Ellen Wiley Tod
A Shoemaker's Story: Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees, and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Townby Anthony W. Lee
On a June morning in 1870, seventy-five Chinese immigrants stepped off a train in the New England factory town of North Adams, Massachusetts, imported as strikebreakers by the local shoe manufacturer. They threaded their way through a hostile mob and then--remarkably--their new employer lined them up along the south wall of his factory and had them photographed as… See more details below
On a June morning in 1870, seventy-five Chinese immigrants stepped off a train in the New England factory town of North Adams, Massachusetts, imported as strikebreakers by the local shoe manufacturer. They threaded their way through a hostile mob and then--remarkably--their new employer lined them up along the south wall of his factory and had them photographed as the mob fell silent. So begins A Shoemaker's Story. Anthony Lee seeks to understand the social forces that brought this now-famous photograph into being, and the events and images it subsequently spawned. He traces the rise of photography as a profession and the hopes and experiences of immigrants trying to find their place in the years following the Civil War. He describes the industrialization of the once-traditional craft of shoemaking, and the often violent debates about race, labor, class, and citizenship that industrialization caused.
Generously illustrated with many extraordinary photographs, A Shoemaker's Story brings 1870s America to vivid life. Lee's spellbinding narrative interweaves the perspectives of people from very different walks of life--the wealthy factory owner who dared to bring the strikebreakers to New England, the Chinese workers, the local shoemakers' union that did not want them there, the photographers themselves, and the ordinary men and women who viewed and interpreted their images. Combining painstaking research with world-class storytelling, Lee illuminates an important episode in the social history of the United States, and reveals the extent to which photographs can be sites of intense historical struggle.
Ellen Wiley Tod
Elspeth H. Brown
"Generously illustrated with many extraordinary photographs, A Shoemaker's Story brings 1870s America to vivid life. Combining painstaking research with world-class storytelling, Lee illuminates an important episode in the social history of the United States, and reveals the extent to which photographs can be sites of intense historical struggle."--Spartacus Educational
"Although some historians might be put off by Lee's narrative style, it is a useful and informative method to access the complexity of American industrialization and especially to bring the voices of those who are often silent in the past to the forefront. Furthermore, for historians who are looking for model scholarship that uses photographs as more than illustrations, this book is a welcome and much-needed resource."--Krystyn R. Moon, American Historical Review
"The rewards are everywhere present in Lee's research--and the pleasure of his writing. As a historian, Lee combines the local detail with the large issues, all the while turning elegant phrases and marshalling his account into a page-turning story that asserts, after all, 'what the author saw.'"--Ellen Wiley Tod, College Art Association
"Innovative and ambitious, A Shoemaker's Story is a lucid and detailed account that is sophisticated in its methodology. Given the wide-ranging subject matter, Lee has produced a remarkably disciplined text, presenting the reader with a distinctive narrative tone that is mature, confident, and occasionally playful."--James Opp, Labour-Le Travail
"Lee's lively and accessible account of their story is a must read for students and scholars of immigration and labor history."--Evelyn Sterne, Journal of American Ethnic History
"A Shoemaker's Story will justifiably find a place in the historiography of photography, immigration, the visual culture of diaspora, and nineteenth-century industrialization. It is a model of research design, engaging narrative prose, and close attention to the specificity of form. . . . Telling a new story in old-fashioned ways, [Lee] has crafted an exquisite piece of scholarship whose very title suggests the traditional detective work essential to both good history and compelling prose."--Elspeth H. Brown, CAA Reviews
"A Shoemaker's Story gives us a history of these events, offering an instructive and vividly written case study into the development of industry and unions, the deskilling of labor, the growth of immigration, and the transformation of identities that characterized post Civil War America."--Mike Rabourn, Historical Journal of Massachusetts
Krystyn R. Moon
- Princeton University Press
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Read an ExcerptA Shoemaker's Story Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees, and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Town
By Anthony W. Lee Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Introduction How fitting it was that hail came thundering down that June. Instead of the soft, early summer breeze that normally flows over the Taconic and Hoosac ranges, caressing the slopes of Mount Greylock, big ice balls flew this way and that, thudding seemingly everywhere. Some were so unusually large-measuring a foot in circumference-that the landscape throughout the Berkshires and the Pioneer Valley seemed invaded by a foreign matter. The Knowlton brothers, two photographers from nearby Northampton, rode up and down the hills looking for especially large and photogenic stones, the enormous white balls easy to spot on the dark green fields. The brothers had to work with speed. Almost as suddenly as it came on, the storm passed, the sky cleared, the stones began melting, and the day returned to a typically warm June morning. But all the same, a ferocious summer hailstorm was a phenomenon never before seen in town. For some townsfolk it must have seemed a fitting conclusion to a week of anomalies.
