- Lunch-Bucket Lives: Remaking the Workers’ City by Craig Heron
Craig Heron’s monumental book on working-class life in early twentieth-century Hamilton, Ontario, appears at first glance to be an old-fashioned social history—a community study. It is, in fact, a wonderful analysis of class and its pervasiveness in the lives of real people. It has broad implications for our understanding of the relationship between these lives and the exercise of power in Canada and elsewhere during the industrial era. In a period of increasing scholarly attention to what language and other forms of representation might—or might not—mean, it is a model of empirical research joined to rich political-economic interpretation.
As one might expect in any good community study, Heron describes over time the material world of Hamilton: the structure of capital; the changing character of work, labor markets and unemployment; earnings and living standards; labor organization and strikes; and working-class politics and ideas. But he also analyzes the more intimate dimensions of the city: family structure and home life; family economy, women’s paid and unpaid work; childhood; neighborhood and community life; education and child rearing; charity, welfare, and other forms of social control; leisure and cultural activities; public health; and even diet. (What was in those lunch buckets?) All of this detail proceeds toward a vitally important end—judging the mechanisms of power in this city, their implications for the character and quality of working-class lives, and the extent and limits of workers’ own power in this and comparable settings. As a result, Heron has produced an unusually “deep” study of class in industrial Canada, with implications for comparable work on these issues elsewhere. The approach is important in demonstrating not only what was at stake on a human scale in this history but also how class struggle as well as a quieter daily struggle for survival emerged from everyday concerns and experiences.
Lunch-Bucket Lives begins with theory, addressing the problems of working-class life in material, experiential, and discursive terms. Much of the narrative, however, revolves around the relationship between the material and the political broadly defined. Heron conveys a strong sense of the spatial dimensions of the industrial city, developing a vibrant picture of the working-class stronghold of Hamilton’s East End. Another distinction here is the systematic investigation of the gendered quality of this life. It is more effective than most community studies in following the changing experiences of Hamilton’s women and children as well as its men at work but also in and outside the home.
The general context for Hamilton’s development and even some of its particulars are close enough to those of US industrial cities that the study invites the badly neglected strategy of a US-Canadian comparison. Heron himself draws on a good deal of US social-history research in framing his own analysis. Some of the similarities and differences are striking: US capital poured into the city as its heavy industrial base grew, [End Page 86] with sweeping implications for the spatial arrangements, physical environment, and life prospects for its citizens. From the late nineteenth century on, migration produced an increasingly diverse population, though less so than in most contemporary US industrial cities and towns—a relatively smaller proportion of recent immigrants and a larger proportion of these from Ireland and Great Britain. This did not prevent considerable anti-immigrant sentiment. Small communities of Chinese and African Canadians meant that race was an issue in Hamilton, but far less so than in most US cities.
The increased class cohesion and relative success for independent labor politics in Hamilton, in contrast to most US cities, may be explained in part through the combination of Canadian governmental structures, the greater homogeneity of Hamilton’s working-class population, contemporary British labor thinking, and the presence of British migrants. Smaller Marxist organizations were perhaps even weaker in Canada in than in the United States in the period before World War I. The Independent Labour Party (ILP), a...