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The New Gilded Age Indeed!

[ 107 ] February 13, 2014 |

I know we are reentering the New Gilded Age, what with the economic inequality and union busting and facial hair. But I’m not sure we need to go this far. I was certainly interested in the old-school high waisted pants Joaquin Phoenix wore in Her, but I didn’t suspect this:

The trousers are inspired by styles from yesteryear, but are intended to portent a futuristic vision of geeky Silicon Valley meets East Village menswear. “The first thing [people] want to know is if all guys are going to be wearing extreme high-waisted pants in the next few years,” said Storm of his involvement with Her.

He added, in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter: “It’s one of the last frontiers of men’s fashion to come back. But it does look weird when you first see it.” He admitted Phoenix himself had said: “I don’t get it, but I trust you guys,” when first told his character Theodore Twombly would be wearing the trousers.

“Theodore [is] sort of an average guy, and we wanted his style to reflect somebody that’s comfortable and not uptight, but also a little disassembled and just going through the world,” Storm told the Opening Ceremony blog last month. “I don’t know exactly how we arrived at the high-waisted pants, but I think when Spike wrote the character, he had Theodore Roosevelt in mind. Joaquin’s pants throughout the film also have a really tapered leg, based on late 1800s pants for riding horses. The vintage pants I found [as inspiration] were from a costume house, and when I tried them on Joaquin, it just looked right. It looked interesting and weird, but it felt comfortable and casual and a little sloppy.”

If this catches on, there’s only one step left I guess in our full return to Gilded Age fashion. Ladies, get out your corsets and gigantic hats. Crushing your internal organs and slaughtering songbirds for fashion goes well with adulterated food, desperate poverty, and extreme wealth.

I for one will not be wearing these pants.

This Day in Labor History: February 13, 1845

[ 27 ] February 13, 2014 |

On February 13, 1845, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association forced the state of Massachusetts to hold hearings on reducing the work day in the state’s textile mills to 10 hours a day. The LFLRA had collected 2000 signatures to put pressure on the textile mill owners and state to improve the conditions in the factories. While the ability to interest state politicians in the conditions of workers was a success of sorts, not only did the workers fail to win, but this is a transitional moment in an industry that would soon replace these women with workers who had access to far less power to protest the conditions of their work, something that continues apparel companies have aimed for ever since.

Samuel Slater brought the first modern factories into the United States in the 1790s. These were largely lauded by most commentators, but they also worried Americans who feared the nation’s nice towns would become the pestilent hellholes of English cities since the Industrial Revolution began there earlier in the 18th century. Some owners were conscious enough about these problems that they created the model town of Lowell, Massachusetts to prove that one could operate a factory using respectable labor. Lowell employers recruited young farm women from around New England to come work in the factories, have a bit of an adventure, and live in a respectable fashion. The closely watched “Lowell Mill Girls” lived in dormitories under the watchful eyes of older women and attended talks by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other early 19th century intellectuals. They produced their own magazines, took classes, and in the eyes of the factory owners, prepared themselves nicely for marriage while producing profit for their employer.

The Lowell Offering, December 1845

These women also labored in very unpleasant conditions. The factories were hot and humid, necessary to keep the cotton fibers workable and reduce fires. Enormous glass windows allowed sun to pour in on the hottest days of the year. The machines were shockingly loud in a way that’s difficult to imagine for most modern Americans who do not work in factories. They worked 12 or 14 hour days, six days a week. These were young farm women used to work, so it wasn’t the strenuous nature of the labor that bothered them, but being locked up in that factory tending those machines minute after minute, day after day, month and month. Historians have timed the beginning of working-class Americans seeing the environment as something romantic to these early textile factory workers, for whom nature became something to escape to rather than tame.

Rather quickly, the young women moved from intellectual pursuits during their (limited) free time to political organizing. The women began demanding better conditions in the factories and since they came from respectable families, ignoring them was a challenge for the owners. To make it worse, the companies began reducing wages. In 1836, they went on strike, one of the nation’s first organized walkouts. One of the strikers was Harriet Hanson Robinson. She remembered,

Cutting down the wages was not their only grievance, nor the only cause of this strike. Hitherto the corporations had paid twenty—five cents a week towards the board of each operative, and now it was their purpose to have the girls pay the sum; and this, in addition to the cut in the wages, would make a difference of at least one dollar a week. It was estimated that as many as twelve or fifteen hundred girls turned out, and walked in procession through the streets. They had neither flags nor music, but sang songs, a favorite (but rather inappropriate) one being a parody on “I won’t be a nun. ”

“Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I-

Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?

