On the 19th of October, one of the greatest 20th-century photographers, Walter Nurnberg, sadly passed away. Born on April 18th of 1907, Nurnberg was raised in Berlin, Germany. He studied photography and moved to England in 1933 to open up his own advertising studio. With his inherent talents and intellect, Nurnberg quickly established himself as one of the leading industrial photographers in the country, going on to publish his own book, entitled ‘Lighting for Photography: Means and Methods’ in 1940.
He became an ‘honorary Briton’ for his services to the country and actually fought for Great Britain in the Second World War. Nurnberg’s legacy is unmatched in the field of industrial photography and he continued to take countless memorable photos of British industry and workers performing all kinds of jobs, many of which seem alien to us today.
Brewery Cleaners Had a Lonely Life
This photo shows a brewery cleaner working at The Taylor Walker brewery in East London. The brewery was founded way back in the 1700s and was one of the major players in the capital’s brewing trade.
Brewery worker at Taylor Walker casts a vast shadow as he cleans a coffer.(Photo by Walter Nurnberg/SSPL/Getty Images)
The 1940s and 50s were actually very important times for beer production in Great Britain, with Winston Churchill, a keen drinker himself, actually pushing to provide beer rations for soldiers on the front lines. Brewery cleaners like the man in the photograph would have to spend many long hours inside huge copper tanks and other metal vessels, using brooms and other cleaning implements to scrub down the walls and ensure that the insides were as clean as possible. It was a lonely job and definitely unsuitable for people with claustrophobia.
Human Guinea Pigs Risked Their Skin for Soap
Nowadays, many cosmetic products like soap or shampoo are actually tested on animals in order to see what kinds of reactions they might have and avoid selling any products that could be harmful, but human testing can still be necessary as people don’t always react the same way as other species like rabbits and guinea pigs.
Women volunteers test effects of soap suds on hands, 1954. (Photo by Walter Nurnberg/SSPL/Getty Images)
Women, like those seen in the photo, would have to immerse their hands in bowls of soapy water in order to see how their skin might react. It seems relatively simple on the outside but could actually be quite a dangerous job. Modern scientists understand elements and chemicals much better nowadays than they did in the 1950s, so these women were putting themselves at risk of rashes, allergic reactions, acid burns, and many more unwanted side effects.
Match Inspectors Needed Great Eyesight
Quality control is an important part of almost any kind of production or manufacturing process, with many workers being assigned to ensure that the products being made all meet the company’s standards of quality.
A worker inspects match heads, Bryant and May 1955. (Photo by Walter Nurnberg/SSPL/Getty Images)
Every now and then, human or machine errors in the manufacturing process lead to little issues and flaws that need to be addressed. This man, who worked at the Bryant and May matchmaking factory just outside of Liverpool, England, is seen inspecting a set of matches. He would have to ensure that all of the matches were the same length and shape, and most importantly, he had to check that all of the match heads had been properly formed, without any abnormalities that could lead to any risks for users in the future. He would identify and discard any matches that didn’t meet the company’s standards.
Camera Lens Polishers Couldn’t Lose Focus
With his passion for photography, this is a job that would certainly have interested Walter Nurnberg in particular. This man worked as a camera lens polisher at Kershaw and Sons in Leeds. This company made all sorts of lenses for various kinds of optical products including cameras, cinema projectors, binoculars, and other forms of photographic equipment.
A worker sets lenses for polishing, Kershaw and Sons, Leeds, 1953. A batch of camera lenses are set ready for polishing on the lathe at the right of the photograph. (Photo by Walter Nurnberg/SSPL/Getty Images)
The worker would have to carefully polish individual lenses before they would be assembled into their final products. This was a job that required constant focus and careful attention to detail, as the tiniest smudge or mark on a camera lens could completely ruin the end product, and the job was very repetitive, as we see the worker with a huge table filled with lenses that need polishing.
Case Making Was Very Repetitive
These women worked at British Acoustic Films, which had relocated to the town of Mitcheldean in 1940 due to the breakout of the Second World War, which caused many businesses to leave London for fear of the capital being bombed. During the war, the company produced searchlights and other vital equipment, as well as 16mm projectors which were used to show films to entertain and educate the troops.
