clerks toiled away in dingy back rooms of factories, legions of office workers now sat in long, well-lit rows, where they could be monitored and timed. As you can imagine, Taylorism had its critics.

Workers fought back against the stopwatch, in at least one instance, going on strike to protest Taylorism itself. There were congressional hearings about whether or not the approach was dehumanizing. And in fact, what we know as human resources developed as an alternative to treating workers like cogs in a machine. And yet, Saval says, Taylorism is still very much alive and well in America today.

NIKIL SAVAL: Computers have vastly improved the ability to Taylorize anything. The fact that people who work in call centers have the time of their calls monitored, that they have to ask certain kinds of questions. They have to get responses within certain times.

BRIAN BALOGH: And they don’t even spend time dialing. As soon as they’re done, the next call is there queued up for them.

NIKIL SAVAL: Precisely. That is a perfect Taylorist system.

BRIAN BALOGH: The only thing more perfect would be a system where we didn’t need managers at all– a system where we all monitored ourselves with the help of, say, powerful machines that we carry in our back pockets or wear on our wrists. Sounding familiar?

NIKIL SAVAL: Think about the electronic monitoring of our exercise that we engage in today, with FitBits that convert into numbers all of our movements, how many steps we’ve taken each day, that our phones that have apps that remind us to run and how long to run. And we tend not to think of that as Taylorism, because there’s no person with a stopwatch telling us to do that. But in a way, there’s–

BRIAN BALOGH: There’s us. We’ve turned into Taylor.

NIKIL SAVAL: Right. There’s a more insidious Taylorism going on where we have these kind of scientific managers in our heads, where we feel that we must turn many aspects of our lives into more efficient processes that have to be managed.

BRIAN BALOGH: As someone who makes his living writing, Saval says that the scientific managers are definitely there in his head. He tracks how much time each day he spends reading, sending emails, and writing. And so I asked him, has he ever tried to abolish the stopwatch from his own life?

NIKIL SAVAL: The funny thing is, I don’t know if I can give it up, because the way it works for me is that I’m Taylorizing myself to preserve aspects of my life where I can just daydream and be bored. And I like to think that I’m invoking the spirit of Taylor in order to create moments in my life where I don’t have to do anything.

BRIAN BALOGH: Let me just be clear on this. You’re getting out the stopwatch in order to have time just to goof off.


BRIAN BALOGH: Thanks to Nikil Saval for helping us out with that story. He’s an editor at the magazine n plus 1 and the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.

(SINGING) In my cubicle, I am goofing around. Spinning in my chair, just looking at the ground.

ED AYERS: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, how Charles Darwin figures in the evolution of modern office furniture. You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.

(SINGING) I’ll play Tetris on my computer, I think. Get another cup of coffee to drink.

PETER ONUF: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN BALOGH: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED AYERS: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re talking today about the history of the workplace, and specifically, about technologies that have helped make our workplaces what they are today.

BRIAN BALOGH: In the first part of the show, we heard about a couple of attempts to create a more ideal workplace. We’re going to take a few minutes now to put that impulse into a broader historical context– the impulse to make life better for workers. And so Peter, Ed, when I think about the sad history of introducing technology into the workplace and all of the hopes for that technology that go along with it, but, you know, I think that the humble, everyday technology of email, which today we just take for granted– it’s been around for, what, 25 years now or so. I think that email really has accomplished, at least in that short period, many of the things that these technological Utopians had hoped for. I think–

ED AYERS: Like what, Brian?

BRIAN BALOGH: Hold on. I’ll email you, Ed. It has definitely leveled tasks. I think back to the movies about the 1950s. And you got the boss smoking a cigar and he’s dictating to the female secretary. And she’s stuck typing this up. And it’s very hierarchical. Today you have the boss clicking away on her mobile device.

And you’ve got the lowly custodian emailing an idea to a supervisor three levels above himself. But there’s more. I know, Peter. And here’s the biggest more. I agree that people got locked into their mousehole-like cubicle. But intellectually, email has allowed people to communicate at work with all kinds of fellow workers levels above and levels below, and workers who aren’t even in the same company– unheard of even 30 years ago.

