Life of a female factory worker – 1941

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In a 1941 edition of Revista da Semana, I discovered a slice of life piece on Rio’s female factory workers, which includes a short interview with one such lady. At the bottom, one can find the original. 

Between six and seven in the morning the trams arrive full into the city and the factory neighborhoods. The trains from Central Station pass by quickly, and on them thousands and thousands of people travel standing up, due to the accumulation of people who wish to get to work on time. In both primary and secondary means of transport, there are large numbers of young, Carioca female factory workers.

Early on, not long after having left behind the cheerful days of infancy and schooling, these young women start to intensely experience the fight for life, to earn one’s daily bread with the sweat of one’s own face. They aren’t familiar with the ease of life nor with the laziness of days spent reading a novel or relaxing during a walk in the forest. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and the rest of the working week are all the same for them. They leave home in a hurry, get on the tram or train, traveling almost always in discomfort and they go to the stores, the offices, the factories or to the sweet shops. They are always waiting for their Prince Charming, of the Delly or Ardel type, who never comes.

The woman today works all over. This is one of the biggest contemporary realities. The Revista da Semana wanted to focus on a quick story about the life of one of these factory workers in Rio de Janeiro. It isn’t the kind of life that differs from the others, on the contrary. It also has its bitterness and its distractions, its sadness and its happiness. And there’s a good matinee at the Encantado or Madureira cinema, in which one can see Henri Garat or Dorothy Lamour. And one day the definitive boyfriend comes along. It isn’t the Prince Charming conjured up in the calming romance novels, but rather a work colleague, a flatmate, or the brother of a female friend.

At last, this is how life is. Dreams only exist because they don’t come true, otherwise they wouldn’t be dreams.

The female characteristic which one can most easily find in the working woman is vanity. They all get dolled up, carefully brushing their hair, looking just right, never forgetting a woman’s common chores. That’s why we said just prior — the young women who work are just like other young women.

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Norma works in one of the hundreds of factories in Rio, one of the thousands of factories in Brazil.

RS – What kind of things do you like to read, Norma?

N – Romance novels and newspapers made for young people. I don’t know anything about war, I never did, nor do I want to. Besides, Yugoslavia is a difficult word and I don’t even know where Greece is. In terms of newspapers, I only like those that have stories about Zé Mulambo or Tarzan.

RS – Do you like to live in the suburbs?

N – No, and I still have yet to meet any young woman that likes living in the suburbs. It seems like romance novelists and poets go around complimenting the suburbian girl, but we would prefer to be from other places and not get those compliments. Though with the guys it’s different. Most of them really like the suburbs.

RS – And the movies, Norma?

N – Movies are the most wonderful thing in the world. We love movies above all else that exists. A lot of people would commit suicide if there were no more movies. Circuses are also good because of the orchestra at the front before the show starts.

RS – Do you date?

N – No. We talk a lot and once in a while with different guys, but we don’t date. Dating, for us, is very dangerous.

RS – Have you been to Corcovado, Sugarloaf, Copacabana or Santa Tereza?

N – No, no, no and no.

RS – And Paquetá?

N – Yes! Lots of times, for delicious picnics. Oh, how it’s nice!

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This quick talk happened at the Encantado station, while waiting for a train to arrive. All of a sudden, a tram appeared. Norma and her colleagues didn’t get on at the wagon in front of us, but they ran down to get in another that was further back.

RS – Why didn’t you get on the other, Norma?

N – Because we bought second-class tickets.

One of the girls who was in her company said, sadly, “We’re poor travel companions, aren’t we?”

For the first time we were melancholic, as those women thought that traveling second-class was a huge difference and that we took ‘notice’ of the fact. We could give them philosophic lessons to prove that these external things aren’t important. But what better response is there than the palpitable truth?

RS – Well, girls. We, too, are traveling in second-class!

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Take my picture – 1947

This is just a snippet of an article from Revista da Semana (1947) showing changes in attitude regarding ‘exhibitionism’ at the time.

273157563_b5da5844d6– “A photograph? Ah, yes, let me get into position…”

The person telling us this is a young and unabashed female sunbather. We recall the times when, to get a photo at the beach it was almost necessary to beg…Everyone tried to get away and when a pic was taken, often the subject’s family decided to send the most athletic of the bunch to ask that the negative not be used, under threat of…well, it was best just to hand it over!

