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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

"Every Minute Counts"--The Legacy of Katherine Joseph

Garment Workers on the Home Front. Photograph by Katherine Joseph, ca. 1942. © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg. Katherine Joseph Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Photography was a vibrant and exciting part of her life. Though she ended her career for marriage and motherhood, her work demonstrates an assertive and enterprising personality. She was a determined professional in a field that few women entered. She stood near such luminaries as President Franklin Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frank Sinatra, but also spent considerable time in factories where members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) worked. She practiced her craft with simple equipment, yet produced results that convey strength, dignity, and respect. Until a few years ago nobody knew anything about her achievements, particularly those closest to her, her children.

Who was she? This was forgotten photojournalist Katherine Joseph. You haven’t heard of her career as an intrepid, enterprising female photographer during the 1930s and 1940s, based mainly in New York City--certainly not after World War II, when she was already married to electrical engineer Arthur Hertzberg and had put her venerable Rolleiflex camera into a closet and taken on the role of spouse and mother. From that point on she never picked up a camera again and did not discuss her premarital photographic adventures with anyone.
Katherine Joseph near her darkroom. © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg. Katherine Joseph Papers, 1938-1944, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 
So it is both fitting and ironic that her children, Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg, are responsible for discovering and disclosing Katherine Joseph’s photographic legacy. Several years after her death in 1990 hundreds of negatives, photographs, notes, diaries, and journal entries were found in the family home’s attic by her daughter. Those dusty boxes contained the remnants of Katherine Joseph’s secret life.

Recognizing the value of this archive, Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg donated it to the National Museum of American History in 2007. Richard found an intriguing family connection with his own passion for photography. It had remained a mystery, since there was no explicit communication about photography between mother and son--although in the mid–1960s Ms. Joseph handed over to Richard an old Rolleiflex square-format camera, with no background about its history. When he visited the Smithsonian in 2014 to see the complete Katherine Joseph collection, he found many 2 ¼" by 2 ¼" negatives that were clearly taken with the same Rolleiflex his mother had passed on to him, and which he had used to take his first photographs.

Richard also became convinced that a fitting tribute to his mother’s photography would be an exhibition, and he submitted a proposal to the Oregon Jewish Museum / Center for Holocaust Education (OJM / CHE) in Portland, Oregon (he lives in one of the city’s suburbs). OJM / CHE’s Executive Director, Judy Margles, along with the institution’s staff and Exhibition Committee, were enthusiastically supportive. Judy accompanied Richard on his second visit to view the Joseph collection in 2015 and, upon seeing firsthand the material, was even more committed to an exhibit. The two met with National Museum of American History staff, Rosemary Phillips, Cathy Keen, and David Haberstich, to discuss cooperating in making the exhibit, Every Minute Counts - Photographs by Katherine Josephs, happen. Kay Peterson was very helpful from the outset, and Joe Hursey created high–quality TIFF digital images that were used to make new prints for the exhibit. It opened on June 29 and runs to September 25.

Katherine Joseph was born in Odessa, Ukraine in the early 20th century, the youngest of five children. The family immigrated to the United States when she was a baby, and her early years were spent in El Paso and Chicago. Katherine had an independent character; free from “Old World” cultural constraints, she moved to New York City to practice photography. She secured a position with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) that enabled her to document the garment industry labor force before and during World War II. The relationship between worker, machine, and urban/industrial environment was a prominent theme in many of her Union photographs.

The ILGWU was a strong advocate of improving working conditions and promoting employment for all Americans regardless of gender or ethnicity. As such it attracted political attention. Ms. Joseph’s photographic portfolio includes candid views of President Franklin Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, a very young Frank Sinatra, and the colorful New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. One memorable photo of President Roosevelt showed him surrounded by members of the cast from the Union production of “Pins and Needles” when the show was staged for the President at the White House on March 3, 1938.

Girls sewing, Mexico, 1941. Photograph by Katherine Joseph.  © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg. Katherine Joseph Papers, 1938-1944, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 