PETER ONUF: OK, Brian. I’m almost swept away. And I think there’s an element here that’s really significant. And that is, you’re talking about the psychology of workers and coping with work– if they don’t love it, at least coping with it. And where it all goes is to the explosion of the workplace, and leaving it into a virtual workplace.

I think the direction you’re going with this is that with the internet, and then with the possibility of working at home, we can just get rid of the workplace and get back to something. And I say back advisedly, because I think what this evokes is a kind of nostalgia for working at home, which is where artisans in the past worked, where farmers worked. It was a household economy contained within the household, whether it was agriculture or small scale manufacturing.

And it was based on those primal, familial relations, either within the family or apprentices who were legally part of the family or the household. And it was all natural and satisfying. It’s something that we have a sense of loss that work would be meaningful if it were directed towards some kind of collective enterprise that we could identify with. That is the family. That’s I think what people want, is to get back to something that feels authentic and real.

ED AYERS: Yeah. Well, that sounds awesome, Peter, but too bad that we had to dismantle it all.

PETER ONUF: It dismantled itself, Ed.

ED AYERS: Well, we actually began by dismantling shoes. Back in your day, you had the journeyman master who could make a pair of shoes from a cow, all the way up to the beautiful boots that a lady would wear. And the shoemaker would make every part of that. But here’s the situation. Everybody needs shoes.

It’s not a model that’s going to work for a rapidly expanding and rapidly diversifying population. If everybody has to have custom shoes made by the local shoesmith, cobbler– so here’s an idea. What do you say we let each place, each family, make one part of the shoe.

And they can specialize. They can make it more efficiently. They can make it better. And then we gather all those pieces together and make shoes that everybody can have because they cost less.

PETER ONUF: You’re making my point. When you do that, you’re leaving the home. You’re beginning to make the move away from the home first. You do parts of the shoe production in different houses, right? But then it aggregates, and eventually the people who do the work come together with machines.

ED AYERS: And what I’m saying, we’re doing that for a reason, Peter. And that it’s not–

PETER ONUF: Debase the worker.

ED AYERS: No, to make cheaper stuff so that all workers– and I think this is Taylor’s vision, right, Brian– is that everybody can benefit from a consumer society in which we all specialize, in which we all make what we are best suited.

PETER ONUF: We do it more efficiently, so it’s lower cost. More people can benefit.

ED AYERS: That’s right. And we make a specialized workplace. The house is not a good workplace, Peter.

PETER ONUF: Except that’s where Brian’s going to end up working.

ED AYERS: Yeah, but when he does, here’s the difference. It’s the technology, which we now carry around in our pockets, allows the workplace to go everywhere. So on one hand, that’s great. You don’t have to be stuck in a cubicle.

On the other hand, it’s terrible is that you can never escape from the workplace. So I think we call it work for a reason. It’s stuff we don’t want to do to get money. And if we think that it’s always going to be positive, we’re just fooling ourselves. There’s a coercion built into the very nature of work, and therefore into the very idea of the workplace.


Writing email from a standing desk may be all the rage these days, but it’s still hard to imagine the typical office without chairs– lots of them. We decided to look into the history of the office chair. And it turns out there wasn’t one single inventor. But we do know where some of its familiar features come from.

JONATHAN OLIVARES: Actually, it was Charles Darwin apparently was the first person to put wheels on a typical desk chair.

BRIAN BALOGH: This is Jonathan Olivares, an industrial designer in LA.

JONATHAN OLIVARES: Although we don’t count his as the first office chair, because it doesn’t adhere to the archetypal form, which is a centralized base with splayed legs. His legs were vertical. It was almost like any old dining chair, with four wheels tacked to the feet.

BRIAN BALOGH: So maybe Darwin’s chair isn’t exactly a missing link in the evolution of modern sitting. But it did appear around the same time as a flurry of new chair designs and patents. Like Thomas Warren’s centripetal spring chair, unveiled or sprung at the London Expo in 1851. It was a lot like your typical office chair, with arms, headrest, a five point base. It even reclined and swiveled.

