Meet Joe Copper: Masculinity and Race on Montana's World War II Home Frontby Matthew L. Basso
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“I realize that I am a soldier of production whose duties are as important in this war as those of the man behind the gun.” So began the pledge that many home front men took at the outset of World War II when they went to work in the factories, fields, and mines while their compatriots fought in the battlefields of Europe and on the bloody beaches of the Pacific. The male experience of working and living in wartime America is rarely examined, but the story of men like these provides a crucial counter-narrative to the national story of Rosie the Riveter and GI Joe that dominates scholarly and popular discussions of World War II.
In Meet Joe Copper, Matthew L. Basso describes the formation of a powerful, white, working-class masculine ideology in the decades prior to the war, and shows how it thrived—on the job, in the community, and through union politics. Basso recalls for us the practices and beliefs of the first- and second-generation immigrant copper workers of Montana while advancing the historical conversation on gender, class, and the formation of a white ethnic racial identity. Meet Joe Copper provides a context for our ideas of postwar masculinity and whiteness and finally returns the men of the home front to our reckoning of the Greatest Generation and the New Deal era.
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Meet Joe Copper
Masculinity and Race on Montana's World War II Home Front
By MATTHEW L. BASSO
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Butte: "Only White Men and Dagoes"
A century ago Butte, Montana, was one of the most remarkable—and remarked on—cities in the nation. The contradictions that defined it meant that disagreements about its character abounded. Mark Twain, who visited the city at the height of its prosperity, thought it surprisingly urbane. Dashiell Hammett, who experienced it during the tumultuous period around World War I, described it as a corrupt, ugly place. To those seeking their fortunes, Butte's astonishing copper deposits made it the "Richest Hill on Earth." To the workers, who organized virtually every sector of the local economy so as to keep some of the vast wealth their labor created, Butte was America's "Gibraltar of Unionism." One of the few assessments that all these parties would have agreed on was that made by Joseph Kinsey Howard, one of Montana's most famous chroniclers, who called Butte "stridently male."
The urbanity that impressed Twain was a result of Butte's having developed much more fully than other western mining towns, the vast majority of which survived for only a few decades. The discovery of gold in the region sparked the initial influx of white men, who in 1864 built the rough camp along the banks of Silver Bow Creek in western Montana that would become Butte. A decade later, the gold that could be found through placer mining was gone, and Butte had almost become a ghost town. In 1875 a silver bonanza reinvigorated the camp, but it was Irish immigrant Marcus Daly's 1882 discovery of a massive quantity of copper that turned Butte into the world's greatest mining city. Copper was the key component in electrical wire; its demand and prices increased dramatically with the country/ s rapid electrification, making fortunes for the men who owned the mines. Less than ten years after Daly and others began to pour capital into and extract wealth from Butte, it had become an industrial city that had as much in common with factory centers such as Pittsburgh as with western mining camps such as Virginia City, Leadville, Cripple Creek, Tombstone, and Deadwood. Called by the artist Joseph Pennell "the most pictorial place in America," Butte's appearance reflected both of these tendencies. Office buildings, grand mansions, small houses for miners' families, and saloons were interspersed among the hoist houses, gallus frames, yellow and gray ore dumps, and other surface components of hard-rock mining that Hammett, and many others, found unappealing (fig. 1.1). The most visible aspects of Butte's social world, prostitution, gambling, and liquor, earned it a reputation as a "wide open town." But not only saloons and brothels operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—so did the city's mines. By the beginning of the twentieth century, they accounted for a third of the nation's copper supply.
