Posted in 18th century America, 19th century America, immigrants, marginalization, military, religion

Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831

Coller, Ian. Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

In Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831, Ian Coller, whose historical research focuses on Europe and the Muslim world since the eighteenth century, offers a “historical triage” of European history with what he calls “an intentional act of seeing” (Coller 2). He does not focus on well-documented populations, such as Algerians and Moroccans; instead, Coller’s research concentrates on several hundred Arabs and their families who accompanied Napoleon’s soldiers to France in the early 1800s (Coller 42). By excavating neglected archives and reimagining a “lost” community through the “fragments, gaps, and silences” between historical documents, Coller unveils a community that was nearly erased from the historical record (Coller 5). Coller offers a new narrative of France that reveals how integral Arab France was to the birth of modern Europe.

Coller’s sources include secondary resources, such as books and journal articles, and a wealth of archival material that includes personal letters, petitions, poetry, and art. A number of engravings and prints are reproduced within the book, which he uses to support his assertions that Arab France was a common sight within France and that “cultural and racial conceptions of the Arab would be reconfigured, with disastrous consequences for Arab France” during the final years of the Restoration (Coller 163).

Coller’s project echoes Water Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” where in Thesis VI, Benjamin writes, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Coller attempts to translate the untranslatable in order to bring meaning to overlooked and/or misunderstood customs and gestures (Coller 73). But his argument was weakened by presenting too much evidence. For example, in the chapter “Cosmopolitanism and Confusion,” Coller discloses the works of Arab intellectuals in Paris, which he describes as “numerous, varied, and rich–a whole series of published books and pamphlets, in addition to unpublished sources in Arabic and French” (Coller 159). However, this treasure trove of resources contradicts the lack of evidence for which he seems to be arguing.

Posted in gender studies, immigrants, law, marginalization, sexuality

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

Canaday, Margot. The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Margot Canaday is a legal and political historian at Princeton University whose teaching interests include gender and women’s history, the history of sexuality, and American political and legal history.  Her first book, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, won seven major awards from a diverse group of organizations, including the Organization of American Historians, the American Political Science Association, the Association of American Law Schools and the Lambda Literary Foundation.  The central argument of the book is that “homosexual identity and modern citizenship crystalized…in tandem with the rise of the federal bureaucracy.”[1] Canaday argues that both identities (citizen and homosexual) are not only configured through state bureaucracy, but that both identities have been formed against one another.

Canaday examines three key areas of government control (immigration, the military, and welfare) to demonstrate how federal enforcement of sexual norms developed simultaneously with the rise of American federal bureaucracy.  Two chapters are dedicated to each of these three arenas, providing a comprehensive analysis of the denial of citizenship to gay people through immigration, military, and welfare policies.[2]  These policies “established individuals who exhibited gender inversion or engaged in homoerotic behaviour as either outside of or degraded within citizenship.”[3]

The Bureau of Immigration, which was established in 1895, was one of the earliest federal agencies concerned with homosexuality, according to Canaday.[4]  Immigration officials “lumped together aliens who exhibited gender inversion, had anatomical defects, or engaged in sodomy as degenerates.  Degeneracy was a racial and economic construct that explained the ‘immorality of the poor.”[5]  This identification was used to deny or deport poor people, single women (no husband or provider), and people of color, who were believed to be “primitive” and therefore “especially inclined toward perversion.”[6]

Canaday researched a wide variety of primary government sources, including court case testimony and official correspondences, immigration records, Veterans Administration records, and Congressional records.  Secondary resources included medical journal articles and books.

The arguments in this book most closely relate to arguments presented in Impossible Subjects.   Ngai shows how immigration laws were used as a tool for exclusion through the development of the new status of “illegal alien” and how these laws produced racialized identities.  Canaday shows how immigration, military, and welfare policies co-produced identities of homosexual and citizen.  But Ngai does not include an analysis of gender in her discussion, whereas gender is central to Canaday’s argument.

[1] Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), 255.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 20n.3.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Ibid., 29.

