Of Pipes and Men

I am neither historian nor fool enough to try to summarize the American experience of the early 20th century, but one can observe two themes from that era reflected in art. On one side were works about the devastations of a world war and the deprivations of a collapsed economy. In balance were portrayals of the resilience of the American people and the growth of American industry. We see these optimistic elements in art works that celebrate the men whose labors built the skyscrapers and paved the roads, farmers who tilled the soil, and miners who worked beneath. These were everyday heroes building the future. To be clear, “men” is not used here just for the sake of the title. The labor force was thoroughly male, and the art was often a portrayal of muscular strength and virile manhood.

Much art of the 20s, 30s and 40s featured visible icons of American growth — skylines and busy harbors, skyscrapers, bridges and dams. But we are here to talk about a vital but hidden infrastructure that served it all, that carried water to and waste from the expanding cities, that distributed oil and gas across the country to the refineries and on to factories and ports. This is of course pipes, an infrastructure that crossed the countryside, whose size and reach arguably dwarfed the more visible elements of early 20th century progress.

Smithsonian Learning Lab, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access.
Smithsonian Learning Lab, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access.

By itself “pipe” is not a very alluring art subject, so early illustrations of pipework served to document or advertise. Workers, if shown, seemed to do little more than provide scale.

Philadelphia Water Department, Watersheds blog
Philadelphia Water Department, Watersheds blog
The History of Sanitary Sewers
The History of Sanitary Sewers

In 1937, U.S. Pipe and Foundry Inc. commissioned a series of 12 lithographs from artist/illustrator James E. Allen for use in advertisements. Faced with a subject that literally just lays there, Allen portrayed the laying of pipe in dynamic works that convey a sense of progress and growth. Perhaps more important is that we see workers authentically at their tasks of moving, aligning and assembling massive segments of pipe.

When speaking of pipe from this era, we mean Cast Iron Pipe, first used In 1685 at Versailles and introduced to America in 1817 for the city of Philadelphia water works. It was a standard that lasted nearly 3 centuries before being replaced by ductile iron pipe in the 1970s and 80s. The U.S. Cast Iron Pipe and Foundry company was dominant and responsible for multiple series of commissioned art.

"Cast iron pipe is tough, husky, but not exactly handsome."

This series was followed by a four-print "seasons" series the following year. Details on Allen's 16 "pipe" lithographs can be found in the Advertising Series article "U. S. Pipe & Foundry, 1937-39".

The success of these campaigns spawned other commissions from other established illustrators and printmakers, almost all for the U.S. Pipe company. Here is a gallery of memorable prints from these artists, all following Allen's lead of showing workers interacting with the pipe in a number of creative ways.

1940, Dean Cornwell (American, 1892–1960)

A 1940 ad by fellow illustrator Dean Cornwell …

1941, Edward Arthur Wilson (American, 1886-1970)

... was followed in 1941 by a series of prints by artist/illustrator Edward A. Wilson:

Big Pipe, 1941
Untitled (Underwater Pipe), 1941
Pipe Jungle, 1941
Laying Pipe, 1941
Laying the pipeline, 1941
Untitled (Pipeline Transport), 1941
Untitled (Pipeline Construction in a New England Town), 1945
Pipefitters, c1940
Pipe Fitter, 1941
Untitled (Pipeline Construction), 1942

1941, Rockwell Kent (American, 1882-1971)

Also 1941, four works by Rockwell Kent:

Untitled (Laying Pipe Section Over a Bridge), 1941
Untitled (Workmen Lowering Pipe Segment Onto a Truck), 1941
Big Inch, 1941
Untitled (Workmen Lowering Pipe Section Into a Ditch), 1941

1944, Rico Lebrun (Italian-American, 1900-1964)

Two for Rico Lebrun in Sewage Works Journal, 1944

"Installing cement-lined bell-and-spigot cast iron pipe"
"72-inch flanged Y-Branch weighing 17 tons being secured to special underslung car for rais shipment to a War Project"

1945, Lynd Ward (American, 1905-1985)

1950, Paul Luane (American, 1899-1977)

1952, John A. Noble (American, 1913-1983)

By the 1950s, photo reproduction and color printing had advanced significantly, and a flowering of graphic arts brought new imagery to advertising, supplanting woodcuts, etchings and lithographs. As evidence I leave you with this notable ad attributed to J. C. Leyendecker for Tennessee Gas: “Natural gas, the giant imprisoned in the earth until the pipeline unleashed its mighty power”.

"Buried a million years... now serving the nation" - Tennessee Gas Transmission Company, c.1950s]

-- Lynn McRae (lmcrae@stanford.edu)