Oh ! I cannot be a slave,

I will not be a slave,

For I’m so fond of liberty

That I cannot be a slave.”

My own recollection of this first strike (or “turn out” as it was called) is very vivid. I worked in a lower room, where I had heard the proposed strike fully, if not vehemently, discussed; I had been an ardent listener to what was said against this attempt at “oppression” on the part of the corporation, and naturally I took sides with the strikers. When the day came on which the girls were to turn out, those in the upper rooms started first, and so many of them left that our mill was at once shut down. Then, when the girls in my room stood irresolute, uncertain what to do, asking each other, “Would you? ” or “Shall we turn out?” and not one of them 1laving the courage to lead off, I, who began to think they would not go out, after all their talk, became impatient, and started on ahead, saying, with childish bravado, “I don’t care what you do, I am going to turn out, whether any one else does or not;‘’ and I marched out, and was followed by the others.

As I looked back at the long line that followed me, I was more proud than I have ever been since at any success I may have achieved, and more proud than I shall ever be again until my own beloved State gives to its women citizens the right of suffrage.

Constitution of the Lowell Factory Girls Association, 1836

They lost but continued fighting. In 1835, Sarah Bagley, age 28, began work in the mills. She quickly became politically aware and started working to reform the conditions. She helped found the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844 and led the campaign for the hearings, gathering many of the signatures and organizing her fellow workers. When the hearings were held, Bagley testified, “The chief evil, so far as health is concerned, is the shortness of time allowed for meals. The next evil is the length of time employed.” Basically, the owners were trying to turn the women into machines. But in 1846, the Massachusetts legislature voted to reject the workers’ demands, part of a larger move in early 19th century New England to create a pro-corporate legal agenda smoothing the way for the growth of business over the concerns of workers and citizens. However, the owners did agree to reduce the hours to 11 a day in 1853 as pressure continued.

The response of the factory owners to this agitation was to switch the labor force. The potato famine in Ireland meant 780,000 new immigrants to the U.S. from that island in the 1840s alone, with another 914, 000 following in the 1850s. These workers were in no condition to turn down hard industrial labor; the opportunity for that was what was many hope awaited them in the United States. It’s possible that the Lowell experiment never really had much chance of working, given the lack of government-mandated employment standards and an ever more competitive market with factories seeking to undercut each other. But eliminating what we can call a privileged labor class–workers with options and access to political levers–proved incredibly profitable for the textile industry.



Mill complex of the Merrimack Company, Lowell, circa 1850

Thus began the history of the textile industry looking for the most vulnerable and impoverished labor to exploit. Eventually, the Irish too would demand better lives. Jews and Italians would be next, then corporations would discover the glories of capital mobility. They moved their factories to southern Appalachia beginning in the early 20th century, then to Mexico in the 1960s, and then to Taiwan, China, and Bangladesh in a never ending global search for workers desperate enough to accept the risk of dying in fires or having their factories collapse on top of them.

In 1846, Sarah Bagley quit her job in the mill and became the nation’s first female telegraph operator.

This is the 92nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Potentially the Greatest Museum Exhibit of All Time

[ 53 ] February 12, 2014 |

Now this is my kind of history:

What did Paris smell like in the mid-18th century? Try skunked red wine, wet cats, and gingivitis-tinged sputum, all bubbling in an open sewer on a record-setting summer’s day.

I can say this with some authority as I recently jammed my schnoz into “Paris 1738,” a scent that recreates the fetid odors of the olden city. France’s Christophe Laudamiel made the unusual odor as a tribute to the novel Perfume, whose murderous antihero was born in a fish market amid the stench of overflowing gutters and unwashed bodies. Now, thanks to a nose-tingling exhibit in downtown San Francisco, anybody can smell how the City of Love may have once reeked – and thank their lucky nostrils they live in an era with hot showers and shampoo.

