Corpornation Forging a modern society

Sparked by a collection of over 2,000 images, two projects led by Prof Karin Priem from the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH) reflect on the industrial heritage and societal impact of major Luxembourg-based steel and iron producing company ARBED, examining the social and educational initiatives of the company and how it helped shape Luxembourg’s national and international identity in a time of industrialisation.


“I was fascinated by these images”

In 2010, the Head of Luxembourg’s National Audiovisual Centre (CNA) introduced education historian Karin Priem to a collection of over 2,000 photographic glass plates related to the Luxembourg steel company ARBED (United Steelworks of Burbach-Eich-Dudelange), mainly from the years 1914 - 1950.

ARBED was a global player in the 20th century steel and iron industry – it has since gone through some mergers and in 2006 finally became the world’s largest steel producer ArcelorMittal.

Prof Karin Priem, Head of Public History and Associate Professor in History of Education at the University of Luxembourg’s C²DH says:

“I was fascinated by these images – spanning from the company’s social and educational initiatives, to its products and the production site but also workers, engineers and industrial leaders - and they were not really known at the time – I was more or less the first researcher who was able to look at them. I wondered: why were they made?”
“I asked one of my team members to check in the National Library if we could find any publications about or by ARBED and we came across a booklet from the 1920s. We recognised the photographs in the booklet from the glass plates collection. Then I understood these images were made to promote ARBED, its products, its leading role within the country, also in terms of social reforms.”

Raising a series of questions of why these images came to be, what was behind them, and what they were used for, Karin Priem and her team set about digging deeper into the industrial past of Luxembourg and the history of ARBED.

Becoming a stakeholder of social reform

Over two projects, Prof Priem and her international and interdisciplinary team explored the company’s national, European and global ‘philanthrocapitalist’ perspectives and activities in the light of far-reaching social, cultural and economic transformations.

“In 1920s Luxembourg, there was unrest amongst workers, and the Catholic Church was not much in favour of industrialisation – ARBED had to calm down two sides, and show that they were also taking care of aspects such as the social problems and educational issues in times of industrialisation.
“Industrialists were forced to find new roles while the country was transforming socially, culturally and economically; ARBED also wanted to become a stakeholder of social, cultural and educational reform.”

ARBED rolled out a range of social and educational initiatives for their workers and the workers’ families: there were housing projects; hospitals; anti-tuberculosis campaigns; sanatoria and preventoria.

Additionally, the children of ARBED workers were provided with education and health care initiatives in so-called open-air schools. A highly innovative vocational training school was established not only to train ARBED workers, but also to investigate how their bodies interacted with machines.

“The aim was to use the energy of the human body in the most harmonious way, so that workers would not suffer from fatigue in their future careers.
"ARBED was looking for an optimum human-machine interaction, the school’s psycho-technological laboratory not only tested and analysed the energy and movement of the human body, but also workers’ psychological dispositions. This testing was the most innovative part of the school and achieved international recognition at the time.”


ARBED vocational training initiatives also reached into the leisure time: there was a scouting group, physical exercise was offered – including a pool inside the school, a library, a music band, there was modern gymnastics – all these initiatives contributed shape the workers bodies and minds.

“The school as a whole was very much at the verge of modernity; ARBED wanted to shape a new elite of workers who would be attached to the company and would have a certain mentality and lifestyle.”
“These social initiatives often were looked at as philanthropic initiatives, but we found out that the rationale behind was to make workers more reliable by making them healthier, happier with their existence, better educated – also their children – it created a kind of community and made workers more productive.
“My team and I finally called the result of these initiatives ‘Corpornation’ – there was almost no Luxembourgish family that didn’t have ties to ARBED. Indeed, ARBED was not only profoundly changing environments but also people’s private and working lives. It was a dominant if not the most important aspect of identify formation in Luxembourg – also in the long-run and with strong influence on national heritage making.”

