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Vintage photos show what it was like to work in a US car factory a century ago

Vintage photos show what it was like to work in a US car factory a century ago
  • Gas-powered automobiles were first invented in Europe in the late 1800s.

  • But factories and mass-production techniques soon allowed the US to dominate the car industry.

  • Photos from 100 years ago show innovations at factories, and what it was like to work in one.

Germany's Karl Benz invented the first gas-powered car with a combustion engine in 1885, and he began selling it soon after. In the first decade of the 20th century, manufacturers turned their focus to creating vehicles that were cheaper to make and sell.

Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan, in 1903 and, amid demand for his vehicle, the Model T, he innovated new production techniques, specifically the first moving assembly line for cars in 1913. In the early 20th century, other car manufacturers, such as General Motors and Chrysler, also set up shop in Michigan.

Now, the automotive industry is at a crossroads once again as the United Auto Workers Union, or the UAW, launched a historic strike against three Detroit automakers, Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, in September. The union is putting pressure on the industry over issues of wages, worker schedules, and benefits.

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These black-and-white photos show how car factories looked over the past century.

In the US, the earliest car manufacturers were metalworkers, blacksmiths, and the makers of bicycles and carriages.

CHASSIS PAINT SHOP, CLEVELAND, OHIO, 1900.
Chassis Paint Shop in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1900.Archive Holdings Inc./Getty Images

Source: Smithsonian National Museum of American History

In the early 20th century, over 100 companies throughout the country were building small numbers of cars powered by electric, steam, and gas.

Hudson Motor Car Co., Detroit, Mich., between 1900 and 1915.
Hudson Motor Car Co., Detroit, Michigan, between 1900 and 1915.Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Source: Smithsonian National Museum of American History

By 1910, Henry Ford had introduced the next model of his in-demand automobile, the Model T, and William Durant had founded his company, General Motors.

Picture shows women working on an early outdoor Ford assembly line, 1910.
Women working on an early outdoor Ford assembly line in 1910.George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Source: History.com

Henry Ford had big plans for improving how his cars were manufactured, so he constructed a new plant in Highland Park, Michigan, in 1910, helping to establish the state as the industry's home.

Photograph of the Ford Motor company production line. Detroit. Usa 1910.
The Ford Motor company production line in Detroit in 1910.Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Source: Ford

At his plant, Ford innovated mass-production techniques with his moving assembly line, which was first used in 1913.

1913: Workers on an assembly line inside the Ford Motor Company factory at Highland Park, Michigan, constructing steering systems.
Workers on an assembly line inside the Ford Motor Company factory at Highland Park, Michigan, constructing steering systems.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Source: Ford, PBS

His innovation was inspired by conveyor belts he'd seen in grain warehouses and assembly lines in slaughterhouses.

1913: Ford's first moving assembly lines at Highland Park.
Ford's first moving assembly lines at Highland Park, Michigan, 1913.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Source: Ford

The moving assembly line meant the car moved to the employee rather than the other way around. The vehicle was initially pulled into place by a rope — later, a chain — so the car could be built step-by-step.

1914: Workers constructing a Model-T engine on an assembly line in a Ford Motor Company factory.
Workers constructing a Model-T engine on an assembly line in a Ford Motor Company factory.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With the moving assembly line, his Model T could be built in only 93 minutes, a dramatic decrease from the 12 hours it previously took.

View of a portion of the assembly line for Model T automobiles at a Ford manufacturing plant (probably the one in Highland Park, Michigan), 1913.
View of a portion of the assembly line for Model T automobiles at a Ford manufacturing plant, 1913.Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Source: Ford

However, the innovation also made employees' jobs more repetitive and tedious — like those pictured making flywheels — and they began quitting in droves.

1914: Flywheel production at the Ford motor plant in Highland Park, Michigan.
Flywheel production at the Ford motor plant in Highland Park, Michigan.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So in 1914, Ford doubled wages to $5 per eight-hour day, which is about $150 in today's money. This competitive wage and its impact on productivity helped the middle class thrive, NPR reported.

