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Reviewed by:
  • Rum and Axes: The Rise of a Connecticut Merchant Family, 1795–1850
  • Julie H. Ernstein
Rum and Axes: The Rise of a Connecticut Merchant Family, 1795–1850. By Janet Siskind. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

In Rum and Axes, anthropologist Janet Siskind explores the roots of industrial capitalism in post-Revolutionary War Connecticut. This historical ethnography of class and culture draws on primary materials associated with three generations of the Watkinson family, congregants in an East Anglia society of dissenters, who immigrated to New England in 1795 and subsequently amassed considerable economic and social capital. The title refers to the family’s transition from merchant capitalists who imported rum and other commodities from the West Indies to their role as industrial capitalists engaged in the factory production of axes and edged tools for an expanding national market.

This succinct volume has numerous strengths, including its user-friendly format, readability, and organization. The structure is logical, tracking parallel developments within the Watkinson and Collins families and their broader social, economic, and historical milieu. At the same time, Siskind carefully examines interlinked patterns of continuity and change at the level of the individual, the family level of parent-child and inter-sibling relations, and within the business and corporate realms where these individuals played pivotal and self-defining (even re-defining) roles. For example, the Watkinson’s class standing is presented as one that “continually rationalized itself as one of benevolence and morality” within both the extended family and broader society (p. 144).

Throughout, Siskind makes her points by carefully detailed demonstration and not simply by assertion. She provides a sophisticated critique of the rich documentary materials she uses and is quick to identify their potential biases and silences. She notes, for example, instances where a given historic author wrote in a not-entirely-candid fashion for an idealized future readership. Such is the case of her treatment of Samuel Watkinson Collins’ presentation of self in his handwritten 352–page memoir, which traced the company’s history from 1826–1867. Of particular interest is Siskind’s incisive reading of Collins’ reactions to worker problems faced in 1833 and again in 1846. Although only thirteen years separated the two labor disputes, they marked a sea change in the unfolding relations between the “owning” and “laboring” classes. During this brief time span, the circumstances, workers, and Collins himself had changed considerably; by 1846 he no longer spoke in “his old republican discourse” but had adopted “the language of the marketplace” (p. 120).

It may seem unfair to praise the book for its conciseness while simultaneously promoting its expansion in select instances, but there are a number of areas where more detailed treatment would be welcome. The first is Siskind’s tantalizing but schematic consideration of personal correspondence as a means for self-fashioning and the building and maintenance of relationships. Second, the notion of corporate paternalism could have been expanded. As an archaeologist, I was pleased to note Siskind’s familiarity with some of the historical archaeology and oral historical work conducted in Lowell, Massachusetts. However, Siskind’s discussion of paternalism and class would benefit from juxtaposition of events experienced by Watkinson and Collins family members against a fuller range of assemblages and experiences documented at Lowell. Specifically, Siskind should move beyond the gloss of the Boott Mills Boarding Houses and the thousands of patent medicine bottles recovered there to the below-ground reflection of corporate paternalism (Beaudry 1989) and a fuller range of archaeological interpretations that contrast the material culture of “mill girls” and later boarding house occupants with that of middle management recovered from the Kirk Street Agent’s House (Beaudry and Mrozowski 1987), also at Lowell. Third, the discussion of nineteenth-century prisons and asylums warrants fuller consideration of the contributions of Bentham and Foucault on the subject, limited to passing mention in a footnote. And finally, given the book’s focus on capitalist transformation, a treatment of the considerably older roots of capitalism should have occurred earlier than page 123 of a 153–page volume.

Rum and Axes is nonetheless a valuable case study that makes a worthy contribution to the literature on postcolonial New England during the...

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