Posted in 19th century America, 20th century America, African Americans, Christianity, class, immigrants, marginalization, material culture, racism, reformers, religion, sexuality, urban studies

Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940

Heap, Chad C. Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Chad Heap, author of Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940, is an Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University. His academic work examines the relationship between sexuality and the city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Slumming, Heap explores how, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, affluent white Americans ventured into immigrant and mixed-race neighborhoods in order to ogle, lecture, and cavort with their social inferiors. This slumming not only created spaces that enabled middle-class whites to expand their own racial and sexual boundaries, it contributed to the emergence of a new social order where black/white and hetero/homosexual were being clearly defined. The act of slumming helped to reinforce notions of whiteness and social superiority, as did the post war exodus of whites from the inner cities to the suburbs.

Heap researched a wide range of documents, including local government records, sociological studies, novels, newspapers, and trade magazines. However, Heap claims that the most important evidence came from “the field reports of undercover investigators employed by private anti-vice organizations.” Several maps, illustrations, and photographs support the text.

Heap weaves together a variety of experiences into his definition of slumming. While many readers would readily recognize slumming as late-night dancing, drinking, and sexual exploration, Heap also includes missionary and reform activities into the mix. By adding the popular Protestant reform movements into his narrative, he shows how slumming provided middle-class white men and women with a useful way to define their own moral and social superiority. Heap shows how slumming enabled each dominant group to better define themselves: heterosexuals declared themselves against homosexuals, and whites defined themselves against blacks. In addition, even emerging populations, such as immigrant Italians and Jews, were able to use slumming to define themselves as white.

Heap’s argument differs from than Laura Wexler’s Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U. S. Imperialism; however, both books offer a fresh perspective on how whiteness (and heteronormativity) is constructed and reinforced through images of the “other.” Both books also suggest that images of domesticity play a leading role in normalizing dominant group identity. Wexler’s analysis shows that domesticity was used as a trope in actual photographs to offer evidence of civilizing Black and Indian cultures, and to downplay the violence of imperialist military endeavors. For Heap, images of domesticity can be found in the geographical containment of whites in the suburbs. The inferior other remains in the chaos and poverty of the inner city.

Posted in 17th century America, 18th century America, 19th century America, assimilation, Christianity, class, gender studies, historiography, immigrants, labor, marginalization, material culture, migrants, religion, urban studies

Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

Brown, Kathleen M. Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009.

In Foul Bodies, Kathleen Brown uses social and cultural history methods to reimagine five hundred years of history as a history of civilizing the body. Challenging notions that “significant historical change takes place mainly in public areas,” Brown contends that “[d]omestic life—always in dynamic relationship with public culture—is also a site of cultural production that undergoes profound historical transformation.”[1] She examines “the relationship between household practices” of cleaning bodies and “public expectations for a civilized body,” through evolving views about cleanliness, privacy, and health.[2] Her work shows that “national standards of private cleanliness reveal much about its ideals of civilization, fears of disease, and expectations for public life.”[3] Brown’s research certainly was inspired by Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, which identified attitudes towards purity and pollution at the heart of every society. Whereas, Douglas’ work focused on ritual, religion, and lived experience, Brown asks important new questions related to pollution and the body, expanding the research into the realms of health, gender, class, and race relations.

Brown’s research in Foul Bodies has been cited in numerous recent works. Google Scholar identified over sixty publications. Some of the results were duplicates. Some were erroneous. Of the remaining fifty works, six are dissertations or theses, eighteen are journal articles, and the rest books. At least one book, Gretchen Long’s Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation, lists Foul Bodies in its bibliography, but does not directly cite any content. Notably, over half of the authors are women (or have names generally attributed to females). Several publications will be discussed in the upcoming paragraphs. A more complete list of works can be found in the bibliography.

Holly Dugan, in The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, referred to Brown’s “linen-centered” models of cleanliness to support her argument that body odors were a reflection of one’s social position.[4] Sophie White, in Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana, discussed archaeological finds of household goods from colonial sites in the Illinois Country. She explained that “households included embroidered linen napkins and tablecloths that either someone in the household or a paid village washerwoman would have maintained using skilled and labor-intensive European laundering and ironing techniques.”[5] The attached footnote refers readers to Brown’s concept of “body work” in Part III of Foul Bodies without further explanation.

In Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference, Jenny Shaw explores the construction of difference through the everyday life of colonial subjects in the second half of the seventeenth century. In Chapter 1, Shaw discussed English disapproval of Irish clothing choices, which were interpreted as the “Irish preference for comfort over prestige.” Her focus in this section of the book was on a piece of clothing called a mantle: “Perhaps the real English concern with the mantle was related to its ability to conceal the sexual misconduct of Irish women, thus enabling the garment to become an easily recognized symbol of the general degeneracy of the Irish population.”[6] Shaw cited Brown’s exploration of “the language of cleanliness with regard to Moryson’s assessment of Irish barbarism.”[7] In Chapter 6, Shaw returned to the same section of Brown’s work in order to offer further support for her examples of people using poor Irish women as servants in the Caribbean to in order to demonstrate a privileged position. Shaw referred readers to Foul Bodies to learn more about the kinds of labor involved in starching and washing.[8] As Brown notes, many social factors contributed to how these tasks and who performed them are understood. “The laundress’ ability to be a mobile, independent, wage earner tarnished her reputation for chastity. . . At the end of the sixteen century, laundress and nurse were terms rife with sexual innuendo, and connoted whore and bawd.”[9]

In Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia, Kathryn Meier explores how soldiers survived the conditions of war through forming universal self-care habits, including boiling water, eradicating insects, and supplementing their diets with fruits and vegetables. “In order to improve their health, soldiers periodically had to adjust their ideas of manliness, class values, and race to the circumstances at hand.”[10] Meier referenced Brown’s work along with research from environmental historians who have investigated nineteenth century bodies.

In Chapter 1, Meier covers the topic of American healthcare before 1862. She explains how wealthy Southerners would travel to cooler climates to recover from illness and cited Brown’s related discussion about families traveling with ill loved ones.[11] Later in the same chapter, Meier turns to more personal aspects of recovery. She revealed class differences in her discussion about Americans having little contact with doctors, with the exception of wealthy families, who could travel for medical advice. In addition, Meier mentioned that family members, most often mothers, sisters, and wives, provided care in the home, citing Brown’s research.[12]

Common people during this era were encouraged to participate in their own health care. Many households owned domestic medicine manuals. Meier cited Brown as when she wrote, “Women often proved the dispensers of such knowledge, sometimes authoring or compiling their own recipe books of remedies.”[13] Finally, in this chapter, Meier discussed the social reform movement that advocated the belief that “water, diet, and exercise could prevent and cure most sickness,” citing multiple passages from Foul Bodies.[14]

Although this essay has delved into only a few examples of current scholarly use of Brown’s work, we can see a broad spectrum of academic research incorporating Foul Bodies.  One was just a simple reference within a history of scents. Next we saw an attempt to reconstruct a model of colonial life through understanding what “labor-intensive European laundering and ironing techniques” entail. Shaw’s book focused more on the social and cultural aspects that Brown’s research on laundering revealed, helping readers understand how difference is constructed. And Meier, citing multiple aspects of Brown’s research on health, introduced readers to pre-Civil War attitudes and habits of medicine.

[1] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009), 4.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Publication’s promotional abstract.

[4] Brown, 41; Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (JHU Press, 2011), 107fn39.

[5] Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 45.

[6] Jenny Shaw, Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference (University of Georgia Press, 2013), 27.

[7] Brown, 32; Shaw, 28.

[8] Brown, 31-32; Shaw, 167.

[9] Brown, 31.

[10] Kathryn Shively Meier, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (UNC Press Books, 2013). Book’s promotional abstract.

[11] Brown, 303; Meier, 18fn12.

[12] Brown, 303, 230–31; Meier, 22fn24.

[13] Brown, 213–14; Meier, 22fn29.

[14] Brown, 290–93, 308, 16; Meier, 31fn67.