Now, however, when a photographer merely walks by, people notice, and a girl with a green swimsuit is asking for a few moments so she can strike a pose.

– “Why a pose? We don’t want a posed photo…”
– “Ah, I thought you’d prefer if I were standing…So, let’s go…just take it like this.”

The photographer doesn’t plead.
– “Is it for the ‘beach beauty contest’?”, she asks.

Lowly men in high positions – 1947

Revista da Semana (Oct. 18th, 1947)

Note: In 1952, the minimum salary in Brazil was CR$1,200/mo, so we can imagine that 5 years prior, it was even less. This means most people featured in this story were earning just under the minimum salary.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 7.23.51 PMSuicide rock. High up on Sugarloaf, just below the tram station there’s a stone platform. Five-hundred meters below is the Urca neighborhood. The tramway employees nicknamed it the “suicide rock”. Dozens of people have jumped from there. The last one was a Polish man that leaped off the ledge. Before the suicide, he took off his wool shirt and his shoes…

Above: the tram employee Paulo with fifteen years on the job, receives just 1,100 cruzeiros per month. The owners of the tram company deduct the fare from the salaries of their employees. That’s why they pay their employees miserable salaries.


The profession transforms a man when he doesn’t arrive psychologically prepared for his trade. Some professions even require a unique temperment, others change the professionals little by little, shaping them to their job, so that they’ll never be able to change it, nor work in another environment. Who has already seen, for example, a dam worker leave his job and come to work in the bustle of the city?

Those that we interviewed at the Macacos Dam and the Caixa d’Água at the Morro da Viúva are veterans with over 30 years of experience. And their salaries, until two years ago, weren’t more than 600 cruzeiros a month. The rise of functionalism in the Linhares government favored them with a raise of 500 cruzeiros. You must agree that even a salary of 1,100 cruzeiros for municipal employees with over 30 years of employment isn’t at all pleasing. But they’ll never leave their profession, because it lets them live idyllically, beside the waters of the dam, usually high up in the forested mountains, increasingly more distant and yet happier with the separation that keeps them far from the city.

The men who work in high and distant places, far from the sounds of the metropolis, like the clock mechanic at Central Station, the guards at Corcovado and Sugarloaf, they don’t seem anything like the factory workers, nor the broker who, every minute, for ten hours a day, is running after good deals, they don’t even resemble the tired cashier who squeezes into the crowded trolley, at 6 pm. Although they occupy “high positions”, they are not ambitious. Old man Barbosa, from the Macacos Dam, with his dozen children and half a dozen grandchildren, told the reporter, in regards to his small salary:

– Young man, how much is it worth, the calm and the smell of this thick forest? It’s better to earn a thousand reis up here than two thousand down there, having to live oppresively, in a slum…

i0022575-17px000000py000000The Portuguese José Manoel, from Trás-os-Montes, guards the largest sacred image in the world. – “This here, above, at night, is like the countryside,” he tells us. That’s why he fell in love with the job and has rejected job offers that would pay double in the city on many occasions. Mr. José rarely goes into the city. – “What for? – he says, if every night and day the city is at his feet. And here above, Rio is much more beautiful!…”


A typical case of such detachment to the city, far below in the distance, is that of the Trasmontano José Manoel, who guards the most sacred image in the world, that is, the Christ the Redeemer statue at Corcovado. Despite having come to Brazil as a seven-year old and having lived here over sixty years, Mr. Zé Manoel has that heavy Luso accent and it’s in that strong and sonorous voice that he tells us:

– Mister, this up here is the countryside! After taking the last train down (on these cold days, the last one leaves early), it’s more deserted and quieter here than my little farm in the country. I’ve fallen in love with both the place and the job, and because of them I’ve already twice rejected double the salary to work in the city. And you should know, mister, my paycheck doesn’t even reach a thousand cruzeiros.

– How did you come to be here?, we asked.

