Der Turmbau zu Babel in der Weltchronik von Rudolf von Ems (1200–1254), um 1340/50 (Ausschnitt).
The Tower of Babel in the Weltchronik by Rudolf von Ems (1200-1254), ca. 1340-50 (detail). Zentralbibliothek Zürich

In praise of work

On Labour Day, we celebrate the glories of work. We raise a glass to the workers, but also to the chroniclers, artists and photographers. The pictorial sources they created show people at work throughout the centuries.

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer is a freelance historian with a focus on history in public space.

Do we work to live or do we live to work? There are many correct answers and two wrong answers to this question: no and yes. For some, work is a struggle to survive, for others it’s the meaning of life. And in between there are opinions as diverse as ways of life. Here are ten historical examples to demonstrate.

1. Working in the fields

People need to eat. Bread. For this, we need the plough, the sickle, the mill and the oven. As fundamental as it is self-evident. But it took around 10,000 years to get from the hook plough of the first farmers to the revolutionary technology of the wheeled plough. The impacts were game-changing: in the High Middle Ages wheeled ploughs and the three-field crop rotation system delivered higher yields, and the population increased.
Sachsenspiegel, ca. 1230
Sachsenspiegel, ca. 1230
The wheeled plough, a breakthrough in agricultural technology: at the front the wooden wheel frame, and behind it the iron plough blade, which slices into the soil vertically and, together with the iron mouldboard, pushes up whole clods of earth and turns them over – beneficial for nutrients and sowing of seeds. The crop is harvested with the sickle and ground in the mill, which is driven by the waterwheel. Sachsenspiegel, ca. 1230. Heidelberg University Library

2. Clerical work

Bread is necessary, but art is not, because it’s not edible. Anyone who subscribes to that belief has never looked at the ivory panel that has adorned the cover of a certain book since the 10th century. When it was created, the magnificent relief was among the most important works of its kind in terms of composition and workmanship. It doesn’t fill stomachs, but it warms the heart and makes the spirit soar.
Saint Gregory with three scribes, ivory panel, 20.5 by 12.5 cm, late 10th century.
Saint Gregory with three scribes, ivory panel, 20.5 by 12.5 cm, late 10th century. Gregory’s grand palace with its double ring of walls with tower fortifications is in stark contrast to the cramped scriptorium below. The low-ranking people do the lion’s share. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
In the centre is Saint Gregory, a noted pope around the year 600 and one of the four Fathers of the Church. Hunched over a heavy tome, his posture is the single indication of his dedication to his task. His concentration on his subject is absolute. Gregory is listening to the Holy Spirit, who is sitting on his right shoulder in the form of a dove. He is faithfully writing down what the dove tells him. The richly worked chair and the ornate writing desk, both exquisite objects in their own right, are another measure of how precious every word is. The Holy Spirit is concentrated in Gregory. Meanwhile, the team spirit has taken hold of the three scribes. Inspired by their task, the good companions are working away frantically in their little cubicle. The inkhorn is being passed around. Despite the confined space and the assiduous work, there’s a sense of conviviality. An enchanting image.

3. Construction

In Babylon’s heyday, as recorded by Rudolf von Ems in around 1250, people aimed high. In his Weltchronik (Chronicle of the World), the construction work is proceeding apace. The Babylonian linguistic confusion hasn’t yet brought the ambitious building project to a halt. Neither health and safety regulations nor the laws of gravity apply, and the artist cares little for perspective, as evidenced by the scaffolding above the arched entrance.
Tower of Babel, 1340-50
Rudolf von Ems (1200-1254) wrote the first German-language chronicle of the world, but was able to complete only four of the six “ages of the world”. Here, the Tower of Babel from an edition dating from ca. 1340-50. The structure of a contemporary residential tower served as a model. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
At bottom right is the upper-class owner. Anyone who goes about in an ermine cape hasn’t come here to work. His stick and his hand send commands which the architect in the centre, dressed in blue, accepts with a deferential gesture. In the foreground is a stonemason wearing a protective hood; next to him is his supervisor, who is sitting on a one-legged stool checking the hewn stones with a set square. The stones for building are being hoisted up using stone pincers and hooks. Helpers carry the mortar in tubs up a ladder to the tower, where two bricklayers are working with trowels. Builders’ huts and lime pits have literally spilled out of the frame.
Rudolf von Ems, Weltchronik (Chronicle of the World), details.
Rudolf von Ems, Weltchronik (Chronicle of the World), details. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
The two cranes have booms with two pulleys each. They are operated by treadwheels. The workman in the treadwheel on the right is holding on to the pole with one hand. His head is sticking out of the wheel, at top right. Just about all that can be seen of his colleague in the left wheel is his two hands. “And some are in the dark. And the others are in the light, and you can see those in the light, but you cannot see those in the treadwheel.”

4. “Martine, my dear sir, fill our cups to the brim!”

