Spaces of Design & Repair in Twentieth Century Argentine Factories

photo project

This is a guest article by Yovanna Pineda, based on her presentation in our Histories of Maintenance and Repair Workshop in September 2021.


Section 1. Introduction

During the 20th century, factory workers, designers and repairers of machinery affirmed their equality in the market. Equality, however, is counter-intuitive in its connotation, as factory owners do not feel equal. The paradox of equality is that workers’ claims of equality only serve to further emphasise their social inequality – and their claims are subtly denied by the owners. In the context of machine-making, the trope of equality denotes hierarchal relationships on the factory shop floor between owners and their employees (i.e., designers and repairers). The distinction among the employees is also clear between designers who create models and blueprints representing combine harvesters and the repairers who manually build, repair and use the combine harvesters.

This essay discusses conditions on the shop floor and shows an aesthetic of the hierarchal relationships between those who repair/build and design combine harvesters. Drawing on different approaches from economic history, technology studies, digital media studies and political philosophy, I suggest that as methods of production became more complex, such as in designing blueprints, specialised forging techniques, custom-made screws and bolts or customised paint, the social hierarchy became aesthetically defined over time in dress, mannerisms and pay scale.[1]

Findings in this paper are based on interviews and archival and field research conducted between 2016 and 2020 in Santa Fe province, including the towns of San Vicente, Santo Tome, Santa Fe, Rosario, Rafaela and Humboldt.[2] I interviewed nearly 100 people representing various sectors of machine-building as well as those who preserve the collective memory about local machine-making.[3] These include current and former factory owners, women administrators, local writers/historians of the combine harvester, filmmakers, museum curators, farmers (productores), harvest contractors and their wives or widows, industrial designers and retired engineers. In-person interviews took place in private homes, museums, offices, bus terminals, train stations and local restaurants. After 2017, interviews also took place via social media (i.e. WhatsApp), email, phone and video conferencing software. During the COVID pandemic, I continued to interview using social media and messaging programs.

In this essay, I focus on field research and interviews from the Senor Harvester Factory in San Vicente, Santa Fe Province. Members of the local community here refer to San Vicente as the “birthplace of the harvester”. The town was founded during the late 1880s and its population had reached roughly 3,500 residents by 1960. Between 1920 and 1980, at least four grassroots combine harvester factories operated in the town. The Senor Harvester Factory had the longest tenure of operation, producing harvesters from 1920 to 1987. In this agricultural region, combine harvesters replaced fragile human and animal bodies, protecting them from brutal harvesting processes. Ultimately, they contributed to developing the pampas into a heartland of agricultural exports.

Very little is known outside these rural towns about local designers or users of harvesters – though in the 21st century this is changing with social media outlets. Also, past studies examined technology through an economic lens, requiring long-term observations to create data to build new models of development.[4] This essay intends to correct this shortfall by using multiple lenses (i.e. media and technology studies) to understand the aesthetics of the repair and design of combine harvesters in rural Argentina.


Source: Digital Cartography from the Instituto Geográfico Nacional de la República Argentina, IGN), 2008. Scale 1:250,000. Assisted by Mariela Marino.


Section 2. Combine Harvesters of the Pampas

As early as the mid-19th century, the importation of heavy farm machinery helped increase agricultural production for the export of agricultural and pastoral goods to Europe. As a productive commercial crop region, the pampas, a fertile grassland of over 500,000 square kilometres, drove economic growth. Between 1880 and 1929, Argentina’s GDP per capita rivalled that of the richest nations in the world and rose more rapidly than in the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries.[5]

According to collective memory in the towns across the pampas, most users, designers and factory owners of domestically produced harvesters came from the local farming and blacksmith communities. Between 1899 and 1917, for instance, the brothers Juan and Emilio Senor owned a successful blacksmith shop in San Vicente, Santa Fe province. Their shop’s business boomed as foreign farm machinery tended to break down often. Harvesters consist of multiple large and small parts, including specialised blades to perform different but related functions. Since foreign parts were not always available, they repaired harvesters and developed experience in all stages of production, from design to testing phases. They had neither special training nor specialised design instruments for building machines. They simply had practical experience from repairing and making hundreds of foreign machine parts and implements. By 1917, they had patented their invention of a harvester, and by 1920, they had opened the first harvester factory in South America.[6]

Several other blacksmiths and farmers also opened new shops and factories; the brothers’ factory was followed by three more in the town. By the 1950s, there were between 23 and 30 domestic harvester companies in the nearby pampas region.[7] Each shop or factory, including Senor, manually crafted machines using artisan methods. Depending on the number of employees, shops produced from 3 to 30 harvesters and factories from 31 to 300 harvesters per year. They guaranteed their work, including long-term repair and maintenance, in the sale of each machine. The stages of production required layering and timing of the process, including designing, metal sheet cutting, welding, soldering, bolting, painting and testing machines. In interviews, employees recalled connecting in an emotional way to the production, repair and long-term maintenance of the harvesters. For instance, designers saw themselves as being essential to this layering and timing process and manual workers (e.g. welders and custom screw makers) also perceived themselves as essential workers because they sought functionality and aesthetically pleasing machine bodies.