– When I got here from Trás-os-Montes (in Portugal), I started farming and, for more than 40 years, I worked like a dog. I could never save money. In those times, you couldn’t get much for beans and potatoes. One day, I abandoned everything and came to Rio. First I lived in Irajá and, in 1936, I got a job as a guard up here, where I am til today. I’m not interested in the city anymore.

– How long has it been since you’ve gone to the city?

He scratches his white beard and responds:

– I think it’s coming up on a year…Every 15 days I go down to Cosme Velho to have my beard cut and then I come right back, because the noise down there bothers me.

While we talked we were headed up the stairs that lead to Christ. Mr. Zé Manoel, despite your age, you’re in shape and those 50 or 60 steps didn’t change the pace of your breathing.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 7.25.18 PMUp above – One of the sons of the guard got permission to put up a stand where he sells knicknacks to tourists – “And does he sell much?” – “Well, it depends. When an American naval ship come to the port, he sells his whole stock.”


Mr. José explained to us that in his everyday is unchanging, almost unaltered, calm, and quiet. Foreign visitors arrive every day, unless, of course, it’s a rainy day. And the visitors all look alike, he tells us, beginning to philosophize. All of their eyes widen in amazement, before the view below and shout the same interjections. The guard, who is not multilingual, already learned some of them by heart.

– My God! It’s amazing!…
– Ciel! Qu’il est beau, le bon Dieu!
– Es muy lindo!

Exclamations like these he’s already heard a thousand times. Mr. José is able to draw in a few minutes the entire topography of the city, which can see from up top, even better than many engineers would. For twelve years, Rio is for him is like a children’s puzzle…


i0022573-17px000000py000000-1The guard at Christ the Redeemer shows the place where the composer Assis Valente jumped a while back, and who managed to miraculously escape (death). The guard considers himself the most knowledgeable person on suicidal candidates.

To Break the Monotony, Suicides

– The only surprises and unforseen events are these, says the guard. Every two years, some guy will jump off the cliff. I’ve already seen six suicides since I’ve been here…if one doesn’t count the miraculous case of Assis Valente who, after jumping from a height of more than 30 meters, got stuck in a tree below.

The guard calmly continues to talk about the other cases he’s seen. The composer Assis Valente case was the most interesting. Two meters below us is a protruding rock, and below that, the abyss. Mr. José tells us that after the composer jumped, he fell onto the rock, almost as if undecided. And the guard pleaded for the guy to not go ahead with his plan, but nothing worked. Valente sat on the edge of the rock and slowly let himself go, as if he didn’t feel his feet hanging into the abyss.

– After being saved – continues our interviewee – he thanked me on the radio for the effort I took to try to stop him.

And he continues to tell us of the other cases, saying that no woman has ever jumped. One woman tried but was saved in time, while she was still writing a note to the police. The old Portuguese man guarantees us, with pride:

– Just by the guy’s face, I know if he’s thinking of jumping.
– How’s that, Mr. José?
– I don’t know how to really explain it. The guy will always come alone, and nervously walks back and forth, stop a little bit before the image, with eyes fixed, as if praying. Generally, they take off their coat to jump. I don’t know why…When I see a guy in this state and he takes off his jacket or starts to write a note, I grab him quickly. I’m sure the man wants to die…

i0022574-17px000000py000000Above: The Italian Nicolau Coriollo who for 40 years has been selling refreshments, sweets and fruits to tourists, at the top of Corcovado. He tried to establish himself down below – in the city – but couldn’t manage and had to return to being close to Christ the Redeemer.

The Oldest Vendor at Corcovado

Another interesting guy at Corcovado is the Italian Nicolau Coriollo, who for 40 years has sold refreshments, sweets and fruits to tourists. When he started his small business, the train that’d take tourists to the top was operated by steam. He even had a bar at one point. After business went down and he changed profession. He went to work down below. Thus he tells us his experience:

– It didn’t work out. I worked down below but I couldn’t get used to it. I started to get anxious, to have heart problems, and spend money at the doctor’s office. They told me that for my health there was only one remedy, to change the kind of air I was breathing. That’s what I did, I went back to working here at Corcovado, and today I’m feeling brand new.

– Do you intend to finish out your days up here?