ED AYERS: Now that’s pretty fancy, sure. But most 19th century companies couldn’t afford them. A manager might sit in one, but factory workers and bank clerks sat on small chairs made of steel and wood, which, their bosses figured, would keep them alert and well behaved. This phase of office chair evolution lasted for the better part of a century.

After World War II, materials such as fiberglass and aluminum became more affordable. At the same time, a new concept called ergonomics claimed to fit chairs to human needs. And yet, fancy chair design was still driven more by looks than it was by science.

PETER ONUF: I asked Olivares to pull up a chair and tell me how we got from there to the present, when it’s all about the way a chair fits our bodies. We began our conversation in the 1950s.

JONATHAN OLIVARES: I think the 1950s was a period where corporate culture really came to life and in such an extreme way. And you think of, like, the man in the grey suit, and you think of these kind of really strict IBM corporate policies. And that’s the moment when executives want to emphasize that they’re in charge, not only to their staff, but also to their clients.

And so the office chair, a huge role in the executive chair is what does it look like to the visitor. And so therefore you have a much higher backrest. They’re always plush and leather and polished aluminum, instead of painted aluminum. Ergonomics in the 1950s was still very much nascent. They’re not actually getting a better chair. They’re getting a more expensive chair.

BRIAN BALOGH: It’s economics, not ergonomics.


BRIAN BALOGH: All right. So I’m ready for phase 3, which I just can feel this is going to be a breakthrough.

JONATHAN OLIVARES: Yeah. Phase 3 is definitely a breakthrough. So in the ’70s, you end up with, on the one hand, foam, molded foam, because all of a sudden you can mold foam into three-dimensional contoured shapes. And what happens simultaneously is that the personal computers are being introduced into the office.

BRIAN BALOGH: Now we’re into the ’80s at least.

JONATHAN OLIVARES: Yeah, early ’80s. Early ’80s.

BRIAN BALOGH: So are there still hierarchies? Does the CEO and the CFO, do they still have, like, chairs that mark them as different?

JONATHAN OLIVARES: I think it varies from company to company. You had, in the ’70s, even late ’60s and ’70s, you had a huge movement in offices towards democratic, open plan workspaces.

BRIAN BALOGH: And how is that reflected in office furniture?

JONATHAN OLIVARES: You still have hierarchical division between executive chair and management chairman and task chair. But the division is less extreme than it was in the ’50s and ’60s. The chairs look very much alike. Usually, the only difference between an executive chair and a regular task chair would be that the backrest is taller.

BRIAN BALOGH: And I’ll bet they’re a lot more expensive somehow.

JONATHAN OLIVARES: Somehow, I’m sure. Or they definitely came with, like, that late ’70s, early ’80s period, you definitely had some decadent executive seating, for sure– some chairs burnished with copper and bronze armrests and velvet. Yeah, velvet was huge in the late ’70s.

BRIAN BALOGH: OK. Let’s stop before we get to chairs with sideburns. So what’s the last phase here?

JONATHAN OLIVARES: The phase after the general purpose ergonomic chair really happens as a result of workplace habits that started to form in the ’80s. And that really gets introduced with the personal computer. So all of a sudden, millions of people are working on personal computers, and they can do everything that they’re responsible for doing on their computer.

BRIAN BALOGH: And they’re doing a lot more, right? I mean, now you have corporate executives typing, which they never did before.

JONATHAN OLIVARES: Yeah, I mean, in the ’80s, I think the idea of an executive dictating to his secretary is really falling out of corporate fashion, and fast. It’s the beginning of what I like to think of as a kind of athletic corporate culture. Budget cuts and trim the fat comes up in corporate culture in the ’80s.

So athletic in concept, but in practice, it means that people are sitting at their desk for eight hours, with maybe one break here and there to get lunch or coffee. But the desktop computer, really, these are heavy machines. They’re planted firmly on a desk and people are literally sitting all day and typing.

So this creates the need for the, let’s say, the ultimate office chair, which it’s not a specific chair, but it’s just several types of chairs from many different companies that are really meant to allow the body to comfortably, as comfortably as possible, sit down for eight hours at a time. And I think the current phase that we’re in today is really a backlash against that.

