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 atomic bombings, imperialism, journal articles, Ku Klux Klan, labor, military, propaganda, terrorism, violence

Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field

Gage, Beverly. “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field.” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73-94.

The “State of the Field” essay that I am addressing is “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field” by Beverly Gage, which appeared in the Journal of American History in 2011.  Gage sets the foundation for her argument by presenting historian Richard Hofstadter’s call in 1970 for historians to “remedy their ‘inattention’ and construct a history of violence that would speak to the present and the past.”[1]  She explains how the historical profession stepped up to the challenged over the course of the next forty years by publishing numerous studies on “racial conflict, territorial massacres, gendered violence, empire, crime and punishment, and war and memory,” yet, even though terrorism dominates American political discourse, historians have not effectively confronted the issue.[2]

In the early part of her essay, Gage shows that “terrorism” is difficult to define, although she does claim that terrorism tends to be a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[3]  Throughout the essay, certain examples are repeatedly cited as terrorist acts, such as Klan lynchings and labor violence like the Haymarket riot.

She also discusses political violence and social movements, and historians’ hopes of developing a general theory of terrorism through studying groups such as The Weather Underground and the Irish Republican Army.  But most of all, Gage contends that these historians sought to underscore the “illegitimacy of terrorism as a means of social change, a violation of state sovereignty and moral norms.”[4]  These historians afforded the state exceptional status rather than holding the government to the same moral codes as individuals.

There are many challenges to distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence, including determining whether formal “states” can be terrorists.[5]  Most specialists agree that the term terrorism needs to be “restricted to nonstate actors—specifically, groups or individuals seeking to challenge existing governments.”[6]  One of the big issues, though, was that the government funded many of the studies, so there seems to be a conflict of interest.  Chomsky and others emphasized the large role the United States government played in exporting a “state-sponsored ‘culture of terrorism.’”[7]  Such actions should not be ignored.

Since 9/11, there has been a boom of studies focused on terrorism.  Yet a primary focus of these studies has been based on a “new terrorism” framework, which Gage connects to sociologist Mark Jurgensmeyer’s work.[8]  In this framework, violence is always motivated by religion.  Placing the focus on religious motivations, however, pushes politics out of the discussion.[9]  Isabelle Duyvesteyn states that emphasizing religion tends to obscure the political nature of terrorism.  She offers Timothy McVeigh as an example and remarks: “[he] may have purported to love Christ, but he certainly despised the federal government.”[10]

My project began with my Religious Studies MA thesis, where I explored how Americans think about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  My exploration was guided by Susan Sontag’s question from her book Regarding the Pain of Others: “Which atrocities from the incurable past do we think we are obliged to revisit?”[11]  For my history MA thesis, I continued to explore these themes through a public history digital project.  “Terrorism and the American Experience” was an appropriate “State of the Field” essay for me to consider in light of my project.

I view the atomic bombings of Japan as acts of terrorism, so clearly I do not side with historians who wish to exempt the state from such considerations.  Bombing cities that were heavily populated with civilians aimed to send a very strong message to Japan and the rest of the world and therefore fits Gage’s assessment of terrorism being a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[12]  I do not necessarily think that there is anything for me to gain by labeling President Truman or other government officials as terrorists; however, my approach has been to view the evidence from a guilty perspective.  What I mean by this is that I tend to analyze evidence without trying to justify the bombings.

Duyvesteyn’s point about religion is well-taken, but I also feel like religion is not the only lens that can obscure the political nature of terrorism.  Blaming the bombings on the American government’s racist attitudes, as some historians have, also distorts the truth.

I have read two of Jurgensmeyer’s books and a number of books on lynchings, Timothy McVeigh, Waco, Ruby Ridge, abortion clinic bombings, and about museum exhibits and memorials dedicated to these and similar themes.  The most frustrating issue I have found is that few authors (and even fewer public exhibits) seem to address the role American leadership plays in evoking and advocating these acts of terror.  The narratives tend to focus on demonizing the actor without effectively evaluating all of the contributing societal factors.

In her final paragraph, Gage writes, “The historiography of terrorism with its uneasiness about terminology, its political uncertainties, and its fractured discussions, is still struggling to find the proper balance between these imperatives.”[13]  I am not attempting to reach any definite conclusions about the atomic bombings or the definition of terrorism, but I hope that my project might help others in the field think about the issues and relationships in more creative and objective ways.