The face, the hairstyle, the figure, the posture, the clothes, the shoes – an innkeeper has to look the part. The casual way he’s holding the glass with just three fingers is worthy of a circus performer. The glass, a typical shape of that era, is more important and therefore larger than the pewter tankard that the innkeeper is holding in his other hand. The huge keys to the cellar indicate how precious the wine vault is. Even though only its pommel is visible, the dagger is an important clue. In the late Middle Ages, patrons had to hand over their knives and weapons when entering an inn or tavern. It wouldn’t do for inebriated, angry drinkers to hurt themselves in a scuffle. Only the innkeeper carries a dagger. In his tavern, he has the monopoly on violence.
The innkeeper. Konrad von Ammenhausen’s Schachzabelbuch (ca. 1320): a book on the game of chess, with illustrations. Edition from Lucerne (?), 1420s.
The innkeeper. Konrad von Ammenhausen’s Schachzabelbuch (ca. 1320): a book on the game of chess, with illustrations. Edition from Lucerne (?), 1420s. Stadtbibliothek Zofingen
Are we in the innkeeper’s garden? In the “Krug zum Grüne Kranze”? Abundant tendril decoration on both sides, a homage to nature – and nature in turn pays homage to the elegant figure of the innkeeper, to beguiling effect. The painter has managed with just four colours: the outlines are black, plus red, golden yellow and green. The art is in knowing how to set limits.

5. Teamwork

Before the Council, in 1414, there were 6,000 people living in Constance. During the church assembly the population swelled to about 60,000. 33 cardinals, 346 patriarchs, archbishops and bishops poured into the city, as well as 2,148 academics and 546 heads and members of monastic orders, and countless attendants, including women, along with carriages, baggage and horses. The city was upside down.
Bread courier
Bread courier, prototype, early 15th century: logistics, production, distribution and marketing all rolled into one. Ulrich of Richental (1360-1437): Chronicle of the Council of Constance 1414-1418, one of the most important sources on the Council, here in an edition from Augsburg dating from 1483. Heidelberg University Library
The promise of good business was in the air. That meant other people had got wind of it too. So you had to be better, smarter, faster: the “Konstanz” bread courier was born. A well-rehearsed team of four makes its way through the teeming city streets. Two men, one in front and one behind, are steering a two-wheeled handcart between them. The cart’s manoeuvrability is optimal, its balance perfect. That’s just as well, because the two of them are transporting an oven: an oven in full operating mode, as the wildly licking flames indicate. The baker is just about to pull the warm bread out of the oven. The fourth person in the group sells the fresh bread there and then, outside an inn where pretzels are also available. There’s only one thing better than work: teamwork.

6. “No tears in their sombre eyes. They sit at the loom and bare their teeth.”

Abrupt change of place, time and scene: Silesia, 4 June 1844, the weavers’ revolt. Factories with mechanical looms are a threat to the livelihood of home workers. Will they mean even longer working days, even greater hardship, even more exploited children? Off to the protest march! In desperation, the weavers smash things up, loot and ransack, and squeeze some money out of a few factory owners. After two days, the Prussian military march in and brutally crush the uprising.
Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945): Weberzug (The March of the Weavers), folio 4 from the “Ein Weberaufstand” (A Weavers’ Revolt) cycle, 1893-1897.
Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945): Weberzug (The March of the Weavers), folio 4 from the “Ein Weberaufstand” (A Weavers’ Revolt) cycle, 1893-1897. This work was inspired by the play Die Weber by Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946). Perhaps Käthe Kollwitz identifies with the woman in the foreground who is carrying her sleeping child on her back. Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Cologne
Pickaxes and axes; two men are clenching their fists. Towards the back, an arm is extended menacingly. But the battle is lost before it’s begun. The dingy smudge of the horizon indicates that work and life weigh heavily on these people. Few have the strength left for a revolutionary song. The clothes are dark, the faces and bodies haggard, the posture stooped, the procession subdued and cheerless. What are these wretched people supposed to do when soldiers raise their guns against them? – The curse of work? No, the curse of brutality.

7. Discipline on the factory floor

Yes, yes, people are working there; it’s a factory. In the foreground are three large stacks of paper – not yet packed on the left, ready for shipment on the right. The young women have to count out the sheets of paper and parcel it up in reams. A “ream” contains 480 sheets of writing paper. The paper is in units of one dozen. Large windows and numerous lamps give plenty of light. Even the most minute defects in the paper should be identifiable. The floor is clean as usual, not freshly cleaned for this picture.
Sorting room in a paper factory, ca. 1900.
Sorting room in a paper factory, ca. 1900. At that time, around 40% of workers in the paper industry were women. Just over half of them were not yet 18 years old. – Cast-iron pillars with a cup-shaped end support the girders and tie beams, and subdivide the room. Function defines aesthetics. Archive of the Perlen paper factory
In those days, anyone being photographed had to keep still. That has its price: the scene looks staged, the people frozen in place. In the foreground, just one woman has been instructed to face the camera. She’s not smiling; a smile can’t be held long enough for the photograph to be taken. But the eerie atmosphere on this factory floor is more than just a question of photographic technology. The women appear impersonal, segregated; perhaps they’re required to work in silence. Their hair pinned up, their clothes almost identical: buttoned up to the neck, collars, long sleeves, floor-length skirts. Each worker should look like everyone else, take her place in the line, do her quota. That can’t happen without a man. He’s standing against the wall on the right, dressed in dark clothes, with a bit of a paunch, and a watch-chain. However, the photo isn’t about him; it’s about the “staff”. Does life stand still outside?

