Most of us have seen it... the Depression-era photo of construction workers casually eating lunch while sitting on a steel beam hanging 850 feet in the air over the New York City skyline.
Like so many others in our industry, we at Cleveland Construction think the picture perfectly captured the spirit of camaraderie and hard work still evident in construction today.
The picture was printed in the New York Herald-Tribune on October 2, 1932, and it perfectly captured the hope of a nation suffering through a crippling depression. Like the adage “A picture paints a thousand words”, this picture resonated with viewers, creating strong feelings of hope and thoughts of better times to come. It said that New York City – and America as a whole- was still building, still progressing, and still working.
But...The Picture Is Shrouded in Mystery
Despite the photo’s fame, mysteries surround it. A 2012 documentary entitled Men at Lunch delves into the history of the photograph and the identity of the workers perched on the I-beam. Strangely, there is uncertainty regarding the true identity of the photographer and the workers sitting on the I-beam.
The photographer is believed to have been Charles C. Ebbets. But, the reality is that there were also other photographers taking pictures up there that day.
While two of the workers in the picture have been identified through Rockefeller Center archival photos, the identity of the others remains a mystery. Interestingly, it is believed that the man shown wearing a cap with a cigarette in his mouth was an ironworker of Mohawk Indian descent.
Other intriguing mysteries surrounding the picture include:
It Was a PR Promotion for the Rockefeller Center
While the workers were real, the photo was designed to publicize and promote the massive complex of Rockefeller Center.
There Were Other Memorable Pictures Taken that Day
Another picture taken that day was equally amazing. In it, four men were seen taking a nap while stretched out on an I-beam.
The Original Glass Plate Negative of the Photo Still Exists
The original glass negative photo was dropped and is cracked. However, it is stored in a cave at Iron Mountain in Pennsylvania, along with other valuable artwork.
Amazingly, No Work Record Exists of the Nearly 40,000 People Who Worked on the Building
Rockefeller’s website reports that more than 40,000 people were hired for the building’s construction. However, no work records exist!
Some Doubt That the Men were Actually in Any Danger Because the photo was part of a publicity stunt and meant to grab the viewer’s attention, some believe the workers were never really in any danger. They think a finished floor was located a few feet below the men, just out of view of the camera.
While all the mysteries surrounding Men at Lunch may never be solved, the picture remains memorable. At Cleveland Construction, we know in our industry, the spirit of camaraderie and hard work is very much alive today.