Spokane Valley — Families with generations in Spokane might have a great-grandmother who worked for an apple-packing operation or a distant relative once employed at Kaiser Aluminum.
Wearing industrial denim or dress attire, they likely carried a metal lunch box to the job site. Today, the region’s jobs are mostly based at an office or with a service industry. Since the pandemic, more people today work from home.
At the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum through Aug. 20, a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit called “The Way We Worked” covers the diverse evolution of employment in the United States, from early agriculture and factories to a range of jobs boosted by flight and space missions. It explores racial inequality and early child labor practices.
“It captures the working conditions, organizing labor, different work opportunities through the years,” said Jayne Singleton, the museum’s director.
“We thought that this is timely considering how we’ve gone through so many work changes even before COVID, but with COVID, with more work shifting to being at home and technology being very important. Now everywhere you go, you see ‘help wanted’ signs.”
The exhibit, which opened June 4, was created by the National Archives and adapted for travel by the Smithsonian with upright panels and some interactive features. The Valley museum created new companion displays with artifacts, photos and history on some employers in this region, including Kaiser, Armour Meats, the Velox Naval Depot and the lumber industry.
“We thought it would be interesting to show how work and the American worker have changed through the years,” Singleton said.
In the 1800s, American children often worked for farms, factories, mines and mills because families needed the money, a 1912 display said. Minimum-age rules changed that for child workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.
In 1940, the percentage of the U.S. workforce in managerial, clerical and sales jobs was less than 33%. That increased to more than 70% by 2009.
The exhibit also lists the impact from 40 million immigrants who came to America in the 20th century. Examples of a variety of jobs are shown, and a range of work clothes. An old poster warns the night-shift worker to guard against fatigue with rest and food.
“In the ‘50s, you had a white shirt and a tie and you carried a lunch box, like the one here on display that’s an Aladdin metal lunch box,” Singleton said. “My dad carried one, so the exhibit shows how the culture of work has changed from the way people dressed to the way people communicated, or how they commuted, and what the work environment was like.
“It touches on labor unions, safety issues, exploitation, injuries, discrimination. There is an audio station with five different songs, buttons on display that were worn by union supporters. Our culture changed from an agrarian society.”
In 1900, she said, about 40% of Americans worked on farms. In 2008, it was about 2%. “It makes you stop and think about how making a living and providing for your family has changed,” she said.
Singleton said the exhibit examines the effects of technology and automation, and how workers strived for better working conditions, wages, hours and an end to racial and gender discrimination.
“This is very impactful when you look at the history of our country. I don’t know that I ever took a class in economic situations and how work was impacted, the different opportunities. This just lays it out really well.
“It really makes you think about the transitions, transformations in our own community, for instance from where our grandparents would have worked perhaps in an apple-packing house or maybe in the fields or baling hay. That’s not happening anymore.”
This is the museum’s fourth traveling Smithsonian exhibit. The city of Spokane Valley provided additional funding support for the exhibit.