Posted in African Americans, capitalism, class, historiography, homelessness, immigrants, labor, marginalization, material culture, paternalism, racism, reformers, slavery, urban studies

Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore

Rockman, Seth. Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

(Review and historiography)

Seth Rockman’s Scraping By explores the precarious lives of poor, unskilled workers and the ways in which wealthy employers exploited them in Baltimore between 1790 and 1840. The title alludes to the book’s “street scrapers,” whose task of removing manure from the streets offers a fitting metaphor for the unrewarding employment opportunities facing thousands of African Americans, European immigrants, and others who flooded the city in search of a better life. These diverse populations vied for work in a common labor market and occupied the same neighborhoods.”[1] Rockman counters myths of upward mobility and liberty for all by illustrating how prosperity and privation are two sides of the same coin.[2] America’s new economy offered new possibilities for the few because it closed down opportunities for everyone else.[3] The story of American opportunity and freedom encompasses the story of “brute labor, severe material privation, and desperately constrained choices.”[4] Importantly, Rockman argues that the work of “chronically impoverished, often unfree, and generally unequal Americans…made the United States arguably the most wealthy, free, and egalitarian society in the Western world.”[5] Rockman’s arguments challenge a long historiographical tradition set forth by Frederick Jackson Turner.

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper entitled, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” to a gathering at the American Historical Association. His ideas were later expanded into a series of articles and books. According to Harry (Frankel) Braverman, Turner’s main point was that “American democracy is fundamentally the outcome of the experiences of the American people in dealing with the West. That the Western land areas were decisive in American history, and that their chief result was “democracy.”[6] Turner presented Jacksonianism as a protest by “rugged individualist” frontier people against the conservative aristocracy of the East. For Turner (and many historians that followed in his footsteps), a government that was responsive to the will of the people rather than to the power of special interest groups was represented by Jackson.

In an article published in 1958, Charles Sellers argued that men of Turner’s generation perceived Jacksonian Democracy as an egalitarian, anti-monopolistic tradition, but that “classes and inequalities of fortune played little part” in frontier democracy.[7] Yet, later historians who were influenced by Turner could not deny that “inequality of condition had become so gross that its danger to democracy could no longer be ignored.”[8] Sellers points out that Turner’s “vague conception of democracy remained prevalent in Jacksonian historiography until 1945, when Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., published The Age of Jackson.”[9]

In 1946 at the age of 27, Schlesinger won the Pulitzer Prize for his book.[10]  He was an American liberal historian, social critic, and prominent Democrat who later served as Special Assistant to President Kennedy. The Age of Jackson presented a “new” interpretation of Jacksonian Democracy by rejecting the view that it was a western sectional movement. Instead, he argued that it was a class-based movement stemming from eastern working men and intellectuals.[11] In Schlesinger’s view, Jacksonian Democracy continued to celebrate a strong spirit of equality, which was aided by extending the vote to men who did not own property.

Most historians refer to the economic transformation of Jacksonian America as the “Market Revolution.” Charles Sellers argues in his 1991 book, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, that the greatest transformation in America was a revolution from an agrarian to a capitalist society: “Establishing capitalist hegemony over economy, politics, and culture, the market revolution created ourselves and most of the world we know.”[12] Sellers argues that the Jacksonian Era was driven by a tension between market and democratic forces, which follows in same historiographical tradition of class conflict as was presented by Schlesinger.

Even though class was being highlighted in historical debates, Seth Rockman feels that these discussions missed important points. In a 2005 article, “Class and the History of Working People in the Early Republic,” Rockman points out that discussions of class did not account for “the experiences of women or people of color, for whom unequal access to property was not the starting point of inequality, but rather the result of other powerful forces like racism, sexism, and imperialism.”[13]  He also observed that following the publication of The Market Revolution, scholars debated whether economic development promoted or precluded democracy.[14] Yet, many historians mistakenly argued that broad access to consumer goods tended to equalize people. Rockman notes,

Manufactured goods allowed a wider percentage of the population to claim a modicum of comfort and refinement, but behind every yard of cloth purchased at a crossroads store or an urban emporium were slaves picking cotton and mill girls toiling amid the whirl of machinery. Yet despite these inequalities, access to standardized consumer goods allowed more Americans to look and feel more equal than ever before.[15]

But for many of these historians, as Michael Zakim observed, “the economic relations of capitalism became confused with the political possibilities of democracy.”[16] In Scraping By, Rockman shows through multiple case studies how many of the poverty-stricken people in Baltimore were unable to purchase even the most basic goods needed to survive.

