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The Last Generation: Work and Life in the Textile Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910-1960.

The Last Generation: Work and Life in the Textile Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910-1960 The Last Generation, an oral history of New England textile workers, is aptly named. The thirty-four women and men who tell their stories in Mary Blewett's book were not only some of the last of the region's mill workers but were part of a work force in which daughter had followed mother and son father into the mills since their beginnings in early nineteenth century Lowell. By 1960, runaway shops, overseas competition, and changing consumer demand signaled the end of the industry and helped fulfill the shared desire of contemporary workers never "to see their children at work in any mill."

Blewett allows her workers "to speak for themselves," but she sets their stories in context with a general introduction describing the history and the production process of textiles (cotton, wool, worsted, rayon, and silk) and by introductions to each section and each interview. The book, like the labor process at the mills, is divided into three sections: women, men, and children. Gender and family, then, are as important to Blewett's analysis as are more conventional themes of labor history such as labor process and shop-floor and management-labor relations.

Blewett's book adds to the historiography of textiles represented by authors such as Jacquelyn D. Hall, Tamara Hareven, Louise Lamphere, and others. She challenges Hareven's thesis stated in Amoskeag (1978) that workers accepted the hierarchical organization of the mills because it mirrored the organization of their families and religion. The voices of her workers speak of those who accommodated themselves as well as those who resisted.

Social scientists may be disappointed in the "humanistic" methods used by Blewett and her assistant interviewers. They did not work from a set questionnaire but rather guided subjects by general questions through their memories of the mill. Other readers may be delighted, though, in the way in which these stories hang flesh on the bare bones of our knowledge about the work process in the mills and the intersection of family life and work in mill towns.

In The Last Generation, individual workers recall their experience of the multiple aspects of mill work: piece work, informal apprenticeship training, the stretch-out, the speed-up, high turnover, labor protest, the hot and stuffy interiors of the factories. For women, the experience sometimes included sexual harassment and the melting effect of the Second World War on frozen gender hierarchies. But all shared daily life in the multi-ethnic community of Lowell, and the rich descriptions of the working-class culture of that town constitute one of the most valuable aspects of the book.

Women and men now in their seventies remember how the community structured birth and death, the role that food played in family life, and such figures as the rag man and the ice man.

The final four interviews in the book are not with mill workers but rather with children who accomplished their parents' goal of avoiding work in the mills. These interviews in particular raise questions about gender roles in families and the transmission of values, expectations, and ethnic cultures.

The Last Generation will be welcomed by historians interested in labor, gender, and family and community as well as by the general reader eager for a portrait of a now lost aspect of industrial America.

Ann Schofield is director of women's studies and associate professor of American studies and women's studies at the University of Kansas. She has published articles about working-class culture and the history of working-class women, and she is presently writing a comparative biography of female labor activists.
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Author:Shofield, Anne
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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