8. Two sides of the same coin

The shiny side: before World War I, the rural farming community of Hochdorf in Seetal (Canton of Lucerne) was experiencing an “economic miracle”. Businesses were springing up like mushrooms. The Seetal railway had been chugging through the “Lake Valley” since 1883. In just 10 years, the population had doubled to 3,000. The big department store was called “Au Louvre”; the new theatre, the “Pelzmühle”, had seating for 1,300. Against this setting, in 1898 a new brick factory was built in Hochdorf. The imposing new building is the perfect backdrop for the solemnly self-conscious line-up of employees and products. Carefully stage-managed down to the last detail, more than a hundred employees each have their specific place. Right at the front, young workers are seated on the floor; others are slightly elevated so that they’re clearly visible but still don’t obscure those behind and above them. In the best spots are the members of the company’s management; the owner is easily identifiable with a stand-up collar, but so are the other members (white shirt, tie, hat, stern face). Behind them, like ladies-in-waiting, a row of female workers. Then more white shirts and hats, if available. The display of workers continues up the steps, now minus the ties. At the right-hand edge, a cart becomes a platform. In the topmost row are the workers from the nearby clay pit, with their gleaming shovels and spades. Restrained pride in their vital contribution to the whole thing: no bricks without clay.
Workers of the Hochdorf brickworks, ca. 1905.
Workers of the Hochdorf brickworks, ca. 1905. In praise of the work, at the same time all the company’s products are showcased, including “interlocking tiles in all current models”, “extruded interlocking, concave extruded interlocking and plain roofing tiles in semi-circular, pointed and Gothic profile”. Collection of Ziegelei Hochdorf AG
The less shiny side: in May 1906, 70 brick factory workers went on strike. They had made the “economic miracle” happen, and they were demanding their slice of the pie. Summer working hours to be reduced from 11 to 10 hours. Rejected. In the same year, 70 Italians refused to work. They complained of mistreatment by their supervisors. The working atmosphere was explosive. Another aggravating factor was that the brick factory had recently started hiring women – to do men’s work, but for lower wages.

9. “This is our handiwork!”

This is what a winning team looks like. These workers are celebrating topping-out. A festively decorated tree sits resplendent on the cross-ridge of the church roof. A worker standing on the roof of the nave waves his hat jubilantly. Some of his fellows have joined him; others have spread themselves out across the roof and on the scaffolding of the small round tower, at the front next to the main entrance.
Topping-out ceremony; the first stage is completed. Gerliswil parish church, Emmen LU, 1913.
Topping-out ceremony; the first stage is completed. Gerliswil parish church, Emmen LU, 1913. Staatsarchiv St. Gallen
The workers are conscious of the fact that the monumental structure is their handiwork, even though their names won’t be included in the commemorative Festschrift later on. This also applies to the cart-driver in the foreground. With his cart and pair of horses, he ferries stone to the building site. He stands there, humble and proud at the same time. On the forecourt next to him, standing slightly apart, is the architect, Adolf Gaudy (1872-1956), a master of his profession; on the left probably the master builder, and on the right a representative of the building contractor. Gaudy is wearing a white topcoat to keep his black suit from getting dirty while he inspects the building. What do you think is going through his head? Perhaps he’s grateful that there weren’t any serious accidents. There were no reports of fatalities here. Not long before this photo was taken, three workers were killed in an accident during the building of another Gaudy church in Romanshorn. Not all members of the winning team made it to the finishing line.

10. What is work? What is life?

The young woman is one of the “nameless” faces of history. But she does have a name. “Maria”, perhaps, like the Mother of God. The woman could be from the province of Belluno, north of Venice, with a typical family history. The search for work has driven her brothers and sisters all over the world. She chose Switzerland, and in the 1930s she found a job at the Viscose textile factory in Emmen. There, she lives in the factory’s own “girls’ home”, right next door, sheltered, supervised and urged by nuns to say her prayers. Her life so far is condensed in the expression on her face, in the look in her eyes. A hint of melancholy, a hint of defiance? Sceptical, yet self-assured? Vulnerable, but filled with inner strength?
Still from the personnel film “Die Viscösler”, 1937
Marked by retrospective solidarity: still from the personnel film “Die Viscösler”, 1937. – In praise of life? In praise of work? Life as one big question? Staatsarchiv Luzern

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