Katherine Joseph’s photographic career also took her far from the garment factories of New York City. In January 1941 she and two friends from Chicago embarked on an expedition to Mexico in an “Americar” manufactured by the Willys–Overland Motor Company. The firm wanted to demonstrate the rugged nature of the car as part of a public relations and advertising campaign. Ms. Joseph was to provide visual proof of the car’s durability through her photographs as it was driven over Mexican roads, paved and unpaved. Her photographs also displayed the dignity of poor farmers, the vibrancy of street markets, and the country’s varied geography.
Market Day: A Family Affair, Tamazunchale, Mexico, 1941. Photograph by Katherine Joseph.  © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg. Katherine Joseph Papers, 1938-1944,  Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 
The journey took the adventuresome trio through much of northern, central, and coastal Mexico. Representing themselves as members of “la prensa” (the press), Ms. Joseph and her companions gained access to people, places, and experiences well beyond a conventional tourist itinerary. This included Germans who had established business and financial operations in Mexico and were either outright Nazis or Nazi sympathizers; William Randolph Hearst dining with Marion Davies; gold and silver mines in the Sierra Madre Mountains; the earthquake and volcanic eruption in Colima, April 15, 1941; travel by horse and burro to remote areas; accommodations ranging from the utterly primitive to luxurious. When Hollywood celebrities visited the American Embassy for a “good will” social event with Mexican government officials on April 12, 1941, Ms. Joseph was there. Her camera captured Wallace Beery, Joe E. Brown, Mickey Rooney, Norma Shearer, and Johnny Weissmuller.
Goodwill Fiesta Farewell Gala: Norma Shearer and Mickey Rooney, Mexico City, 1941. Photograph by Katherine Joseph.
© Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg. Katherine Joseph Papers, 1938-1944, 
Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 
The date and circumstances of Katherine Joseph’s departure from Mexico are obscure. However, by August 1941 at the age of 27 she was back in New York City, again working for the ILGWU. Her photographs reveal the ILGWU labor force on the home front serving the war effort. As World War II ended, Ms. Joseph married and started a family. This became her priority and the camera was set aside.

Whether she was in a Manhattan garment workshop or a Mexican town, Katherine Joseph’s photographs display a profound respect for the fundamental dignity of the people she brought into focus, regardless of their circumstances or position in life. At the same time she was very aware of those circumstances and they became part of the subject matter, serving literally as a compositional frame or stage for the individual lives she presented in her photographs.
Earthquake damage to buildings and street, Colima, Mexico, April 16, 1941. Photograph by Katherine Joseph.  © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg. Katherine Joseph Papers, 1938-1944. Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 

In reviewing the Katherine Joseph exhibit at the OJM / CHE--the first public display of her work-- Bob Hicks of Oregon Arts Watch wrote the following:
"Her photography in the 1930s and 1940s slides her neatly into a category of humanistic documentarists that also includes the likes of Dorothea Lange…and Margaret Bourke-White…The images range from the factory floor to the White House…and capture the lives of hourly workers and giants of the entertainment and political worlds. The images in the exhibit are all shot in black and white, lending the work a sense of historical veracity, and are compellingly framed, with the vital trait that excellent news and documentary photographers share of freezing telling moments in intimate and lively circumstances…"
For more information about Katherine Joseph and her exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum, visit their website:

Richard Hertzberg and David Haberstich
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Celebrate the Potato

September is National Potato Month. Almost all the potatoes grown in the United States are planted in the spring and gathered in the fall. It is the time of year that schools in northern Maine have “harvest break” when students work to dig and sort the season’s spud crop soon after summer vacation.

Maine’s custom is one small part of the very long and interwoven agricultural, economic, social, culinary, medical, and ritual histories of this humble staple. It is a story that stretches from ancient gardens in the Andean Mountains 10,000 to 8,000 years ago … to perhaps Mars in the future? In the recent movie, The Martian, the stranded astronaut-botanist (played by Matt Damon), bases his long-term survival strategy on the Red Planet, not completely unfeasibly, on planting potatoes. But is the potato relevant for us today?

A carbohydrate, the tubers have nutritional detractors who point out that Americans consume far too many calories from white starches, including processed potato products in the forms of French fries and chips (along with the harmful fats and salt that go with them). With dehydrated and other potato products, these foods account for fifty percent of the potato market. Meanwhile, the annual consumption of fresh potatoes in the United States has fallen from eighty-one pounds per person in 1960 to forty-two pounds recently (the official Government report here). Potatoes are a hot political issue: Congress has fought successfully to keep the white potato in food assistance programs, including those of school lunches and breakfasts, against recommendations from the Department of Agriculture.

Following rice, wheat, and corn, potatoes are among the most consumed food crop in the world. The tuber is easy to grow in a variety of climates and soils, and is not as thirsty for water as many other vegetables, producing a high yield from a small area. Able to be stored for long periods, the potato is a good source of vitamin C (surprisingly), potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin B₆, and some iron. Inexpensive, lacking only calcium and vitamins A and D, it is almost a complete food. Beginning with the ancient civilizations of Huari and Tiahuanacu located in parts of modern-day Peru and Bolivia, the spud has been insurance against famine, providing sustenance when other crops failed.

