Lunch At The Top

In October, 1932, the U.S., like much of the world, was in the middle of the Great Depression. It was the worst economic time of the 20th century. Many Americans didn’t have jobs. And many of them had to get their food from soup kitchens or bread lines (places where food is given for free or at a low price).

Eighty years ago, on October 2nd, 1932, the New York Herald Tribune newspaper published a photograph that has become one of the most famous photos in American history. It shows eleven men relaxing, casually eating lunch, smoking cigarettes, reading newspapers, and chatting (talking) with their friends. However, nothing else about the photo is usual.

The eleven construction workers (people who build things) are seated on a steel beam (a piece of a building; part of the frame or skeleton) which appears to float (stay in the air without anything to hold it up) above the city of New York. You can even see Central Park behind the men, in the top right corner of the photo. The beam, which is more than 800 feet (244 meters) above the ground, is a part of the Rockefeller Center, one of the most famous buildings in New York City. Construction on the Center started in 1930 and was completed in 1939.

This photo, which has come to be known as Lunch Atop (on top of) a Skyscraper (a very tall building), has become an American icon (a person or thing that represents or becomes a symbol of something). It represented hope for workers in the middle of the Depression and the difficult, dangerous work that many of them did to earn money for their families. It represented opportunity: the men in the photo are probably all immigrants – Irish, Italian, Newfoundlanders – and members of the Mohawk Native American tribe. And it represented the optimism and progress that helped lead America out of the Depression. When we look at it today, it continues to represent those same ideas.

Much about the photo is a mystery. No knows who took the photo. Three photographers were working at the building that day, but no one knows which one took the photograph.

We also don’t know the names of the men sitting on the beam. Over the years, people have said, “That’s my uncle,” or some other relative, but it’s been impossible to confirm (make sure about) any of those claims. Last year, an Irish filmmaker named Sean O’Cualain found evidence that might help identify the men at each end of the beam, but we still aren’t sure.

As an amateur (not professional) photographer, I’m impressed by what the photographer had to do to take the photo. The camera was large and heavy and probably needed to be placed on a tripod (a stand to hold it). The photo was taken on a heavy, fragile (easily broken) piece of glass, not the plastic film that most of us used before the beginning of digital photography. And remember, this is 800 feet above the ground!

You can learn a lot about American history and life in the U.S. at the time of the photo by going to the Lunch in the Sky web site. On this page you will find links – Lifestyle, Sports, Politics, etc. – that take you to short video clips (short pieces of video or film) and photos about each topic. The Architecture link includes a clip filmed near the top of the building. It’s scary if you’re afraid of heights (high places)! The last link – Film – tells the story of Sean O’Cualain’s film about the photo.

~ Warren Ediger – creator of Successful English.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


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8 Responses to Lunch At The Top

  1. Vito says:

    Thank you for such an exciting and cognitive article, I love American culture as well as my motherland’s one.

  2. Dan says:

    Hello everyone,

    I just wanted to say I am glad I have discovered NPR wich I am listening to daily. Great radio.

    Thanks to them I heard a concert from the beale street caravan site of Mr.Michael Burks. R.I.P. Iron Man.


  3. Peter says:

    Dear Warren,
    I knew about the picture already. This picture is famous in Canada as well. Almost, Every body knows about it here , in Canada.
    As  you said, nobody knows who snapped The pic. 
    there is one thing though. The picture looks like a candid picture. Seems Like the people in the pic didn’t know that sb was taking a pic of is somewhat a group picture. 
    The  true story behind the picture is a hazy mistery. 
    The first time I saw a picture I impressed more with the angle and the altitude at which the picture was taken. I mean it is so high. How did they manage to carry the heavy camera with its accesories up there,and where did they set up the camera,a parallel beam across from the workes perhaps.
    You know the pic fascinates me everytime I look at it.

    Thanks Warren for the interesting post.


  4. jalex says:

    It’s grate! I saw this photo some years ago, and I thought – it’s collage. But later, I new – it’s tru. I had read article about it, and I was astonished by it!
    Thanks 🙂

  5. jalex says:

    My mistake 🙂

    It’s truth, of course!

  6. sanaz says:

    I saw this photo before and I was amazed by its beauty. It seems that the men in the photo are not aware that someone is taking their photo.

    Thanks Warren.

  7. Betty says:

    Dear Warren

    Thank you for introducing this famous picture to us.

    In fact, if I had not read about this picture from your article here, and if I happened to see it anywhere else, I would not know it was a well-known picture.

    I visited the website you introduced to us in this article. It was a very special experience watching the classical movie in the 1930.

    I also searched online with the title “lunch atop a skyscraper” and my effort was rewarded with lots of stories about the Great Depression.

    This article and the picture are reminiscent of my visit to the Rockefeller Center last year.

    I hope that one day I can revisit New York. The visit will be a lot more meaningful because I have learned of the history about New York in this blog since last year.

    Thanks again, Warren, look forward to another great article and story soon.

    Best Regards

    Betty 🙂

  8. Betty says:

    Hi Dan

    Thank you very much indeed for introducing the NPR Radio to us.

    I have downloaded the NPR News apps onto my iphone and started listening to the news in it. It is a breath of fresh air for me.

    I also introduced it to my brother. He said he knew about the NPR News website but he did not know he could listen to it. So, he is happy as well.

    Thanks again, Dan, thanks for sharing.

    Best Regards

    Betty 🙂

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