After the, let’s say, the desktop ceases to be so important and let’s say the laptop and the iPhone or the mobile device comes into play, the worker can now sit just as comfortably on a sofa for an hour and then move to a desk for focused work and then get up and move to a cafe setting. And so the office chair as a result, it no longer needs to be this eight hour throne. It can really loosen up a little bit.

BRIAN BALOGH: So how has it loosened up? Why do we even have office chairs if people move around and basically can work from any position?

JONATHAN OLIVARES: Well, I think any position includes sitting at a desk. And that’s why the office chair stays around, and why we still need it.

BRIAN BALOGH: Jonathan Olivares is an industrial designer in Los Angeles. He is the author of A Taxonomy of Office Chairs.

PETER ONUF: It’s time for another break. But sit tight. When we get back, World War I left millions of soldiers dead. But it gave one survivor a good idea for how to keep legions of American workers alive.

MALE SPEAKER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN BALOGH: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED AYERS: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER ONUF: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, tools of the trade. We’re considering a few of the technologies that have had an impact on the way Americans work.

BRIAN BALOGH: So far, we’ve been focused on novelty, either completely new concepts, like the cubicle, or new takes on old ones, like the office chair. But some workers feel there’s no improving on the tools that they’ve been using for years. While we were putting together our show, we received a note from a listener who has experience with one of those old time tools.

PETER ONUF: His name is Mac McComas. And for seven summers and two winters, he worked on a camp on New Hampshire’s Squam Lake. His job– chopping up huge blocks of place that had been harvested from the lake. The tool of his trade? Three foot high tongs that he and his coworkers used to move that ice into ice boxes in each of the camp’s cottages.

MAC MCCOMAS: The ice blocks weigh anywhere from 120 to 140 pounds. As you can imagine, you can’t really get a good grip on a 100 pound-plus piece of ice. So there are these giant ice tongs that you slam into the sides of the ice and pull them around. And actually, after a couple summers of working this job with some friends of mine, we all decided to get a tattoo of the ice ponds on our arm to commemorate the experience of working in this place.

PETER ONUF: Very cool.

MAC MCCOMAS: So they have two icehouses on camp. And it was my job to wake up every morning, get some ice blocks out of the icehouse, and using a wheelbarrow, deliver them to cottages around the camp and cut them up and put them in the iceboxes.

ED AYERS: What’s the major skill that was involved? I can see that it’s physically demanding, but what did you take pride in learning how to do?

MAC MCCOMAS: So you get these massive ice blocks. And they’re about 12 inches thick by 16 inches by 19 inches. And you’d not only have to be strong enough to get them to the cottage, but then we you get there, the iceboxes are all different shapes and sizes, and they usually don’t need a full block.

So what you have to do is, using an ice pick, perfectly chop the block so it doesn’t splinter off into little pieces, but you cut a nice little short cube out and put in the icebox. And that takes a couple weeks to learn how to do. And two years to master.

ED AYERS: Did you ever think of using a hairdryer?

MAC MCCOMAS: [LAUGHS] Probably could have just put my hand on it in the summer and melted it down.

PETER ONUF: That ice can survive a long time. Jefferson used to keep it at Monticello.

MAC MCCOMAS: Yeah, they pack it in there in January and come September, when we’re pulling out the last ice blocks, they’re still 90 to 100 pounds. They don’t melt much.

ED AYERS: So that sounds kind of authentic, kind of artisanal, kind of satisfying. So was there something–


BRIAN BALOGH: Waking up at 5:00 in the morning?

ED AYERS: That it’s not this disembodied electricity coming in through a toxic freon through an electric motor, all that, but instead just ice, made nature’s way. Was it awesome?

MAC MCCOMAS: Yeah. I mean, it was definitely a labor of love, one of those jobs where you get to be outside all day and work with your hands and do something that you knew that really nobody else was doing or had any idea how to do.

PETER ONUF: So, Mac, when you look back on it, when you think about it, what would you say it means to you? What do you take away from all this, and what are you going to tell your poor grandchildren when they have to listen to you?

BRIAN BALOGH: And wonder that tattoo is.

