Globalized labor in 19th century Massachusetts

Seventy-five young Chinese men, brought over as strikebreakers, posed for this landmark portrait in North Adams, MA circa 1870. (Courtesy of Professor Anthony Lee

China officially surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy last week. At the same time, the millions toiling in the workshop of the world are grabbing headlines of a more controversial kind. Complaints of poor working conditions, suicide cases in factory campuses, wage disputes, and even strikes have caused concern for Modern China’s economic revolution.

A much smaller group of Chinese laborers saw themselves in a similar struggle, not in Shenzhen, but in North Adams, Massachusetts, over a hundred years ago.

The peculiar account of the lives of seventy-five Chinese men in the 19th century industrial hotbed is the subject of local art historian Anthony Lee’s book “A Shoemaker’s Story: Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees, and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Town.”

The Mt. Holyoke College professor offers vivid accounts of the social conditions, political forces and the pursuit of the American Dream that led one of the first Chinese men to North Adams, and their political and economic resonance today.  Shoemaker’s Story is an intriguing and original narrative that knits together labor history, immigration, ethnic relations, and the emerging importance of photography as an art form and journalistic instrument.

Through meticulous research of local archives, illuminating analysis of photographs, and captivating storytelling, Lee reveals a lesser-known story of the contribution of Chinese laborers during New England’s Industrial Revolution.
At the time when photography was still at its infancy, a deliberate portrait of the Chinese men sparked a riot. Instead of the common individual or family portrait, the photo of the men standing by a shoe factory appeared all over region’s press in 1870 and caused uproar with the local labor union.

This incident marked an important moment in American labor history, right after the Civil War, and at the dawn of Chinese Exclusion Act, when newcomers from the distant shores of Asia eager to work clashed with the native workers who saw them as a threat. “[The shoemaker’s story] represents a rupture or breakthrough in the strains of history,” Lee described.

“The invention of the camera emerged as the most democratic tool [of self-expression], and photos spread like wildfire.” Lee describes the transition from painted portraiture, which were usually exclusively for the upper class, the debate about early photography as fine art in Europe, and finally to American photography, which captured a more raw representation, a wider subject base, and often focused on ordinary working-class people.

These particular photos came at a time when capitalism created new opportunities for more people, and the melting pot of America overflowed with resentment, xenophobia and racial tensions.

19th century North Adams was a hub of New England’s rapid manufacturing boom, and French-Canadian craftsmen were the backbone of that industrial machine.

As conditions at the factories became rougher, and the French-Canadian workers were increasingly more organized, they started a strike to demand better treatment and wages. As a result, on a June morning in 1870, Calvin Sampson, owner of a successful shoe factory, hired 75 Chinese young men from San Francisco, just as the Transcontinental Railroad was completed using the back-breaking labor largely done by their compatriots.

Sampson brought the young men over as strikebreakers. As the Chinese laborers worked side-by-side with the established class, tensions rose. A careful reading of a series of portraits Lee uncovers illuminates the nuances and differences between the new lives of the Chinese workers in America and the traditional work ethic of the French-Canadian workers.

In those days, portrait studios were popular forms of self-expression and preservation; individuals lined up to be photographed with carefully-chosen attire and props. Pocket-sized prints were often shared among relatives, potential brides, and each other.

In one portrait, a French-Canadian represented himself with tools and the fruit of his labor: a shoe, showcasing his proud product and identity as a craftsman. In another portrait (shown on the book’s cover), a Chinese man in traditional attire sitting with youthful swagger also chose to showcase his shoe prominently for another sense of pride: that he had carved a space of his own in the New World.

This new generation of laborers, represented by young Chinese men, distanced themselves from the traditional forms of shoe making. The emerging manufacturing trend gradually marginalized the artisans, and ushered in the era of mass-production. Proud craftsmanship began to fade as economy and efficiency became the way to do business.

Today, the golden days of manufacturing in Massachusetts have long faded into history, but so have much of the most egregious labor controversies. The Bay State now leads the current information and bio-tech revolution and America outsources virtually all basic manufacturing (and its accompanying social and political consequences) to emerging economies. The relentless push for cheaper and more efficient production will make the worker more dispensable and less secure. It values the worker in narrow, albeit important, market terms.

As the cultural value of consumption and economic growth continues to march forward, led by the West and followed rapidly in places such as China, the human story of labor, trade and the craftsmanship becomes even more abstract, distorted, and hidden. A Shoemaker’s Story presents a fascinating historical lens for today’s concerns for jobs, immigration, media, and globalization. More importantly, it begs the reader and photo-viewer to examine the relationship between a product and its producer, and look deeper into the personal and social implications of the stuff we consume every day.

Samuel Tsoi is a Sampan correspondent.

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