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Reviewed by:
  • Lunch-Bucket Lives: Remaking the Workers’ City by Craig Heron
  • David Roediger
Lunch-Bucket Lives: Remaking the Workers’ City. Craig Heron. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015. Pp. 784, $39.95 paper

When in the presence of a lovely and formidable work such as this one, a us social historian of the working class such as myself is tempted toward the weighty comparative history question: “Why can’t we in the United States produce such books?” Craig Heron’s reconstruction of the lives of labour in Hamilton, Ontario from the 1890s through the 1930s is so long and full, so engaged, so beautifully illustrated, and so hopeful as to be a book worthy of its subjects. It could not exist without a deeply committed publisher and without working-class institutions surviving attacks in ways that they mostly have not south of the Canadian border. Nevertheless, the great achievement here belongs to Heron, who sustained this huge project over many years of work at York University.

The lunch-bucket image in the title and on the book’s cover defines the blue-collar focus in writing the history of the working class in a highly industrial city. The food and reading material in lunch buckets sustained mostly male workers through long shifts. Packed often by wives, the lunch bucket linked home and work, productive waged labour, and the work of social reproduction. When workers ate together, they communicated, socialized, and even schemed in ways that made it perfectly logical that the shared lunch was one of the prime objects of attack when “scientific management” expert Frederick Winslow Taylor sought to revolutionize workplaces on capital’s behalf. Lunch buckets carried the varied foods of an ethnically differentiated, but mostly European, working population in Hamilton, and their contents reflected the differing fortunes of skilled and unskilled workers.

As much as it is a study of workers’ lives, jobs, communities, values, and households, Lunch-Bucket Lives is also an intervention into how [End Page 594] cities acquire shape and meaning. Given such an emphasis, and because class is a relationship, it is apt that Heron begins the first part of his study with the individuals and classes that ruled Hamilton. “Class-consciousness has always been particularly vigorous among the upper . . . classes” (6), he writes as a prelude to a foundational chapter on “Hobson’s Hamilton,” detailing the role of civil engineer and entrepreneur Robert Hobson in marketing the city and solidifying its elite leadership. In relationship to Hobson’s Hamilton, Heron concludes the first part with “Studholme’s People,” introducing the proletarians who sent foundry worker Albert Studholme to the Ontario legislature for multiple terms as East Hamilton’s representative. Mostly standing as a representative of the Independent Labour Party, Studholme embodied the collective power of a burgeoning industrial working class but also – he was the lone such figure thrown up by class ferment in Hamilton – something of the limits of such power and the extent of intra-class divisions.

The five chapters grouped together in the second part under the heading “Keeping the Wolf from the Door” focus mainly on working-class families, childhood, the division of labour, consumption, and budgets. Heron thus keeps the daily experience of the workplace, let alone the union, at a distance until the unwaged majority of the working class can fully enter the story as historical actors. Especially well captured in this section are the dynamics influencing decisions concerning which family members would work outside the home and who made decisions regarding what to buy as workers became “cautious consumers” (170). Indeed, the material on consumption calls to mind – and this is very high praise indeed – the careful, grounded work of Susan Porter Benson in her Household Accounts: Working-Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States (Cornell University Press, 2007). Heron’s discussion of families faced by disaster, whether occupational injury, death, illness, or unemployment, is likewise arresting. Sections on homeownership advance the powerful arguments Heron makes regarding how differing experiences of workers were conditioned by ethnicity. Restrictive covenants, familiar devices for exclusion from us neighbourhoods, applied in Hamilton as well, barring at times, according to one such covenant, not only “Negroes [and] Asiatics” but...


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pp. 594-597
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