“Urban Olfactory,” which runs until March 31 at SPUR, is a history lesson made entirely of smells: pine and cedar pulled from the imagined court of Louis XIV, spice-laden air over the Strait of Bosphorus in the Middle Ages, river water and hashish of modern-day Rotterdam. Those are the ones people might actually, you know, wear. There’s also the New Jersey Turnpike during a rainstorm, air pollution in San Francisco, and fresh manure in the French countryside. All these perfumes are presented in a line of lidded vitrines; visitors take a whiff of one, then go breathe into a glass of coffee beans to clear the nose.

Forget all the stupid presidents, high end fashions, deadly battles, or whatever people like in history. This my friends, is about as close to immersing yourself into the reality of the past as I’ve ever heard. I feel like traveling to San Francisco just to see it.

…I would fly out there if one of the exhibits includes the stench of rotting horses from the grotesque amount of horse deaths in 19th century American streets.

Cobb

[ 53 ] February 12, 2014 |

I had never read this 1985 Al Stump remembrance of Ty Cobb’s last days. This is pretty amazing stuff.

But hey, at the least the Hall of Fame is full of only the most upstanding characters, so thank god those modern cheaters doing nothing actually against baseball rules are being kept out of it.

Disabled Workers

[ 11 ] February 12, 2014 |

Disabled workers operate in a complicated space within American labor. Many of them are capable of productive labor that helps make their lives better. Employers probably wouldn’t hire them without incentives and at least for some of them, the need for constant overseeing from case workers probably barely makes it worth the trouble. On the other hand, for some employers hiring these workers is just another way to wrest additional profit by paying subminimum wages. The catering companies like Aramark are notorious for this as a labor strategy in the kitchen of university dining halls. The Fair Labor Standards Act included a provision to pay subminimum wages to disabled workers, so there’s a long legal precedent here.

I’m glad President Obama has decided to include disabled workers in his executive order to raise minimum wages in future federal contracts. I do think the effect upon the disabled needs to be monitored, but there really isn’t a good reason not to pay these workers a minimum wage, especially given just how little money that actually is for these corporations.

Dead Horses in American History (V)

[ 20 ] February 11, 2014 |

Dead Horse Trail (originally known as White Pass Trail), Alaska, circa 1898.

Food and the Agency of the Poor

[ 452 ] February 11, 2014 |

Rich people concerned about the health of the poor are perplexed:

In inner cities and poor rural areas across the country, public health advocates have been working hard to turn around — neighborhoods where fresh produce is scarce, and greasy fast food abounds. In many cases, they’re converting dingy, cramped corner markets into lighter, brighter venues that offer fresh fruits and vegetables. In some cases, they’re building brand .

“The presumption is, if you build a store, people are going to come,” says , professor in the departments of sociology, anthropology and demography at Penn State University. To check that notion, he and colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine recently residents of one low-income community in Philadelphia before and after the opening of a glistening new supermarket brimming with fresh produce.

What they’re finding, Matthews says, is a bit surprising: “We don’t find any difference at all. … We see no effect of the store on fruit and vegetable consumption.”

What, you mean poor people have agency in the choices they make? You mean they may not want to eat kale? The clear answer is for rich people to tell people what they should put in their bodies even more stridently:

Alex Ortega, a public health researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees that providing access to nutritious food is only the first step.

“The next part of the intervention is to create demand,” he says, “so the community wants to come to the store and buy healthy fruits and vegetables and go home and prepare those foods in a healthy way, without lots of fat, salt or sugar.”

An intervention! Exactly! We rich need to intervene more in the lives of the poor and tell them everything they are doing wrong. I have trouble seeing any down sides to this attitude…

Look, the diets of modern Americans are problematic. I am not saying that this is not something health professionals should be paying attention to. But let’s not obscure the connections between class and food. For the upwardly mobile of this country, local food, organic food, GMO-free food, backyard produced food–often at high prices–these are signs of social status. I can go to the farmers’ market and buy some greens right now if I want to pay a lot to do so. The farmer gets some money and this is good on a number of levels. I indeed want to support this when I can. Also, I get to look cool with my green canvas bag and see some other people of my socioeconomic status. If I was single, I might even strike up a conversation with someone that could lead to a date. Maybe I will see some fashion I want to emulate. If it was summer, all the yuppies would bring their designer dogs to the market to show off to the other rich white people. (This is a real thing at the big Saturday farmers market in Providence. I always see breeds I’ve never seen before. It cracks me up every time).