PETER ONUF: There’s the tattoo, yes.

MAC MCCOMAS: I think it was just a great experience to use my youth to do something that was really unusual. And I think what I took away from it is that you don’t have to start your career right away. You can spend some years to have fun, and–

PETER ONUF: You can put it on ice.

MAC MCCOMAS: Yeah, right. Exactly.

PETER ONUF: Hey, Mac, thanks for sharing with us.

BRIAN BALOGH: Yeah, it’s been ice talking to you.

MAC MCCOMAS: Thanks, guys.

PETER ONUF: All right. Bye bye.


BRIAN BALOGH: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the history of a few of the key objects that define American work. Now, if you’ve ever worked a job that required you to wear head protection, you may have heard of a company called Bullard.

It was founded in 1898 by one Edward Dickinson Bullard. But it was Edward Wheatley Bullard, the son, who gets the credit for the company’s big innovation. We wanted to find out a little more about that innovation, so we put in a call to one of the company’s vice presidents, Wells Bullard.

WELLS BULLARD: And I’m the fifth generation of Bullards, the first non-Edward. But it’s the fifth generation of–

BRIAN BALOGH: Is Wells short for Edwina?

WELLS BULLARD: No, it’s Victoria Kingwell Bullard. So it’s from Kingwell.

BRIAN BALOGH: Wells’ great-great-grandfather had created the company to make equipment for miners in California. But when Edward the younger had his big idea, he was many thousands of miles away, in Europe.

WELLS BULLARD: He’d actually been serving in World War I. He was in the cavalry in France. And when he was in the trenches, he was wearing a metal, what they call a doughboy helmet. And so when he came back from the war, he wanted to work with his father at the family business. And he kind of came up with this idea that people in the trenches– in the war, he was protected better than the miners were being protected in the gold and silver mines.

BRIAN BALOGH: So what were the miners– they were not wearing any kind of hard hat?

WELLS BULLARD: They were wearing basically soft canvas caps at that time. They were wearing that that basically just kept debris off their faces.

BRIAN BALOGH: How did that work out?

WELLS BULLARD: I don’t think super well, necessarily. So my great-grandfather, he realized that the hazards that he’d been facing in the trenches were very similar to what the gold and silver miners were facing in the mines. But the metal helmets were obviously quite expensive, the doughboy helmets.

So he came up with a way of essentially taking two canvas caps and putting them set the brims around the outside. And he came up with this process that was called hard boiling, kind of like an egg.

So he hard boiled the caps. And he shellacked them with paint and he actually put a leather brim on them and a little bit of a suspension inside. And that was the first modern-day hard hat.

BRIAN BALOGH: That is so cool. So did that take off among miners?

WELLS BULLARD: Yes, miners started to wear those hard boiled hard hats, starting in 1919.

BRIAN BALOGH: When did what we would call a hard hat– that’s those guys on building sites– begin wearing the hard hat? Did they start wearing your great-grandfather’s hard hat right away?

WELLS BULLARD: So the first construction site that actually required the use of hard hats wasn’t until the Golden Gate Bridge, the construction of which started in 1933. At that time, I believe the statistic is that for every million dollars of the bridge project, there was normally a death, a human fatality.

Joseph D. Strauss was the chief engineer on the bridge, which was a $40 million project. And he did not like the idea of 40 people dying in order to cross the bay with the bridge. And so he implemented lots of safety measures. And one of the ones was he put a safety net actually under the bridge to help in the case of any worker fall, that they would not fall into the bay, that they would fall into the safety net.

And then he worked closely with my great-grandfather, who actually changed the hard hat a little bit in order to better protect workers against falling rivets, because there were lots of rivets on the bridge and those would hurt quite a bit if they hit your head.

BRIAN BALOGH: Yeah, I’ll bet. So with this very high profile project, did the hard hat take off to all construction sites?

WELLS BULLARD: No. It really didn’t. In terms of all construction sites using hard hats, that really didn’t go into effect until the Occupational Safety and Health Act was enacted in–

BRIAN BALOGH: That’s OSHA, right?

WELLS BULLARD: That’s OSHA, yes. OSHA was enacted in 1970, which then required hard hats at various work sites.