He points to some cement beams that were put in near us and comments:

– It doesn’t look like it. When the new bar is ready, the landlord won’t consent to there being any competition, selling fruits and sweets. He’ll demand my exit and there won’t be any other way, other than to leave.

And the old Nicolau then added, full of faith:

– Request in your magazine, please, that the owner of the new bar doesn’t throw me out.

Your request has been answered, Nicolau.

Large Outside and Small Inside

i0022573-17px000000py000000Specialist Oto, responsible for the perfect operation of the 90 electric clocks at Central do Brasil. His profession is also full of risky moments. Like, for example, when he has to change the neon gas tubes (…) that mark the hour. In these moments one needs to be made of steel.

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 11.37.27 AM– Above: The biggest clock in South America, that of Central Station, uses just one kilowatt of power per hour, and with a simple push of the finger one can move its pointer which weighs hundreds of kilos.

While we go up with Mr. Oto in the special elevator that takes us to the Central’s clock tower, the technician of the electronic watch at Estrada tells us:

– The mechanism that you’re going to see is so simple and so small that it ‘demoralizes’ the ‘monster’. This is due to the electric mechanism that dispenses the clock’s complicated set of gears, like with Big Ben in London.

The clock-fixer is right. While the diameter of the Central’s clock tower is the largest in South America (with a ten meter radius) and almost two meters larger than Big Ben, a simple touch of the finger on the mechanism’s cogwheel would make the enormous minute hand move, which weighs 270 kilos and measures 7m 20 cm. A perfect system of counter-weights and pulleys surpresses, or better yet, enormously spreads out these hundreds of kilos.

Translating that into electric energy, we get exactly this: to make the hands move for 60 minutes, the minute and hour hands, which weigh a total of 450 kilos, each clock face consumes just a kilowatt of force, operating with a motor with 1/10 horsepower. There are – which many people ignore – four distinct clocks, with independent mechanisms, in the Central tower, one for each face of the tower. There’s no way they can operate out of sync with one another, because they’re all subject to the electric syncronism that comes from a power station, built specifically for the regulamentation of the 90 clocks in the Central building. Even if Light’s lights go out (Light is the city’s power utility co.) or if it fluctuates, an automatic generator goes into action, providing suplementary energy to the clocks. The conservation of all 90 clocks is managed by two men: Rubens, the assistant, and Oto, the specialist, previously employed at the Estrada de Ferro at Central do Brasil, and who, for three months, took specialized courses at a North American device provider. The work is usually risky, principally when one has to change one of the hands’ or hour markers’ neon gas tubes. This job one needs to do way up high at the top of the large hand, completely unattached, at a height of almost 150 meters from the ground. Estrada doesn’t guarantee him any life insurance for the dangerous job. If he should unfortunately fall from up on high, the Estrada would pay his widow the miserable worker’s pension: basically one-fourth of the salary of the dead worker. And this is the life of the man who works fixing the four clocks of the Central tower. He risks his life several times per week without Estada even knowing the specific details, because until now, Oto’s job is classified as “draftsman’s assistant”, a function he has carried out for the last 6 years, when he started at the autarchy.

Facist spirit or “evil-minded?”

A public branch whose bylaws for internal discipline are no longer addicted to the “estado novo” is a rare thing. There’s an unexplanable fear on the part of the photographer or the reporter. A simple photo, as in the case of the Macacos Reservoir, is prohibited by an absurd and unjustifiable determination. The humble workers responsible for the conservation of that reservoir would have, we don’t doubt, the good will of explaining to the public, through our intermediary, all the interesting things about the profession, that make them live for years and years segregated from the city, making them a type of professional hermit. And they’d have a lot of quaint things to say. But with the incredible regulations that don’t allow for public visits (which is understandable), don’t exclude professional journalists, whose mission of telling the people of Rio what is going on in their city, from becoming stupidly curtailed, if not cut off altogether. “Mr.” Barbosa, a Macacos Reservoir guard, has 12 years of experience with this. In 1941, journalists from “O Globo” managed to get a “pôse” (?) from him and some information for that evening’s newspaper. Information that wasn’t important at all. It was enough for the director of the then-Inspectorate of Water to call him to order and inquire “why he would speak so much”. Today, six years later, when, officially, since the DIP (propaganda dept) doesn’t exist anymore, we see the same bureaocracy towards the press yet again. Barbosa, the reservoir guard and his collegue Osmar volunteered to place us in contact with the 7th Water District, so that we may obtain authorization (merely to photograph the dam, imagine that!). Mrs. Alice Maquinivem was the one that answered us. Informed of our objective, she presented us with a series of obstacles:

– You can’t, no sir. First it’s necessary that you obtain a note from Dr. Marcelo Brandão, director of the Water Dept on Riachuelo street. In possession of the authorization, you must then go to 19 de Fevereiro street, number 39, and obtain a visa from engineer Clemente Rodrigues. All of this within business hours.

– But Mrs. Maquinivem, it’s just a lil’ photo…

– It doesn’t matter because the rules don’t make exceptions.

And that’s how we were barred from photographing the dam and from conversing with Mr. Barbosa. If not for this baning we could hear a lot of interesting things from the guard. Like, for example, the […] of his life.

Barbosa, the guard, has been working for the Water Dept  for more than 30 years and only recently started earning 1,100 cruzeiros. To help him, the city gives him a free house to live in, not far from the reservoir, which basically puts him and all the other guards in service 24/7. The location of the reservoir is very beautiful. On the hillside of the Vista Chinesa and the Mesa do Imperador, the Macacos River is held back by two enormous dams that, when full, can hold 42 million liters of water.

The location of the guard’s house was to serve as a medic station. Quiet, surrounded by a small forest, it makes one forget that below, less than 3 minutes by car, is the noisy Jardim Botânico street. That’s why, anyone who starts the job, never leaves it, even if the salary isn’t seductive. The dam guards, in general, live well.

After narrating what happened to us at the Macacos Dam, we were called by telephone. Mr. Silvano Coelho, from the Water Dept, was extremely overwhelmed with the difficuluties that the 7th District, according to Mrs. Maquinivem’s call, had offered us. She said that Dr. Marcelo Brandão would immediately order the guard to open the reservoir’s gates to us. Anyways, we thank Mr. Silvano. Next time we will take advantage and see the facilities that have been offered to us, not only to photograph them but to interview Mr. Barbosa.

i0022574-17px000000py000000 copy 2Agent Ananias Rocha, from the Sugarloaf station, examining a sun clock. He does the job in exchange for a small salary.

Life is Bitter at Sugarloaf Mountain

The Sugarloaf tram earns – according to workers’ calculations – about 100,000 cruzeiros every month.

They say that last year the liquid profit for the shareholders was 500,000 cruzeiros. At all three stations, Praia Vermelha, Urca and Sugarloaf, there are a total of 30 employees, including machinists, conductors, mechanics, oilers, agents and gardeners. All these men earn salaries that almost make them go hungry. The largest earner at all the stations gets 1,400 cruzeiros per month. Men, like the polisher Paulo Ferreira, with a 15 year history of good service in the company, receive 1,100 cruzeiros per month. In 1932, the company that operated the tram went bankrupt. It fell into the hands of new owners but the bankruptcy ‘ghost’ would reappear every time the workers demanded a higher salary. From 1939, at the start of the war, until now, profits have increased more and more, but still today, the company directors […] difficulties. The employees are suing their bosses, via a syndicate intermediary, because that’s the only way – the employees told us – they’re going to manage to get anything.

– What allows us to escape hunger is the small […] of the extaordinary acts we do. Two employees that are here since the start, conductor Lafayette Neves and iron worker Edgar Batista – don’t even make 1,200 cruzeiros per month. I’ve been here 15 years and make a lot less than that.

Agent Ananias Rocha believes his bosses exploit the employees’ attachment to their job working at the tram.

– That’s the only reason why the good mechanics we have here don’t have the courage to look for better-paying work down below.

– Our lives over these last years, as things have become more expensive, has been bitter – comments the oiler.

Our theory about the attractiveness of “high job posts” has been confirmed. Even with small salaries the humble employees of these places don’t have the heart to leave their jobs.

The views, which they never tire of, are worth the best salary they could get if they lived down below, trying to make it among men that don’t or couldn’t know how to get positions that are actually elevated.

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