For miners and its other residents, Butte was a city of neighborhoods with distinct characteristics and specific, though not exclusive, ethnic affiliations. To the north and northeast of downtown, Centerville, Walkerville, and Meaderville developed among the mines and housed most of Butte's miners. Walkerville was known for its sizable Cornish population, and Meaderville, an Italian enclave, for its nightlife. Below downtown, in the valley at the foot of Butte Hill, lay "the Flats," the neighborhood that most of the city's immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire called home. Composed of Croatians, Serbians, Slovakians, Montenegrins, Herzegovinians, and a few other groups from the Balkan region, these immigrants were often called collectively "Austrians" or, more pejoratively, bohunks. Just before America's entry into World War I, when Butte's population peaked due to demand for munitions and other war material that required copper, approximately 85,000 people lived in the city and its surrounding neighborhoods. But 40,000 was a more typical figure in the years between 1900 and 1940, though miners' habitual transience made an accurate count difficult. Like the housing in other mining camps, Butte's residential areas appeared rough. Yet once the sulfurous smoke that blanketed the city cleared after the smelters that produced it were removed, many homes began to sport tidy gardens and feel more permanent. The rate of home ownership by occupants rose throughout the early twentieth century, reaching 75 percent by the late 1930s.
Visitors marveled at the scope of mining operations. All large-scale hard-rock mines required substantial surface infrastructure. However, what could be seen aboveground paled in comparison with that below. Mine shafts provided access to this underground world, taking men and equipment down and material up. Other shafts provided ventilation. The three main shafts at Butte's Leonard Mine were each equipped with an electric hoist able to move twenty-four thousand tons of material a day. Butte's diggings formed a city under the city, as many of the fifteen-plus mines were connected underground. This subterranean world spread both horizontally and vertically at an average rate of 35 miles per year. While 253 miles of streets crisscrossed Butte proper just prior to World War II, over 2,000 miles of mining corridors and tunnels ran under the surface of Butte Hill.
More than any other entity, the Anaconda Company dominated Butte's aboveground and belowground worlds. Daly founded the Company with George Hearst, James Ben Ali Haggin, and Lloyd Tevis, the three San Francisco-based men whose syndicate would eventually own the richest copper, silver, and gold properties in the United States. Able to mobilize almost unlimited capital, Daly spent nearly $15 million in and around Butte over the following several years. Besides purchasing the Anaconda Mine, where at the three-hundred-foot level he had found evidence of Butte's astonishing copper deposits, and the mines adjacent to it, he also built a state-of-the-art refining and smelting plant in nearby Anaconda and secured timber and coalfields around Montana that would be critical to the vast enterprise he and his partners envisioned. During this time, Daly maintained congenial labor relations with his workers. In 1891 he and his partners took the Company public, a decision that would have a profound effect on Montana's three copper towns. Less than five years later, it reorganized again as the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, with James Ben Ali Haggin and Daly, the two remaining original partners, serving as president and superintendent, respectively. (Although this was its official name until 1955, locals continued to refer to it simply as "the Company." I will refer to it as such or by its common abbreviation, ACM.)
In 1899 a number of monopolists, including Henry Rogers and William Rockefeller, who controlled Standard Oil, succeeded in gaining a majority of ACM stock. In a quest to corner copper production as they had oil production, they also acquired two other corporations with significant holdings in Montana's copper industry: the Boston and Montana Company—which ran the smelter in Black Eagle—and the Butte and Boston Company. Rogers and Rockefeller placed all these under a holding company they called the Amalgamated Copper Company. Daly's death in 1900 solidified the sense that the Anaconda Company "was now 'a foreign corporation'" that no longer followed his approach to employee relations. F. A. Heinze, an owner of mines in Butte who fought against Standard Oil's control of Montana, enunciated the perspective of many locals when he said, "These people are my enemies, fierce, bitter, implacable; but they are your enemies, too. If they crush me today, they will crush you to-morrow. They will cut your wages and raise the tariff in the company stores on every bit you eat, and every rag you wear. They will force you to dwell in Standard Oil houses while you live, and they will bury you in Standard Oil coffins when you die." It took Rogers and Rockefeller another half decade, punctuated by myriad legal battles and mine shutdowns and a $12-million payout, to rid themselves of Heinze and fully assert their control over Montana, but they did so. In 1910 Amalgamated reconsolidated its copper holdings under the banner of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. By 1915 it had severed its ties with Standard Oil and emerged as the most powerful copper corporation in the world, a titan of Wall Street, and an even more formidable foe for Butte's miners, who would battle it with varying degrees of success for decades to come.
