White Collar:

A Depression-Era Graphic Novel
About Work

3rd Floor, Rosenberg Library, City College of San Francisco
October 25, 2013-April 12, 2014

White Collar

White Collar, by Giacomo Patri

Artist Giacomo Patri envisioned White Collar as a book that would dramatize, explain and solve the problem of the non-unionized white-collar worker who had been crushed by the poverty of the Great Depression in the 1930s. White Collar contrasts isolated poverty with the alternative: united action of the middle-class worker, it urges white callar workers to join unions and to join with their blue collar fellow workers. Patri had experienced many of the struggles depicted in the book personally. Using the linocut, a technique of carving linoleum attached to wooden blocks, he hand-printed the first edition with the help of his wife Stella, a book designer.  The second and third editions were commercially printed.

The Great Depression was the worst economic crisis of the 20th Century.  After the stock market collapsed in 1929, nearly half the country’s banks failed and some 13 to 15 million Americans were unemployed – nearly one in four workers. California’s unemployment rate was 28% in 1932, and in San Francisco the number of unemployed nearly doubled in one year from 1930 to 1931, reaching its peak in 1933.  Many people lost their homes and their life savings. The U. S. government, led by President Franklin Roosevelt, responded to the crisis with a series of laws and programs called the New Deal. Banking regulations were passed to prevent the financial speculation that led to the stock market crash, social safety net programs such as Social Security were created to prevent poverty, and protections were put in place that legally allowed workers to organize into unions for the first time.

Using strong graphic illustrations and just two colors, White Collar  depicts the impact of the Great Depression on ordinary people through images rather than words. The novel is a wonderful example of the powerful graphic style of the 1930s and an example of the dynamic collaborations between artists and the labor community during this period.  Shortly before World War II began, Giacomo Patri became the Director of the Art Department at the California Labor School. The Labor School’s curriculum included training in various trades, along with history, philosophy and other humanities courses taught from a working class perspective.  The art programs were among the most popular and any many leading artists, musicians and actors taught at the school. Financial support for the California Labor School came primarily from unions and after the war students were able to use GI Bill funds for tuition. Because the School was ethnically diverse during the Jim Crow era and many of the students and faculty were politically progressive, it was targeted as subversive during the McCarthy anti-communist 1950s, which led to its eventual closure in 1957. 

The exhibition White Collar is a collaboration with the Labor Archives and Research Center (LARC) at San Francisco State University. The LARC collection includes many works by Patri.

For good stories on the labor movement, checkout the LARC on Facebook.

Download the White Collar Assignment and list of books and other resources in the CCSF Library

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Filed under Art and Activism, Book Arts, Libraries and Reading, San Francisco History

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