[1] Beverly Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 82.

[9] Ibid., 91.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 93.

[12] Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” 74.

[13] Ibid., 94.

Posted in 19th century America, African Americans, assimilation, capitalism, class, gender studies, historiography, imperialism, labor, marginalization, material culture, Native Americans, paternalism, racial cleansing, racism, resistance, slavery, violence

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household

The ‘Origins Debate’; Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom; and Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage

Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003 [1975].

(Cheating a little. This paper discussed two books, so I am posting the same paper under both titles.)

During the 1960s, distinguished scholars engaged in an “origins debate” that explored how and why a slave society in North America rose to such prominence. Initial questions had focused on when and why “Virginians first began enslaving blacks (and whether racism prompted or followed their decision).” [1] Eventually, historians expanded their research to encompass capitalist concerns, specifically questioning when and why plantation owners turned to slavery as the primary form of bound labor.  Later studies placed domestic slavery within a global context where it was foregrounded as the Civil War’s inevitable cause.[2] The “origins debate” was part of a longer conversation by scholars trying to make sense of the Civil War and developed alongside a larger debate over American exceptionalism in a war-torn world.[3]  This scholarship goes far beyond proving that slavery was the primary cause for secession. As Frank Towers points out, “Slavery now seems more integral to antebellum society, and secession looks more like other episodes in the creation of nineteenth-century nation-states.”[4] This paper examines the “origins debate,” Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) as the embodiment of this debate, and argues that Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage (2008) embodies a literature that now transcends the once pivotal “origins” question that runs through Morgan’s work.

Cathy Matson notes in her essay, “The Early Modern Chesapeake Redux–Again,” (2013) that scholars are indebted to a “long line of distinguished historians in the Chesapeake School” whose research provided the foundations for this field. Recent scholarship reveals the continued benefits of revisiting slave society localities from new vantage points with fresh sources.[5]  Matson revisited the long historiography in her 2013 essay, noting that some historians had subscribed to Winthrop Jordan’s “unthinking decision” thesis about the relationship between slavery and racism.  In his Bancroft Prize-winning book, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968), Jordan argued that English and Anglo-American perceptions about difference were used to justify race-based slavery, and liberty and justice for whites only. While other scholars “boldly reconceptualized” political and social history by integrating “religion, slavery, tobacco economies, and elite power.”[6]

In 2011, Frank Towers offered a historiographical review that outlined how historians attempted to make sense of the Civil War era. He noted that even as late as the 1970s, a grand narrative still told the story of America’s transition from “small-scale, agrarian communities with unfree labor to large-scale, industrial cities without it.”[7] Leading the way, Eugene Genovese had emphasized the role that Southern paternalism played. In this view, planters worked to maintain traditional order through master-slave relationships and proslavery Christianity.[8]

Also published in 2011 were two works by John C. Coombs: “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery” and Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, which he co-edited with Douglas Bradburn. In both works, Coombs reconsiders the “origins debate” and challenges conclusions asserted by several leading scholars, including Edmund Morgan.

In 1975, Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia not only embodied this debate, it became the “most authoritative argument about the ‘paradox of slavery and freedom’ for the next thirty years.”[9] Morgan selected Virginia as the surest place to illustrate the “American paradox” of the “marriage of slavery and freedom.”[10] He shows that as the colony progressed, the elite landowners shifted their reliance on the labor of servants to slaves in order to demarcate and maintain their higher status and to increase production.[11] Converting enslavement into a permanent condition also helped to significantly reduce the growing number of impoverished freedmen in a society “where opportunities for advancement were limited.”[12]

Morgan asserts that white elites developed a racially-based slave system in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 as a way to control lower-class whites: “Resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class. For men bent on the maximum exploitation of labor the implication should have been clear.”[13] But Coombs challenges Morgan’s argument by insisting that African slavery already existed by the late seventeenth century, “These [elites] were not men on the verge of turning to slavery; they already had. And neither Bacon’s Rebellion nor the steep decline in the availability of white servants that occurred in the years after the revolt had anything to do with it.”[14]