Women making cases for 16mm projectors, Mitcheldean, 1956. (Photo by Walter Nurnberg/SSPL/Getty Images)
After the war, the focus was mainly on cameras and projectors, and each projector needed its own case which would provide protection from the elements, as well as offering insulation to cover up some of the noise made by the machinery. These workers would be highly-skilled, using various materials to create case after case.
Typesetters Required Skilled Hands
Back before advanced typesetting methods and computers, workers had to lay out little pieces of metal with individual letters on them to create the desired text for printing. This was highly meticulous work, involving the selection of each individual letter from a type case, the placing of those letters into a stick that would join them together, and then the transferal of those sticks into a metal galley.
Close up of typesetter’s hands correcting metal galley, 1963. (Photo by Walter Nurnberg/SSPL/Getty Images)
A single page of text could take a long time to prepare this way. When the galley is finally finished, it would be used to make a ‘galley proof’, which would act as a kind of draft version of the text. This would have to be checked for errors before full printing could begin.
Perspex Production Was Key for Industrial Britain
This worker was tasked with checking sheets of Perspex as they were produced at the ICI Wilton factory, which had opened just a few years earlier in 1952. The Wilton plant was responsible for the production and handling of nylon polymers too, as well as ammonia and hydrogen. Perspex, also known under names like Plexiglas to acrylic glass, is a kind of plastic that is often used as a shatterproof alternative to glass, as well as having many other uses.
A production worker checks sheets of Perspex on the line, ICI Wilton, 1955. (Photo by Walter Nurnberg/SSPL/Getty Images)
It is made by a very complicated series of chemical processes and procedures and is able to be cut and formed into sheets of different shapes and sizes. This worker would have to look out for any inconsistencies in the Perspex and ensure that all sheets were up to the same quality standards.
Nitrocellulose Production Was Risky Business
This man worked in nitrocellulose production at one of the biggest commercial explosives factories on the planet, founded by none other than legendary Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel himself. A highly flammable compound, nitrocellulose has many uses including printing ink, photography film, wood coatings, and plastics, but was mainly produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the production of explosives for military and mining applications.
Man in a nitrating plant, nitro-cellulose production, ICI-Nobel, Ardeer, 1956. (Photo by Walter Nurnberg/SSPL/Getty Images)
The highly flammable nature of the chemicals being used meant that this job was potentially very dangerous, with the slightest spark or even just a little friction can be enough to ignite dry nitrocellulose, but workers were needed to move the various elements around and monitor the different chemical process es.
Carpenters Could Be Involved In Nasty Accidents
This photo shows a carpenter at work with a mechanical saw and a large block of wood at the Burt Bolton Haywood factory in Belvedere. Carpentry is one of the oldest professions in the world and remains essential in the modern era, but safety standards and practices have greatly improved over the years. As we see in the photo, the man has no protective gear or a mask to protect his respiratory system, despite all of those shavings flying up into the air.
A stream of shavings as Carpenter mortices blocks of wood, 1959. (Photo by Walter Nurnberg/SSPL/Getty Images)
Breathing in the air around these huge saws and machines could cause health problems, not to mention the risks associated with the razor sharp saw blades and other tools in the area. Like many other jobs on this list, carpenters needed to have constant focus in order to stay safe.
Coffee Bean Testers Had Very Low Wages
Tia Maria is a popular liqueur with a mysterious origin story. Nobody knows quite how or where the first bottle was made, but the brand sold all around the world in the modern era was established back in the 1930s in Jamaica. The liqueur is made up of coffee, rum, vanilla, and sugar, and only the finest quality coffee beans could be used in production.
A worker tests coffee beans for Tia Maria, Jamaica, 1958. Photo by Walter Nurnberg/SSPL/Getty Images)
Workers like the man in this photo were employed on very low wages in order to inspect the many sacks of coffee beans that were used each day. The beans needed to be clean and free of any defects or mold. Any leaves, debris, or other foreign matter also needed to be scouted out and removed before the beans were added to the production line.