So while there are health problems related to food in America, let’s also remember that telling poor people what to eat is also just another episode in a history of rich people in this nation telling poor people what to do, a process constantly shifting as social and moral norms among the upper classes change over time. And look, Doritos and Coke are tasty products. People like fat and salt. Throwing a bunch of cauliflower in front of the poor and telling them it is good for them is not going to change their behavior. They want to eat these things because they are yummy. Moreover, desirable body shapes are changing with changing diets and health norms and this is also divided by class. The person who looks hot to someone on the Navajo Reservation or the south side of Atlanta or rural West Virginia may be different than who is hot in San Francisco or Portland or the cover of Runners’ World. But that’s entirely socially constructed as well. Pushing diet is also pushing body type.

And even if life is shorter and diabetes is a major issue, it’s an entirely reasonable and respectable decision for someone to say they’d rather live to be 52 in the comfort of their homes, surrounded by their family and friends and enjoying themselves as part of the culture of their people watching football and eating nachos and pizza than live to 82 and eat celery every day. That’s actually an OK decision for someone to make. Obviously, some of those decisions are being made by parents for their children and setting their children on a nutritional path that might not lead to long life, but unless we are going to call CPS when a child’s BMI gets over the norm, I don’t see any real solutions here.

Let’s also not forget about the very real issue of price. I was at a farmers market last year that took food stamps, which is great. But that doesn’t mean the food is any cheaper. A southeast Asian woman came and bought some peppers. The price came up. You could see her physically blanch in horror. She bought it but I wonder if she ever came back. There might be good reasons for the prices to be high, but if you live in a food desert, you probably have a limited income and those organic tomatoes aren’t any cheaper because of it. Even if you want to eat healthy, you may well not get full doing so because you can’t afford it. I’d love it if the government directly subsidized this food in a way that lowered the sticker price to consumers. Short of that, how can you tell a poor person they should spend their hard-earned but small amounts of money on the food you think they should eat versus what they can afford? A box of Kraft mac and cheese or package of ramen is awful cheap. Might allow you to also have cable television. Which is also a totally OK choice to make.

Again, all of this isn’t to say there aren’t health issues at play here that are reducing people’s life spans. But it would help if the very real and conscious choices made by the poor were also respected in these debates and if the rich would quit thinking the poor are doing something wrong (today in food, yesterday in having sex out of wedlock, tomorrow who knows) when it doesn’t follow the fashionable behavior of the elite.

“Fuck” in History

[ 27 ] February 11, 2014 |

Bringing you only the most important news of the day, here’s the first known use of the word “fuck” in the written English language, in its modern spelling. Written by a monk of course, in 1528.

1980 in One Photograph

[ 62 ] February 10, 2014 |

We interrupt this regularly scheduled Dead Horses in American History blogging to bring you 1980 in one image:

Willie Nelson on a golf course, jingoism, the Cold War, the last days of the Carter Administration, those shorts–really what’s missing?

Dust Bowl Analogies

[ 50 ] February 10, 2014 |

The point in this New York Times op-ed is a good one–the state of farming in California is highly tenuous. Given that a huge percentage of the fruits and veggies you are eating in the cold, cold month of February come from The Golden State, the potential to see this decline quite rapidly in the face of long-term drought and aquifer depletion by those seeking short-term solutions to it is very real and very scary to the American diet.

But I do have to take objection to the constant use of the Dust Bowl any time there’s a drought or farming crisis that leads to shuttered farms. The Dust Bowl was a very specific set of circumstances that could repeat themselves, but probably won’t. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the western Great Plains (worth noting that the conflation of Okies migrating to California because of the Dust Bowl is largely false. Most of those people were sharecroppers kicked off their land due to other conditions of the Great Depression and the consolidation of land under AAA policies. They were mostly from central and eastern Oklahoma or further east and south, which was well outside of the Dust Bowl range.) happened because a naturally occurring drought combined with the winds of the Plains to blow dirt away after decades of horrible agricultural practices that stripped the land of its native grasses and sod. That led to this, in Haskell County, Kansas in 1941 (which was itself after the Dust Bowl ended):

We’ve seen drought before and since but we’ve never seen another Dust Bowl. That’s because droughts happen in different places under different conditions and because agricultural practices, while still quite unsustainable (such as in California today) have changed to limit such an event today. This isn’t to take attention away from the very real crisis in California, but it is to ask that we stop invoking the Dust Bowl without context every time there’s a drought where people grow crops, which is basically everywhere.

