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Aspirations and Anxieties: New England Workers and the Mechanized Factory System, 1815-1850.

David A. Zonderman styles his analytical approach "working-class intellectual history". Eschewing quantitative methods and the microcosmic techniques of community studies, he aspires to offer a fresh reading of workers' written responses to mechanization and the advent of factory production in early nineteenth-century New England. Unfortunately, notwithstanding his evident ambition and diligence, he has neither unearthed a cache of fascinating new sources nor uncovered deeply hidden meanings in hitherto obscure texts. He has focused most of his attention on a wide range of rather familiar, relatively accessible documents, especially the writings of Lowell mill women. His treatment of this material is judicious and balanced; the conclusions he draws are, for the most part, unexceptionable. But they are also unsurprising. Rarely bold or provocative, Aspirations & Anxieties serves mainly to confirm conventional wisdom.

To his credit, Zonderman presents his findings in clear and straightforward prose. He begins with workers' perceptions of the novel features of factory production. Proceeding from topic to topic in systematic fashion, he explores how workers reacted to operating complex machines (chapter one) in large factory buildings (chapter two) under close managerial supervision (chapter three) alongside an array of other workers (chapter four) according to factory rules and regulations (chapter five) in return for wage payment (chapter six).

Then he turns to the significance of collective protest for understanding workers' general attitudes toward industrialization. Here he compares the militant means yet modest ends of strike efforts in the 1830s (chapter seven) with the moderate means but grander goals of the ten-hour movement in the 1840s (chapter eight). In the book's closing chapter (nine), he analyzes the variation in workers' reactions to industrialization in terms of their differing conceptions of work and its due rewards, spiritual as well as material.

Sensitive to the diversity of workers' views on many issues, Zonderman portrays a wide-ranging debate between optimists and pessimists over the personal and social implications of industrial change. Indeed, his generalizations about workers' opinions are repeatedly couched in similar qualifying language. On machines: "Some workers felt trapped between both the monotony and the unpredictability of machines.... Other workers held a more sanguine view of the pace of mechanized labor". On labor-management relations: "Some workers proclaimed their optimistic faith in their managers and their confidence that they would be treated fairly. Other workers saw an inherently inequitable distribution of power and resources in these factories ..." On wage labor: "Some workers saw contracts and wage labor as their entree into the emerging commercial cash-based economy as autonomous actors. Others saw contracts and wage labor as one of the most dangerous threats to whatever was left of the freedom and independence of the worker".

By Zonderman's account, these disagreements among workers existed throughout the early industrial era and cannot be explained adequately by either chronological or sociological factors. "Workers did not criticize or praise the factories simply on the basis of their age, sex, occupation, location, or any other single factor," he asserts. "... Workers from similar backgrounds could stand on opposite ends of this spectrum, and a single worker could pass through various emotional stages in the course of years working in the factories".

At a time when "race, class, gender" has become a mantra in certain academic circles, Zonderman's rejection of crude reductionism deserves a hearing. Yet his refusal to guantify weakens his case, and his own explanation for ideological differences among workers is essentially tautological. Rather than attempt a collective biography of the writers he quotes most frequently, he announces at the start that "quantitative analysis linking demographic data on an operative with her ideas is often impossible to perform". In the end, he concludes, "Workers disagreed about the factory system because they differed among themselves as to how they saw previous forms of labor, how they defined the role of work in daily life, and how they saw the future promises or perils of the factory". This assertion is undoubtedly true but not particularly illuminating.

Despite these limitations, Anxieties & Aspirations makes a valuable scholarly contribution. By encompassing within his purview armories, machine shops, and other industrial workplaces in addition to cotton mills, Zonderman provides a more comprehensive survey of workers' writings about early mechanization in New England than have previous authors. Aspirations & Anxieties supplements, though it does not supersede, classic studies like Caroline F. Ware's The Early New England Cotton Manufacture (1931) and more recent social histories like Thomas Dublin's Women at Work (1979), Jonathan Prude's The Coming of Industrial Order, (1983) and Barbara M. Tucker's Samuel Slater and the Origins of the American Textile Industry, 1790-1860 (1984).

Gary J. Kornblith Oberlin College
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Kornblith, Gary J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Words:762
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