A more critical interpretation of Jacksonian Democracy reveals its intrinsic connections to slavery, the eradication of Native Americans, the subjugation of women, and the celebration of white supremacy, leading many scholars to dismiss the notion of “Jacksonian Democracy” as a contradiction in terms. Rockman asserts that, when read critically, a phrase like “Jacksonian Democracy” points to a very particular type of society that “predicated white male equality on the enforced inequality of virtually everyone else.”[17] He adds,

In a Jacksonian democracy, an orphaned child of humble means could rise to be the president of a nation whose expanding boundaries, economic vitality, and promises of individual upward mobility could never be disentangled from slavery, Indian removal, imperial warfare, white racial identity, and capitalism. In this light, a Jacksonian America conveys the contingent relations of power that allowed some Americans to be freer than ever before precisely because others were not.[18]

Rockman refers to this idea as “unfreedom.”

Rockman asserts that “[l]abor was available for purchase by the hour, day, season, year, and lifetime, and by placing waged and enslaved workers on the same continuum, historians are less inclined to see two antagonistic modes of production but instead a capitalism whose appetite for labor was nearly limitless.”[19] Slaveowners maximized their investments with slaves, while at the same time, northern manufacturers used the legal maneuvers to restrict the mobility of its “free” labor force through “vagrancy statutes, debt imprisonments, and wage forfeitures for early departures from a job.”[20] Rockman claims that a new direction for labor history would be for historians to invest less effort researching processes of class formation, and instead, highlight how slaves were involved in an “American working class defined by its common commodification and material circumstances of poverty.”[21] In Scraping By, Rockman offers many examples of what this type of history looks like.

Near the end of the book, in his “Essay on Sources,” Rockman identifies several books that have influenced his approach to Scraping By. He explains that Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution asserted the idea that “American independence created extraordinary opportunities for ordinary people to pursue their economic self-interest.”[22] This view seems to echo the versions of Jacksonian Democracy put forward by Turner and Schlesinger. But Robert Fogel’s book, Without Consent or Contract, showed a more critical view of capitalism, where “exploitation was the dynamic engine of the American economy and a crucial component of in the history of capitalism.”[23] Rockman explains that his project is driven by the “challenge of reconciling these two frameworks.”[24]

In a 2001 conference paper entitled “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” Rockman challenges the myth that American capitalism stemmed from ideas of democracy and freedom by asserting that the “free labor” economy that flourished during the early-nineteenth century was inseparable from various forms of unfreedom.  He asserts that “capitalism did not triumph because the American Revolution had created an appropriately democratic political culture. Similarly, democracy was not ascendant because the Market Revolution generated the optimal form of economic organization for a free society.”[25] Instead, capitalism thrived due to its essential “relationship with the sizable segment of the American population lacking a meaningful freedom.”[26]  In other words, capitalism and democracy worked for the few at the expense of the many.

Rockman urges historians to abandon the master narrative of American capitalism and democracy that is tied to the myths of Jacksonian Democracy, and embrace a more inclusive history. He assures historians that telling an American history that revolves on unfreedom will open up a far more dramatic history.  He says,

Unfreedom begets a narrative of contingency that recognizes how freedom for some hinged on the lack of freedom for others. The triumph of liberal capitalism in the early republic United States depended on unfreedom— the expansion of plantation slavery, the household subordination of women, and the legal confinement of wage earners. Telling these stories together and as interrelated creates a history that is inclusive and responsible.[27]



[1] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), xi.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 259.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Harry Frankel, “Three Conceptions of Jacksonianism,” Marxists’ Internet Archive, accessed October 29, 2016.

[7] Charles  Sellers, “Andrew Jackson Versus the Historians,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44, no. 4 (1958): 624.

[8] Ibid., 625.

[9] Ibid., 626.; His father, Arthur Schlesinger Sr., had replaced Turner at Harvard, according to an American Studies Association ASA Newsletter, June 1996. Accessed October 29, 2016.

