An overseer and his underlings

An overseer and two small grimy boys face the camera in a textile mill.

An overseer and two grimy boy doffers face the photographer in a Birmingham, Alabama, textile factory.

The textile mill epitomized mechanized industry, which made humans servants of machines.  Textile manufacture was one of the earliest industries in the US, one often associated with ‘sweated’ labor.  Exploitative practices reached an apogee in the late nineteenth-century American South, where mills employed black and white workers with no other prospects, drawing in many poor Appalachian families.  Conditions in the mills were such that workers (many of them children) were virtually enslaved.  Despite laboring incessantly, they lived in poverty, without recourse to their employer’s authority.  The overseer in this picture boasted of having 30 doffers to do his bidding.  The doffers’ job was to run to replace full spindles with empty ones to keep the looms running smoothly.

This picture was taken in November 1910.

Library of Congress photograph by Lewis Hine.

Ice skates circa 1850

Ice skates (1840-59) from the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This pair of American-made ice skates, dating from 1840-1859, is part of the collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The ice skaters I’ve been writing about lately would have been wearing skates similar to these.

While these skates were of a style that had been used for centuries, skate design was on the cusp of dramatic change.  The 1850s saw many innovations, as ice-skating boomed in popularity.  Many different styles of clip-on and strap-on skates were being brought to market, as makers vied to make skates stronger, faster, and more stable.  The toe pick and the elongated blade extending beyond the back of the skate, both features of modern figure skates, hadn’t yet been thought of.  Stopping or turning in these old skates could be tricky!  Note the nail sticking up from the platform of the skate, which embedded itself in the heel of the wearer’s shoe, as a means of making the skate more stable.

American ice skates (1840-60), from the website "Skating ahead of the Curve"

Skating ahead of the Curve documents the newfangled skates being made at the time.  These skates, dating from 1840-60, have taken a leap forward in material and design.  Made mainly of metal, including cast steel, they feature a heel cup and thick leather straps that would have attached firmly to a boot or shoe.

American ice skates (1840-60), from the website "Skating ahead of the Curve"

The heel cup is decorated with a skating scene.

For more on 19th-century skates and skating,
see “Ice Skating in the 1860s: A Fashion and a Passion,”
a wonderful article by Betty Hughes.
This is the fourth in an occasional series on ice-skating.  Click here to read from the beginning.

A nation of bankers and shopkeepers

capital-projectWhen my father could still speak, he would sometimes ask, “Do we really want to be a nation of bankers and shopkeepers?”  By which he meant, “Do we really want to become a nation that doesn’t make things?”  And, when talking about the nation of “bankers and shopkeepers,” he would inevitably mention England, a once-great manufacturing power that had allowed its amazing industrial advantages to wither away, leaving only “the capitalists,” who controlled and circulated most of the wealth, and “the shopkeepers”—everyone else—who retailed things. Continue reading