Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 14, 2010
Anthony W. Lee A Shoemaker's Story: Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees, and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Town Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. 314 pp.; 1 color ills.; 136 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780691133256)

In 1870, a North Adams, MA, shoe manufacturer named Calvin Sampson faced a labor crisis. His mostly French Canadian workforce had organized themselves into a union and had gone out on strike, demanding a closed shop and the right to tie their wages to Sampson’s profits. Sampson sent his superintendent to San Francisco to hire strikebreakers. On June 13, 1870, 12,000 local residents gathered at the North Adams train station to await the arrival of Sampson’s new recruits: seventy-five Chinese laborers, mostly under twenty years old. Miraculously, the newcomers made it to Sampson’s factory unscathed. Sampson’s first act, oddly enough, was to have their portrait taken as a group, assembled together on the factory’s south lawn. With the Chinese still in their traveling clothes, the photographer lined up all seventy-five subjects and made a wet-plate, large-format photograph with both a single and a stereographic lens. A Shoemaker’s Story is a sustained social and photographic history that offers a thick description of the circumstances of this puzzling photograph, a version of which serves as the book’s frontispiece. Anthony Lee sees images such as this one as “not merely illustrations but sites of historical struggle” (9). Using the Sampson photograph as an organizing device, Lee provides four chapters, each dedicated to what the different stakeholders saw in the image: the shoe manufacturer, the photographer, the French Canadian shoe workers, and the Chinese laborers. The chapters read this image through a methodology that combines social history with close readings of the topic’s (mostly photographic) visual culture.

One would think there is little new to be discovered about the history of New England, the most written-about region in the United States, or even about the shoe industry, so exceptionally covered by Alan Dawley’s 1976 study Class and Community (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Lee proves otherwise. Chinese strikebreakers in the 1870s Berkshires? Really? Although the book has much to offer as an intervention into the historiography of New England industrialization, its brilliance lies with the beautifully crafted prose and careful observation—displaying a refined ethics of sensitive engagement with the past—as well as the depth of its research. Paradoxically, for a book about labor history (which this is, in part), Lee’s own research labor is modestly effaced. Like a Precisionist painting, the seamless clarity of Lee’s story hides the labor behind the smooth surface: in this case, transnational archival trips, cold-calling North Adams descendents, slogging through nineteenth-century newspapers—all for a story that Lee must have sensed, or intuited, before he had the evidence to confirm. At the end of the book, we learn that one rainy day in North Adams, Lee accidentally came across a floor plan of Sampson’s shoe factory upon which the illustrator had indicated the “Chinese bunkroom” (273). From this laconic lead, Lee created a new chapter in American social and cultural history using an archive that no one knew existed and that, indeed, he created in order to tell this story. There’s an emotional labor in that scholarly leap of faith as well: will all this endless detective work add up to anything? The answer, of course, is yes: this is a brilliant study that speaks to nineteenth-century transnational capitalism; to the intertwined histories of the local and the global; and to the role of images in shaping history, politics, and identity.

In the first chapter, “What the Shoe Manufacturer Saw,” Lee sets the stage for the book’s story by providing a detailed social history of shoe manufacturing in the postbellum Northeast. Lee organizes his narrative through a focus on Sampson. As Sampson’s business grew in the 1860s, the factory’s mechanized stitching and pegging machines exhausted the local labor supply (perhaps in both senses of the word): Sampson began importing French Canadian workers, who soon became the factory’s main labor source. Seemingly overnight, North Adams became one-third foreign born, a development that was exceptional in the area. In 1869, when Sampson bought a new, larger factory designed for steam power, the largely French Canadian workforce recognized that the increased mechanization would begin to shrink their numbers. They organized themselves into a union called the Order of the Knights of St. Crispin. Quickly, Sampson and the Crispins were at loggerheads, as Sampson refused to honor the union demands.