ARBED promoted a similar so-called ‘Luxembourg model’ when the company expanded to Brazil in the early 1920s. Therefore, the companies influence was also analysed from a transnational and global perspective.

Industrialist wives also played a role

Prof Priem also explains that Luxembourg had an advantage: being a bit late catching up to social initiatives in times of industrialisation meant that Luxembourg could learn from its neighbours:

“Aline Mayrisch, the wife of the Director of ARBED, travelled Europe with her daughter, looking at all these social and educational initiatives and brought ideas back to Luxembourg. It was important to see that women played a crucial role in importing reform initiatives to Luxembourg.
“It was easy for these women to have this exchange in industrial circles, intellectual networks and feminist circles. They were well educated, and also eager to find new roles of their own. Luxembourg is small, so industrialists and their families (men and women) could play on different stages and combine their activities while becoming very influential. It was interesting to see how this worked in Luxembourg.”

Photography as a technology of corporate identity formation

The main purpose of the more than two thousands of glass plates that inspired Prof Priem became clear: Now that ARBED had rolled out these initiatives, it was important to make sure people knew about them – they were a tool to shape a positive corporate image, both at home in Luxembourg and at the international level.

“Photography was the tool to mediate all of these different success stories of ARBED – the products, all the social and educational initiatives - because photography is a technology that allowed for massive dissemination and reproduction, and could be used in printed brochures, promotion campaigns, slides, films, etc.
Not only in Luxembourg - industrialists were using it as a technology to convince various audiences, to impress, and to promote their cases in various ways.”

The images and the FAMOSO projects were highlighted at a 2017 exhibition organised with the CNA, which concentrated on these glass plates as a technology to shape corporate identity.

The project did not only highlight ARBED’s visual campaigns, but also looked at counter images that were created by workers and their associations.

An overview of the results of the FAMOSO projects was published in September 2019 in a peer reviewed open access book edited by Karin Priem and Frederik Herman entitled Fabricating Modern Societies: Education, Bodies and Minds in the Age of Steel (Leiden: Brill).

The selected photos at a glance

In the Institut Emile Metz psycho-technical lab, the students' abilities were measured then evaluated using measuring tools like the ergo-metric monocycle developed by Frenchman Jules Amar. Around 1922. © Institut Emile Metz / HISACS000714v01_3074_15 (CNA Collection)
Perforation test in the psycho-technical lab. In this test, students were required to perforate paper strips by punching holes in a grid structure as quickly and accurately as possible. The test was repeated 10 times, The photo shows a student moving the paper strip with one hand and punching holes with the other hand. In the centre we see the cylindrical recording device, which measured the time taken to complete the test, the punching speed and the strength used to push down the punch. Around 1925. ('Sensuous Geographies in the 'Age of Steel', 2016). © Institut Emile Metz / HISACS000723V01_554 (CNA Collection)
A training workshop: training in using a file. © Institut Emile Metz / HISACS002044v01_185 (CNA Collection).
Apprentice finishers and blacksmiths. Around 1919. © Institut Emile Metz / HISACS0007709v01_3074_13 (CNA Collection)
Physical education outside the training workshops. Around 1922. © Institut Emile Metz / HISACS002195V01 (CNA Collection)
The Institut Emile Metz around 1920. "The edifice, built of hewn stone [...] is composed of a central building flanked by two lateral wings. The facade is adorned with a series pf squat columns, which give it a monumental character" (L'institut Emile Metz, 1915-17). © Institut Emile Metz / HISACS002197V01_13315 (CNA Collection)
At the seaside in Brened-aan-Zee, Belgium - nature and technology. Around 1928. © Institut Emile Metz / HISACS000048V01 (CNA Collection)
'Pignon et grande couronne'. Around 1950. © Institut Emile Metz / HISACS000849V01_11036_Z_3973 (CNA Collection)
Blast furnace throat armour. Around 1925. © Institut Emile Metz / HISACS001485V01_1139_159 (CNA Collection)
Sprockets. Around 1950. © Institut Emile Metz / HISACS001998V01_12879_Z5651 (CNA Collection)

More about the FAMOSO projects

FAMOSO team members

Karin Priem (team leader / PI); Klaus Dittrich, Irma Hadzalic, Frederik Herman, Enric Novella, Ira Plein, Françoise Poos, and Geert Thyssen.

