Annals of Photography: The Boeing Company (1920-1933), Part 1

  • By Don Fels
  • Posted 3/21/2024
  • Essay 22925
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Seattle visual artist, writer, and researcher Don Fels was loaned a trove of historical photographs depicting airplane building at The Boeing Company in the 1920s and early 1930s. The photographs – almost none of which has been seen publicly – once belonged to company founder William E. Boeing. They were passed along to Fels ( by Boeing's granddaughter, along with permission to scan and publish them. Fels, who after living with the photographs for a year, returned the collection to the family, has written a book-length manuscript called Seeing Boeing to accompany the photographs and provided an abridged version for publication on HistoryLink. Of the photographs, Fels writes, "My essay examines what they have to show us about the differences of the company then and now, and why looking back to look forward makes a great deal of sense."

Stunning Photographs

Contained in 27 heavy volumes, nearly 1,500 8x10 photographs depict Boeing airplanes being built in the beginning years of the company, a century ago. How should these artifacts be considered today? Among much else, the photos demonstrate that the planes were made predominately of materials from a particular place, and by people who lived and worked there. Unabashedly exotic, the airplanes nonetheless grew completely of quite "natural" and "normal" materials, made by "regular" people of the Pacific Northwest. Building them became an extension of the best the region could conjur and produce.

The people who built the planes likely had never been up in one. Before they could be manufactured, they had to be conceived, and their conception remains most remarkable. Flying in airplanes had long been dreamt of when William E. Boeing (1881-1956) began his manufactory. He didn’t invent the idea of traveling aloft but willed into existence the airplanes his company produced. That act of will must have been exhausting, not unlike something that Greek gods might have accomplished – the conquering of gravity and doing it repeatedly, safely, and consistently, must have been very heavy lifting.

Mr. Boeing did that work for 18 years, and then at age 53, he’d had enough and abruptly retired. It is thought, though not known, that the photographs collected in the volumes embossed Boeing Airplane Company, Photographic Record, were given him in 1934, when he left the company. The photographs are dated mostly from the 1920s, the time when Mr. Boeing and the company were continually inventing ways to build planes in industrial fashion – even if almost all of their manufacture was done by hand.

Though long interested in airplanes and the act of flying (my father was a World War II pilot), I’m neither an historian of aviation nor of The Boeing Company. I’m a visual artist. The stunning photographs in the books display great beauty, but it is not the early airplane’s sublime aesthetics that propelled my involvement with the images. I became fascinated by the photographs as ciphers. They involve several essential mysteries that I’ve been drawn to confront. Landing in my lap, they took hold of me.

Not much is any longer known about the photographs themselves. I’ve learned that initially they were taken by photographers hired from outside the company. Equipped with large-format cameras and slow film, they chronicled the making of Boeing airplanes. Later, staff photographers did the work. The photographs themselves are accompanied by scant information – usually just the date they were taken, sometimes a few words about what they portray.

Nothing is known today about how, when, and why the photographs were presented to Mr. Boeing. Though the photographs were taken in the earliest decades of the company, the books, as they exist now, were bound by Anthony’s Bindery in Seattle, whose address and zip code are stamped inside the front cover. Zip codes did not come into existence until the 1950s. 

In 1963 there was a fire in the Boeing family home on Lake Washington, and there are some singed photographs in the volumes, especially in book No. 2. It is suspected that after the fire all the books were taken to the bindery and re-bound. None of the book covers themselves show any sign of fire damage. It is conceivable that before the fire the photographs were compiled in some other format, but at this point, that also cannot be known.

William E. Boeing died in 1956. The books then became the property of his wife Bertha. At her death they were bequeathed to her grandson and at his passing to his sister, a fitting trajectory because she’d spent some years working at Seattle’s Museum of Flight doing archival research.

A Gift to the Public

The books of contact prints were "loaned indefinitely" to me a few years ago by Mr. Boeing’s granddaughter. I knew her, and she me, but I knew nothing about the existence of the photographs until 10 minutes before they were boxed up and placed in my car. I drove off with them along with a great deal of excitement, puzzlement, and a distinct sense of responsibility. Before giving them to me, she recounted that as far as she knew there were no other extant sets of these photographs, that they were not in "the public record" and that she thought I could do "something interesting" with them.

I have since been told by the senior Boeing historian that all the photographs in the albums exist singly in the Boeing archives, along with millions of others. None of the photographs included in the volumes have been previously digitized, nor are they in fact part of the historical record. So, it might be appropriate to consider why I’d been given access to this treasure trove of images, which before had only resided in and been seen by the Boeing family.