In their effort to counter the power of capital, the men who worked underground in Butte organized unions that would become one of the chief components of the city's social, political, and cultural fabric. Hard-rock miners who came to Montana from the Nevada and California diggings formed the first of these organizations, the Butte Workingmen's Union, in 1878. In 1881 it reflagged itself the Miners' Union of Butte City and opened membership to all laborers. When the organization once again reorganized and changed its name to the Butte Miners' Union (BMU) in 1885, it reverted to miners only, but used the strength of its now more than eighteen hundred members to support the formation of unions in other sectors of Butte's economy. Over the next several years, the BMU solidified its reputation as one of the region's most important labor organizations by turning Butte's mines into a closed shop and adding affiliates in other mining communities around Montana. In 1893, with the objective of strengthening organized labor in the mining industry throughout the Mountain West, the BMU took the lead in founding the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), for which it became Local No. 1. The BMU's struggle with Butte's mine owners would not prompt a strike or turn violent for another two decades, but the WFM had to engage in battle well before then. Success in Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1894 spurred growth, and confrontations in Leadville, Colorado, and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, gained the union notoriety and its leaders experience. By 1903 the WFM had two hundred locals in thirteen states, but none trumped the BMU in size or influence.
"A Man's Work"
The BMU's rolls were so large because Butte's mines required a huge labor force. On average, ten thousand men worked underground. An extraordinary range of skills was necessary to operate the city's diggings. In nonferrous mining, as in many other industrial workplaces, the labor process was more differentiated than the term miner suggests. At the turn of the twentieth century, census takers listed more than twenty distinct underground jobs on their forms. Muckers, nippers, mule skinners, engineers, electricians, and others worked in Butte's mines, but most men employed as miners made holes in rock to access mineral veins. Before the 1930s, miners used dry drills; later they used wet drills. Miners packed the holes they had made with explosives and then blasted. Next they shoveled the ore either into chutes that led to collection points or directly onto ore trains that were hoisted to the surface. Miners put up support timbers as they went and created stopes, or open chambers; these averaged twenty feet in width and had multiple floors approximately ten feet apart that were reached by ladders.
Ronald C. Brown, one of the early historians of hard-rock mining, observed that the first question asked of prospective miners was, "Can you do the work?" The physical demands of mining and the place that physicality had in establishing its manliness were central to this occupational world. Teddy Roosevelt's championing of "the Strenuous Life," which he identified with the West because he feared that office work and the East's genteel Victorian culture were emasculating upper- and middle-class white men, and the rise of bodybuilding and organized team sports illustrate the crucial nature of strong, manly physiques as an aspect of turn-of-the-century American masculinity more generally. Yet, more than most places, Butte's "stridently male" character was rooted in the physicality of miners' work and the culture it engendered.
Along with this physicality, the homosocial nature of mining solidified its reputation as archetypal masculine work. Miners worked in an all-male world, performing and defining their masculinity against one another as well as through the exclusion of women as unsuitable or incapable of handling the difficulties presented by mining. Seen as both physical and mental, these difficulties allowed men to draw firm distinctions between them and women, and to create bonds between each other. In the mines, young men learned what it was to be skilled working-class men, and a large part of that definition centered on working, and at times socializing, in all-male groups. As Mary Murphy notes, boys "learned to work, to fight, to organize, to claim the streets as their own, and to seek the company of other males," the very habits that defined adult masculinity.