Shorter Republican Party: “Unemployment Before Unions!”

[ 133 ] February 10, 2014 |

The response of Tennessee Republicans to the UAW organizing campaign with Volkswagen approval in Chattanooga lays bare just how much the Republican Party hates organized labor:

A state senator said today that future financial incentives for expanding Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant may hinge on how workers vote this week on whether to accept the United Auto Workers.

Should workers vote for UAW representation, “I believe any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee senate,” said State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga.

Also, state Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, urged VW workers to vote “no” on the UAW.

“The taxpapers of Tennessee reached out to Volkswagen and welcome them to our state and our community. We are glad they are here. But that is not a green light to help force a union into the workplace. That was not part of the deal,” the House majority leader said at a press conference.

Now I am strongly opposed to incentives to get companies to move around the globe. But to pull those incentives and basically ask Volkswagen to close the plant and send the manufacturing to Mexico is a new low for Republicans. They would prefer massive unemployment to workplace representation.

Persecuted for Wearing the Beard

[ 70 ] February 10, 2014 |

When you think of men and the 19th century, you probably think of beards. Large, ridiculous beards unseen again in American life until the early 21st century. Moreover, the beards of those days were ubiquitous. They were a sign of respectability and manliness. Ads abounded for beard-growing aids for those (like me) who really couldn’t do it naturally.

But it wasn’t always such. In fact, beards were strongly disdained in the clean-shaven first half of the 19th century. And when they did start showing up, they were tied into the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution in the North, what with its Mormons and Shakers and canals and trains and free love communities and abolitionism and women’s suffrage movement and transcendentalism and then its beards. These social movements faced a lot of resistance. Some is more well-known–the violence against Mormons for instance. But the Finneyite revivals in western New York disgusted many as well, especially in the working class. And so when reformer and intentional community member Joseph Palmer grew out his beard, the response from his town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts was much more severe than you’d expect:

He was described as a kind and tolerant man, but life was not easy for Joseph Palmer after he moved to Fitchburg, Massachusetts in 1830. People would openly insult him, throw rocks at him, regularly break the windows of his home, and even cross the street so as not to be near him when he passed by. Even though he was deeply religious man who regularly attended church services, Palmer was publicly denounced during sermons by his pastor, Rev. George Trask, and even refused communion.

What awful thing had this small town butcher done to warrant such persecution? Joseph Palmer’s crime was that he was the only citizen in Fitchburg, Massachusetts who chose to wear a full beard, which (contrary to my vision of the 1800′s being a beard grower’s paradise) had been out of fashion in the United States since the time of the Pilgrims.

In fact, Palmer was so reviled that in 1830, while walking out of the Old Fitchburg Hotel, he was attacked by four men who attempted to forcefully shave his beard on the grounds that his beard was immoral. Palmer was thrown on the stone stairs, and even though he was a muscular, 200 pound farmer, he was unable to repel the four men and resorted to stabbing two of his assailants in the legs with his jackknife. His attackers were only hurt badly enough to curtail their efforts, but Palmer was arrested and fined for committing an unprovoked assault. Even though he had the resources, he refused to pay the fine on principle, and was jailed as a debtor in the Worcester city jail. He spent over a year in prison, during which time he repelled two more attempts by jailers and prisoners who sought to shave his beard against his will.

Palmer would be quietly released thanks to the large amount of bad press that was generated by his story as it wound its way through the national newspapers, but he would refuse to leave until he could secure a proclamation that it was perfectly acceptable to wear a beard. He was never given that assurance, and he was eventually tied to a chair and carried out of the jail against his will.

Of course, times and fashions changed and Palmer was vindicated by the time of his death to say the least. More information on the bearded one here.

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