Documenting the Wartime Effort: Header

Documenting the Wartime Effort


Documenting the Wartime Effort: Intro

America’s entry into World War II gave the steel industry a financial boost from the depths of the Great Depression as well as an opportunity for image burnishing. Large corporations and government worked together on the joint goal of supplying steel for the war effort. Under the Defense Finance Corporation, the government helped subsidize U.S. Steel efforts including the development of new blast and open-hearth furnaces. U.S. Steel doubled the output of raw materials, constructed new steel plants, rehired retired workers, and reused obsolete equipment. Employment figures at the corporation increased from approximately 254,000 in 1940 to a wartime high of 340,000 in 1943.26

Businesses around the country began to spend more on PR. For U.S. Steel, photography, in particular, continued to factor heavily in U.S. Steel’s public relations efforts.27 By the early 1940s, the corporation had begun a coordinated initiative to build a sizeable collection of images documenting the company and its subsidiaries around the country. Photographers included exceptional artists such as Russell Aikins, Robert Yarnall Richie, Fred Korth, and Fritz Henle. A freelance advertising and industrial photographer and producer of industrial films, Richie took on assignments with Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel, Jones & Laughlin Steel, and U.S. Steel. Both Korth and Henle, who were among a wave of German artists immigrating to the United States in the 1930s, found work with national publications such as Life and Look. Additionally, U.S. Steel drew upon the work of photographers serving in the company’s engineering corps, who were intimately familiar with the inner workings of the corporation. It also employed the services of local studios operating near U.S. Steel subsidiaries—such as the Roleff Studio in Duluth or Boyart Studio in Salt Lake City—that had easy access to nearby plants.



Robert Yarnall Richie. Open pit ore mine, Hull-Rust Mine, Hibbing, Minnesota.

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U.S. Steel assembled images from these sources into large photograph albums organized by subsidiary or plant location—for example, the Geneva Steel Company in Utah or Tennessee Coal and Iron in Alabama.28 Information on the back of each print usually identified the photographer, PR staff ordering the print, and the subject of the photograph. Captions provided descriptive, crafted messages applauding the company’s industrial capacity, such as: “100-tons of black furnace iron being poured at the open hearths into transfer ladles at U.S. Steel’s Gary Steel Works.” The PR headquarters in New York directed photographic projects around the country and kept the master file of pictures. It also assumed responsibility for the production of U.S. Steel corporate publications. Writers, editors, and designers worked on the selection and placement of illustrations in a wide range of corporate literature.



Fred G. Korth. Nail making machines, Joliet Works, Joliet, Illinois.

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Beginning in 1940, U.S. Steel began incorporating photographs into its annual reports. These reports were developing into effective PR vehicles that attracted current and potential investors and served as a reflection of the company vis à vis other companies. The annual report for the year 1940 featured a single photograph: a full-page image of the South Works plant in Chicago, its furnaces ablaze at night, with the caption, “U.S. Steel Works Around the Clock to Meet Defense and Civilian Needs.” The following year, the 32-page-annual report (now printed on glossy rather than uncoated paper) included 23 photographs (including a number of full-page images) of steel production and research efforts. In subsequent annual reports from the early to mid 1940s, images of steel production placed alongside financial statistics underscored to stockholders the corporation’s exhaustive efforts to fight the war overseas and on the home front.

Documenting the Wartime Effort: Slider

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Hanging bombs on paint conveyor line, Christy Park Works, McKeesport, Pennsylvania.

U.S. Steel Annual Report, 1940. Corporate Reports Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

Douglas A. Fisher. Steel in the War. New York: United States Steel Corporation, c. 1946.

Douglas A. Fisher. Steel in the War. New York: United States Steel Corporation, c. 1946.


Documenting the Wartime Effort: Body

In 1946, U.S. Steel published Steel in the War, a 9-by-12-inch, 164-page volume with photographs of steel production for the war effort. Douglas Alan Fisher, a key member of the public relations team, wrote the handsomely designed volume as well as several other books for the company.29 Dramatic images appeared on every page of Steel in the War, depicting the increased production of iron ore, coal, coke, and limestone and the construction of new steel plants. Striking close-ups documented the heroic labors of workers processing and tailoring steel (through chemistry, heat treating, cooling, rolling, and finishing methods) into final products ranging from nails to artillery equipment. Supplementary images in Steel in the War came from a variety of sources such as the U.S. military, the Office of War Information, and companies using U.S. Steel in their products. Pictures of tanks, planes, ships, aircraft carriers, guns, bombs, shells, and pipelines juxtaposed alongside U.S. Steel-commissioned images of steel production celebrated the role of private industry in winning the conflict. Together, text and images emphasized the patriotic rather than profiteering motives of a corporation that stood at attention to meet wartime demands. As Irving S. Olds, CEO and chairman of the board of directors explained: “Steel in the War records some of the industrial feats performed by United States Steel Corporation and the steel industry, operating under the American system of free private enterprise, in the greatest war of all time—a war fought with weapons and equipment largely made of steel.”30

Documenting the Wartime Effort: Footnotes

26 Douglas A. Fisher, Steel in the War (New York: United States Steel Corporation, 1946), 161.

27 Part of these efforts included outreach to newspapers and magazines. In 1943, for example, an article in Life magazine, “Women in Steel,” featured photographs by Margaret-Bourke White illustrating women at U.S. Steel plants in a variety of positions traditionally held by men.

28 Harvard Business School’s Baker Library holds 27 U.S. Steel albums and approximately 100 loose images that collectively total more than 1,200 prints.

29 Douglas A. Fisher worked in the Office of Assistant to Chairman and head of PR, J. Carlisle MacDonald. Fisher also wrote Steel Making in America (New York: United States Steel Corporation, 1949); Steel Serves the Nation, 1901–1951: The Fifty Year Story of United States Steel (New York: United States Steel Corporation, 1951); and The Epic of Steel (New York: United States Steel Corporation, 1963), a general history of the steel industry.

30 Irving S. Olds in Fisher, Steel in the War, 3.

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