Rum and Axes: The Rise of a Connecticut Merchant Family

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Overview

Janet Siskind goes back to the beginnings of industrial capitalism in the United States to better understand the formation of the country's capitalist culture. She studies the papers and letters of three generations of the Watkinson family. The stories of their lives demonstrate how merchants amassed the capital to become industrial entrepreneurs, organized factories and private corporations, and constructed philanthropic and cultural institutions. The author traces how "upper-class work," the everyday tasks of organizing and maintaining trade or a system of production, shaped the family's experience and New England's culture. The result is an intimate story of social class and capitalism.The reader comes to know several members of this enterprising family, who emigrated from England in 1795. The young women married merchants; their brothers prospered as merchants in Connecticut's West Indian trade. The author shows how their account books, which balanced the imports of rum with the exports of horses, obscured the system of slavery that created their wealth.After the War of 1812, the Watkinsons and their nephews the Collinses turned from trade to manufacturing textiles and axes. Their letters paint a vivid picture of the difficult process of shaping farmers' sons into a disciplined workforce and entrepreneurs into industrial and financial capitalists. Siskind skillfully blends social history and cultural anthropology to provide context for the engaging narrative of the Watkinsons' lives.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In Rum and Axes, Siskind combines the examination of a relatively small body of data with ambitious conceptualization and purpose. In the family archive of the Watkinson-Collins family—a claim of rich Dissenters who migrated from East Anglia to Connecticut in 1795—Siskind discovers the seed of our current social and economic malaise. . . . . The Watkinson's helped start two historical archives in Hartford and gave them their own large collection of papers, including account books. . . . This business-oriented material forms a dramatic story in Siskind's hands."—Barry Levy, University of Massachusetts. EH.NET, July 2002

"Throughout, Siskind makes her points by carefully detailed demonstration and not simply by assertion. She provides a sophisticated critique of the rich documentary materials she uses and is quick to identify their potential biases and silences. . . . Rum and Axes is a valuable case study that makes a worthy contribution to the literature on postcolonial New England during the transition to industrial capitalism."—Julie H. Ernstein, University of Maryland, College Park. Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 3:2, 2002

"Perhaps the most provocative implication of this cogent book is how important the cultural work of denial was to New England's early merchants and manufacturers. . . . Siskind posits that . . . networks of trade obscured the brutalities of commercial life. She argues, too, that industrialists insulated themselves from their factories by creating houses and churches at a distance from their sites of production."—Mark S. Schantz, Hendrix College. Journal of American History, December 2002

"In Rum and Axes, Janet Siskind, an ethnographer, examines the grand sweep of economic transformation and the intersections of family, class, and community in the early republic. . . . A welcome addition to the literature on class development and the market revolution. . . . An engaging and insightful book that opens a window onto a time of tumultuous change."—Sarah Swedberg, Mesa State College, New England Quarterly

"Janet Siskind's Rum and Axes is an engaging and well-written exploration of an elite family in Hartford, Connecticut, from the period following the American Revolution until the 1850s. . . . Overall, this is a solid case study that provides readers with the stories of specific people who negotiated the changes in economic life associated with the market revolution."—Johann N. Neem, University of Virginia. Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 100, no. 2.

"Sheds light on the process by which New England's merchants amassed capital to become industrial entrepreneurs; organized factories and private corporations; and, as members of the regionally emergent upper class, helped construct philanthropic and cultural institutions."—Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 40, no. 3.

"In her own version of a double helix, Janet Siskind twines the histories of economic change and family life around each other. Through her close observation of the Watkinsons and their business ventures, we learn how an important segment of the United States passed from mercantile to industrial capitalism. Instead of invoking abstract markets, Siskind shows us concrete social relations at work."—Charles Tilly, Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science, ColumbiaUniversity

"At the core of Janet Siskind's perceptively detailed depiction of early nineteenth century industrialization in Connecticut are two processes: the formation of class and the transformation of communities. Among the history-shaping products of these processes were rule and unruliness - including the unruliness of increasingly mannered elites. This good and important book makes a substantial contribution to understanding the birth of corporate culture."—Gerald Sider, Professor of Anthropology, the Graduate Center, City University of New York

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801489204
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2004
  • Series: The Anthropology of Contemporary Issues Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.92 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 0.52 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 The Voyage 10
2 Capital, Kin, and Connections 28
3 Balancing the Books 47
4 Continuity and Change 69
5 The Collins Company 89
6 Breaking Community, Building Class 108
7 For Their Own Good 125
Conclusion: Distancing Production 145
Abbreviations 155
Notes 157
References 179
Index 189
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