[10] He also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for A Thousand Days, which focused on John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

[11] Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945), 263.; Donald B. Cole pointed out that Schlesinger’s work was not as original as his reviewers made it out to be, citing Economic In terpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) and J. R. Commons and others their Documentary History of American Industrial Society (1910), the Marxist writer Algie Simons published his Social Forces in American History (1911), in which he explained Jacksonian Democracy as an eastern labor movement. A decade later Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., called attention to the same movement in his influential book of essays, New Viewpoints in American History (1922), and gave credit to Willis Mason West, who had explored the subject in his American History and Government (1913). Donald B. Cole and Arthur M. Schlesinger, “The Age of Jackson: After Forty Years,” Reviews in American History 14, no. 1 (1986): 153.

[12] Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution : Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 5.

[13] Seth Rockman, “Class and the History of Working People in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 25, no. 4 (2005): 528.

[14] Seth Rockman, “Jacksonian America,” in American History Now, ed. Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 68.

[15] Ibid., 69.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 72.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 71.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore, 349.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Seth Rockman, “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” (paper presented for Library Company of Philadelphia Program in Early American Economy and Society Inaugural Conference “The Past and Future of Early American Economic History: Needs and Opportunities,” Philadelphia, April 20-21, 2001). Accessed October 28, 2016. 1-2. A modified version of this paper was published in Cathy Matson, ed., The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives & New Directions (2006), 335-361; The term “Market Revolution” is pointing to Charles Seller’s 1958 book by the same name.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Rockman, “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” 40.

Posted in assimilation, capitalism, class, film, gender studies, immigrants, labor, material culture, resistance, urban studies

Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Enstad, Nan. Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

In Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure, Nan Enstad explores how working-class women used popular culture as a resource to construct their identity at the turn of the twentieth-century.[1] The book illuminates how these young Jewish and Italian immigrant women remade themselves as “American ladies” through consuming dime novels, fashion, and film, and how their distinct forms of consumption shaped their labor activism during the shirtwaist strike of 1909. Enstad illustrates how these working-class women developed their identities as ladies against middle-class identities and values that attempted to subdue them.[2] Enstad actively contests prevalent labor scholarship that traditionally has focused solely on white men and middle-class sensibilities. She argues that previous historians who insisted that popular culture consumerism was a frivolous distraction to labor’s real (“manly”) business of serious union politics ended up overlooking how these everyday activities shaped female strikers’ identities.[3]

The book’s introduction, “Mud in Our French Heels,” begins with Enstad’s reflections on an American Studies Association conference session entitled, “Does Cultural Studies Neglect Class?” One of the panelists who argued “yes” urged historians and cultural critics to make sure that they have “materialist mud on [their] boots.”[4] Enstad notes that the phrase conjured a very specific image of work boots with “tough, thick soles and heavy leather uppers, a man’s boots, well worn from labor and the ‘mud’ of daily life.”[5] For her study, she transmutes that image into women’s shoes with “cheap French heels” because they signaled “Americanization and ‘ladyhood’” for the women she researched.[6] At first glance, this pairing appears to be simply a logical, astute move on Enstad’s part to impart an image of her mission to her readers. However, a more philosophical underlying message may be present.

Enstad appears to be pointing to Walter Benjamin in her opening chapter to set the tone for the rest of her book. In addition to these allusions, she explains in a later chapter that her subjects redefine themselves through engaging with the “wish images” (a term coined by Benjamin) embedded in the popular culture products they consumed.[7] Although these products were not able to “emancipate people from oppressive labor or class structures, as wish images they engaged a potentially revolutionary or egalitarian impulse within the imagination.”[8] In other words, the films, dime novels, and fashions helped these women to not only redefine themselves, but also to enact social change.

In dime novel narratives, marriage to the wealthy hero is the ultimate reward for the challenges working women had to endure.[9] Marriage, in these stories, symbolized triumph over evil and the restoration of moral, heterosexual order.[10] Rose Harriet Pastor is an example of a working girl who “fulfilled the dime novel fantasy  and married millionaire Graham Phelps Stokes in 1905, just four years before the shirtwaist strike.”[11] Rose Pastor Stokes’ early life, in some ways, reflected the lives of the young working-class women who adored her; yet, in many ways, she was no longer one of them.