BRIAN BALOGH: Obviously, the post-World War II economic boom led to massive construction projects. You mean to tell me that folks were working without hard hats for all that time?

WELLS BULLARD: Well, I wouldn’t say that all folks were working without hard hats, but they were not required.

BRIAN BALOGH: Right. How did that affect your company when OSHA began to require these hard hats?

WELLS BULLARD: When OSHA began to require hard hats on those work sites, obviously that was good for us with regard to more demand for our product after 1970. But there was also then additional competition, because it opened up quite a desirable market for other competitors.

BRIAN BALOGH: Did you lobby for that regulation?

WELLS BULLARD: Not that I know of, no.


WELLS BULLARD: One of the things about Bullard is– pardon?


WELLS BULLARD: I don’t know. I don’t know.

BRIAN BALOGH: All right. You ask your Dad whether there might have been quiet lobbying, perhaps, for this requirement when OSHA was passed.

WELLS BULLARD: I will. But one of the things that I’m probably most proud of about Bullard is the fact that we’ve been making safety equipment before, way before, it was required on work sites, because it’s just the right thing– protecting work areas and getting them home safely to their families and loved ones.


BRIAN BALOGH: Wells Bullard is vice president for marketing and product development at the E.D. Bullard Company, which is now based in Cynthiana, Kentucky.


ED AYERS: We’re going to end today with a workplace tool of sorts that’s been the news lately. Across the country this past year, we’ve been hearing about the deaths and injuries of unarmed suspects at the hands of local police. And those cases have a lot of people asking whether more video surveillance could improve the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

For Larry Muncie, the chief of police in Madison, Alabama, the question is more than academic. In February, footage from one of his patrol cars showed officers questioning a 57-year-old man from India, who, it turned out, had been out for a morning walk. In what seemed like an instant, one of the officers slammed Sureshbhai Patel to the ground, resulting in injuries that left him partially paralyzed. Chief Muncie’s department recommended assault charges against the officer, Eric Parker, who has also been indicted under federal civil rights laws.

But the other reason we wanted to talk to Chief Muncie is that a few months before that incident, the International Association of Police Chiefs gave his department its highest award for community policing, a fact that was largely overlooked when the video of Officer Parker went viral. I began our conversation by asking Chief Muncie what a patrolman’s technology looked like when he first walked the beat.

LARRY MUNCIE: Starting back in the dark ages when I started, when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth, when you started as a police officer, you were issued a set of handcuffs and a weapon and maybe a billy club, a nightstick, or even some older than I am, the old night come-alongs or the saps if you remember those.

ED AYERS: No, I don’t know what that would be.

LARRY MUNCIE: Those were back probably in the early ’60s, maybe late ’50s, they issued what were called come-alongs. And they were just basically a little lead weight that was covered in leather, and the officers would carry them in their back pocket. And they were actually trained to use those to hit suspects in the head that were resisting.

They called them come-alongs, convoys, saps, things of that nature– slapjacks. But they were very primitive, very primitive. And of course, after they realized that they were really injuring people significantly, they stopped using them.

ED AYERS: And what would an officer be handed today? What would the outfit of equipment be like today?

LARRY MUNCIE: Today when the officer goes on– they’ll spend– matter of fact, I was pulling the figures today. They’ll spend close to $20,000 putting equipment on an officer. That’s going to include a bulletproof vest, which is made of Kevlar Spectra.

And then you’re going to have the leather gear, which is going to consist of handcuffs, maybe an OC spray. It’s going to consist of a Taser, and then of course a duty weapon. Then you have a walkie-talkie, and usually a collapsible steel baton.

ED AYERS: So with all this equipment that’s going on, what do you think about the calls for body cameras or dashboard video? With the national spotlight on police abuse and protest, does that strike you as sort of an extension of all the equipment that officers carry, or is this a real game-changer in one direction or another?

LARRY MUNCIE: No, it’s a natural progression. The majority of the departments across the nation are already using the in-car cameras and have been using the in-car cameras for 15 years. They’re a great tool. In my opinion, the in-car cameras are actually better than the body cams that they have out now.

