- Constant Turmoil: The Politics of Industrial Life in Nineteenth-Century New England
This most recent book by Mary H. Blewett, a leading student of workers’ encounters with industrialism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century New England, may be her most ambitious effort to date. It is a volume grand in scale, rich in attention to detail, and provocative in its analytical insights. Professor Blewett has chosen a large canvas for this book, telling the story of the contested history of the New England textile industry from the perspectives of both workers and managers over the course of a century. Although it is centered on the history of labor struggles in the textile mills of Fall River, Massachusetts, her tale ranges across southern New England to take in unfolding events from the cotton mills of Rhode Island’s Blackstone Valley to the meeting rooms of Boston labor activists, such as Ira Steward, who led the nineteenth-century campaign for the eight-hour work day. At the same time, Blewett’s tale leads her across the Atlantic to the Lancashire homeland that produced so many labor leaders among New England mule spinners as well as into the boardrooms of Fall River manufacturers like the legendary Borden family. The breadth of this book is truly remarkable.
Also distinguishing this volume is Blewett’s sensitive understanding of changing working-class gender relations. Readers of Blewett’s pioneering work, Men, Women, and Work: Class, Gender, and Protest in the New England Shoe Industry, 1780—1910 (1990)—in many ways a companion piece for her latest book—should scarcely be surprised by this. Constant Turmoil demonstrates that Blewett has grown even more skilled in the application of gender analysis to workers’ lives since the publication of Men, Women, and Work, now applying the insights of a literature on the gendering of the American working class that has grown remarkably since 1990, particularly in its concern with class and masculinity. In Constant Turmoil Blewett shows the extent to which immigrant women and men adapted protest traditions from Lancashire or less militant strategies from French Canada to the needs of their families in the often chaotic American print textile industry. In the process she suggests how “working-class masculinity and femininity took different, contested forms” in nineteenth-century New England, [End Page 189] stressing “the contingencies, not the inevitabilities, in the meaning of gender, the direction of labor politics, and the definitions of appropriate working-class family relations in nineteenth-century America” (p. 224).
As a work of labor history, Blewett’s book also stands out for its attention to the network of families who owned and operated Fall River textile mills during the industry’s prime. Tracing the rise of the Borden and Durfee families, Blewett shows how they constructed a patrimony that eventually included “the invention of a local privileged social set and municipal political dominance, which they had the wealth and power to defend” (p. 150). Blewett also illuminates the decline of the entrepreneurial capitalism that had fueled Fall River’s growth by tracing the downfall of families like the Bordens. From its victimization by a defalcating son-in-law in the 1870s to the grisly 1892 murder of Andrew J. Borden by his infamous, axe-wielding daughter, Lizzie, the troubled Borden family illustrated how precarious the textile manufacturing elite’s position often was. Including the story of such managerial families lends Constant Turmoil a balanced quality and deepens the book’s narrative of the contest for power in New England textiles.
Despite its many strengths, however, Constant Turmoil suffers to some degree from its ambitious reach. This is apparent in two ways. First, the book is weakened by Blewett’s intervention in nearly a dozen different historiographical debates through her narrative. Each chapter of Constant Turmoil opens with a discourse on one influential historical study, offers a critique of that study and related literature, and then indicates how the evidence from the New England textile industry bears on the debate in question. Some of...