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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Inside an American Factory
The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905.

[Detail] Panorama exterior Westinghouse works, 1904.

Critical Thinking

1) Chronological Thinking

This collection portrays the Westinghouse Works in 1904, although a Special Presentation, "Westinghouse Works: Timeline," gives a longer history of the Westinghouse companies and of their founder, George Westinghouse. Students can use the films in this collection to examine how industrial work may have changed from 1904 to today. They may answer questions such as:

  • How are the workers dressed?
  • What tasks are they performing?
  • Are any safety precautions being observed?
  • How diverse are the workers?
  • What changes can they see in factory work today?

Search on Westinghouse among American Memory collections for photographs of Westinghouse products over subsequent years, including refrigerators and electric ranges.

Students can investigate other sources at local libraries and on the World Wide Web to learn how the Westinghouse companies have changed over the years and what products they have manufactured. How have these products contributed to the modern lifestyle?

2) Comprehension

After viewing films of women at work, such as Coil Winding Section E, students can read "Working Conditions at the Westinghouse Works" in the Special Presentation and do further research on their own into the role of women in industrial work at the turn-of-the-century. They may answer questions such as:

  • What are the women doing in these films? How are they dressed?
  • What types of tasks did women typically perform at this period in history?
  • What rights did they have in their jobs?
  • How do the working conditions compare with the conditions of other factories of that time? How do they compare with today's standards?

Students can read about the working conditions again and view some of the films with an eye for safety and working conditions. Some examples might be Steam Hammer or Welding the Big Ring. They may answer questions such as:

  • What kinds of safety precautions, if any, are apparent in these films?
  • How did these films illustrate a "progressive" and "modern" factory environment for the time?
Casting a guide box

Casting a Guide Box, Westinghouse Works, American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1904


3) Analysis and interpretation

Students can use this collection and the Special Presentation "The Westinghouse World: The Companies, the People, and the Places" as a starting point to analyze the issue of unionism in American factories. The Westinghouse factories of 1904 refused to allow unions, but did offer some benefits of their own to workers. Students can analyze the role of unionism in the American workplace and how the Westinghouse example fits into that history. They can compare and contrast the Westinghouse working environment and its lack of a union with other workplaces of the time (e.g., Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Matawan Coal Mines).

These films were used as promotional tools for the Westinghouse companies at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. Students may analyze the films and answer:

  • How effective were these films in "selling" a good image of the Westinghouse companies?
  • How do modern companies advertise themselves?
  • How truthful are these films or other company advertisements?

4) Historical issue analysis and decision making

George Westinghouse was an ardent supporter of alternating current (AC) electricity, while Thomas Edison, his competitor in the electrical business, fiercely opposed it in favor of direct current (DC) electricity. Students can research this battle, and stage their own debates on the topic, putting themselves into the minds of Westinghouse and Edison at this time. They might address issues such as:

  • Why was Edison opposed to alternating current?
  • What steps did Edison take to threaten Westinghouse's alternating current inventions?
  • What steps did Westinghouse take to prove the stability of alternating current?

5) Research

Students can use the Westinghouse collection in tandem with other American Memory collections such as Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies and the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers to research inventors and the development of technology at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Students can research how Westinghouse, Edison, and Bell competed with each other directly through their companies and products.