Like the men and women who made the planes depicted here, I make things with my hands. I take photographs with several different-sized cameras, and I’m an artist, researcher, and writer. I’ve spent decades looking at and into things produced industrially around the world. So, it was likely hoped that I would bring an artist’s "sensitivity" and a researcher’s point of view to the photographs. The timing of the loan of the photographs to me likely revolved around age – of the images, of the giver, and of the recipient. I believe that the time was felt to be ripe for helping the photographs leave the confines of the Boeing family and enter the public stream. I was already very much aware that Mr. Boeing’s contribution was unique to the world of flight, also that it single-handedly changed the history of Seattle and the world of technology that extends outwards from the city.

I knew that Boeing airplanes had literally and absolutely reshaped how human beings experience the world. The photographs in the books provide a runway for a flight of fancy of some import: they allow, and then demand us to imagine a world without the astounding ease of global reach and connectedness that most all of us now take for granted. As surely as was intuited and intended, spending time with the photographs, looking at them, researching their history and thinking about what they might mean has been an exhilarating if daunting experience. The photographs were shared openly with me, and herewith I offer them in the same spirit.

Pioneers of a "New Science" 

The photographs show us very little about the enormous risk and jump into the unknown that they depict. The photographs simply don’t picture the inherent and nearly continuous difficulties in finding a way to affordably make flying machines that would stay aloft and land safely. In their almost matter-of-fact directness, the photographs may be best at evoking a reality that is directly counter to what they don’t show.

Mr. Boeing wildly succeeded at normalizing, safely and repeatedly, flying from place to place, previously a very un-normal activity. Except in the instance of the (still) rare aviation fatalities, most of us alive today haven’t thought much about this. The spate of recent Boeing airplane failures may have (very hopefully temporarily) changed that, but we have tended to accept flying in a plane as an uneventful everyday event. The photographs in the collected volumes belie the danger-defying nature of what the early Boeing company set out to do. Perhaps that was their intention, or as we could say today, their subtext. Or perhaps the photographers, working around the daily production of airplanes, had themselves become inured to the danger they represented.

William Boeing himself is barely in the photographs. He appears extremely rarely and then only in the company of several others at some launch or other. Launch – the word is now de rigueur in the tech industry to describe the roll-out, yet another tech term that dates from early aviation. In Seattle’s history, and by caveat in the history of the tech industry of the entire world, Boeing played a key and still largely unsung role.

Mr. Boeing was a very private man who spoke rarely publicly or to the press. Yet, even though he left the company while still young, and lived quite a bit longer, the company retained his name, as it does today. I believe this is because his mark was pivotal on both the company and aviation itself. Though he was inventive, it was not his inventions that made the company. Rather it was his enormous attention to every small detail. We find him pictured in the details that the photographs depict. We see the parts, down to the most unassuming, that went into the making of early Boeing planes. We also see many fuselages in construction amassed in light-filled rooms, where engines are being mounted and bombs fitted for World War I. The photographs provide unobstructed views of all the physical things that went into the early planes. One could assemble very similar machines from the pieces depicted in these photographs.

A statement made by Mr. Boeing in 1929, a most difficult year that would not have been at all easy for the manufacturer of very expensive items still deemed very unnecessary, gives us another stronger hint. The statement resides on a plaque situated at the entrance to the Renton facility today. It reads,

I’ve tried to make the men around me feel, as I do, that we are embarked as pioneers upon a new science and industry in which our problems are so new and unusual that it behooves no one to dismiss any novel idea with the statement that it "can’t be done!" Our job is to keep everlastingly at research and experiment, to adapt our laboratories to production as soon as practicable, to let no new improvement in flying and flying equipment pass us by.

He understood that he and his company were making not just airplane history, but airplanes that were changing history. It seems most plausible that the photographs were taken to document that history as it unfolded, to aid in its preservation. That it has taken a century for those images to be seen is another story. Others have written that Mr. Boeing took very seriously the responsibility inherent in building airplanes. He, like everyone else a hundred years ago, knew very well what most of us have now most of the time forgotten – or choose not to remember – that air is thin, and airplanes weigh much more than air and by rights have no business being up there.

His attention to detail was an outgrowth of his abiding sense of responsibility for the plane’s safety. There are stories of his becoming furious discovering a part even minutely out of spec. He understood that others, whether the military who bought many of the planes built in Seattle, or later those who booked flight in his planes, had to trust completely that the planes were safe. Ultimately, this trust depended on those building the planes. The deepest irony of the photographs is that almost none of the builders are pictured. The workers are either entirely invisible or reduced to a blur. The slow speed of the film and therefore the long exposures necessary offers one explanation for the vacuum. But that only gets us so far. The photographers seem to have been instructed to picture the process of building the planes, not the actual production itself.

