Where We Worked: A Celebration of America's Workers and the Nation They Builtby Jack Larkin
A celebration of America's workers and the nation they built. Narratives tell the stories, over time, of wheat growers and sharecroppers, mill girls and housemaids, gold miners and railway porters, farmwives and cowboys, newsboys and stenographers.See more details below
A celebration of America's workers and the nation they built. Narratives tell the stories, over time, of wheat growers and sharecroppers, mill girls and housemaids, gold miners and railway porters, farmwives and cowboys, newsboys and stenographers.
- Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
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- 9.00(w) x 10.60(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 3 Wrestling with Nature: “In all the more Northern sections of the United States,” wrote the experienced timber merchant Charles Flint in his essay on “The Lumber Business” in the centennial volume of 1876, One Hundred Years Progress of the United States, logging was work that had to be done during the heart of winter. And across the nation, from Maine to on into the West, “the logging camp is very much the same,” he noted. An account “of the winter operations of one, will apply, with slight modifications, to them all.”But one detail that varied from place to place was the matter of names. The most common American name for a logger was “lumberjack,” – simply derived from adding “lumber” to “jack,” meaning male worker; so most of the men who worked in the forests in Maine, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and on the Pacific Coast called themselves. But the loggers who worked in the pine woods of Michigan called themselves “shanty boys” or “shantymen,” because of the rude accommodations they had for eating and sleeping. Journalist Arthur Hill, writing for Harper’s Monthly, spent a winter in an isolated Michigan logging camp in 1892 and shared in the loggers’ everyday lives, following them as they felled trees and skidded logs in the deep pine woods and writing down their stories. .The men Hill encountered were a varied lot. Some were farm laborers who just wanted work in the winter, a time when farmers had little for them to do. During the warmer months they worked in the fields and tended sawmills; they did not see winter work in the woods work as their primary and enduring occupational identity. Hill noted that they were men who “who go to the woods late” because they were finishing up the harvest, and “come out early” so that they could be ready for spring plowing. A number of them had families “for whom they faithfully toil and save,” or were “steady, thrifty young men” who were scrimping and saving for farms of their own.But the loggers Hill found most interesting were not steady and thrifty. “The genuine shantyman” was a different article, a man who completely identified himself as a logger and every winter would “go into the woods early and come out late.” Shanty boys didn’t work much in the summer. They lived off their earnings from winter logging, spending much of it on liquor and prostitutes; if they ran out of cash, they did a few odd jobs, but preferred to loaf and drink. But once in the woods, they had greater skill and daring than the steadier men. They were a strong and skillful bunch, reckless risk-takers who could be relied on “for the work which more prudent men will not do.” Hill described how a logging foreman would put his crew together at the beginning of the logging season in early winter. First, he secured a number of steady seasonal workers off the farm; they were easy to hire and not hard to find. Then, to get the necessary skills, he had to recruit at least half of his men from among the true “shanty boys.” He would walk the streets, visiting the “boarding houses, small hotels and saloons” where they stayed in the off-season. He paid for drinks and passed the word around that he needed experienced loggers. When he found a likely looking shanty boy, he offered him a job. .If the foreman hired sixty men, Hill wrote, he would usually find only 30 or so at the office on the morning of the day of setting out for camp. The rest were “still in the saloons,” unwilling to leave until their “money is gone, and credit, too.” The foreman would return to find them and cajole them into reporting for work, perhaps promising to pay off a bar bill or two. Hill pictured some of these men showing up hung over and penniless, “trembling, broken and bankrupt,” but finally ready to spend another season in the woods.Logging did not start until a stand of timber was surveyed or “estimated” as to what it would yield, and then bought by a lumber company or contracted out by its owner. Then the loggers went into the woods, faced with a great labor of preparation before they could fell a single tree. First, supply roads had to be cut through the woods to connect the camp with “civilization,” along with logging paths so that lumber could be stored and moved to the water-side “banking grounds.” Using axes, picks, and shovels, the men had to completely clear the roads of stumps and sink them below ground level so that the logging sleighs – massive sleds pulled by teams of horses or oxen – could run. Then jams and other obstructions had to be cleared out of the stream or lake on which the logs would float to the sawmill in the spring. Just as the weather began to go below freezing, noted Hill, the shanty boys sprinkled the logging roads with great cans of water “making a solid bed of ice, over which enormous loads can be hauled.” From Chapter 4: Power and ProductionIn 1864, the visiting Englishman Thomas Nichols observed that America had become the pre-eminent land of the machine, and he celebrated the achievement. Nichols visited hundreds of different factories, “full of machinery in rapid motion,” powered by water and steam. He watched thousands of intricately moving machines make cloth, wire, pins, clocks, watches, buttons, nails, rivets, boot lasts, shingles, house doors, mirror frames. The English had invented the railway and the locomotive, he noted, but it was Americans who had already built thirty thousand miles of track and were using the railroad to conquer the continent. All of this stemmed, he was sure, from an ingrained American preference for “every kind of labour-saving machinery,” a two-hundred year-old tradition of mechanical ingenuity. “Would any one but an American have ever invented a milking machine?” he asked. “Or a machine to beat eggs? or machines to black boots, scour knives, pare apples, and do a hundred things that all other peoples have done with their ten fingers from time immemorial?” Americans did believe in the millennium, he concluded; for them it was a vision of a future “time when machines will do everything.”In his exuberant celebration of American power and production, Nichols was thinking only about abundant output and impressive technology. The workers were somehow secondary, required only “to watch the machines and supply them with material.” Eventually, American might make work disappear completely.Fifty years after Nichols’s visit, another Englishman, Stephen Graham, took a much darker view of American machinery and American work. Nichols had celebrated the power of America’s machines; Graham found it frightening. He was struck by the expanding practice of time and motion study in American industries like steel manufacturing, which used photography and film to break down every task into its component parts, and then retrain workers for maximum efficiency. “Each man,” he lamented, “is drilled to act like a machine, and the drilling enters into the fibre of his being.” In factories, Graham claimed that human beings had simply become the living links between “immense complicated engines,” so that “flesh and blood is grafted into steel and oil.” American companies took “the last ounce of energy out of their employees,” and as for those who could no longer produce, “they are the old iron, and their place is the scrap-heap.” Both observers were right, in part. The achievements of American technology and industrial organization that Nichols wrote about were very real. They led to vastly increased productivity and a sustained, long-term rise in the overall standard of living. But as Graham saw, the human costs of industrialization were high. Risks and rewards were distributed very unequally, and workers’ health and safety was rarely considered. Managers and workers struggled for control in the workplace, and the managers usually won. Workers had little protection against mass unemployment during economic downturns. Many of the new mechanized workplaces were brutal environments. At the same time, industrial workers built lives for themselves and their families. Sometimes they failed, or achieved only intermittent, precarious security. Sometimes they found opportunity for improvement, or were able to pass it on to their children.As the nation moved from an economy based on agriculture and crafts to one of large-scale mechanized production, tens of millions of Americans learned the ways of machinery. They built railroads, tended looms in textile factories, labored on the meat packing lines, handled red-hot ingots in steel mills, assembled automobiles, stood at lathes creating intricate metal shapes, or drove electric-powered streetcars along their routes. The American quest for power and production is made up of their stories.
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