* * *
On the morning of June 13, 1870, an enormous crowd began assembling at the local train station. Reports tell us that men and women were elbow-to-elbow,lined the railroad tracks, and overflowed onto the streets outside the station. The people massed northward from the station for a quarter mile, on either side of Marshall Street, one of the main north-south thoroughfares of town. Thousands had turned out. Given that the census for that year counted about twelve thousand residents in and around town, at least a fifth of the locals, possibly a quarter, had gathered. Many were angry and primed for confrontation. All the region's papers put reporters on site; even the Boston papers, normally uninterested in the western half of the state, sent men to cover the events. A local shoe manufacturer, Calvin T. Sampson, was importing seventy-five strikebreakers to fill the workstations left empty by the local shoemakers' union, the Order of the Knights of St. Crispin. Although able-bodied men were available throughout New England, including many who were not formally associated with the Crispins and possessed considerable skills at shoemaking, strikebreakers were being brought on a two-week train journey from San Francisco and scheduled to arrive that day. What's more, they were Chinese.
Sampson later described being notified by the Crispins that "if the Chinamen stepped their feet into North Adams they would be shot, and that if I showed my head I should meet the same fate." Some in the crowd had brought rifles, others stones and clubs. A few were drunk, "spirited with whiskey" in anticipation of a brawl. Sampson prepared by meeting the train ahead of time at Eagle Bridge north of Troy, just the other side of the state line, and personally riding with the Chinese on the last brief leg. He armed himself with six pistols, summoned the state police, and arranged to have seven of his own men deputized and armed. He planned a quick march, military style, from the station to his factory but also knew how much resistance he might face, given that the entire route was clogged with ornery townspeople and the road nearly impassable. As the doors to the emigrant cars opened and the Chinese emerged, the hoots and hollers began. Pugnacious, arrogant, and in no mood for delay, Sampson "thrust open his coat, shoved his hand threateningly toward the pistol inside, clapped his free hand on the shoulder of the nearest man, and looking him squarely in the eye, growled, 'Make way there. Stand aside!'" Two former workers at the shoemaker's factory threw stones and were quickly handcuffed and led away. But that only diminished the number of guards to make the dash to the factory. Blood was about to be spilled.
But then events took a most remarkable turn. As the Chinese men, two by two, shoulder to shoulder, set foot on the planks, a general paralysis seemed to descend on the enormous crowd. Perhaps it was brought on by Sampson's bravado, perhaps by the appearance of armed guards. But more likely, it was the result of a simple curiosity that took hold of those assembled. The men and women gawked as the young men spilled out of the train. Most in the crowd had probably never seen a Chinese man before. "I was disappointed in their appearance," a reporter for the Berkshire County Eagle wrote, "for as they marched along they looked neat, smart and intelligent. Most of them are young, and had a merry twinkle with their eyes." It must have come as some surprise that, in contrast to the image of degraded, dull-witted, heathen coolies, to which the caricaturists gave shape and against which the labor unions so fulminated, these Chinese in the flesh seemed so compellingly strange, so tidy, alert, and lively. The townspeople were rapt in their attention. A local preacher-turned-social activist, Washington Gladden, declared that "the curiosity of the crowd was so acute that its brutality was held in check. These pig-tailed, calico-frocked, wooden-shod invaders made a spectacle which nobody wanted to miss even long enough to stoop for a brickbat." With pistol in hand, Sampson was dumbstruck. "There was every chance for the execution of threats," he recalled with wonder at his good fortune (and perhaps with a bit of lament that he did not have a chance to shoot someone).