FAMOSO Publications

Conzémius, Marguy, François Poos and Karin Priem, eds. La forge d’une societé modern. L’ARBED, la photographie et la communication d’entreprise. Dudelange, Luxembourg: Centre national de l’audiovisuel (CNA), 2017.

Dittrich, Klaus. “Selling Luxembourgian Steel in Japan: Columeta Tokyo, 1925 to 1941”. Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte 61 (2016): 215–36.

Dittrich, Klaus. “Buddhism, Business, and Red-Cross Diplomacy: Aline Mayrisch-de Saint Hubert’s Journeys to East Asia in the Interwar Period”. In Priem and Herman, Fabricating Modern Societies.

Dittrich, Klaus. “Bilingual Primary Schools, Decorative Arts and Psychotechnics: Luxembourgian Education at International Exhibitions and Congresses, 1870s-1930s”. History of Education, DOI: 10.1080/0046760X.2018.1541483.

Dittrich, Klaus. “Transatlantic Ties of Industrial Philanthropy: The Rockefeller Foundation and the Anti-Tuberculosis Movement in Interwar Luxembourg”. Submitted.

Hadzalic, Irma. “Sick and Weak But Made of Steel: Luxembourgian Open-Air Schools and Other Responses to the Spread of Tuberculosis at the Beginning of the 20th Century”. Revista de História e Historiografia da Educação 1, no. 1 (2017): 44–64.

Hadzalic, Irma. “Transatlantic Iron Connections: Education, Emotion, and the Making of a Productive Workforce in Minas Gerais, Brazil (ca. 1910–1960)”. In Priem and Herman, Fabricating Modern Societies.

Hadzalic, Irma. Transatlantic Iron Corpornations: The Expansion of Luxembourg’s Steel Industry to Brazil and the Emergence of Industry-Related Social Welfare in Minas Gerais, ca. 1910-1965. PhD thesis, University of Luxembourg, 2018.

Herman, Frederik. “Forging Harmony in the Social Organism: Industry and the Power of Psychometric Techniques”. History of Education 43, no. 5 (2014): 592–614.

Herman, Frederik, and Ira Plein. “Envisioning the Industrial Present: Pathways of Cultural Learning in Luxembourg (1880s–1920s)”. Paedagogica Historica 53 (2017): 268–84.

Herman, Frederik, and Karin Priem. “The Eye of the Machine: Labour Sciences and the Mechanical Registration of the Human Body”. In Priem and Herman, Fabricating Modern Societies.

Herman, Frederik, Karin Priem, and Geert Thyssen. “Body_Machine? Encounters of the Human and the Mechanical in Education, Industry and Science”. History of Education 46 (2017): 108–27.

Herman, Frederik, Karin Priem and Geert Thyssen. “Körper_Maschinen? Die Verschmelzung von Mensch und Technik in Pädagogik, Industrie und Wissenschaft”. Jahrbuch für Historische Bildungsforschung 20 (2014): 47–75.

Herman, Frederik, and Karin Priem. “The Image of Industrial Life and Vocational Training: Scouting as a Liminal Space for Educationg a Workers’ Elite (Luxembourg, 1920s)”. History of Education, forthcoming.

Novella, Enric. “Tuberculosis and Political Economy: Industrial Wealth and National Health in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, c. 1900–1940”. Social History of Medicine 31 (2018): 308–27.

Novella, Enric. “Germs, Bodies, and Selves: Tuberculosis, Social Government, and the Promotion of Health-Conscious Behavior in the Early Twentieth Century”. In Priem and Herman, Fabricating Modern Societies.

