A Worker's Lunch Box

A research project and installation exploring the role of the worker in urban factory life and the production of things


Fields of Knowledge
  • Comm. Development
  • Design
  • Memory

Organizing Institutions

Slought, University of Pennsylvania, Vertical Urban Factory


Nina Rappaport


Sean Slater (Film editor), Daniel Hewes, Jessica Morris, and Brittany Reilly (assistants)

Opens to public



4017 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

On the web


Slought is pleased to announce A Worker's Lunch Box, a research project and film installation exploring the role of the urban factory worker and the production of things, on display from June 2 - July 21, 2017. The installation is part of an on-going project by curator and urbanist Nina Rappaport, author of Vertical Urban Factory (Actar 2016), who will give a lecture at the opening reception on Friday, June 2, 2017 from 5-7pm.

The film project begins in Philadelphia, a city once known as the "Workshop of the World." This provides an indelible backdrop for understanding the significance of factory life and factory workers during a period of manufacturing decline, while also showing a potential for its increase. The installation features a series of 18 filmed interviews with factory workers exploring the importance of work, the worker's role in the factory, the value of work to the worker, and the meaning of urban production. By focusing attention on the individual factory employee, these personal narratives demonstrate first hand the importance of urban production spaces and their social significance.

Today, many factories are leaving urban centers for exurban sites or other lands, and legacy manufacturers are dwindling. Travelers on the North East corridor, however, may not realize that many rundown-looking factories in Northeast Philadelphia are in fact full of life, thriving inside with workaday life. Traditional factories can be reinvigorated in cities because of their commitment to particular places and their workers. New advanced manufacturing has also become cleaner, smaller, and safer, resulting in the potential for new kinds of manufacturing in cities making them more resilient economically. This commitment to manufacturing is particularly highlighted in the city of Philadelphia, where there are at least 1000 legacy factories, innovative incubators such as NextFab, and a manufacturing workforce (as of 2016) of around 20,700.

A Worker's Lunch Box builds upon over 10 years of research as well as the book and exhibition Vertical Urban Factory (2011-), which focuses on the architecture and urbanism of the factory and the importance of returning manufacturing to cities in a new sustainable paradigm.

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The lunchbox is a framework for the project, and serves as both metaphor and artifact of a working day. Within the container, lunch represents the worker's culture and habits. It is also one of the few private spaces a worker has in a factory, along with their locker and as such often can become unique representations of the individual in this compressed container. As an artifact, the lunch box has changed in design and materials throughout history and can be studied as a reflection of social shifts in the workplace as a symbol of the working class.

The interviews featured in A Worker's Lunch Box depict workers on the manufacturing floor as they describe their responsibilities at the factory and what they do in their free time. These films feature the dedication to their jobs and their skills, motivations and their dreams. Some of the workers arrive early, take a nap in the car, have coffee with their co-workers, or get organized before the workday begins. They are proud of their role on the factory floor as they define their tasks and improve the product and the way that it is made. When they see processing methods that need adjustments they give input to their supervisors and work together to develop efficient and safe production systems. If mistakes are made they reverse their process, focus, and do it again. Many have worked their way up in the factory from unskilled to skilled tasks, from small assembly jobs to learning to use the computer programs with future goals to become managers or work in quality control.

Others are craft-based manufacturing making high-end products with hands-on artisanal methods. Some are young, supporting themselves to go to college, others are about to retire after a dedication of 30 years on the job and take pride in training their co-workers and teaching new staff new skills. Most of them live nearby in Northeast Philadelphia, but others live across the river in New Jersey where they can own a home with a garden. In today's world of high-stakes finance enterprises and new technology, these workers are part of the process, no longer just "cogs in the wheel," but significant contributors to production; they take pride in their work, working with their hands, and value their place in the factory. The workers speak with humility, pride, and with great appreciation for their job and the company as a whole, which for the majority provides them with health care and benefits. They are dedicated, hardworking, strong, and of course opinionated. It is not all glorious by any means, but they thrive in the workplace.

As we consider what those who work with their hands do, we recognize their enterprise, ability, dedication, empathy, and commitment. Many of the workers interviewed are also immigrants, shedding light on the significance of the economy that supports its people from all parts of the world.

Public program

Slought and the Philadelphia Folksong Society are pleased to announce a special event exploring traditional and modern songs relating to factory life on Friday, July 14, 2017 from 8-10pm. The program has been organized in conjunction with A Worker's Lunch Box and Vertical Urban Factory.

Music has played a significant role in the history and mythology of factory life. The movement to unionize workers and call attention to the hardships endured in factories was often captured in songs. Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen are a few of the many artists who have composed compelling pieces that reflect the realities of blue collar America. In revisiting songs by Woody Guthrie, the Grateful Dead, Darrell Scott, Ernie Ford and others, this program also provides another reading of the exhibition through song. The program will feature musicians Kuf Knotz, Jessi Roemer, Ami Yares, and others.