Once having sketched the conflict’s labor and business history, Lee offers a detailed panorama of contemporaneous historical formations that bear upon his reading of what Sampson saw in the Chinese group portrait. This portion of the chapter covers three main areas: relative marginalization of workers within 1860s and 1870s visual culture, as the inspiring marvels of modern technology trump specific focus on those performing the labor central to the machine’s productivity; the emerging visibility of workers in the eye of the state, as the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics and Labor focused on labor conditions as a result of the Crispin agitation; and the shifting debates about Chinese labor in the national and local press, which covered Sampson’s Chinese strikebreakers extensively. As the press focused on the accommodations Sampson made for his workers (dining hall, dormitory, Sunday schools, recreation, individual studio portraits), Sampson struck back with his own representation: a portrait of his factory, with North Adams reduced to a pastoral landscape, with no workers in view at all. It is corporate public relations, then, that Sampson “sees” in the photograph of the Chinese workers against the south wall: an instrumental effort to put workers in their place, subordinated to an idealized (from a managerial perspective) industrial order. In making this move to the corporate use of industrial image-making, Lee joins a lively scholarly conversation informed by the work of David Nye, Roland Marchand, Allan Sekula, and Alan Trachtenberg, among others, although this scholarship is not included in the book itself.

A second chapter, “What the Photographers Saw,” visits the group portrait from the perspective of nineteenth-century commercial photography. Here, Lee uses the experiences of two local photographers—William P. Hurd and Henry D. Ward—to interrogate the history of commercial photographic production in the last third of the nineteenth century. At a moment when local appetites for the usual fare of Hoosic Tunnel machinery and local landscapes had long been sated, the Chinese arrival represented an opportunity to provide new subject matter. But what was the photographic genre at play in this new subject? Lee suggests that Hurd and Ward had at least three options, which he historicizes at some length in this detailed chapter: studio portraiture, photojournalism, or the picturesque. In the context of photography’s own industrialization, i.e., as the factory model of photographic stereoview companies such as New Hampshire’s Kilburn brothers threatened to squash local practices such as those of Hurd and Ward, the economic stakes of this question were considerable. Toward the close of this chapter, Lee shows how the Chinese themselves rendered these considerations moot, as they returned to the studios again and again, of their own accord, to have portraits taken in which they willfully upended all the niceties of studio convention: in poses, gestures, and imported props, the Chinese laborers “orchestrated the sittings as they pleased” (140).

Chapter 3, “What the Crispins Saw,” examines the image from the viewpoint of the displaced French Canadian shoe workers. Much of the chapter is a social history of the French Canadians, who came to New England in the period between 1860–1880 pulled by the promise of work, and pushed by the class and culture-inflected brutality of British rule in French-speaking Quebec. Borrowing from the writings of William Safran and James Clifford, Lee argues that the French Canadians brought to North Adams a “diasporic identity,” one that was marked by themes of displacement and wandering (153). In making this move, Lee enriches the historiography of New England industrialization, which has mostly been written about through the lens of migration and settlement rather than diaspora and return. The mill experience magnified the sense of an inherited Francophone social identity, as well as helping to shape the contours of an “American” working class, where workers were pitted against a managerial class. In North Adams, the French Canadian Crispins pursued contradictory strategies: accepting the wage cut demanded by Sampson, as well as the humiliation of ignored union demands; with other union labor, advocating for the full exclusion of the Chinese; trying to organize the Chinese into their own Crispin local; organizing a worker-owned shoe manufacturing cooperative; and returning to Canada across the porous nineteenth-century border. However, other French Canadians chose to stay, and in doing so, Lee argues, they “augmented the condition of living in the diaspora” (180). They made the shift “from cultural politics to class politics, and in the long run, from being migrants moving back and forth across the border to becoming immigrants with economic and political commitments in North Adams” (192).

