Saturday, April 28, 2012

Of cobblers and cameras

Anthony Lee's exemplary microhistory, centered on a shoe factory in North Adams, Massachusetts, begins with a vivid recreation of a pivotal -- and unexpected -- moment in the town's history:
On the morning of June 13, 1870, an enormous crowd began assembling at the local train station. Reports tell us that men and women were elbow-to-elbow, lined the railroad tracks, and overflowed onto the streets outside the station. The people massed northward from the station for a quarter mile, on either side of Marshall Street, one of the main north-south thoroughfares of town. Thousands had turned out. Given that the census for that year counted about twelve thousand residents in and around town, at least a fifth of the locals, possibly a quarter, had gathered. Many were angry and primed for confrontation. All the region's papers put reporters on site; even the Boston papers, normally uninterested in the western half of the state, sent men to cover the events. A local shoe manufacturer, Calvin T. Sampson, was importing seventy-five strikebreakers to fill the workstations left empty by the local shoemakers' union, the Order of the Knights of St. Crispin. Although able-bodied men were available throughout New England, including many who were not formally associated with the Crispins and possessed considerable skills at shoemaking, strikebreakers were being brought on a two-week train journey from San Francisco and scheduled to arrive that day. What's more, they were Chinese.
The Chinese workers, we learn, had been brought in as strikebreakers to take the place of another migrant minority, for the local chapter of the Crispins was mostly composed of French Canadians, large numbers of whom crossed the border in the 19th century seeking refuge from legal discrimination and the grim economic prospects of rural Quebec.

We thus begin with three sets of actors: Yankee entrepreneurs, personified by Sampson, the Crispins, and the Chinese migrants (to call them immigrants seems a step too far, since few were to remain permanently). But as Lee quickly make clear, there was another group of key players at work, one around which he structures his entire absorbing tale, and that was the local photographers, who not only played a crucial role in documenting what happened in North Adams in the next few years but also, inadvertently or not, served as a means through which the other groups advanced their own interests and identities. No sooner had the Chinese arrived then Sampson arranged to have them photographed, en masse, against the backdrop of a wall of his factory. The resulting stereo card view was, in effect, a shot across the bow of the union and a declaration of the owner's dominion over both the building and his employees. Not long afterwards, a group of Crispins thumbed their noses at their former employer by commissioning their own photograph, modeled on the original, depicting a group of workers who had formed a co-operative standing together outside the very same building, still owned by Sampson.

Lee's narrative comprises four chapters, which examine in detail respectively the perspectives of Sampson, the photographers William Hurd and Henry Ward, the Crispins, and the Chinese. The amount of visual documentation he has uncovered, much of it from the personal collections of descendants of longtime North Adams families, is extraordinary, in particular for the Chinese shoemakers, who often sat for studio portraits and used them, variously, as a means of connecting themselves with or declaring their independence from their ancestral culture. Lee is particularly good at showing how, rather than submitting to the artistic conventions of the local "professors" who operated the studios, the Chinese took an active part in shaping how they would be portrayed, adopting poses based on traditional Chinese portraiture and, in one notable instance, mimicking a striking photograph of one of their countrymen taken across the continent in San Francisco.

There is much else in the book: the clashes between management and labor and between rival ethnicities, the hellish construction of of a railway tunnel through nearby Hoosac Mountain that dragged on for twenty-five years and took the lives of nearly two hundred workers, and in the end, as a sad coda, the eventual fate of the Chinese workers, whose presence in the country would eventually be forbidden by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although a handful managed to settle down and remain in the US, some starting families, most apparently returned home, and the nascent Chinese-American presence in the Berkshires was extinguished.

A Shoemaker's Story: Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees, and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Town is available from Princeton University Press. The author, Anthony W. Lee, is Professor and Chair of Art History at Mount Holyoke College

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