Aesthetics and Rhetoric of the Senor B3 Harvester 

By 1936, Juan and Emilio Senor had developed the B3 model, which became their most “popular” machine, selling like “pan caliente” (freshly made bread from the baker’s oven).[8] For efficient production, the Senor Factory organised the shop floor into “departments” and developed a rotational system so that most men and boys worked in each department at least once. Management staff often understood their role as being part of a community, offering work to members and offering protection (i.e., pensions) to employees. For instance, they offered on-the-job training in various skills so that workers would be better than those of local competitors. Helping to increase the employees’ work experience and diversify skills sets directly aided both the factory and the employees. In interviews, employees appreciated this training. Manual workers saw the system as an egalitarian one, and it seemed to be effective when it came to distinguishing the skills and affinities of each worker. Also, the synergy between designers and manual workers was evident in good working relations on the shop floor: designers created representations of machines and manual workers served as intermediaries who understood how to transform these representations into operational machines. Manual workers also drew on their experience in building and repairing machinery to offer valuable feedback to designers. Together, they created a “lifeworld” where everyone was connected through the operation of the machines, with workers reporting any issues to designers.[9]

Despite the rotational system, relative fairness and nuanced synergy, the aesthetics of the factory show that there was a social hierarchy. As in all spaces, humans shaped their realities, constructing a rhetoric to understand the subjects and objects around them.[10] In interviews, employees described how the Senor Factory became an extension of the community and a second home (domus) and familia for them. The owner or lead manager of the factory was the protector. After the deaths of the original owners Juan and Emilio in the 1950s, the son and nephew Vicente Senor took over ownership and management. Interviews with former employees portray Juan, Emilio and Vicente as local heroes of the town. In San Vicente, local economic conditions often led sons to leave school and begin work at a young age. In one case during the 1950s, Edgardo Botta narrated how his father became chronically ill, and as the eldest son at age 10, he took on the role as the primary provider.[11] Understanding the boy’s situation and his age, Don Vicente hired Botta to run errands for his wife and to sweep the factory floor. When Botta turned 15, he was allowed to work with other manual workers on the shop floor. It was clear that Botta had developed an emotional connection, often referring to Don Vicente as a kindly father figure. In the interview, Botta repeated that the factory offered him an education and opportunity; eventually, he moved his way up to becoming a designer of harvesters. Though I am not disputing this emotional connection, it obscured the transactional nature of the relationship: boss/worker; patronus/cliens; father/son. Also, it was not enough for him to remain as a manual worker, which offered less opportunity for work outside the town. Once he became certified industrial designer through factory training, he moved to another town and workplace after he married. Generally, industrial designers could apply their skills in other areas outside the factory and were paid more than manual workers.

In the following example, the visual aesthetics of camaraderie, playfulness and hierarchy are portrayed in a photograph of the Senor Factory employees.


Source: Senor Family Archive and Digital Photo Archives,  Archivo y Museo de San Vicente, Provincia de Santa Fe


The ranks of manuals workers, designers and owners are present, and it matters where one stands (or sits) in this photo. For instance, the owner (and the oldest members) sits in front (on the right side), next to the musicians. His designers stand behind him. The designers distinguish themselves through their dress (suit, tie and hat), posture and location – either near Mr Senor or front and centre of the photo. The manual workers are standing too but are located at the sides and are dressed in overalls or drinking mate to denote their class and job status. (Adolescents stand on top of the machine in a playful way.) At the very top of the factory, looking out the window, is the owner’s son, Vicente Senor (as a young man), who will eventually become the owner-manager of the Senor Factory.

The goal in this essay has been to discuss the simultaneous egalitarian and hierarchal relationships between those who repair/build and design combine harvesters in a harvester factory. Owners and employees perceive the designers as “higher” in the production chain because they create designs whereas the long-term function of repair and maintenance is indeed perceived as essential but at the same time valued less than the work of the designers.

[1] Interviews by Damian Bil, 2008-2009 with Jose Luis Prospero (San Vicente). Interviews by Yovanna Pineda with Edgardo Botta and Daniel Mujica (July 2016, Santo Tome, Santa Fe); interview by Yovanna Pineda with Juan Bergero (San Vicente, Santa Fe, July 2016).

[2] The University of Central Florida Institutional Review Board reviewed the interview questions and procedures of this research (Exempt number, IRB ID: SBE-16-12483).

[3] I thank historians Damian Bil and Juan Luis Martiren for their assistance in tracking locations and people, and the videographer Luciano Prospero for walking me through his town, San Vicente, and introducing me to Senor family members.

[4] David Pretel, Helge Wendt and Ian Inkster, editors (2020). History of Technology in Latin America (New York: Bloomsbury Academic).

[5] Yair Mundlak and Marcelo Regúnaga, “Agriculture,” pp. 233-260. In Gerardo Della Paolera and Alan M. Taylor, eds (2003), A New Economic History of Argentina (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

[6] According to the town’s official history.

[7] José María Barrale (2007), Reinas mecánicas Córdoba: Advocatus.

[8] Edgardo Botta, Interview by Yovanna Pineda, Santo Tome, 2016.

[9] On lifeworld and workers’ space, see José Itzigsohn and Julián Recon (2015), “The Recuperation of Enterprises: Defending Workers’ Lifeworld, Creating New Tools of Contention,” Latin American Research Review 50, no. 4, 178–196.

[10] Anis S. Bawarshi (2003), “Ch. 4. Constructing Desire: Genre and the Invention of Writing Subjects,” pp. 78-111. Genre and the Invention of the Writer: Reconsidering the Place of Invention in Composition (University of Press of Colorado).

[11] Interview with Edgardo Botta by Yovanna Pineda, July 2016, Santo Tome, Santa Fe.