If there is a food stuff that deserves a commemorative month or day (May 30th in Peru), it is the potato.

A selection of organic potatoes from both coasts: Idaho and Yukon Gold from California; Honey Gold Nibbles, Gold Marbled Fingerlings, Purple Peruvian, and Adirondack Red potatoes from the Mid-Atlantic area. There are over a hundred varieties available. The petite type are growing in popularity (quick to cook, creamy in texture) as a substitute for pasta (photo by the author)
Not surprisingly, the Smithsonian does not treat the subject as small potatoes. In most, if not all, of the twenty-one separate libraries in the Institution, information on some aspect on the history and culture of the potato can be found. So what better way to celebrate the potato (Solanum tuberosum) and find its relevancy than by digging into some of Smithsonian Libraries’ holdings that tell its rich story? From the Anthropology, American Indian, Natural History, Horticulture and Botany libraries, the trade literature and cookery collections of American History, and, of course, Special Collections, all have original and secondary sources for an (almost) complete picture of this highly significant plant.

Archaeological research finds that the potato was first domesticated from wild plants on the shores of Lake Titicaca in the Andes. With sophisticated agricultural technology, including raised field terraces and irrigation systems, Pre-Inca cultures came to thrive on huge yields of the crop. The Inca Empire relied on potato storehouses, including a freeze-dried product (chuña) that could hold for years, in times of crop failures. Pedro de Cieza de León, explorer and historian, described the cultivation and cooking in his Chronicles of Peru, in 1540. Spanish conquistadors, who largely destroyed the Inca civilization, brought the potato across the Atlantic. Early accounts are a bit murky with the confusion between white (papas) and sweet potatoes (batata), but they were cultivated on the Canary Islands from 1565 and then onto the mainland of Spain.

John Gerard, The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes (Imprinted at London by John Norton, 1597). The Biodiversity Heritage Library has digitized the copy in the Peter H. Raven Library, Missouri Botanical Garden.

John Gerard, The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes (Imprinted at London by John Norton, 1597). There had been an earlier written description (but with no illustration) of the plant in Gaspard Bauhin’s Phytopinax of 1596. The Dibner Library of the Smithsonian Libraries has this first edition of Gerard. The Biodiversity Heritage Library has digitized the copy in the Peter H. Raven Library, Missouri Botanical Garden (pictured here).
Potatoes were being grown in London not long afterwards. The first printed pictures of the potato plant appear in woodcut illustrations in John Gerard’s great Herball of 1597. Gerard, who grew the plants in his own garden, misidentifies the origin of the potato as Virginia. It was not introduced into North America until the 1620s when the British governor of the Bahamas sent the tuber, along with other vegetables, to the Jamestown colony in Virginia. However, Derry, New Hampshire claims the first potato patch in North America, planted in 1719 when Scot-Irish immigrants settled in the area.

The 1636 edition of Gerard's Herball. The author holds a spray of potato flowers in the illustrated title page of the book, seen in the bottom center, just above the imprint. The Cullman Library of the Smithsonian has two copies; this image is from the scanned copy in the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden (from the catalog of the Biodiversity Heritage Library).
From England, the potato moved to France and then on to the Netherlands. Carolus Clusius (or Charles de l’Ecluse) introduced the potato to the Low Countries. Woodcut illustrations are in his Rariorum plantarum historia (The history of rare plants; Antwerp, 1601). Because potatoes were a good source for preventing scurvy on long voyages, they were distributed via shipboard provisions to the far reaches of the world in the age of exploration. Potatoes also lessened the effects of tuberculosis, measles and dysentery. But the tuber became stigmatized as it moved from the exclusive botanical gardens of the wealthy in the 17th century, when it was thought to be poisonous and fit only for livestock or the truly indigent.

Clusius' Rariorum plantarum historia (Antwerp, 1601). Images of the white and the sweet potatoes (above and below) from the scanned copy in the Peter H. Raven Library of the Missouri Botanical Garden by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (link). The Smithsonian's Cullman Library also has the title.
Clusius also created the first European representation of the potato, a lovely watercolor of 1588 of a plant in his garden. The work of art, with a note written by Clusius, is now in the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp (link here).
In Europe and Russia during the second half of the 18th century the potato was vigorously promoted to lessen the economic distress of successive disastrous harvests of corn and wheat. Various groups and individuals produced pamphlets and books to educate and extol the crop’s virtues, such as the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and military pharmacist and agronomist Antoine Augustin Parmentier. An example is Memoria sopra I pomi di terra (Memoire on the potatoes) of 1767, an Italian translation of a French publication (Dibner Library) that discusses varieties and cooking methods.