Miners' claim to exemplary working-class manhood revolved around a second question, which hinted at masculinity's complex operation by going beyond physicality: "Will you do the work?" (fig. 1.2). Hard-rock mining required a particular kind of courage because of the dangerous conditions that came with the job. Despite the lure of a good paycheck, many men would never consider going underground into a dark, claustrophobic space to toil hour after hour, day after day. The mines were hot, wet, acrid, and highly unsanitary. Water not only seeped organically through tunnel ceilings but was artificially introduced to keep down the dust. At the end of their shift, miners emerged wet, dirty, tired, and relieved to have survived another day. After reaching the surface, they would shower, change, and, as one observer put it, often "appea[r] on the street dressed like the average business man." This sartorial fashion was a way of asserting equality with the city's middle class and reminding other workers of miners' professionalism and status.
Many miners were fatalistic about the risks their jobs entailed. Statistics of deaths and injuries from hard-rock mining were horrific, and Butte's mines were "arguably the most dangerous in the world." Between 1910 and 1913, for example, 162 men employed by the ACM died and 5,233 were injured in Butte's mines. In order to cope with the dangers they faced, miners used gallows humor in referring to the astonishing number of ways they could be injured or killed. For instance, they called a piece of hanging rock that threatened to fall a "Larry Duggan" after the city/ s best-known undertaker. Yet miners knew that the most common way their work damaged their bodies was less visible: silicosis, better known as miners' consumption, took a devastating toll, as breathing in the rock dust that permeated the tunnels scarred the lungs. A 1916 investigation found that 42 percent of miners examined suffered from this condition and faced an almost inevitable early death. Improved safety measures and the shuttering of mines during the Great Depression led to a decline in the rate of deaths, accidents, and disease, but Butte's mines remained highly dangerous places. Mining endangered workers' families as well. Wives and children suffered when their husbands and fathers were killed or disabled, and diseases that proliferated in the mines, such as typhoid, were contagious on the surface too. At the end of the 1930s, a startling fact about Butte remained true: there were more dead bodies in Butte's cemetery than live ones in the city itself.
Still, men went underground because the benefits seemed to outweigh the costs, especially for immigrants and the native-born sons of unskilled workers. The relatively high wages paid in Butte were their principal motivation. In 1878, following a strike to protest a wage cut for men working in unskilled positions, Butte's first miners' union negotiated a contract that established a base rate of $3.50 a day for all men who went underground. Skilled miners, operating on the contract system, which saw a man's wages increase in relation to the amount of ore he produced, could make considerably more. By way of comparison, between 1890 and 1899 the Bureau of Labor reported the average daily wage (for a ten-hour day) earned by men in various occupations: stone mason, $3.60; plumber, $3.55; hog gutter, $3.15; Linotype operator, $3.00; boot maker, $2.90; boilermaker, $2.60; cigar maker, $2.60; building trades laborer, $1.46; street and sewer contract laborer, $1.46; railroad laborer, $1.14; textile weaver, $1.11; tobacco mixer, $1.11.
Miners' elevated masculine status was based on their having the courage to do work most men refused, as well as the toughness, skill, and mental acuity necessary to survive the mines. So important was the idea of miners' exceptional manliness that it became an essential part of how people thought about the city itself. Copper Camp, the popular account of Butte's past published in 1943, described Butte's first miners as "rough, tough, and as hard as the metal they mined, but many of them were the 'salt of the earth.' They worked like slaves, and they played like kings; they asked no quarter, and no quarter did they give; they took their whiskey straight, and they took it often." The poet Berton Braley, who lived in Butte at the beginning of the century, emphasized the miners' masculinity as well as their diverse origins: "It is easy to gird the 'wide open spaces where men are men' but when Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, Finland, Italy and Serbia, to say nothing of New England, Texas, California, and the Middle West, seemed to have bred their strongest males for the job of mining copper in Butte, the men-ness of men in this rugged town of wide open spaces is just one of the many facts of life that the intelligentsia don't know."
Excerpted from Meet Joe Copper by MATTHEW L. BASSO. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Matthew L. Basso is assistant professor of history and gender studies at the University of Utah. He is editor of Men at Work: Rediscovering Depression-Era Stories from the Federal Writers' Project and coeditor of Across the Great Divide: Cultures of Manhood in the American West.
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