10 Fascinating Facts About Lunch Atop A Skyscraper

11 men eating lunch on a beam over Midtown

Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use

The Great Depression inspired some of the most memorable photographs of the 20th century by perfectly capturing the heartache and suffering of a nation out of work. Images of breadlines, derelict housing, and desperate mothers informed the cultural consciousness by bringing the Depression to newsstands across the United States. But Lunch Atop a Skyscraper was different.

The sight of 11 Rockefeller Center construction workers casually eating lunch across a beam hanging 850 feet in the air was a hopeful look at life in the '30s. It showed the world that New York City—and America as a whole—was still building, still progressing, and, most importantly, still working.

It’s been over eight decades since the image was printed in the New York Herald-Tribune on October 2, 1932, and it's been one of the most well-recognized pieces of photography ever since. Here are 10 fascinating facts about Lunch Atop a Skyscraper.

1. THERE ARE STILL DOUBTS ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S IDENTITY.

The image of these workers, dangling high above Midtown, may be etched in our memories (and on apartment walls, T-shirts, and refrigerator magnets) forever, but no one really knows who was responsible for taking the picture. One name that keeps coming up is Charles C. Ebbets, who actually received credit for it for a while. But other photographers were up there that day, too, including William Leftwich and Thomas Kelley, and so the Rockefeller archive and Corbis removed any official credit and attributed the photo to “unknown.”

According to Ken Johnston, who was the Historical Director of Photography at Corbis Images, until the 1950s it wasn’t out of the norm for photographers to not receive credit for their photos.

2. IT WAS PURELY FOR PUBLICITY.

Although the image was meant to give a casual look into what a worker’s life was like high above the city streets, it was purely for publicity purposes. No, 11 men eating lunch on a beam hanging 69 floors in the air was not an everyday sight, and the whole thing came together to publicize the construction of Rockefeller Center.

"The image was a publicity effort by the Rockefeller Center,” Johnston told the UK's Independent. “It seems pretty clear they were real workers, but the event was organised with a number of photographers."

Taking place during the Depression, when 15 million people were looking for work, the image of an expanding city and the workforce behind it was a rare bright spot for the public to hang on to.

3. THERE WERE MORE DEATH-DEFYING PHOTOS TAKEN THAT DAY.

There was more than just this single shot taken that day. In addition to photos featuring different poses for the 11 men on the beam, there’s also a rarely seen picture of four of the men stretched out across it, taking a well-deserved nap.

That photo was owned by the International News Photos archive, which was a competitor of Acme Newspictures archive, the original owner of Lunch Atop a Skyscraper. The identity of the photographer for this lesser-known picture is unknown as well.

4. THE ORIGINAL NEGATIVE IS STORED IN A CAVE IN PENNSYLVANIA.

To keep the original glass plate negative of the photo secured, it was placed in a massive underground vault just outside of Pittsburgh in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Called Iron Mountain, the secure and confidential facility spans 1.8 million square feet, where priceless artwork, photos, film negatives, pieces of music, and government documents from all around the world are stored.

The entire mine is temperature controlled to help maintain the aging documents, as a team works to digitally and physically preserve the millions of pieces inside the vaults. Part of the climate controlling comes from an underground lake that is used to pump 50-degree water throughout the mine to maintain a steady temperature.

5. AND IT’S A LITTLE BEAT-UP.

That being said, the original Lunch Atop a Skyscraper negative has seen better days. At some point, probably after Corbis acquired it, the glass negative was dropped, leaving it cracked and shattered.

You don’t have to worry about the long-term future of the photo, though, as Johnston points out: “Prior to its being broken they had made a number of high-quality prints of the image from which copy negatives were made, to make printing it easier. So there were lots of good copies around to work with.”

6. A DOCUMENTARY HELPED ESTABLISH TWO OF THE MEN’S IDENTITIES.

Much like the man behind the lens, the 11 workers in front of the camera have been a mystery to historians as well. We know they were real construction workers, but records were spotty at the time and there was only anecdotal evidence of their identities. But when director Seán Ó Cualáin began digging into the subject for a documentary called Men at Lunch, he found some of the answers people had been looking for.

"We were literally starting from scratch, and without the assistance and enthusiasm of Rockefeller's Center’s archivist, Christine Roussel, we would have been in big trouble,” Ó Cualáin said in an interview with Rockefeller Center.

Through the use of dozens of archival photos in Rockefeller’s possession, Roussel and Ó Cualáin were able to positively identify two men: Joseph Eckner (the third from the left) and Joe Curtis (third from the right). The names of the other nine men, however, are still unknown.

7. MORE THAN 40,000 PEOPLE WORKED ON THE BUILDING, AND NO WORK RECORDS EXIST.

Seán Ó Cualáin’s documentary got started because of a note from a man named Pat Glynn that he and his brother saw in a Shanaglish, Galway, Ireland pub. It was attached to a copy of Lunch Atop a Skyscraper and in it, Glynn claimed that his father and uncle-in-law, both from south Galway, were two of the men on the beam that day.

