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National Benefit Life: 1921

National Benefit Life: 1921

Washington, D.C, circa 1921. "National Benefit Life Insurance, interior." Described in contemporary accounts as the nation's largest "colored insurance company." Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative, retouched to obscure whatever is on the wall behind that lamp in the corner. View full size.


Cuff protectors?

Looks to me like some home made cuff protectors to keep her white sailor-blouse white.


The woman on the far right in back has what look like rubber or vinyl 'sleeves' on her forearms. They look to be held in place by rubber bands. She's the only one with these accessories. Any ideas what these are for?

The Flooring

Genuine parkay or some sort of asbestos? If it's parkay it seems awfully fancy for an office environment. As kirksjunque said,it could have been a converted residence.

[Unfortunately, margarine-based flooring material proved to be too slippery and quickly disappeared from the market. -tterrace]

Lost my head and used the brand name spelling instead of the Mea culpa.


It's on the corner of the blotter in front of the Navy-clad young lady. Right next to the steak knife/letter opener.

Desk dictionary

Front and center there's a dictionary. It wasn't that long ago that every office had one, we couldn't go online to look up words.

Something familiar

about the general look of that office. Did they throw a Christmas party? Do we have a picture?

Tonal range

An excellent example of photographic craftsmanship both by the photographer and by Shorpy. Holding detail in the white blouse in the foreground and the dark tones at rear is evidence of superior skills.

See if you can find

The turtle tchotchke.

Cramped offices

WOW! I have seen some cramped offices in my life but this is ridiculous. I can imagine the kayos as these people crawled over their desks to their seats. Bathroom breaks must have been a real joy.

Is the lady in the hat (sitting in the back) making a claim? This is the Claims Office according to the signage on the door.

["Kayos" as in knockouts? That paints an interesting picture. Or maybe "kayos" as in chaos. - Dave]

Spell checker isn't fool proof is it?

With two locations to serve you

According to the old city directory, they had two offices, one at 609 F Street NW, the other (listed as the "Ordinary Department") was at 1209 U Street NW. Given the light fixtures and the fretwork visible in the back, this looks like a townhouse that gave way to commercial use.

Combination Gas + Electric Chandelier

There's a lot of rich period details in this picture which contrast with a modern office scene. For example, some of the desks do not have a telephone.

The chandelier is a combination gas plus electric fixture. These were popular in the earliest days of electrification, when the electric supply was less reliable than the gas supply. By the 1920's these must have been seen as "dated"

If you look at the bottom of the "arms" that support the gas lamps, you can see key-like gas valve handles.

The steel letter file in the alcove by the window is something I've not seen in years. I'd bet today's eclectic decorators would find that interesting.

Note also the predominance of rubber stamps!

The woman in the right foreground needs a bigger wastebasket.

[That's not wastebasket overflow, but papers clipped to a holder mounted on the right side the leg well, similar to the one on the left. -tterrace]

A decade to live

National Benefit was a bit over twenty years old when this photo was taken, but it died in 1931, overextended and plagued with scandal.

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