Innovations in the production of electricity grew rapidly during the late 1800s. Sparked by the invention of the light bulb and the ability to move electricity longer distances, the Willamette Falls Electric Company was founded in Oregon in 1888. Reorganized in 1892 as the Portland General Electric Company, the business found early success. It completed the first long-distance transmission of electricity in North America, from Willamette Falls in Oregon City to downtown Portland 13 miles away. Later, PGE played a part in the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, providing 100,000 electric lamps, 250 miles of wire, and 150 transformers. It also contributed an electric sign displaying “1905,” which was visible 30 miles away. At the same time, photographic and printing technologies were also changing. For the first time, photographs could be printed alongside text, making new types of advertising possible.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, companies such as General Electric and the Bell Telephone Company (later AT&T) began using photography to display services and products in catalogs and magazines. At PGE, photographs produced between 1888 and 1930 were often of machinery, tools, and large-scale overviews of work sites such as dams or power plants. The focus was on documenting technological progress, but not people. In the few instances where workers were photographed, they were often staged and very formally composed. In this way, PGE used the advent of commercial photography to sell not only itself but also its technology.
Boilers at Station E, 1905
OHS Research Library, Portland General Electric Photograph Collection; Org. Lot 151; Box 10; PGE 5-29
Cazadero Dam, completed, ca. 1905.
OHS Research Library, Portland General Electric Photograph Collection; Org. Lot 151; Box 11; PGE 7-23
Oak Grove Project construction, second unit wheel base, 1930.
Portland General Electric Photograph Collection; Org. Lot 151; Box 4; PGE 16-987
Timothy Lake, couple with trailer, 1957.
Portland General Electric Photograph Collection; Org. Lot 151; Box 35; PGE 57-284.1-7
By the 1930s, PGE was looking for ways to stand out amongst its competitors. One way it confronted this challenge was by using photography in print advertisements, brochures, public exhibits, home displays, and billboards. Photographs employed in these new forms of media were often aimed at customers and business stakeholders who might be enticed to purchase a new electric refrigerator from PGE or see the benefit of a new power plant. For example, the monthly PGE newsletter Pepco Farm News (from 1934–1937), featured photographs promoting the use of electrical innovations in Oregon’s agricultural industries. Later, PGE produced public brochures showing family recreational opportunities at company properties such as Timothy Lake, Pelton Dam, and the Promontory Park.
During the mid-twentieth century, PGE was also beginning to produce photo-driven materials aimed at its own large internal workforce. As the specialized division of labor became more apparent, blue-collar workers, technical engineers, and managers formed individual clubs and interest groups within the company. PGE kept rigorous photographic records of these activities. Publications, such as the Pepco Synchronizer (from 1926–1938) and the long-running Bullseye newsletter (from 1941–1982) were produced by and for members of the company. Stories featured smiling Portland General Electric employees at holiday parties, engineers at power plants, and linemen installing new utility poles in a scenic location. These photographs can also be seen in company scrapbooks created during the 1960s.
Photography was an important tool used by PGE to communicate with the public, business partners, and employees. Today, these photographs provide an important record of company activities and change in Portland and the Willamette Valley.
Generously Sponsored by:
With heartfelt gratitude, we acknowledge the ongoing support and partnership of Portland General Electric. PGE’s generosity in donating their collection of images, documents, and artifacts related to their history and their financial support has made it possible to create this exhibit and to preserve their history