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Charles Rivers Photographs and Scrapbooks

Call Number



1921-1989, inclusive
; 1930-1989, bulk


Rivers, Charles, 1904-1993 (Role: Donor)


2.75 Linear Feet in 2 manuscript boxes, 1 record carton, and 1 oversize flat box.

Language of Materials

Materials are in English


Charles Rivers was an amateur photographer and Executive Secretary of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), District 3 in Schenectady, NY. This collection contains photocopies of three scrapbooks and the original clippings, correspondence and photographs, as well as a limited amount of additional correspondence and ephemera. The collection also includes over six hundred negatives and forty mounted enlarged photographs. The collection documents the construction of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, labor organizing, anti-war demonstrations (both before WWII and during the Vietnam War), as well as demonstrations against fascism in Greece and in favor of disarmament.

Historical/Biographical Note

Charles Rivers was a machinist, labor union organizer, civil rights and peace activist, and amateur photographer. His birth name was Constantinos Kapornaros (or Kostandinos Kapernaros). The facts about Rivers' birth remain unclear. In a 1991 interview, Rivers stated that he was born in Denver, Colorado on May 20, 1904, but by some accounts he immigrated to Denver with his parents from the town of Vahos in Mani, Greece. Apparently Rivers' parents immigrated to Colorado with the intention of entering the hotel business, but later moved to Manchester, New Hampshire and then to Saco Biddeford, Maine, where other immigrants from Mani lived and where work was available in the textile mills. Rivers' father worked in sales for a textile concern, and his brothers apparently worked "in maintenance," perhaps repairing machines in the mills. Rivers' mother eventually quit working in the textile mills to care for her children. Rivers himself never worked in the mills; he attended school in Saco Biddeford and graduated from high school there in 1920. Foreseeing a postwar slump in the textile industry, Rivers' father moved the family to Boston. In Boston Rivers' brother, who adopted the last name Laughlin and eventually became a steelworker and trade union activist with the fur trades in Pittsburgh, introduced Rivers to the Communist Party's newspaper, the Daily Worker, and to political and trade union activism. Rivers eventually joined and later left the Communist Party, although the exact dates of each are unknown.

Rivers did not attend college. After high school, he hitchhiked and made his way by freight train as far as Chicago, before returning to New York City. Two Swedish friends who were working as ironworkers eventually found him employment. According to one account by Rivers, the name "Charles Rivers" was the suggestion of an immigration officer and he used the name instead of Kapornaros in order to find work in the iron shops. Another version that Rivers told was that he took his name from Boston's Charles River. Cooper was another name that Rivers used occasionally in the 1920s; according to one account this was a name that Greek-American activists used regularly as an alias to avoid being identified when participating in militant political activities. By the late 1920s, Rivers had worked on the construction of both the Chrysler and on the Empire State buildings, which he also photographed. He worked as a bolter on the Empire State Building and recalled that he suffered from vertigo on the job.

In between his Chrysler and Empire State building jobs, Charles Rivers became involved with the Communist Party-associated Trade Union Education League (TUEL), and it was from this time that he launched into trade union and political activism in earnest. For several years he alternated ironworking jobs with trade union organization. Among his first assignments as a TUEL organizer was to visit and assess the aftermath of the Gastonia, North Carolina, textile workers strike of 1929. Rivers maintained that his education in industrial unionism came both through his practical work experiences and extensive reading of socialist and communist literature.

After Rivers completed his work on the Empire State Building, he took an opportunity offered by the TUEL to live in the Soviet Union, and spent two years working in the TUEL's Moscow office and working a maintenance job in a metal shop. Rivers maintained contact with the Soviet Union throughout his life in both cultural and political capacities. On his return from the Soviet Union, James J. Matles, the then-Director of Organization at the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), sent Rivers to Schenectady, New York, to help build an industrial union for workers at the General Electric plant there. Rivers also organized a carpet workers' strike in Amsterdam, New York, and upon his return to New York City, worked with the UE again to organize workers in Brooklyn. Rivers became a district representative for the Federation of Metal Arts Unions and then an international representative for the UE's Northeastern district, which included Massachussetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Although he considered enlisting to fight in the Spanish Civil War, he recalled that the UE's leaders convinced him to continue with his organizing and negotiation efforts in the United States.

In the 1940s Rivers married Sophia May, a politically active woman of Russian-Jewish descent. They had two sons, James and Ronald, born in 1943 and 1949.

During the McCarthy era Rivers lost his job as a laboratory technician in an iron shop because he had been subpoenaed to testify before a legislative committee and pled the Fifth Amendment.

Rivers' activism was not limited to the trade union movement. During the Depression he became involved in the development of social security, unemployment insurance, and government housing programs. In the 1930s he also attended anti-imperialist demonstrations protesting British rule in India and opposed United States involvement in World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s he opposed the United States' involvement in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and actively opposed United States foreign policy in Cuba, Iran, and Nicaragua.

In the 1970s, when a military junta seized power in his homeland, Rivers joined a small anti-Junta group called the Committee for Freedom and Democracy in Greece. As a member of the executive committee for the group he worked to raise awareness about the junta as well as the Central Intelligence Agency's involvement in bringing the junta to power.

"Retiring" at 72, Rivers became increasingly active in the anti-nuclear movement in New York City. In the 1980s, he was involved with the Riverside Church Disarmament Task Force.