In France, the tuber was particularly regarded as a poor person’s food. Sadly, the Smithsonian Libraries does not own a copy of the important Parmentier work, Examen chimique de la pomme de terre (Chemical examination of the potato, 1778). He was so successful in his efforts that some still believe he invented the potato, and there are many dishes named for him, such as the casserole of veal chops à la Parmentier.

By the 19th century, the potato was common and so prevalent that historians debate its exact role in fueling the population explosion of the period. The food stuff also was being put to other uses, such as in alcoholic spirits. John Ham’s The theory and practice of brewing, from malted corn and from potatos (London, 1829), is one such treatise. There are many gardening manuals in the Smithsonian Libraries that discuss all the types then being developed and best methods of growing and storage. William Cobbett’s The American gardener (London, 1821) has this charming entry:

"Potatoe – Every body knows how to cultivate this plant; and, as to its preservation during winter, if you can ascertain the degree of warmth necessary to keep a baby from perishing, you know precisely the precautions required to preserve a potatoe. – As to sorts they are as numerous as the stones of a pavement in a large city."

But such dependency on a single crop, relied on by a huge population, proved ripe for disaster. This came in the form of late blight disease in the 1840s, which struck hard in Europe and was particularly devastating in Ireland. These catastrophes led to the development of disease-resistant plants, in particular by American horticulturist Luther Burbank who worked to improve the Irish potato; he bred a type in 1872 that established the Idaho potato. These new varieties led to even more potato dominance in food production and plantings around the world. It is a story likely to play out again with climate change, as scientists work to develop cultivars even more resistant to heat, drought and disease. To lessen pollution and water use and help feed its exploding population, China is now by far the largest producer of the staple in the world. Will the potato once again save some parts the world? (see Zuckerman, Larry. The potato: how the humble spud rescued the western world. Boston, 1998 and this Wikipedia entry on the subject).

"Good seeds at fair prices": trade literature of 1902 from Minneapolis, Minnesota (image from Wikimedia Commons)
"Good seeds at fair prices": National Museum of American History Trade Catalogs of 1902 from Minneapolis, Minnesota (image from Wikimedia Commons of the copy in the National Agricultural Library)
The extensive agricultural trade literature collections in the Smithsonian illustrate the trends in the potato’s popularity and dominance into the 20th century (one example linked here). The evolution of the vegetable as source of sustenance to a snack food is also traced in the Libraries’ culinary holdings. Thomas Jefferson had "potatoes served in the French manner" at a White House dinner in 1802 (not, strictly speaking, and contrary to the myth, the French fry). A relative of Jefferson’s, Mary Randolph, had seven recipes for potatoes, including one “to fry sliced potatoes” in her book, The Virginia house-wife, or, Methodical cook. The Dibner Library holds the fourth edition of this important cookbook, published in 1830. The Russet Burbank potato, developed in the 1920s, long, regular with a high sugar content, is the hybrid ideal for French fries. Speaking of which, France and Belgium are still arguing over who invented “French fries.”

An artist book in the collections: French fries : a new play, written by Dennis Bernstein, Warren Lehrer ; designed by Warren Lehrer, 1984.
An artist book in the collections: French fries : a new play, written by Dennis Bernstein, Warren Lehrer ; designed by Warren Lehrer, 1984.
This short history, centered on the Smithsonian Libraries collections, merely skims the surface of the potato. So even if you tend to avoid white potatoes in your diet, pick up one of the many, many accounts of the spud to read or raise a fork to the potato this month and celebrate this small vegetable’s big history in the world. In the words of Winnie-the-Pooh creator A. A. Milne: “What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow” (“Lunch” in Not that it matters, 1919).

Julia Blakely
Special Collections Cataloger
Smithsonian Libraries 

An excellent dish for the month: Rainbow Potato Roast.

For further reading:

Chilies to chocolate: food the Americas gave the world. Tucson, 1992.
Hawkes, J. G. The potatoes of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay: a biosystematics study. Oxford, 1969.
Ochoa, Carlos M. Las papas de Sudamérica. Lima, Perú, 1999.
Salaman, Redcliffe N. The history and social influence of the potato. Cambridge, 1985.

Well, if you are going to have bacon with your potatoes, might as well have sour cream as well. Photo by the author but the  great recipe and story from the New York Times.