Morgan presents a convincing argument that illuminates the progression from temporary servitude to lifetime slavery for nonwhites. He also offers strong evidence of white racism (upper and lower class) towards both Indians and Negroes. Some of the most revealing evidence of changing attitudes presented by Morgan involves the shift away from wanting to Christianize and civilize nonwhites because of a “lingering uneasiness about holding Christians in slavery.”[15]  As slavery became more profitable, laws were enacted to protect masters’ monetary investments by “building a wall between conversion and emancipation.”[16] Baptism no longer could be used to release Negroes or Indians from bondage.[17]

Morgan explains a similar “unthinking” transition from servant to slave labor as Winthrop Jordan argued in White over Black. For example, he writes, “The planters who bought slaves instead of servants did not do so with any apparent consciousness of the social stability to be gained thereby.”[18] However, Morgan concentrated extensive attention on Anglo-American/Native American race relations in the first half of the book in order to establish his argument. He conveyed these relationships as historically contingent processes rather than portraying them as inevitable nemeses.

Morgan concludes that elite white Virginians devised a system of slavery built on racism in order to focus lower-class white workers’ attentions on racial differences, away from the economic disparities between themselves and the elite. Yet, if Morgan’s assertion is correct, that elite white (male) planters further developed an already existing culture of racism in order to exert social control over poor white people, we need to carefully examine white women’s investment in racism and slavery. As noted historian Kathleen Brown points out in her review of American Slavery, American Freedom, “Only if white women actively promoted and reproduced the cultural values supporting slavery out of their own self-interest can we make sense of the deep and rapid proliferation of the racism.”[19] Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage (2008) makes great strides addressing this gap by revealing the power dynamics between black and white women in plantation households and uncovering the small acts of resistance that were central to enslaved women’s sense of self and dignity.

Glymph notes that many historians have questioned the power relations between slaves and slaveholders and between women and men; however, few historians have focused on the power relations solely between women. In Out of the House of Bondage, Glymph concentrates on the relationship dynamics between women of different races, rather than following in the footsteps of prior gendered discourse that examined men and women in opposition. Key to Glymph’s argument is her focus on “relations of power between women, and contests over that power.”[20] Although previous historians have recognized white slaveholding women’s privileges, they also treated these women as “suffering under the weight of the same patriarchal authority to which slaves were subjected.”[21] Glymph argues that presumptions about relationships between black and white women in these paternalistic households, “rest ultimately on uncritical acceptance of a huge assumption: that a gentle and noble white womanhood had once existed in fact, together with a cult of domesticity to which enslaved and free women mutually ascribed.”[22]

She reconstructs the daily practices of domination and defiance within the antebellum, wartime, and postbellum plantation households, while ceaselessly emphasizing that plantation mistresses were slaveholders who quite literally held the power over the life and death of enslaved people.[23] According to their diaries and letters, plantation mistresses considered themselves to be on a mission to civilize slave women. But, as Glymph reveals, enslaved women were notorious for not complying with their mistresses’ vision: “Slave women did not so much resist slavery as they resisted its supposed civilizing mission, no matter that slaveholders believed their status as slaves made them ineligible candidates for civilizing.”[24]

Parts of Glymph’s arguments are not new. Even Edmund Morgan described Virginians’ early attempts at civilizing Indians and Negroes. Glymph, however, refocuses attention within the “private” realm of the plantation household to expose its inherent violence and to demonstrate how myths of domesticity developed. She believes that when mistresses wrote about their attempts at civilizing their servants, they were actually trying to cover-up their own inadequacies and frustrations about slave resistance within the household.

Household slaves were restricted to the plantation, and were therefore severely limited in their ability to partake in violent rebellion.[25] Instead, they opted for subtle types of resistance, such as feigned illness, or stealing food or clothing. Many historians, even those who concentrate on gender studies, have overlooked these small acts of rebelliousness and the inter-female dynamics within the plantation household. Glymph underscores the importance of slave women’s small, ongoing acts of insubordination: “Resistance of this sort did not break the back of slavery, but it made the job of maintaining slavery more difficult and was central to black women’s sense of self and dignity.”[26] The agency of black women is visible in their daily defiance of white women’s demands for obedience.