Plein, Ira. “‘Der tägliche Weg zur Schicht’. Aspekte zur proletarischen Kunst Albert Kaisers in der Zwischenkriegszeit”. In 100 Joer fräi Gewerkschaften 1916–2016, edited by Fréderik Krier, Jacques Maas, Arnaud Sauer and Denis Scuto, 83–97. Esch-sur-Alzette: OGBL, 2016.

Plein, Ira. “Machines, Masses, and Metaphors: The Visual Making of Industrial Work(ers) in Interwar Luxembourg”. In Priem and Herman, Fabricating Modern Societies.

Plein, Ira. “Beautiful Luxembourg, Steel Works, and a Swimming Pool: The Corporate Film Columeta and the Formation of a Corporate, and National, Image”. In Films that Work Harder: The Global Circulations of Industrial Cinema, edited by Vinzenz Hediger, Florian Hoof and Yvonne Zimmermann. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, forthcoming.

Plein, Ira. Propaganda für Stahl und Nation. Bilder und Gegenbilder zum wirtschaftlichen und sozialen Fortschritt in luxemburgischen Medien der Zwischenkriegszeit. PhD thesis, University of Luxembourg, forthcoming.

Poos, Françoise. “Photography as a Space for Constructing Subjectivities: Luxemburg’s Steel Dynasties and the Modern Workforce As Seen Through the Glass Plate Negatives from the Institut Emile Metz”. In Priem and Herman, Fabricating Modern Societies.

Priem, Karin, and Frederik Herman, eds. Fabricating Modern Societies: Education, Bodies and Minds in the Age of Steel. Leiden: Brill, in print.

Priem, Karin, and Frederik Herman. “Hautnah. Materialität der Moderne und sensomotorische Ansätze der Berufsbildung im ‘Zeitalter des Stahles’”. In Die Sache(n) der Bildung, edited by Christiane Thompson, Rita Casale and Norbert Ricken, 213–39. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2017.

Priem, Karin, and Frederik Herman. “Putting Male and Female Bodies in Their Places: Arenas and Theatres of Educational Reform”. In Education across Europe: A Visual Conversation, edited by Catherine Burke, Ian Grosvenor, Béatrice Haenggeli-Jenni, Helena Ribeiro de Castro, Elena Tabacchi, Geert Thyssen, and Pieter Verstraete, 43–46. Network 17 – Histories of Education, EERA, 2014.

Priem, Karin, and Frederik Herman. “Sensuous Geographies in the ‘Age of Steel’: Educating Future Workers’ Bodies in Time and Space (1900–1940)”. In Priem and Herman, Fabricating Modern Societies.

Priem, Karin, and Geert Thyssen. “Fragmented Utopia: Luxembourgian Industrialists, Intellectual Networks and Social-Educational Reforms between Tradition and Avant-Garde”. Jahrbuch für Historische Bildungsforschung 19 (2013): 106–26.

Thyssen, Geert. “Engineered Communities? Industry, Open-Air Schools, and Imaginaries of Belonging (c. 1913–1963)”. History of Education & Children’s Literature X, no. 2 (2015): 297–320.

Thyssen, Geert, and Klaus Dittrich. “Water and Dust: Recovering Washed-Out Pasts of Industry in Luxembourg”. In Education across Europe: A Visual Conversation, edited by Catherine Burke, Ian Grosvenor, Béatrice Haenggeli-Jenni, Helena Ribeiro de Castro, Elena Tabacchi, Geert Thyssen, and Pieter Verstraete, 63–66. Network 17 – Histories of Education, EERA, 2014.

Thyssen, Geert, and Frederik Herman. “Re-Turning Matters of Body_Mind: Articulations of Ill-/Health and Energy/Fatigue Gathered Through Vocational and Health Education”. History of Education, https://doi.org/10.1080/0046760X.2019.1576233.

Created By
Emily Iversen


© Institut Emile Metz (CNA Collection). Photos of Karin Priem: © Karin Priem / C2DH / University of Luxembourg