From Boats to Planes

Perusing the hundreds of photographs, we can see the planes coming together, section by section – the wings, the tail sections, the cockpits, etc. We see designs for these elements morph and change over time. But it’s as if this evolution is happening in and of itself. We see the effect, but not the cause. We see little of the engineers engaged in making drawings, models, or in discussion on the shop floor. And we see even less of the parts being put together by hand.

We can guess that perhaps Mr. Boeing, or someone else high up in the company, didn’t want to give away the secrets of how the planes were made. In the early years, there were a great many others attempting to build airplanes – even if almost none of these early companies succeeded and stayed in business. The Boeing Company survived because William Boeing came to the business already very wealthy, because he owned timber resources out of which he could build planes, because he was trained as an engineer, had learned to fly, and probably mostly because he was determined to use these advantages by continually taking risks. These attributes served him very well. Many others, dealt a less complete hand, began making aircraft and then quit, went broke, or both.

Mr. Boeing’s timber wealth – he was said at the time to be the richest man in the state – allowed him to pay to keep his highly skilled workforce employed when there were no buyers and therefore little if any company income. After all, in the 1920s there were no airlines, no airmail service existed, there was no longer a war, there were no airports, few pilots had the money to buy a plane, nor many rich people with private pilots to fly them. In other words, there was no market.

Boeing ended up building his planes in Seattle, close by large stands of Sitka Spruce, strong, straight, and lightweight, the perfect wood for the building of airplane. Boeing purchased his first industrial space, the Heath Shipyard, because before he planned on, or had ever thought of building airplanes, he wanted to build yachts. The shipyard employed dozens of high-skilled woodworkers. Most, perhaps all were of Scandinavian descent, many born abroad, all of whom had grown up around the building of wooden boats. The men knew how to read plans, how to scale up dimensions, how to loft boats, how to make symmetrical mirror images in wood, how to make curvilinear shapes, how to fit what they made to the tightest of tolerances, how to waterproof what they created. They knew how to build expensive, handsome, trustworthy vessels in which people could take to the seas and return. Certainly, just as with the planes that came later, building boats and ships required enormous attention to detail. There had to be an overriding assurance that the making would be done in the best possible manner, such that the crafts were fully seaworthy and would stay that way.

As William Boeing became first interested in, and then committed to building airplanes, his builders were these self-same boat-builders. This made absolute sense. The early planes were made of wood, and had to float; there were no airfields, takeoffs and landings took place on water. As the photographs show very clearly, the pontoons on which the planes sat were themselves nautical devices, beautiful ones. Seattle is blessed with several bodies of water, within the city (where the first Boeing facilities were all sited), and all around it.

Boeing’s largest expense by far was the company payroll. Everything that went into the planes was made or assembled on-site. Engines were the only exception. The plane builders are only seen in motion, with the exception interestingly, of a few photographs in the first and final volumes, and one photograph of women sewing in the wing room.

Men in Action

The motion of those making the planes foretells the function of the planes themselves. There are shots of planes taking off and landing, but frozen in time they don’t really give us a sense of moving objects. It was the thrust of power that allowed the planes to stay aloft, and almost symbolically we see the men in action blurred as if working at high speed. We see overseers – managers, perhaps engineers, visiting the shop floor, as static beings. We can guess at their status because they are standing still, and because of the difference in their headgear from those making the planes.

In the collection, another photographic glimpse of thrust and movement resides in the photographs of crashed aircraft. We do see a few views of planes in the air, but we see many more of them before and after takeoff. And we see evidence of crashes. There are pictures of groups of managerially hatted men examining downed planes in fields where they fell. There are close-ups of damaged parts, and there are the photographic results of several stress tests of component parts being bent at certain measurable degrees, and labeled as such – the laboratory Boeing mentions in his statement. The crashes and bent parts are really our only clue that forces, strong and fierce, were swirling around the nascent airplanes.

The photographs themselves are visual objects, things standing in for other things, most all of which no longer exist. In this sense they are both artifacts and referents – taking us elsewhere, like the planes they picture. When Mr. Boeing quit the company, he took no planes with him. He retained the wealth he had made from his investment in the aircraft company and its corollary companies. The 27 books of photographs show us the territory he staked out and conquered.

We have no idea how often, or even if William Boeing ever consulted the books once he left the company. If he did look at them, we have no idea which pictures he studied more frequently. Did he dip into the books regularly, periodically, when the mood came over him, when friends or family came to visit? It does seem that the books of photographs were important to him, important enough to be bequeathed to his wife and eventually to his granddaughter.

When I returned home with the big box of books, I hefted them up on a sturdy studio table. I stood back and took in the heap of books and was struck by their unexpected arrival in my painting studio. I wondered what Mr. Boeing would have thought of them being there. As it happens, my studio in the woods of the Snoqualmie Valley east of Seattle is a stone’s throw from Aldarra, once the Boeing farm, some 650 acres of gently rolling pastures. When we first moved to the valley nearly 50 years ago, Aldarra still supported a large herd of Black Angus cattle, which we were told had been bred by Mr. Boeing. By the time of our arrival, the farm belonged only to Bertha his widow. It seems that the books ultimately traveled a very short distance, even if the trip had taken decades.