Born Rose Harriet Wieslander in Augustova, Poland, on July 18, 1879, she moved to “the squalid slums of London’s East End England” with her mother at age three.[12] At the age of eight, she was forced to leave school and join the workforce. In 1890, she moved to America with her mother and family, and worked for twelve years in a cigar-sweatshop where many Jews labored. Looking back, Rose viewed this time period as formative for her identity.[13] In 1901, she became a regular contributor to Yidishes Tageblat (Jewish daily news), which led to a full-time position as a resident columnist in New York City. She was able to explore political themes and express her opinions in her writing. She even rebuked working-class women for reading dime novel romances, “With our free circulating libraries what excuse is there other than ignorance for any girl who reads the crazy phantasies from the imbecile brains of Laura Jean Libbey, The Duchess, and others of their ilk!… I appeal to you- if you read those books- stop! stop!”[14] As one of the “ladies of labor” Rose Schneiderman later explained in her memoir, “I knew nothing about going to a public library and taking out any book my heart desired… I did not even know about the College Settlement House which was only a block away.”[15] Enstad shows that dime novels were more accessible to these women than libraries because “pushcarts and newsstands put dime novels into the hands of working women without first requiring other cultural competencies.”[16]

Through the Tageblat, Rose Pastor also met her future husband, James Graham Phelps Stokes, a reform-minded millionaire from a prominent family.[17] After they married, she joined his world of philanthropic reformism and, within a few years, they both joined the Socialist Party of America in 1906. Stokes redefined herself as the voice of the worker to help working-class women.[18] She was immensely popular at all of the rallies and shop meetings that she attended. Enstad points out that “the young Hebrew girls on the east side regard her as an oracle and a friend.”[19] “Stokes’ support suggested that there was no contradiction between the dime novel ending and a strike,” according to Enstad.[20]

Although the notion of marrying a millionaire does not seem compatible with a strike, in this case, reality reflected the fantasy, which contributed to Rose Pastor Stokes’ popularity and effectiveness during the strike. Enstad notes that in the dime novels, “married heroines regularly returned to the factories” to assert their working class loyalties.[21] Stokes’ return during the strike could be seen as the “ultimate fulfillment of the dime novel ending.”[22] As Enstad points out, the working ladies did not simply imbibe (consume) wish images, they “enacted wish images when they made themselves into ladies.”[23]

According to Google Scholar, Ladies of Labor is cited within 42 other works. Many of these books and articles focus on topics situated at the intersection of class, gender, and popular culture, such as Tony Michel’s A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (2009), Deirdre Clemente’s “Striking Ensembles: The Importance of Clothing on the Picket Line” (2006), Bridgett Kenny’s “Servicing Modernity: White Women Shop Workers on the Rand and Changing Gendered Respectabilities, 1940s–1970s” (2008), and Lori Meresh’s “Factory Labor and Literary Aesthetics: The ‘Lowell Mill Girl,’ Popular Fiction, and the Proletarian Grotesque” (2012). Other works that reference Ladies of Labor focus more specifically on film and theater, such as Eric Loren Smoodin’s Regarding Frank Capra: Audience, Celebrity, and American Film Studies, 1930-1960 (2004) and Paula Marie Seniors’ Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Culture of Uplift, Identity, and Politics in Black Musical Theater (2009). A number of works that reference Enstad include discussions about Jewish and Italian female immigrants during the early twentieth century, fashion, popular fiction, and class performity. Enstad’s research in Ladies of Labor lends itself to a broad range of future works.

[1] The book is based on her 1993 dissertation from the University of Minnesota, “Compromised positions: Working-class women, popular culture and labor politics, 1890-1920.”

[2] Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 13.

[3] Ibid., 3, 126, 212n16.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 1-2.

[7] Ibid., 69.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 76.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 157.

[12] Judith Rosenbaum, “Rose Pastor Stokes: 1879 – 1933,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, accessed November 16, 2016.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Enstad, 49.

[15] Ibid., 55.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Rosenbaum,

[18] Ibid. This biographical information, which I found to be very informative for understanding Stokes’ place in this story, was not presented by Enstad in the book. Perhaps it was present in her dissertation.

[19] Enstad, 157.

[20] Ibid., 158.

[21] Ibid., 157-58.

[22] Ibid., 158.

[23] Ibid., 69. Emphasis in original.