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The Shoemakers of Lynn, Massachusetts, 1850-1880: The Family during the Transition from Hand to Machine Labor

Author(s):Mulligan, William H.
Mulligan, William H.
Mulligan, William H.
Mulligan, William H.
Reviewer(s):Taylor, Christiane Diehl

Published by EH.NET (August 2007)

William H. Mulligan, Jr., The Shoemakers of Lynn, Massachusetts, 1850-1880: The Family during the Transition from Hand to Machine Labor. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006. vii + 156 pp. $100 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7734-5586-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Christiane Diehl Taylor, Department of History, Eastern Kentucky University.

With the shoemaking families of Lynn, Massachusetts serving as his sample, William H. Mulligan Jr., Professor of History at Murray State University in Kentucky, examines the effects of rapid mechanization on the family lives of skilled American workers in regard to household and family size, fertility, and the family’s role in skill transmission. Although he raises a number of interesting observations, his conclusions tend to reinforce rather than add to historians’ understanding of industrialization’s effects on families.

Mulligan begins by tracing the development of the Lynn shoe industry prior to 1850. Drawing upon 1970s sources dealing with early industrialization and the New England shoe industry, including the work of Mary Blewett, Alan Dawley, Tamara Hareven, and Stuart Blumin, he characterizes shoe production as pre-industrial in that it was a putting out system in which the families of cordwainers toiled in ten-footers located near their homes, with female family members serving as binders and male members as jours, i.e. those who made the soles for shoes and then attached shoe uppers to the soles. These families worked for independent contractors who supplied the materials and sold the finished product. Although Mulligan aptly notes that the barriers to becoming a contractor remained relatively low in that entry required only enough capital to pay for raw materials and having an ample supply of market contacts, larger contractors dominated Lynn shoe production. In making his claim regarding larger contractors and his argument that female employment was more prevalent in Lynn than in other New England shoe production areas, Mulligan relies on the 1832 McLane Report of U.S. Manufactures, which includes only sixty-one Lynn shoe firms. Therefore, the conclusions that he can draw from such a sample are directional rather than definitive in nature. He also does not explain why Lynn employed more females.

The issue of sample size also affects the conclusions that Mulligan can draw from his demographic analysis of Lynn families in 1850. Based on manuscript census data, he argues that households were as likely to be comprised of nuclear families as they were families augmented with servants or boarders and lodgers, who were often related to the resident family. Among cordwainers, boarders and lodgers were more evident when either female or offspring employment were absent, namely during initial childbearing years and later in life when children had established their own households. Females in cordwainer households had fewer children and had them in a significantly shorter time-span than other families in similar economic circumstances. This was because these women worked as binders and therefore limited the number of years in which child-bearing and -rearing demands prevented their employment. Although Mulligan uses a total sample of 1,500 individuals, much of his analysis is based on 238 households, which he breaks down even further by household type (nuclear, extended, etc.), age cohort, and profession and then cross-tabulates. The resulting data sets are small and make his conclusions statistically directional at best. The lack of income data also makes it impossible to compare the economic circumstances of Lynn households with any degree of certainty. The presence of additional income sources within an unskilled household could offset the income differential between skilled and unskilled household heads.

Prior to carrying out a similar demographic analysis of Lynn families and households in 1880, Mulligan draws upon technological and company histories and The Dictionary of American Biography to summarize the mechanization of shoemaking. While machinery was used to prepare the materials used in shoemaking prior to 1850, the mechanization of shoe production began with the introduction of sewing machines during 1850s and was not complete until 1890. Mulligan raises two key but already familiar observations during this discussion. The successful mechanization of the shoe industry required a convergence of factors, namely an increase in demand, technological improvements, and a means to facilitate technological adoption. In the case of the shoe industry, McKay Associates, which developed critical pieces of machinery for the industry, leased their equipment, serviced it, and trained the operatives, all for very reasonable fees. Thereby McKay reduced the capital investment and risk for shoe manufacturers.

For his examination of the effects of mechanization on family and household size and fertility, Mulligan employs the 1880 census and concludes that former cordwainer families now resembled their unskilled counterparts in terms of fertility and family and household size. In very few instances does he make comparisons between 1880 and 1850 data. Although job classifications had changed by 1880, he does not aggregate his classifications so that direct comparisons are possible. Moreover, he classifies households and families differently than in 1850, thereby further hindering direct comparison. Once again, given the small size of the groups comprising his cross-tabulations, his conclusions are statistically directional at best. Because there is no income data or other evidence of economic status in 1880 presented, it is problematic to attribute such demographic changes solely to women’s unemployment and the resultant need for other family and household members to contribute to household income. Mulligan does use the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics from 1875 to discuss the cost of living of thirty-six Lynn shoemaking families and concludes that single wage earner families could not meet cost of living expenses and that only in families in which children were employed did income exceed living costs. Neither is this new information nor does it compensate for the lack of 1880 income data

Mulligan concludes by discussing how mechanization affected familial transmission of job skills. Employing such primary sources as the Vital Records of Lynn, Massachusetts, the Register of the Lynn Historical Society, census records, firm correspondence, and diaries, he notes that while children still followed their elders into the shoemaking trade, assuring acquisition of the necessary job skills fell to the factory rather than the family. Families now served as the informational sources for job and housing opportunities. Once again, while important observations, they echo previous scholarship.

Such reiteration and lack of statistical rigor erode the value of Mulligan’s study. Moreover in his final chapter, he notes that mechanization did not alter the structure of families in any significant way. Given his focus, this statement should spur the reader to ask: given its price of nearly $100, just how much does this volume truly enhance my understanding of family life during industrialization?

Christiane Diehl Taylor’s research interests center on social capital. She is currently completing a history of corporate wives in the twentieth century.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century