We would have been neighbors in space if not time. Both of us were self-taught and shared a willingness to follow our vision. He enrolled at Yale, to study engineering, which he did, that is until he left the university after a disagreement with his stepfather. At that point, like Bill Gates, another scion of a wealthy family who left a fine educational institution to come (back) to the Pacific Northwest, the young Bill Boeing retreated to a stand of timber south of Seattle which he’d never seen before, but which his family owned. He quickly learned the timber business, bought several other stands of nearby timber, and made a great deal of money.

Visionary Genius

An artist, no matter how well they do, is usually not an adept businessperson, even if forced sometimes to act like one. Mr. Boeing was always a businessman, and a consummate one. He understood that since his planes were going to be part of an entire transportation system that did not yet exist, it would behoove him to develop the necessary nodes, components, and requisite expertise himself. His company would need schooled aeronautical engineers, wind tunnels, expanded manufacturing locations, highly trustworthy aircraft engines, an airline, persons to care for the passengers on board, before and after, passengers would need hotels, travel agents, etc. Over a short time, he developed a sophisticated network that included all of the above, all part and parcel of his visionary genius in being able to see and act on the big picture. It proved his downfall. 

As an interesting sign of how well Boeing understood not just the physical but the psychological demands of introducing flying as a regular activity, the women assisting passengers aboard the earliest passenger-carrying Boeing airplanes were registered nurses. In those days, people traveling on airplanes were expected to be uneasy, perhaps afraid. Having nurses on board implied that they would be well cared for, but also perhaps less obviously, that if there were real danger, they would be in good hands. Even today as we wait on a big jet for it to taxi toward takeoff, we are reassured that the cabin crew is there for our safety. Such an assurance implies that however remote, flying in airplanes involves real danger.

In the 1930s, shortly after the spectacular collapse of American capitalism, the federal government became worried that Mr. Boeing was creating an empire, so big that it too could fail, and/or cause economic havoc. Senate antitrust hearings were held, at which the very private Mr. Boeing was compelled to testify very publicly. He was not found guilty of any wrong-doing but was ordered to divest substantial portions of his far-flung and vertically integrated business. He did so, then divested himself.

Seething that he was being held to account for his acumen at seeing into the future, he quickly announced his retirement, sold every share of his company stock, and left. The company he had founded continued to thrive, no doubt because the company culture was strong and those, whom he had put in place to manage it, had been exceedingly well chosen and mentored. Ninety years later, The Boeing Company is once again the victim of a surge in antitrust fervor, but for very different reasons. After a series of tragic and terrifying incidents in the 2020s, people lost faith in the airworthiness of the planes that the company builds.

Though the airplanes depicted in them are different in many ways, the photographs in the books share many common features. This is logical since all airplanes have more or less the same components. Would Mr. Boeing have been interested in, and need to revisit the design and execution of the airplanes at the time the photographs were being taken? Did he, or his managers, use them as visual aids, as a means of checking on things, were they useful for providing perspective on directions being taken? Were the photographs a way for him to gauge his progress? The fact that the books were probably given to him after he left the company doesn’t mean that the photographs weren’t consulted, perhaps a good deal, long before then.

These are not snapshots. They have been carefully composed. Not for the uninitiated, there is precious little corollary visual or written information included. The workspace appears to have been kept exceedingly clean, or the extraneous has been carefully edited out. Off to the side, hats and coats make up most of the few non-aviation items shown, attesting to unseen wearers.

With the volumes ensconced in my studio, I was overtaken by the chilling sensation that I was looking at images that William Boeing had also looked at, and holding the books in my hands, as he had done. This doesn’t mean we saw the photographs in the same way. To me they were entirely new. To him the photographs could never have been surprising, only I would imagine, reassuring, perhaps occasionally troubling. For him, the photographs established a credible sense of continuity, an ongoing report on production of his product. To Mr. Boeing the photographs told the truth.

We now know that photographs can be used, with increasing ease, to tell stories that are not true. But these photographs were not part of a public narrative. They documented what existed for those involved in their existence. Yet, in telling a truth, the photographs may not have told all the truth.

The photographs do not belong to us the way they did to Mr. Boeing. Instead, they belong to history, and it’s no accident that story makes up the bulk of that word. The imagery in the photographs mean many different things to us than they did when they were first taken. Looking at them today we can’t help but be moved, not in the transport sense, but emotionally.

Next: In Part 2, Boeing's laborers and technology come into focus

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