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Artisan Workers in the Upper South

Petersburg, Virginia, 1820-1865

Diane Barnes

Publication Year: 2008

Though deeply entrenched in antebellum life, the artisans who lived and worked in Petersburg, Virginia, in the 1800s—including carpenters, blacksmiths, coach makers, bakers, and other skilled craftsmen—helped transform their planter-centered agricultural community into one of the most industrialized cities in the Upper South. These mechanics, as the artisans called themselves, successfully lobbied for new railroad lines and other amenities they needed to open their factories and shops, and turned a town whose livelihood once depended almost entirely on tobacco exports into a bustling modern city. In Artisan Workers in the Upper South, L. Diane Barnes closely examines the relationships between Petersburg's skilled white, free black, and slave mechanics and the roles they played in southern Virginia's emerging market economy. Barnes demonstrates that, despite studies that emphasize the backwardness of southern development, modern industry and the institution of slavery proved quite compatible in the Upper South. Petersburg joined the industrialized world in part because of the town's proximity to northern cities and resources, but it succeeded because its citizens capitalized on their uniquely southern resource: slaves. Petersburg artisans realized quickly that owning slaves could increase the profitability of their businesses, and these artisans—including some free African Americans—entered the master class when they could. Slave-owning mechanics, both white and black, gained wealth and status in society, and they soon joined an emerging middle class. Not all mechanics could afford slaves, however, and those who could not struggled to survive in the new economy. Forced to work as journeymen and face the unpleasant reality of permanent wage labor, the poorer mechanics often resented their inability to prosper like their fellow artisans. These differing levels of success, Barnes shows, created a sharp class divide that rivaled the racial divide in the artisan community. Unlike their northern counterparts, who united as a political force and organized strikes to effect change, artisans in the Upper South did not rise up in protest against the prevailing social order. Skilled white mechanics championed free manual labor—a common refrain of northern artisans—but they carefully limited the term "free" to whites and simultaneously sought alliances with slaveholding planters. Even those artisans who didn't own slaves, Barnes explains, rarely criticized the wealthy planters, who not only employed and traded with artisans, but also controlled both state and local politics. Planters, too, guarded against disparaging free labor too loudly, and their silence, together with that of the mechanics, helped maintain the precariously balanced social structure. Artisan Workers in the Upper South rejects the notion of the antebellum South as a semifeudal planter-centered political economy and provides abundant evidence that some areas of the South embraced industrial capitalism and economic modernity as readily as communities in the North.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xiv

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pp. 1-11

Visiting Petersburg, Virginia, at the beginning of the antebellum era, European traveler William Tell Harris observed that “bustle and activity are every where seen.” Although the city was recovering from a recent fire, paved and level streets lined the town and “elegant brick buildings” predominated. Petersburg was already a busy commercial center, and Harris recorded its advantages: “a ...

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1. “A Great Deal of Enterprise, and a Great Deal of Dirt”: The Rise of a Southern Industrial Town

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pp. 12-36

When northern book peddlers Sarah Mendell and Charlotte Hosmer came to Petersburg in the early 1850s, they found a bustling city. Boasting twenty tobacco factories, six substantial cotton mills, two iron foundries, and a host of independent artisan shops, it is no wonder that these women remarked that “Petersburg has something the appearance of a Northern town.” Commerce...

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2. “All of One Family; Like Brethren”: The Petersburg Benevolent Mechanic Association

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pp. 37-65

On the chilly morning of 2 December 1826, a group of Virginia artisan workers gathered in the Blandford churchyard to pay their respects to Sceva Thayer, a fellow mechanic and Petersburg blacksmith. Two days earlier someone passing had discovered his body on Old Street in Petersburg’s market district. At an impromptu meeting called in the churchyard following the funeral, his fellow...

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3. Artisans Caught in the Middle: White Workers in Petersburg

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pp. 66-113

The Petersburg Benevolent Mechanic Association (PBMA) represented, for the most part, those masters succeeding in an expanding market economy. Although a significant segment of Petersburg artisans found membership in the elite artisan organization beneficial to their career goals, many more skilled workers either could not afford to, or chose not to, join the PBMA. In February...


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pp. 114-126

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4. The Paradox of Freedom: Black Artisans in Petersburg

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pp. 127-158

Because of his “uncommonly devoted attention to, and care of his late master during a most dangerous illness,” black boatman John Brander became a free man in April 1822. Brander’s benefactor was his former owner and Petersburg tobacco manufacturer James Dunlop. Dunlop fell ill while at Lynchburg and apparently Brander provided care “by which probably his life was preserved.” ...

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5. Tobacco and Iron: The Foundations of Industrial Slavery

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pp. 159-175

Beginning in 1852, Tom Bragg worked for Petersburg brick layer and contractor Daniel Lyon. Bragg was likely a suitable skilled worker, for Lyon continued to employ his services through 1858. Unfortunately, Bragg did not receive wages as a reward for his hard work because he was a slave owned by local tobacconist Charles F. Osborne. Lyon leased Bragg, paying an annual hire fee that increased...

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6. Between Class and Caste: The Culture of Southern Antebellum Artisans

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pp. 176-198

As the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached in 1826, members of the Petersburg Benevolent Mechanic Association (PBMA) busied themselves with special preparations in celebration of the “Jubilee of American Freedom.” The master mechanics used the opportunity to “congratulate each other” on the arrival of this patriotic event, and established a special...

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Epilogue: And Then the War Came

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pp. 199-214

When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, James Coldwell was among the first to volunteer to serve the Confederacy. Enlisting as a private in Company B of the 12th Virginia Infantry, the Petersburg carpenter spent most of the war wielding a hammer instead of a rifle. First he helped build his regiment’s winter quarters, then, in 1862, he went to South Carolina, where his job was to keep ...


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pp. 215-230


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pp. 231-244


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pp. 245-253

E-ISBN-13: 9780807134191
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807133132

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2008