"The biggest surprise was that despite the photo’s worldwide appeal, no one had tried to find out who the men or photographer were until us," Ó Cualáin said. And a documentary was spawned.

Ó Cualáin tracked Glynn down, along with his cousin Patrick O'Shaughnessy, who claims his father is in the picture, to get more answers. Despite saying that "The physical likenesses are striking,” Ó Cualáin says that no official work records are left from the project, so positive identification is incredibly difficult.

Rockefeller Center’s website reports that more than 40,000 people were hired for the building’s construction, and says that “it’s somewhat surprising that no records exist.” With no work records, and with only scant evidence to go on, a majority of the men may remain a mystery.

8. ONE OF THE WORKERS MIGHT BE OF MOHAWK DESCENT.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Rockefeller Center was built on the backs of immigrants, including men from Ireland, Italy, and Germany. But one of the unsung groups to lend their talents to the job was Mohawk Indians, who were located in northern New York and southern Canada following their support of the British during the Revolutionary War.

The Mohawks honed their ironworking skills on Canadian constriction projects, and they later traveled to New York where work on the Empire State Building, George Washington Bridge, and Rockefeller Center opened up. Though many Mohawks eventually settled in the city, most notably in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, according to Rockefeller, “To work these jobs, the majority of men would leave their families in Canada and drive 12 hours down to the city on Sunday, and then journey back at the end of the week.”

Though none of this is confirmed, it’s believed that one of the men in the picture—near the center, with the cap on and cigarette in his mouth—is Peter Rice, an ironworker of Mohawk descent. Other Mohawk names have come up as possibilities for the other men, but nothing conclusive.

9. SOME HISTORIANS DOUBT JUST HOW DANGEROUS THE PHOTO WAS.

If you really want to demystify the photo, you can buy into one New York Times writer's belief that the picture was more than just a posed publicity stunt—it was also not nearly as risky as it looked. One article poses the theory that below the men, just out of view from the camera, was a perfectly safe, finished floor for the men to lower themselves onto (or, you know, land on, in case of any horrific accident). But like so many things about the image, the truth has been lost to history.

10. IT WAS CORBIS’S BEST-SELLING IMAGE.

Corbis owned the rights to the glass negative to Lunch Atop a Skyscraper from 1995 to 2016, until the company sold its images archive to Visual China Group, which has a distribution deal with Getty. In that time, it was the best-selling historical image in Corbis’s portfolio, averaging around 100 purchases a month for 10 years. And for a company that owned images of 20th century icons like Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr., that’s an impressive feat.

This Delightfully Ugly Christmas Sweater Features a Light-Up Bob Ross Head

Spencer's
Spencer's

The only thing better than bringing the benevolent ghost of Bob Ross to your Christmas party—which, by all means, you should definitely do if you somehow know him—is sporting a sweater emblazoned with his bushy-haired head.

The blue cotton sweater from Spencer’s is trimmed in red and patterned with snowflakes and some appropriately happy little evergreen trees. But most of the sweater's front is taken up by a delightfully large replica of Bob Ross’s face, complete with his characteristically kind eyes and fuzzy facial hair.

bob ross ugly christmas sweater
Spencer's

Those details are enough to make the garment your one-way ticket to a first-place ribbon in the Christmas sweater competition, but there’s one last unforgettable feature that will surely warm the heart of every Grinch, Scrooge, and Hans Gruber in a six-mile radius: Bob Ross is draped with a strand of charming Christmas lights that actually light up.

bob ross ugly christmas sweater
Spencer's

The crew neck sweater is unisex, so you should order a size down if you’re looking for a more fitted look. It’ll definitely feel like a warm hug regardless of what size you order, and you can easily layer it over a thick thermal shirt if you’re venturing around the block for a carol or two. And whether you’re braving cold weather or just eating Christmas cookies on your own couch, the sweater pairs perfectly with these Bob Ross slipper socks.

Get your very own happy little sweater for $42 from Spencer’s.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Meet Isabelle de Borchgrave, the Belgian Artist Who Recreates Historical Fashion Using Paper

From "Papiers à la Mode," Isabelle de Borchgrave's first series of paper sculptures.
From "Papiers à la Mode," Isabelle de Borchgrave's first series of paper sculptures.
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

When you walk into the exhibition space at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film right now, you’re met with a breathtaking homage to the history of fashion. Mannequins are dressed in everything from the court gowns of Queen Elizabeth I to the crinoline tutus of the Ballets Russes, and the overall impression is one of almost otherworldly beauty.

From across the room, you can see silk pooling at the feet of some figures, while light glances off the beaded bodices of others. But if you get within about a foot of the mannequins, you might notice that it isn’t silk at all—and those aren’t beads, either.

Actually, it’s paper.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

The all-paper ensembles in the “Fashioning Art From Paper” exhibition were created by Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, who decided at age 14 that she would very much like to leave traditional school behind and study drawing instead. Her parents agreed, and de Borchgrave spent the next three years sketching nude models at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Brussels. Though she tells Mental Floss that the repetition no doubt taught her how to draw, the rest of her arts education was left mostly up to her.