The crowd parted like the proverbial Red Sea, and the Chinese, with Sampson and his top assistant, George Chase, at their lead, made their way to the factory. If anyone cared to recall the images that had appeared in the national magazines in the previous months, they might have been struck by the irony of the situation. As the last spike was being driven at Promontory Point, Utah, just a year earlier, connecting the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, and at last providing a transcontinental rail route, the illustrators began portending the huge influx of Chinese heading east (fig. I.1). They were most often pictured as a long line of men, single file or, as in North Adams, two by two, snaking through river and valley, unperturbed by obstacles, even miraculously walking across water where bridges had not yet been built. In their relentless length, they were like the winding new rail system itself. Where the Chinese had previously been arranged primarily in California, the new cross-country connection meant they would spread quickly across the land. Or take a cartoon by Thomas Nast, where the Chinese assume the shape of a comet dashing across the sky (fig. I.2). Although picketers have come ready to agitate, the crowd can do nothing but point and look. The ladies bring their toddlers out in strollers, men in top hats are out for an evening's air, ready to witness the astral phenomenon. Cheap labor, like comets or hailstones, flies past, with hardly a demonstration by the crowd. And so it was in North Adams, Massachusetts.
With the men safely in the factory and the crowd stunned and slowly dispersing, events took yet another remarkable, unpredictable turn. Before the men had a chance to change out of those frocks and shoes or settle into their new environs, Sampson ordered them back outside, spread them across the south wall of his factory, and ordered a picture of them (see frontispiece). In the days before the portable Kodak, taking such a photograph was no spontaneous act. A photographer had been called well ahead of time. He had lugged his big glass plate camera and heavy tripod to the south lawn, set up his viewfinder, and found just the right distance to position his lens so as to accommodate the lateral spread of so many men. He most likely brought his portable darkroom, the chemicals, trays, and plates piled into a covered wagon, and the whole thing hitched to a horse or mule. In addition, he brought a stereo camera-two plate cameras positioned on a single mount-anticipating that the scene would be useful as a stereoview and, in that format, find its way onto the growing lists of local views and be distributed widely. Among other things, the photograph of the Chinese was going to be a commercial venture, and it required proper orchestration.
Anticipating an angry, violent crowd, arming himself and his men like a military convoy, and almost ludicrously preparing for a bloody fight with, literally, thousands, the pugnacious shoe manufacturer had thought to arrange for a photograph. Was he mad? What could he possibly have had in mind?
* * *
A closer look (fig. I.3) might give us some insight into what the local North Adams crowd found so riveting. The men are young and clean-shaven, slim and decently fed. In contrast to the unemployed Crispins, many of whom were men with families, the Chinese look like teenagers. In fact, most were. Of the seventy-five, sixty-eight of them were under twenty years old. The youngest was fourteen, most fell between sixteen and eighteen. Their foreman, known as Charlie Sing, was all of twenty-two. They were disarmingly more like boys than men. "Neat, smart, and intelligent," as the Berkshire County Eagle reporter described them, seems plausible. "Calico-frocked" and "wood-shod," as Gladden remembered the Chinese, does not. His characterizations were more like the clichés found in guidebooks and travel accounts in China, where such fashions were generally gleaned from the highly ornate decorative dress of upper-class Mandarins. As the photograph declares, these Chinese are decidedly peasants. Most wear simple cotton jackets with big baggy sleeves and scooped necklines; lightweight, loose-fitting cotton trousers; and soft slippers with soft, white soles. They are outfitted in typical traveling clothes. Some of them have taken to wearing the flat-brimmed hat, once common among nineteenth-century peasant Chinese travelers in America. Others have kept the skullcap more characteristic of traditional costume. Without exception, the men sport the cropped hair and long queues characteristic of Chinese living under Qing rule. The grooming that was required to maintain the crop and queue was a weekly chore, which all Chinese men, young and old, knew well; it is clear they have kept up the habit during the two-week journey. Among other things, the photograph is evidence that these men adhere to the strict social code. One is tempted to say that two of the men in figure I.3, in the back row towards the right and left of center, have deliberately taken off their hats to reveal their appropriately coifed heads, offering visible evidence of their humility and their observance of decorum. The "merry twinkle" in their eyes discerned by the local journalist does not seem in evidence in the photograph. Instead, although one man, nearly at dead center and in the back row, breaks into a smile and another, at bottom left, begins to grin, the Chinese are mostly poker-faced and appear before the lens with neither anger nor malevolence but, seemingly, seriousness and solemnity. "These are the strikebreakers?" we can imagine the North Adams citizenry asking in puzzlement.
