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LIFE, LABOUR AND DEATHIN AN INDUSTRIAL CITY:THE OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH OF BARRE,VERMONT, GRANITE WORKERS, 1870-1940 Stephen J. Randall The industrialization of the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought significant transformations to what, prior to the Civil War, had been semi-rural, predominantly agricultural New England towns. In the past three decades, historians have given increasing attention to the ways in which this industrial transition affected small U.S. cities and towns. Because of the richness of sources, a number of those studies, including the seminal work of Stephan Thernstrom on Newburyport, Massachusetts, have concentrated on the New England region. The "new" urban historians have been concerned with a more systematic examination of such issues as socio-economic mobility, class, ethnicity, family patterns and culture. They thus have drawn more fully than in the past on broader writings in such areas as labour history, family history, the history of technology and immigration history. The urban history of the past several decades has also been more quantitative in methodology, drawing on complex analyses of manuscript census data, birth, marriage and death records, city directories and oral histories. This essay is designed to continue those approaches and to build upon the new urban history by adding the important dimension of industrial health and safety to our understanding of the nature of the transition from rural to urban and agrarian to industrial society. Barre, Vermont, in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, was a town especially appropriate for analysis. It experienced a rapid change from a small, largely agrarian town in 1870 to one of the world's major granite producing and finishing towns by the turn of the century. It also witnessed a sudden change in its ethnic composition from largely native-born of West European extraction to an increasingly Mediterranean, primarily northern Italian, population. Technological change was also significant, 196 Stephen J. Randall especially with the advent of the railroad and the development of pneumatic tools in the granite quarries and in the cutting and polishing sheds. Important as those larger developments were to the evolution of the city, this essay is concerned essentially with the issue of industrial health, with the nature of occupational disease in the granite industry and the response to that disease. The statistical base for the study is drawn from the Barre death records, manuscript census data, and the Barre Oral History collection between the 1870s and the end of the 1940s. Barre was in some ways a microcosm of what transpired in other areas of New England, although the granite industry was unlike other industries to the extent that it attracted a highly-skilledlabour force. Employment opportunities in expanded industrial occupations attracted migrants from the American and Canadian countryside, neighbouring commercial cities and overseas. Although textiles continued to dominate New England industry in this transitional period, some industries and cities which had witnessed little significant expansion in the previous century underwent striking development with increases in demand, improved transportation facilities and technological innovation. Such was the case with the ornamental granite industry, which by World War I had come to be dominated by the output of Barre's quarries and granite sheds. The population of Barre swelled from a few hundred after the Civil War to more than ten thousand by the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914; by the turn of the century, the once tranquil village bustled with the noise of pneumatic drills, power saws, grinding machines and railroad cars shunting their massivecargoes. The composition of the population, as well, underwent striking change, with Italian, French, Greek, Yiddish and Russian added to the well-established English, even if the latter had long had a strong Scottish flavour.1 Along with a transformation from rural and agricultural occupations, improved wages and a higher standard of living in the city, granite workers soon experienced another consequence of increased levels of production and the introduction of pneumatic tools in the 1890s:lung disease. The historical study of the health of urban-industrial workers in the United States is of relatively recent origin, although the subject received considerable attention from health-care workers and government agencies in the early...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 195-209
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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