ED AYERS: So what would be the advantages and disadvantages of a body camera, say?

LARRY MUNCIE: A significant issue with the body cameras is that they’re dependent on somebody turning them on and off. So something happens really, really quick, the first action of that officer has to be to turn the camera on or reach for his weapon. Which do you think that’s going to be?

They’re going to go for the weapon or they’re going to go for that tool that they need. It’s not going to be to turn that camera on. Now conversely, if you go to the cars, as soon as you hit the blue lights in most patrol cars, cameras come on.

ED AYERS: Oh, I see.

LARRY MUNCIE: And the best part about the car cameras is they give you that perspective from a third party. So you’re able to look and see the officer’s full actions, the suspect’s full actions. Whereas the body cameras, usually it’s so close and personal the only thing you see is movement. But it’s hard to determine exactly what that movement is. So both are good, but neither one is going to replace the other. They’re going to have to be worked together.

ED AYERS: So did the incident in which your officer was involved suggest to you that video technology is an important way to stop police abuse?

LARRY MUNCIE: In regards to the Mr. Patel incident?


LARRY MUNCIE: The officer for Mr. Patel’s case, Eric Parker, his actions were absolutely inexcusable. That’s why we made the recommendations that we did. If we would not have had that video, that would’ve been much, much more difficult to determine exactly what happened. That video allows you to analyze it over and over again and make sure that everything, the policies and procedures, state laws, were followed, and if not, to take action. So to answer your question, cameras absolutely help. And the more cameras, the better.

ED AYERS: So as we have all these different forms of footage, Chief Muncie, coming from the different body cameras and the car cameras, why do we need all of that? Does it imply a suspicion of the police, or does it have some other function?

LARRY MUNCIE: It does. When you put these cameras on the officers, we require our supervisors to look at that footage every week, pick different officers at random. And they look at the stops that they’re going on. So what that gives them is a bird’s eye view of how those officers are conducting themselves when the supervisors aren’t around.

And what they’re looking for is not necessarily something that they’ve done wrong, but learning opportunities. Maybe they should’ve approach a car differently. Maybe they should have spoken more professionally.

Maybe they should have– fill in the blank. Without that camera, without that technology, that’s all opportunities that are lost, because you simply cannot have a supervisor that rides with an officer 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

ED AYERS: So we’ve been talking about technology. And really, it’s kind of proliferation. And you’ve made a compelling case for all the reasons that we have every new addition to the outfit of the police has to go out into the world with. But there’s another practice that seems to be in ascendancy of community policing that is really emphasizing the role of the police in the place where they work as partners. So is community policing itself a kind of technology?

LARRY MUNCIE: No, I think it’s more relationships. We just simply can’t go out and communicate with the individuals that we personally know and think like us. We have to communicate with all facets. Law enforcement is the most noble profession, in my mind, in the world. With a comes a lot of responsibility. You have the authority to take someone’s property, their freedom, and their life.

And with that, we must be held to a higher standard by our diverse community that we work for. And the only way to do that and to know what that expectations of your community is to be involved with them, and to have those relationships. And that may be simply having school resource officers in your schools, giving kids role models, being at community events, having your officers out on bikes in the parks, having your officers walking through the neighborhoods, having your officers with the mindset of, we are problem-solvers first– problem-solvers first.

So whatever the issue is, we want to try to help fix that. But we are still law enforcement, and we still protect. And we still stop people from violating other people.

ED AYERS: Chief Muncie, thanks so much for helping us understand this complicated landscape.

LARRY MUNCIE: Well, sir, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

ED AYERS: That was chief Larry Muncie of the Madison, Alabama police department.


PETER ONUF: Time for us to clock out. But we’ll be waiting for you online. Drop in at our website. We’d be eager to hear your thoughts on the show, as well as the shows we have in the works. One considers the long American tradition of staking claims to rights. We’d be interested in hearing any stories you have about times when your rights have come into conflict with other people’s rights.

We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, @BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.


BRIAN BALOGH: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, and Robert Armengol. Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

ED AYERS: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel– history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History, Emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

BRIAN BALOGH: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.