On the one hand, the men's seriousness-their tight-lipped, unyielding expressions-is typical of the conventions of early photographic portraiture. Depending on available light, the glass plate's exposure time could be long, and men and women seated before the camera learned to keep still for uncomfortable stretches if they wanted crisp images of themselves. On the other hand, the men had been boxed for two weeks in railcars, sleeping on wooden benches and eating rice and crackers day and night, the kind of journey to make men ornery. Emigrant cars were decidedly the poor man's option, as passengers shared space with bags of mail and smelly farm animals. Sampson later told state officials that at the stops along the way the men were mostly kept in the cars, only a few minutes to stretch here and there and, occasionally, a quick dash to the stations to buy bologna sausages. In North Adams, they had just been met with something less than a warm greeting. Tired, confused, not speaking English, perhaps a bit defensive, the men could not have viewed standing against the hot brick wall, the June sun high overhead, as a welcome respite.
Or did they? Amidst a crowd carrying clubs and rifles, what did they think the photograph was for? How should they comport themselves before the lens? What understanding-of themselves, of the shoe manufacturer whose wall they stood before, of the shoemakers they displaced, of the photographer whose gaze they met-informed their appearance?
* * *
This book is about the large forces, understandings, and personalities that brought the famous photograph of the Chinese into being. In addition, it follows the discussions, events, and images that the photograph put into motion. It is concerned, therefore, with the industrialization of a New England craft at one of its key historical moments; the tumultuous and often violent debates about labor, race, class, and citizenship during the decade and a half after the Civil War, when such debates were on everyone's anxious lips; the rise of photography as a profession and, related to that, the enormous popularity and widespread use of the carte de visite and stereoview; and the ambitions and experiences of immigrants, of all sorts, as they tried to find places for themselves in Reconstruction America. It tells all of those stories by attending to photographs, especially the voracious imagery surrounding the picture taken that June day. Pictures are not incidental to the story but central, not merely illustrative of events but objects of key historical meanings. Telling this history would be impossible without them.
The reasons to attend so carefully to pictures are many. Apart from the fact that images, like texts, are complex carriers of meanings and provide histories and understandings that in the thickness of time would otherwise be lost, in the late 1860s and 1870s these many photographs and other related images formed a remarkable, momentarily discrete, and analyzable visual culture. From the point of view of their makers, sitters, and early viewers, they were not inert objects, tucked into albums or stuffed into drawers and soon forgotten, but instead deserved high attention and careful, sometimes urgent interpretation. The many viewers, however, never seemed to agree on what the pictures meant, especially that central photograph of the Chinese against Sampson's factory wall. The shoe manufacturer saw one thing, the photographers another, the Crispins yet another, and the Chinese still more. Perhaps because of that lack of consensus and perhaps because the many constituencies were not merely passive but astonishingly active observers, they each turned to making even more images to press their points of view. The Crispins, for example, returned Sampson's favor by assembling together and having a photograph made of themselves, too (fig. I.4). They made clear that they had a stake not only in the arrival of the strikebreaking Chinese but also in the representation of that arrival.
All of this arguing in front of the camera ended up creating a large body of photographs that was vital and plentiful but also plural, conflicting, and often incommensurate. Indeed, although all of major actors in our story looked at photographs and resorted to yet more pictures as a way to express themselves and meditate on their experiences, no one ever agreed on much of anything, photographically or otherwise. In the pictures, we can sometimes still feel the heat of their disagreements. In their hands, the photographs were not merely illustrations but sites of historical struggle. That is to say, the social struggles among North Adams's constituencies became a struggle in and of representation.
Excerpted from A Shoemaker's Story by Anthony W. Lee
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Anthony W. Lee is associate professor of art history at Mount Holyoke College. His books include "Picturing Chinatown: Art and Orientalism in San Francisco" and "Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco's Public Murals".
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