So she visited museums, letting the art inform and inspire her own work, and she soon developed an interest in fashion that she’s been cultivating ever since. To de Borchgrave, her lack of formal training in fashion is a creative asset.

“I never studied fashion—that means I stay really free,” she tells Mental Floss. She began making vibrant hand-painted dresses and other outfits, which she’d either sell or wear herself.

Then, in 1994, a fateful visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art sparked an idea that would alter the course of her career. After seeing a retrospective for French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, de Borchgrave—who, at that point, had been drawing on paper and painting on fabrics for years—began to wonder how she’d recreate certain designs using only paper and paint.

“I was so touched by the beauty, by the elegance, by the fabrics, and I wanted to have everything for me,” she says. It seemed like the perfect way to remain in the realm of fashion, while liberating herself from the demands of consumers. And, in theory, her paper reconstructions of garments really are just for her.

“When I finish a dress, I put it in a room. I don’t show it to anybody,” she says. “But I feel better, because I have done something I can be proud of.”

Over the last few decades, however, word has gotten out about the extraordinary paper gowns, and they’ve now been displayed in museums all over the world. At the SCAD FASH exhibition, the ensembles are divided into categories that each reflect a different era and inspiration, spanning about 500 years of fashion history.

Several ensembles from de Borchgrave's first sculpture series, “Papiers à la Mode,” are included in the exhibition. To create "à la Mode,” she collaborated with theatre costume designer Rita Brown to determine how best to manipulate paper, paint, and glue to mimic fabrics and patterns from the late 16th century all the way up through the 1920s. Though the more delicate fabrics might require specialty paper—for some lace trimmings and veils, for example, she orders a thin, gauzy paper from England—she primarily works with an inexpensive paper usually used for wrapping chocolate in Belgium.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Recreating ruffled collars, gold embroidery, and intricate designs with paper and paint seems difficult enough even if you could inspect the original garments with a magnifying glass and your own two hands—but de Borchgrave doesn’t often have that luxury. While some of her sculptures in "Papiers à la Mode" are modeled after actual clothing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and other costume collections around the world, many are based on paintings alone.

Queen Elizabeth I’s court dress, for example, framed with lace and decorated with various flowers and animals, was inspired by Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of the queen from 1599.

elizabeth i portrait with isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
Ellen Gutoskey (left), Workshop of Nicholas Hilliard (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

And after seeing François Boucher’s 1756 painting of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV and something of a French fashion icon herself, de Borchgrave constructed her own version of the resplendent ribbon- and rose-adorned gown.

portrait of madame de pompadour with isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film (left), François Boucher (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As illustrated above, de Borchgrave’s garments aren’t always exact reproductions of the originals, and they’re not meant to be; instead, she aims to capture the spirit of each style, giving herself the freedom to alter patterns or add embellishments wherever she sees fit.

Having said that, it’s nearly impossible to wander the exhibition without being awestruck by how closely she’s managed to replicate some of the outfits. This is especially true of the “Splendor of the Medici” series, which celebrates the lavish finery worn throughout the Renaissance by Florence’s (and later Tuscany’s) most famous ruling family.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Sometime between 1593 and 1595, Marie de’ Medici, daughter of Francesco I de’ Medici, posed for a portrait by Pietro Facchetti while wearing a gown with rich gold pattern down the front and a magnificent lace collar. If you didn’t know any better while looking at de Borchgrave’s rendering, you might think that very dress—right down to the “pearl” embellishments—had survived these last four centuries.

portrait of marie de medici next to isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
Ellen Gutoskey (left), Pietro Facchetti (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

And then there’s “Les Ballets Russes,” a whimsical, vibrant series that reimagines the unconventional costumes worn by the Ballets Russes, a ballet company established in 1909 that featured some of the most famous dancers and choreographers of all time, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and George Balanchine. Much like how de Borchgrave’s garments aren’t created by a career fashion designer, the costumes and sets of the Ballets Russes weren’t designed by actual costume and set designers. Instead, founder Serge Diaghilev commissioned artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to come up with them.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Working off photos and the artists’ sketches, de Borchgrave gives the bold, eclectic performance attire another life in the limelight. And here, in particular, you can see the manifestation of all her early days spent drawing human models. Though these mannequins are made only of wire, de Borchgrave has set the costumes on them in such a way that the figures actually seem like they’re dancing.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
Based on a costume by Léon Bakst for Vaslav Nijinsky in La Péri, 1912
Ellen Gutoskey

Even if you can’t picture yourself headed to your office wrapped in yards of tulle and taffeta, there are likely elements from de Borchgrave’s work that you do see in stores these days, from bright floral patterns to large, front-facing bows. After all, as de Borchgrave says herself, styles simply never stop coming back.

The SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, located on Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus, is exhibiting “Fashioning Art From Paper” from now through January 12, 2020, and you can purchase tickets for $10 each here.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

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