Skip to Main Content

An Introduction to Visual Literacy: Case Study #2

A general introduction to reading and researching photographs and other visual resources

Case Study #2: Records of the Althouse, Bates, and Crompton Chemical Companies

Based in Reading, Pennsylvania, the Althouse Chemical Company was founded in 1915 by C. Scott Althouse (1880-1970) as a small, family-owned firm specializing in fabric dyes. Over time, Althouse acquired both the Bates Chemical Company and the Crompton & Knowles Corporation and focused on the production of a limited range of dye colors of a superior quality and class. The Althouse, Bates, and Crompton photograph collection includes images of the instrumentation and facilities used in the manufacture of dyes, specifically the Customer Service and Quality Control Laboratory where employees tested the durability and "wash-fastness" of dyed fabric.

Step 1: What Do You See?


The first thing you may notice about these photographs is the style of dress, particularly on the women. Given that they are working in a laboratory to test the quality of dyed fabrics, it seems a bit unusual for them to be wearing dresses and heels with no protective equipment, such as gloves, goggles, aprons, or lab coats. Not exactly the kind of dress science teachers would want you to wear if you worked in a lab! Based on their style of dress, we might conclude that these women were prepared for their photo to be taken and that the scene perhaps was staged for publicity purposes rather than depicting the realities of their everyday work.

In contrast, the men seem more casually dressed in an array of styles. In some photographs, they are wearing plain white T-shirts and dress pants, while in others they are dressed in collared shirts and ties. One photograph even shows two  men wearing suit jackets. For the men, the variety of dress suggests varying roles in the company. For example, those wearing jackets and ties may have worked in some kind of higher-up, administrative role compared to the men who are dressed more casually in T-shirts and pants.The men wearing T-shirts are most likely manual laborers who worked directly with the equipment depicted in the photographs. 

Gender Roles

Although these photographs only offer a snapshot of what working in quality control labs in the 1950s and 1960s was like, we can make some inferences about the roles of men and women based on their style of dress and the equipment with which they are working. For the men who are dressed more casually, it seems reasonable to assume that their work was more labor-intensive, an inference supported by the large machinery present in some of the photographs. 

In contrast to the men, the women are all dressed more or less the same. One or two women are wearing sneakers or aprons, but most have on nice outfits and dress shoes. Also, the women seemed to be more focused analytical tasks involving dyes rather than the machinery and fabrics. 

From these photographs, we might make certain conclusion about the roles of men and women in the Althouse, Bates, and Crompton laboratories during this time and perhaps the dye industry more generally. While more research is required to support any conclusions, these photographs offer a variety of avenues to learning more about laboratory work and the manufacture of dyes and other industrial products in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Selections from the Althouse, Bates, and Crompton Photograph Collection

Photo 1

Dyeing technicians in the Customer Service and Quality Control Laboratory (1952)

Photo 2

Skein dyeing and color matching (1952)

Photo 3

Fabric and color evaluation (1951)

Photo 4

Printing department (1951)

Photo 5

General view of Customer Service Laboratory (ca. 1960)

Photo 6

Research Laboratory (1966)

Photo 7

Secretary demonstrating the Termatrex Chemical Information Retrieval System (1966)

Step 3: Make a List of Terms

Researching the Althouse, Bates, and Crompton Chemical Company and some of the key people associated with these photographs will help you answer some of the questions identified in Step 2. As you create a list of search terms, consider the words or names that appear in the photo captions, anyone associated with the photos, such as a photographer or donor, and general topics that may offer context for the photographs.  

Here are some terms you might use to find additional information about these photographs:

1. Althouse, Bates, and Crompton Chemical Company

2. James Freeman (donor of collection)

3. Dyes and dyeing

4. Dye manufacturing

5. Fabric dyeing

6. Dyed fabric consumers

7. Skein dyeing

8. Quality control laboratories

9. Termatrex Chemical Information Retrieval System

One thing to keep in mind, as you compile your search terms, is that it's not necessary to research the details of every machine or process depicted in the photographs. This isn't scientific research, it's historical analysis. Getting a general knowledge of what quality testing involved and how it worked is good enough; you don't need to know every detail. 

Step 4: Find and Look Through Sources

Notably, the photographs used in this case study are part of a larger collection of records pertaining to the Althouse, Bates, and Crompton Chemical Companies. While some photographs are stand-alone items, it is often the case that photographs are part of a larger set materials that may shed light on their context and meaning. In this instance, the records of the various companies include some publicity materials, in-house employee publications, and annual reports that may provide clues as to when these photographs were taken and for what purpose.

Beyond the collection itself, it is good practice to consult additional primary and secondary sources to confirm or, in some cases, challenge the conclusions you draw by looking at the photographs and any associated materials. In this instance, research into the manufacture and sale of dyes may help you to understand the activities of a customer service and quality control laboratory such as the one pictured here. In addition, you might consult the autobiography of James Feeman, a research chemist who worked for the company and donated these materials to the Science History Institute. Like the oral history in Case Study #1, Feeman's autobiography likely describes his work at Althouse, Bates, and Crompton and may provide additional information on the quality control process and the activities and men and women in the various laboratories.

Step 2: Pose Questions

Although we can make assumptions about why everyone is dressed the way that they are and their roles in the laboratory and company, we still want to back up these assumptions with other sources.

Here are some questions you might ask as you prepare to do further research:

1. Who are the women in the photographs? Are their names documented anywhere?

2. Who are the men in the photographs? Are their names documented anywhere?

3. What are the women doing?

4. What are the men doing? How does the work of the men and women differ?

5. Why is no one wearing any protective equipment?

6. Why are some people dressed more casually than others?

7. What was the purpose for taking these photographs? Was it to document work in the laboratory? Was it for publicity or another purpose? 

8. Who was the intended audience of these photographs? Was it a consumer or someone within the company?

9. How many people worked for the company? Did it have other laboratories besides the ones pictured here?

10. Does this company still exist? If so, what are these laboratories like now?


Step 5: Synthesize

Research into Althouse, Bates, and Crompton's corporate history reveals that the company focused on the production of a limited range of dye colors of a superior quality and class. The superiority of the company's dyes, particularity in terms of durability and their ability to withstand multiple washings, was an essential part of the company's brand identify. Accordingly, it makes sense that the company had a Quality Control and Customer Service laboratory and would want to showcase the laboratory to potential customers.

Based on the style of dress, particularly of the women in these photographs, and what we know about the company's focus on quality, it seems reasonable to conclude these photos were intended to document Althouse, Bates, and Crompton's activities and, most importantly, attest to the quality of the dyes the company produced.  Just like women in commercials today are often dressed up to sell a product, these women appear to be similarly dressed in many of these photographs to do the same thing: sell a product and the company's reputation as a trusted source for superior dyes.