There is very little information about Charles Rivers' training as a photographer, although it is known that he was interested in photography since childhood. Rivers' best-known photographs are those that he took during his lunch breaks while he worked as an iron worker on the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. Using a Zeiss Nikon camera that he kept in his toolbox, Rivers apparently made hundreds of pictures that documented his and his coworkers' efforts. Among these images is his best-known photograph-a 1930 self-portrait on the Chrysler building entitled "Bolter Up." In 1986 Rivers submitted "Bolter Up" to the International Year of Peace art contest sponsored by the Moscow publication New Times. He received a prize and a diploma for this photograph, which was featured on the back cover of an issue of the magazine. Rivers believed himself to be the only one among his coworkers at the Chrysler and Empire State buildings to make photographs while at work. During the time that he shot these photographs, Rivers was apparently unaware of Lewis Hine's photographic study of the construction of the Empire State Building, although he was later influenced by Hine's work, saying, "The moment I saw his pictures-they were my people. "

It is unlikely that Rivers ever used photography for any significant commercial purposes. Instead, his photographs documented the different activities that he was involved in throughout his life, which so often included social and political activism. Of his photography he commented, "I have always been interested in photographing people, especially when making history."

Mr. Rivers died in 1993, two weeks after moving to Arlington, Texas to enter a nursing home.


Burton, Anthony. "Builds a Bridge to Students." May 12, 1970, Daily News.

Fox, Jan. "The hands of a builder and the eyes of an artist." People's Daily World, June 9, 1987

Haberstich, David E., Guide to the Charles Rivers Photographs Collection. (National Museum of American History).

Sewell, Carol. "Photographer looked at U.S. from high view." December 27, 1986, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Rivers, Charles. Audiotape interview with Charles Rivers by Debra Bernhardt, April 29, 1991. New Yorkers at Work Collection. Tamiment Library. (OH.001) (Note: Transcript of this interview is available.)

Zahavi, Gerald. "Passionate Commitments: Race, Sex, and Communism at Schenectady General Electric, 1932-1954." Journal of American History, Vol. 83, No. 2 (Sep 1996), pp. 514 -548.


This collection is arranged into three series, one of which is arranged into subseries. Series I and III are arranged alphabetically, series II is arranged chronologically.

Series I: Scrapbooks, 1930-1989

Series II: Negatives, 1921-1989

Subseries II:A: Demonstrations, Rallies, Parades, 1930-1989

Subseries II:B: Communist Party, 1930-1940

Subseries II:C: Personalities/Portraits, 1930-1979

Subseries II:D: Strikes, 1946-1968

Subseries II:E: Unions - Ironworkers, 1930-1939

Subseries II:F: Worksites, 1921-1929

Subseries II:G: Miscellaneous Events, 1929-1989

Series III: Photographic Prints and Clippings, 1929-1988

Scope and Contents note

The collection contains photocopies of three scrapbooks, which were disassembled during processing, and the original clippings, correspondence and approximately two hundred photographs which were included in the scrapbooks. There is also a limited amount of additional correspondence and ephemera which has been incorporated into Series I of this collection. Notable individuals represented in the correspondence files include Cesar Chavez, Congressman William F. Ryan, Rockwell Kent, Michael Quill, Albert Shanker, and Pete Seeger. The clippings and photographs from the scrapbooks document the construction of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, labor organizing, anti-war demonstrations (both before WWII and during the Vietnam War), as well as demonstrations against fascism in Greece and in favor of disarmament.

Also included in this collection are six hundred and fifteen negatives, many of which have corresponding prints included in the scrapbooks. These negatives document similar topics and events, including construction projects, labor organizing and anti-war activism. Lastly, there are forty mounted enlargements of these photographs, which are included in Series III.

Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open without restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Any rights (including copyright and related rights to publicity and privacy) held by Charles Rivers were transferred to New York University in 1991 by Charles Rivers. Permission to publish or reproduce materials in this collection must be secured from the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive. Please contact

Preferred Citation

Identification of item, date; Charles Rivers Photographs and Scrapbooks; TAM 260; box number; folder number; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated by Charles Rivers in 1991. The accession numbers associated with this gift are 1991.002, NPA.1991.007, 1991.009, NPA.1991.012, NPA.1991.013.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

Series II of this collection has been microfilmed and must be used in that format.

Separated Materials

A set of 38 reproductions "Posters of the Russian Revolution, 1917-1929" were transferred to the Tamiment Library Posters and Broadsides Collection (GRAPHICS 002), as were four original pen and ink cartoons by Fred Wright.

Related Archival Materials

Additional prints of Charles Rivers' photographs are held in the collections of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Existence and Location of Copies

Series II of this collection has been microfilmed (R-7850) and must be used in that format. For a complete list linking shoot numbers to reel and frame numbers on the microfilm, go to: Please note that in the container list for Series II, shoot numbers are listed in the column for "item."

Collection processed by

Finding aid prepared by Maneesha Patel and Erika Gottfried, 2004-2007, with the assistance of Emily Brewer-Yarnell, Stephina Fisher, Bridget Hartzler, Mieke Duffly, Benjamin Hatch, and Shelley Lightburn.

About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-08-20 16:41:50 -0400.
Using Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language: Finding aid is written in English

Processing Information note

At the time of donation, the three scrapbooks were photocopied and disassembled. Two notebooks were also disassembled at this time. Clippings, some of which were photocopied and the originals discarded, and correspondence were transfered to the Charles Rivers Papers (TAM 260), while the photographs were transfered to the Charles Rivers Photographs (PHOTOS 050). In 2014 the photographs were reincorporated into the Charles Rivers Papers (TAM 260). The collection was then renamed the Charles Rivers Photographs and Scrapbooks to better reflect the collection's content.


Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
2nd Floor
New York, NY 10012