Out of the House of Bondage transcends the origins debate in part by offering readers a glimpse of the politics of memory and the experience of the once enslaved. Along with the voices of ex-slaves gathered through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) slave narratives project, Glymph discloses the details of notes written by interviewers, which illuminate social undercurrents not otherwise seen. For the most part, local white women interviewed former slaves who brazenly exposed a “nongenteel white womanhood that was at odds with the Lost Cause propaganda” that permeated the North as well as the South.[27] These women actively challenged the symbolic and ideological apparatus of southern racism. Glymph asserts that by accusing former mistresses with “violent, unladylike conduct, with manufacturing dehumanizing spectacles for sadistic pleasure,” these former slaves intentionally violated the South’s racial creed. Making these accusations to other white women “added to the aggravation.”[28]

These personal notes shine a light on the enduring racism former slaves experienced long after the war, even within the realm of well-intentioned conversations. During one interview, George King recounted his memory of the “she-devil Mistress whipping his mammy.”[29] The interviewer seemed to be undisturbed by the nature of the punishment and simply concluded that the mistress “was a great believer in the power of punishment.”[30] Glymph notes that, for King, his mistress’ brutal actions and her ability to “walk away, laughing” prompted a different assessment of the event. “It fixed in his mind a portrait of southern white womanliness cropped of the metaphor of religiously sanctioned parental chastisement.”[31] These revelations also disclose the callous obliviousness of at least some of the WPA interviewers towards the former slaves they interviewed.

Like Steven Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet, Glymph recognizes the Civil War as an episode in a much longer battle for black freedom.[32] In this view, the origins of slavery are a mere footnote to an epochal history of slavery and freedom. Hahn’s argument stressed the “national protections for slavery and the ‘revolutionary’ effort required to end the institution.”[33] However, this “institution” did not end with emancipation or the Civil War. Quoting Harold D. Woodman, Glymph emphasizes that “slavery was ‘more than a legal relationship; it had social and psychological dimensions that did not disappear with the passage of a law or a constitutional amendment.’”[34] She shows throughout her book that “the victories black women won in the first years of freedom, however, were not to last. Poverty, landlessness, peonage, discrimination, and violence forced them back to the fields and white homes on a full-time basis.”[35]

Glymph has offered a unique contribution to historical studies on slavery and the Civil War by reinterpreting plantation life and its aftermath through the lens of black women’s labor relations in white people’s homes. She highlights African American women’s political consciousness and agency by focusing on the small acts of defiance in which female slaves, and later freed women, engaged.  She also demonstrates that “white women’s agency has been profoundly underestimated.”[36] Although historians have not been clear about the role mistresses played in the construction of the social values of the Old South and in disciplining slaves, Glymph has thoroughly addressed these issues and set the bar for future scholarship.

[1] John C. Coombs, “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery,” in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, 2011), 239.

[2] Frank Towers, “Partisans, New History, and Modernization: The Historiography of the Civil War’s Causes, 1861-2011,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 2 (2011): 245.

[3] Ibid., 238.

[4] Ibid., 256.

[5] Cathy D. Matson, “The Early Modern Chesapeake Redux–Again,” Reviews in American History 41, no. 2 (2013): 190.

[6] Ibid., 181.

[7] Towers,  247.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Matson,  181.

[10] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003 [1975]), 6.

[11] Ibid., 307-09.

[12] Ibid., 308.

[13] Ibid., 269-70.

[14] Coombs,  in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, 249.

[15] Morgan, 332.

[16] Ibid., 331.

[17] Ibid., 332.

[18] Ibid., 308.

[19] Kathleen Brown, “Review: American Slavery, American Freedom,” Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 1, 4 (July 2001), accessed December 8, 2016,

[20] Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 235.

[21] Ibid., 23.

[22] Ibid., 135.

[23] Ibid., 2, 227.

[24] Ibid., 66.

[25] Historian Stephanie Camp refers to this restricted and surveilled space as a “geography of containment” in her book Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004).

[26] Glymph, 72.

[27] Ibid., 12.

[28] Ibid., 14.

[29] Ibid., 39.

[30] Ibid., 40.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Towers,  255-56. This refers to Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2004).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Glymph, 136.

[35] Ibid., 11.

[36] Ibid., 31.

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.