is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Artisan Workers in the Upper South: Petersburg, Virginia, 1820-1865

Author(s):Barnes, L. Diane
Reviewer(s):Green, Jennifer R.

Published by EH.NET (March 2009)

L. Diane Barnes, Artisan Workers in the Upper South: Petersburg, Virginia, 1820-1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008. xi + 253 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8071-3313-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jennifer R. Green, Department of History, Central Michigan University.

Artisan Workers in the Upper South places white and black skilled workers of antebellum Petersburg, Virginia, into the narrative of an industrializing, capitalist Old South. L. Diane Barnes, associate professor of history at Youngstown State University, adds a welcome case study of skilled laborers (interchangeably artisans or mechanics) to the ongoing scholarship on the ranks between planter and slave. Her clean, clear prose capably describes Petersburg?s development into the sixth largest southern manufacturing center; the town?s success began in tobacco manufacturing and processing (which, interestingly for the book?s modernization argument, ?was not subject to mechanization until after the Civil War?), but flour, grist, and textile mills and iron manufacturing plus five railroads increased the city?s commercial importance (p. 18). This straight-forward text confirms the well-known narrative of the division of labor but leaves larger questions of artisan class and culture open for further exploration.

After a chapter on Petersburg?s development, chapters proceed in a top-down order, commencing with the Petersburg Benevolent Merchant Association (PBMA), founded in 1825, by ?upwardly mobile master mechanics? (p. 36). These ?mechanics-turned-industrialists? or ?capitalist-entrepreneurs? earned enough not to rely on direct aid from the society but obtained loans through it and felt the obligation to educate journeymen and apprentices. Their success is exemplified in Barnes?s calculations that members owned slaves at impressive rates: 99 percent in 1825, which dropped to 82 percent in the 1840s.

The next chapter exhibits the many white artisans who did not succeed to the PBMA level, especially as the division of labor forced some into wage labor and altered apprenticeship and the types of occupations within the developing proto-industrial system. Barnes finds these mechanics less likely to remain in Petersburg and to possess slaves (12 percent) than their richer PBMA counterparts. Other than three petitions during tough economic times against African-American laborers, white mechanics accepted black workers. The chapter well describes the artisans selecting their trades, such as forging, yet failing to attain self-sufficiency, but it leaves how ?work cultures altered? for the majority of men ? and their connections with Suzanne Lebsock’s free women[1] ? substantially unaddressed.

Below white artisans on the social scale were free African Americans. Petersburg had a higher percentage and number of free African Americans than any other city by 1850. Approximately two-thirds of them were unskilled and 14 percent were skilled. They inhabited their own neighborhood, developed their own churches, and created a benevolent society. Barnes finds that Petersburg free blacks experienced less racism than did their northern counterparts (as described in secondary sources) and had opportunities for success. Indeed, 22 skilled (and 53 total) African Americans owned slaves themselves, and unsurprisingly no primary sources address their reasons.

Industrial slavery, certainly a component of the industrial development in the Old South, came to Petersburg as the increasing diversification of Virginia crops meant that more slaves were hired out. Tobacco factories provided enslaved African Americans with more free time than iron manufactures. Thus, many enslaved Petersburg residents benefited from living among the free black community.

A final chapter concludes that northern and southern mechanics embraced similar values, although the South possessed a ?permanent underclass? of blacks, which united whites in a Herrenvolk democracy (p. 195). Racial prejudice aside, more direct evidence of mechanics? beliefs, if available, would have elaborated their views. Barnes states that white mechanics, across regional and wealth divisions, used republicanism to validate manual labor, but examples derive from the early PBMA. No evidence confirms that artisans desired to be planters (rather than slave-owning industrialists, for example) or that free blacks ?expressed aspirations and concerns that closely mirrored those of the white members of the PBMA? (p. 156). Lastly, a brief epilogue of fifteen pages covers secession and deprivation from lack of supplies and high inflation suffered during wartime in Petersburg.

Employing the PBMA records, tax lists, directories, newspapers, court records, and a few diaries, Artisan Workers in the Upper South aptly presents the situation of Petersburg artisans; stories of individuals? lives and wonderful photographs, mostly from wartime, enrich the text. The chapter organization, however, discourages comparisons between Petersburg?s laboring groups and creates some repetitiveness. Barnes addresses slaveholding and notes individuals? property possessions (e.g., pp. 88-89) but waits until the last chapter for a brief comparison of the property values of two successful PBMA members and their thirty-three employees (p. 187). More such aggregate data, including income comparisons, would have provided a more comprehensive picture.

She accurately asserts that the division of labor made PBMA members into business owners and forced many other mechanics into wage labor. Because the text does not well demonstrate change over time, however, the processes of the development remain unclear; this is especially evident in tables covering the entire period or Table 5 without any date indication. Also, no theoretical explanation or definition of classes clarifies the differences. Members of the PBMA alternately could ?enter the master class,? ?formed the core of an emerging middle class,? and ?entered the professional classes? (pp. 7, 43, and 181). Barnes states they separated themselves by ?adopt[ing] middle-class values, emphasizing temperance and self-improvement through education? (p. 200). However, temperance and the schooling of PBMA offspring are not discussed. For Barnes, a mechanic-turned-entrepreneur owning 62 slaves and employing 300 and, for that matter, planter Edmund Ruffin (PBMA member) were ?at the top of Petersburg?s artisan hierarchy? (46). In contrast, less successful white artisans were a ??middling class?? (quotation marks in the original reinforce the term?s indistinctness), ?formed a new working class,? and were a ?middling working class? (pp. 68, 70, and 71). The text relies on the ?middling? terminology and mostly eschews that of working class; it also equates physicians and tobacconists to saddlers at the same time as it identifies the former two as ?elite occupations? (p. 94).

This text well confirms other authors? studies and retells a familiar historical story; unfortunately, generalizations and an often unsatisfying use of secondary sources deemphasize Petersburg?s significance. Comparisons help confirm the city?s similarity to national and/or regional developments, such as Michele Gillespie?s important portrayal of Georgia artisans; they too often rely on one or two sentences from the same few studies, however. The final chapter, for example, offers forty percent of its footnotes on primary sources and twenty-eight percent on the conclusions of three authors. Recent works on the industrializing antebellum South support Barnes?s findings, but perhaps the production process prohibited the consultation of post-2004 works as none appear in the bibliography.

As Peter Coclanis commented in 2007[2], scholarship of the early South no longer centers on economic history; Barnes?s text, however, does reflect the ?studies on targeted populations in specific areas? of recent years. Artisan Workers in the Upper South creates an interesting case study for students of the antebellum South as it illustrates different strata of southern skilled workers, black and white. Economic historians specifically may desire more data and synthesis than is provided. Petersburg may well have been a ?shining example of the industrializing South,? where the division of labor encouraged a separation among artisans, but how to assess that separation and what it meant remain open for investigation (p. 13).


1. Suzanne Lebsock, The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860 (W. W. Norton, 1985).

2. Peter A. Coclanis, ?Esse Est Percipi: The Strange Case of Early American Economic History,? Journal of Southern History, 73 (August 2007).

Jennifer R. Green is associate professor of history at Central Michigan University and (in Spring 2009) Visiting Professor at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. In addition to articles, she is author of Military Education and the Emerging Middle Class in the Old South (Cambridge, 2008), which won the American Educational Research Association New Scholars Book Prize for 2007-2008, and editor of The Southern Middle Class in the Nineteenth Century (Louisiana State University Press, forthcoming, with Jonathan Daniel Wells). Her email is

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century