Monday, February 27, 2017

Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn

Lynn, Massachusetts provides the setting for Alan Dawley’s community study of nineteenth century laborer’s response to industrialization in Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn.  Using a Marxist framework of social class, Dawley argues that Lynn’s community of shoemakers organized in opposition to capitalists in order to retain the social status they had as artisans.  Dawley’s thesis is that capitalist development broke down the traditional links of home and market in communities such as Lynn, and replaced independent master artisans with wage earners working in factories.  Although the shoemakers were militant labor activists, they were not class conscious in the same manner European factory workers due to the early development of universal male suffrage in the United States.  Dawley also contends that feeling of national unity during the Civil War years prevented the labor movement from organizing and becoming a national political movement.

Dawley chose a community study because it allows more focused analysis of changes in the community over time than a study of an entire nation.  By selecting a community that is representative of other towns, Dawley claimed that he could generalize about the development of labor movements in throughout New England.  He selected Lynn because its shoemakers provide a representative sample of a community of artisans that are marginalized economically and politically by the development of merchant capitalism and factory work starting in the second decade of the nineteenth century.  Dawley asserts that Lynn is more typical of the experience of American artisans than Massachusetts’ textile communities due to its large system of putting-out piece work to rural areas surrounding the town.

Lynn’s economy was typical of many New England communities in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  In addition to the surrounding farms, it was the home to a large group of shoemakers organized in households with a master and multiple journeymen.  Each master owned property, purchased raw materials, and marketed them to shopkeepers and ship captains.  Masters and journeymen worked according to their own schedules, choosing when to work and when to relax.  The booming post-war economy in 1814 led Lynn’s shopkeepers to enter the production end of the shoe trade by creating the central shop, and arrangement in which shopkeepers set aside room in their businesses to cut uppers and sole shoes. As their demand for labor exceeded the number of laborers in Lynn, shopkeepers put out the shoes to rural families for binding, or stitching together, and then returned to the central shop for soling.  The laborers in the central shops were journeymen who were paid wages either by the hour, or by the piece.  By working in the central shops, the journeymen lost control of their work schedules.

Dawley argues that from the shopkeepers’ perspective, the central shop arrangement suffered from significant limitations.  The shopkeeper had no control over the quality of the shoes bound by his rural contractors, and no control over their work schedules.  The farm families that bound shoes in the central shop system worked to their own schedules, setting them aside to plant or harvest crops, to go fishing, or just to relax.  As demand grew, the shopkeepers had to send shoes further from Lynn for binding, increasing transit times required to deliver cut shoes to binders and finished products to Lynn.  Turn-around time for finished shoes reached nine months from putting-out to finishing.

The advent of the sewing machine provided shopkeepers with a technological solution to the limitations of hand-stitched shoes.  Although relatively expensive at $75.00 in 1850, prices for sewing machines fell to $25.00 by 1860, allowing most families to purchase one.  The increase in productivity allowed shopkeepers to return to more local sources of labor, and ultimately staff workrooms with dozens of sewing machines.  Bringing shoe binding into a central location, along with cutting, allowed more control over work schedules and product quality.  The sewing workshops quickly gave way to factory settings, particularly once machines could attach soles to bound shoes.  The development of factories turned journeymen and master artisans into wage earners.

Dawley contends that the economic disruptions created by the development of factory capitalism in Lynn combined with the Panic of 1857 to cause the shoemakers of Lynn to organize labor unions and strike in 1860.  Lynn’s shoemakers sought social equality according to the Equal Rights doctrine.  For the shoemakers, equality meant equality of social status with the factory owners.  Dawley argues that this particular interpretation of equality meant that the shoemakers believed that labor produced all capital, and that the shoemakers were striking in order to secure their fair share of the wealth developed through their labor.

This reasoning flows from Dawley’s Marxist theoretical perspective, in which labor in Lynn was in contention with capitalists and the concentration of wealth.  Dawley asserts that the shoemakers of Lynn rejected the American myth of social mobility based on economic success because they had little opportunity to create a savings or own property after the development of the factory system.  Once this is established, his main concern is to trace the development of the labor movement in Lynn and the United States.  Dawley’s particular concern is explaining why Lynn’s militant labor activists, and by extension other laboring Americans, did not embrace socialism.

 Dawley believes that Lynn’s shoemakers did not become socialists due to uniquely American phenomena.  Rejecting Franklin Turner Jackson’s suggestion that the frontier acted as a safety valve, Dawley argues that residential and employment mobility acted as safety valves preventing revolutionary ideologies from taking root.  However, the most critical safety valve for laborers was the United States’ early adoption of universal suffrage, which allowed workers to believe that they had influence on the political process.  The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 and the resultant focus on national political unity further undermined socialism in the United States.  Afterward, Lynn’s laborers accepted the ideal of the United States as pluralistic society, or which both labor and capital had a part.  Finally, Dawley claims that trade unionism dominated the American labor, which also suffered from a lack of unity among laborers and from weak leadership.

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