1917: Factories of the Ford cars in Michigan, USA.
Factories of the Ford cars in Michigan, 1917.Boyer/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Source: The Henry Ford, Bureau of Labor Statistics, NPR

A shorter workday also allowed Ford to create a third shift, and the plant was able to hire more workers and essentially make the company a 24-hour operation.

NEW FORD MOTORCARS GROUPED IN WAREHOUSE, 1925.
New Ford Motorcars grouped in a warehouse, 1925.Archive Holdings Inc./Getty Images

Source: Ford

By 1926, the Ford Motor Company would become one of the first companies in the US to implement a five-day, 40-hour work week in its factories.

Assembly line production of the Model A at a Ford automobile plant in Detroit, Michigan, 1927.
Assembly line production of the Model A at a Ford automobile plant in Detroit, Michigan, 1927.ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Source: History.com

Ford halted production of its Model T in 1927, by which time 15 million units had been sold.

Workers on a motor car production line at a factory, USA, circa 1930.
Workers on a motor car production line at a factory, circa 1930.Herbert/Getty Images

Source: History.com

By the 1920s, Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors — all founded in Michigan — would be known as the Big Three automakers.

1927: The production line at a Ford motor factory in Michigan, USA.
Michigan, 1927.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Source: History.com

By 1929, the Big Three were responsible for 80% of the industry's output.

Factory workers assembling an engine in the body of a car, USA, circa 1930.
Factory workers assembling an engine in the body of a car, circa 1930.Frederic Lewis/Getty Images

Source: History.com

By the 1930s, smaller manufacturers were going out of business, unable to keep up with the large-scale production of the Big Three.

Manufacturing Of Transmission Items Of The American Buick Cars In The General Motors Factory In Detroit, USA around 1930
Manufacturing of transmission items of the American Buick cars in the General Motors factory in Detroit around 1930.Keystone-France/Getty Images

Source: Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Photos from the 1930s show how the production line continued to thrive in America's car factories. That decade, European car makers adopted the same processes.

Overhead view of a motor car production line at a factory, USA, circa 1930.
Overhead view of a motor car production line at a factory, circa 1930.Welgos/Getty Images

Source: History.com

 

More than 6 million women stepped up in response to the shortage of male labor during World War II. In the car industry, the population of female employees increased from 28,300 in October 1941 to 203,300 by November 1943.

A woman braces with her foot to operate an axle lathe at a car wheel manufacturer in Buffalo, New York. The company began employing women for the war effort when its men went to fight. April, 1943.
A woman braces with her foot to operate an axle lathe at a car wheel manufacturer in Buffalo, New York, in April 1943.CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Source: The University of Michigan-Dearborn

Here, workers are putting the finishing touches on the 1947 models of the Mercury, one of three cars made by Ford at the time, at the River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan.

Automobile workers putting the finishing touches to 1947 models of the Mercury, one of three automobiles manufactured by the Ford Motor Company, at the company's River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan, 1947.
Dearborn, Michigan, 1947.Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ford workers in Dearborn are photographed finishing the Custom Deluxe at the end of the assembly line, which could produce 500 cars in a single, eight-hour shift.

Ford workers put the finishing touches to the Custom Deluxe as they roll off the production line of the Ford assembly plant at Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1950. The vehicles have reached the end of the 1,000-foot assembly line, capable of producing 500 new cars in an eight-hour shift.
Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1950.FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

In 1955, General Motors, Chrysler, American Motors (Nash-Hudson), Ford, and Studebaker-Packard were making 99.7% of all cars.

Section of body of car on assembly line at Nash Automobile Factory, November 1, 1950.
Section of the body of a car on an assembly line at Nash Automobile Factory, November 1, 1950.Jerry Cooke/Getty Images

Source: The Saturday Evening Post

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