Women at Work: 'At Kodak Heights' and Female Employment in the 1920s
January 1921 marked the first edition of the Canadian Kodak Company’s employee magazine, At Kodak Heights. Published with the tagline, “Things We Hear and Do,” it focused on the worker experience by illuminating occupational pursuits and providing a personal means of employee expression. Paternal in tone, the magazine invoked the notion of “our Kodak family,” seeming to establish that its contents were written with the staff’s welfare in mind. Many announcements were made within its pages, usually regarding personal issues: birth and death, illness and recovery, engagement and marriage. These last proclamations tended to be more revealing, as often an announcement of marriage by a female worker held a secondary purpose as an announcement of departure from the company. What did these departures say about the status of women’s roles in the workforce at this time? Perhaps they suggest that, for many of the women, getting married offered a level of financial security and equality that simply didn’t exist for them in the labour market.
In the 1920s, women earned approximately 54 to 60 percent of male wages, and while a wider array of jobs were available for women than had existed before the First World War, female workers still laboured beneath a glass ceiling. Socially and economically, the assumption continued that most women would prioritize homemaking and motherhood. At Kodak Heights seemed invested in preserving and perpetuating this as standard practice, often printing photographs of recently-departed female employees, smiling in their new roles as homemakers and housewives. The magazine presented the impending departures as analogous to the joyous nuptial news, but the idea of a woman retaining her job post-marriage did not arise, and it did not appear to be a consideration.
An analysis of a set of At Kodak Heights issues from the year 1924—one of the few complete collections that exist within the Kodak Canada Corporate Archives in Ryerson’s Special Collections archives—reveals that photographs of women are featured prominently, and they are often shown working, particularly in menial labour positions. An image depicting the Printing and Embossing Department (Fig. 1) clearly shows a gender division, with men working at the large presses in the far background while women occupy the foreground. Oftentimes this division was superseded by outright exclusion, as evidenced in the magazine’s listing of employee names by department: for jobs that interfaced with chemical compounds and scientific aspects of production, such as the Film and Paper Coating, Emulsion, and Plate Departments, only male names are listed. It does appear that women could transfer between departments, though always from one menial position to another.
At Kodak Heights also included images that illustrate what author Graham S. Lowe describes as“the feminization process [that] was central to the administrative revolution which occurred in major Canadian offices during the first three decades of the twentieth century,” most specifically in the form of the female clerical worker. Though male employees had previously considered all aspects of office work well within their purview, workplaces after the First World War tended to see men becoming office managers and specialized employees, and women occupying subordinate clerical jobs. While these positions were more mentally stimulating and less physically perilous than menial labour, women tended to carry out repetitive office work alongside male co-workers who were freed from the monotony of typing and transcription. A photograph in the March 1924 issue of At Kodak Heights depicts the Office of the Repair Department, with one male worker holding a camera and the other speaking into a dictation device (Fig. 2). While the male employees appear contemplative and posed in their individual tasks, the two women steadfastly face their typewriters, serving as doppelgängers in the performance of perfunctory work.
The editors of At Kodak Heights actively encouraged staff of both sexes to participate in recreational sports and clubs, including hockey and softball teams for women, as evidenced in photographs printed in many of the issues from 1924. An annual “Girls’ Night” event, for example, featured young women staging plays and performing as an all-female orchestra, and the Camera Girls’ Social Club promoted dancing, games, and community outreach activities. The push for these types of pursuits corresponds to other organizations active at the time. The YWCA in particular offered social activities and “recreational programs designed to develop moral and industrious women workers who would not be inclined to rebel against working conditions.” Perhaps the benefits of recreation and socialization projected by At Kodak Heights, while wrapped in the guise of community and companionship, were more about sustaining a status quo, with women assuming the bottom rung of the corporate ladder. An image showing women workers at play (Fig. 3) seems to further propagate this subversive message.
Minority and immigrant women would have experienced their own issues in finding employment at the Canadian Kodak Company. In their book Discounted Labour:Women Workers in Canada, 1870–1939, Ruth A. Frager and Carmela Patrias note that, in the office culture of the time, “the pinnacle of success for the female office worker was to become private secretary to her manager,” and there was no room for inclusiveness in the competitive realm of white-collar female office work. In providing the bulwark for a societally-enforced construct that these types of jobs were off-limits to non-white and immigrant women, companies were able “to maintain the status of these occupations,” and in turn keep their white applicant pool unencumbered. While Frager and Patrias focus on office work as an occupation beyond the reach of minority women, it seems that at the Kodak Heights site, the realm of menial labour jobs was also coupled with this paradigm. As manifested in the magazine’s pages, nearly every female employee name found in the mid-1920s issues of At Kodak Heights is of the English varietal.
For female employees in Canada at this time, inequality in the workplace persisted in a modernized form. Can editions of At Kodak Heights from the 1920s be seen as striving to uphold this imparity? When viewed through the lens of the magazine, the Canadian Kodak Company’s intentions for its female employees seem to have been informed by the corporate and societal standards of the time. While women were advertised within the magazine as vital Kodak family members, they were in reality struggling against the very social norms that the magazine sought to sell.
 Graham S. Lowe, “Women, Work and the Office: The Feminization of Clerical Occupations in Canada, 1901-1931,” The Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers canadiens de sociologie5, no. 4 (Autumn 1980): 373.
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