Photo Essay: The Amache Silk Screen Shop

The Amache concentration camp in southeastern Colorado was, in many ways, similar to other War Relocation Authority camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II: rural and rugged, hastily constructed against the wishes of the surrounding community, prone to dust storms and harsh weather. But one thing that was unique to Amache was its successful silk screen shop, run almost entirely by Japanese American incarcerees.

Amache (also called Granada, after the small town about a mile outside the camp) held a peak population of just over 7,300 Japanese Americans, mostly from different parts of California — though because of transfers from other camps, more than 10,000 people passed through in total. It was the smallest of the WRA concentration camps and the tenth largest city in Colorado at the time. 

As in all the camps, Japanese Americans were encouraged (or, depending on your perspective, coerced) by WRA administrators to become productive workers patriotically supporting the camp operations and the larger war effort that had put them there. The Amache Silk Screen Shop — along with similar endeavors like the guayule project in Manzanar and several camouflage net factories — was initially created with this in mind. In the spring of 1943, as the war ramped up and created a labor shortage on the home front, a Red Cross nurse named Maida Campbell visited Amache to explore the possibility of running a printing operation there. Under her supervision, and at the request of the U.S. Navy, the shop officially began operations on May 31, 1943 with twenty-five employees, all Amache incarcerees. 

Because the silk screen shop occupied a shared public space in a block recreation hall, production would sometimes be interrupted by haircuts, doctor’s appointments, and other meetings and amenities. But the biggest challenge was the constant, pervasive dust. The poorly constructed barracks offered little protection from the elements — for workers or wet posters — so the shop was often shut down by frequent sandstorms.  

Within a few months of opening, the shop was producing tens of thousands of color posters for the U.S. Navy to aid with recruitment and training. But it wasn’t all propaganda. The Japanese Americans who worked in the silk screen shop also produced cards, magazines, calendars, commencement programs, high school dance bids, and other colorful materials for their fellow incarcerees. 

Over its two-year run, the Amache Silk Screen Shop produced over 250,000 navy posters and countless prints, pamphlets, and other ephemera for the Japanese Americans confined in the camp. Many of these objects are still around today, saved by Amache survivors and their descendents as “positive mementos that reflect their ability to create a thriving, successful community despite the hardships and injustice of incarceration,” notes Dana Ogo Shew in her Densho Encyclopedia article on the silk screen shop. And thanks to the efforts of digital archivists — including our own hardworking collections team! — you can view some of these prints, and the people who made them, online.

Amache water tower and barracks scene, printed by the Amache Silk Screen Shop. Image courtesy of the Amache Preservation Society.
Silk screen shop workers running the squeegee. Photo courtesy of the Amache Preservation Society.
A silk screen shop employee at work. Photo courtesy of the George Ochikubo Collection.
The interior of the Amache Silk Screen Shop. Photo courtesy of the George Ochikubo Collection.
Amache guide book cover, printed by the Amache Silk Screen Shop. Image courtesy of the Amache Preservation Society.
The cover of a “souvenir book” produced by the Amache Silk Screen Shop. Image courtesy of The National Japanese American Historical Society, Inc.
Poster promoting fire safety. Poster reads "Prevent fires for the mutual life." Main image shows firefighters putting out a fire in the barracks from the street. Five roundels show examples of high hazard fire scenarios and each has an arrow pointing toward the central image. The top left shows a steam iron left unattended pressed on a piece of clothing. The top right roundel shows a water heater boiling with clothes hanging dangerously close to it. The bottom right image shows a hot nail that appears to have fallen from a light fixture burning the rope holding the light fixture in place. The central bottom roundel depicts a cigarette left unattended atop a box of matches. The bottom right roundel depicts ambers of a fire unattended as they smolder. The poster has a yellow background, uses an all upper cases black font for its text and uses shades of blue, red, yellow, black and off-white in its images.
A fire safety poster printed by the Amache Silk Screen Shop. Image courtesy of The National Japanese American Historical Society, Inc.
A handbook for parents of Amache Elementary School students, designed and printed in the silk screen shop, c. 1943-1944. Image courtesy of the Auraria Library Digital Collections.
Leaflet from a camp exhibition of prints made in the Amache Silk Screen Shop, c. 1944-1945. Image courtesy of The National Japanese American Historical Society, Inc.
A map of the United States, printed by the Amache Silk Screen Shop. Image courtesy of the Amache Preservation Society.
Two workers operating a paint mixer. Photo courtesy of the George Ochikubo Collection.
The staff of the Amache Silk Screen Shop. Photo courtesy of the George Ochikubo Collection.

[Header photo: Japanese American workers in the Amache Silk Screen Shop, c. 1943-1945. Courtesy of the George Ochikubo Collection.]

Single Comment
    • 18/08/2020 at 20:03

    Nice work. Someday, a traveling print show?

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