Lee’s photographic artifacts include two group portraits of worker cooperatives; studio occupational portraits, commissioned by individual French Canadians; and an arresting portrait of shoemaker William Vial as a comic figure, in blackface and curly wig. Lee reads these images in relationship to the Crispins’ shift from migrants to (racialized) immigrants, a shift that in the context of this period is also a shift toward whiteness, which involved a move away from the Chinese, who Alexander Saxton, in The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), has called white nativist labor’s “indispensable enemy” (indeed, Chinese immigration was ended by Federal law in 1882, two years after Sampson refused to renew the Chinese laborers’ contracts). French Canadians, once castigated as the “Chinese of the Eastern States,” were provisional whites in a period when racial (later to be known as ethnic) categories were being reorganized. Borrowing from Eric Lott and Michael Rogin, both scholars of blackface minstrelsy, Lee reads the poorly applied cork and haphazard wig as performing the rhetoric of an in-between people tied explicitly to the industrializing working class. In Lee’s close observation, the literal focal point of the image is the bottom of Vial’s boot, where his considerable skill as a bottomer was uniquely in focus. The picture, Lee argues, “everywhere suggests Vial’s historical consciousness and his sense of himself as being caught in a web of racial and class politics being spun by others” (196).

Lee’s last chapter, “What the Chinese Saw,” returns to the theme of the Chinese migrants’ self-fashioning before the camera’s lens. This is a superb chapter in which Lee’s exceptional skills at close reading build a historical archive and a persuasive narrative about the role of photography in the lives of these surprising 1880s North Adams residents. The photographs analyzed here are a series of studio portraits produced by the commercial photographers discussed in chapter 2, and which Lee was able to track down, presumably, in the “overstuffed photo boxes” of North Adams’ current residents (274). Lee shows how the Chinese repeatedly returned to the studios over the decade, bringing with them specific props (“teapots and teacups, fans and porcelain vases” (219)), dressed in formal tunic, and accessorized with rings, watches, and other displays of distinction. In a wonderful analysis of the sitters’ poses, Lee shows how the Chinese laborers mimicked the portraits of Chinese aristocrats and funeral portraiture where the magnificence of presence was signaled through splayed legs and a bulky physicality. Through his analysis of these portraits, Lee shows how self-fashioning allowed the sitters to confront and redefine the instrumental work of Sampson’s group portrait in constructing a new group identity of “Chinese” where none had existed before.

In turning to the role of the sitter in constructing his own image, Lee contributes to the social-historical move to find individual autonomy, or “agency,” in the uneven power relations that defined the Chinese laborers’ lives. This move to “look back” at the camera’s instrumental gaze (even in the context of studio portraiture) has been an important corrective in photography scholarship over the last twenty years, as scholars such as bell hooks and Deborah Willis have emphasized not only the role of stereotype and power in the representation of subaltern groups but also how such groups used the camera to make history, although not in conditions of their own making—to paraphrase Marx. Yet this approach of “looking back at the camera” nonetheless reinscribes the individual as the subject, and object, of history, thereby sidestepping the complex microphysics of power and knowledge that work to constitute the “individual” in the first place. Lee’s attention to larger questions of global political economy, so deftly analyzed in his discussions of the Pearl Delta Chinese and the Quebecois French, seem to promise a reading that would tie these images, as technologies of the self, to the global market in people and commodities. Those seeking a way out of the tired and long-familiar historiographic paradigms of “agency” vs. the repressive state apparatus, however, are advised to keep looking.

For its many other contributions, then, A Shoemaker’s Story will justifiably find a place in the historiography of photography, immigration, the visual culture of diaspora, and nineteenth-century industrialization. It is a model of research design, engaging narrative prose, and close attention to the specificity of form. At times I wished for some further attention to the scholarly discussions concerning his subfields—Dona Brown on regional tourism and the New England landscape, for example; or Trachtenberg on mining photographs—but clearly Lee has a different goal in mind here, with streamlined notes the result (Dona Brown, Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995; and Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, New York: Hill and Wang, 1989). Telling a new story in old-fashioned ways, he has crafted an exquisite piece of scholarship whose very title suggests the traditional detective work essential to both good history and compelling prose.

Elspeth H. Brown
Director, Centre for the Study of the United States, University of Toronto