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Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo

Author(s):Ball, Molly C.
Reviewer(s):Grandi, Guilherme

Published by EH.Net (May 2022).

Molly C. Ball. Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2020. xx + 271 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-68340-171-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Guilherme Grandi, Professor of Economics at University of São Paulo.


“It is time to reencounter and reconsider economic history,” Molly Ball writes in the introduction to her book Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo. For the researcher, a history lecturer at the University of Rochester, the history of working-class families in São Paulo during the Old Republic period is an ideal subject when it comes to building on our knowledge of labor relations in this Latin American immigrant city from 1891 to 1930. Yet why does she make this claim? Probably because the history of labor and immigration in Brazil have customarily been a subject of study within Social History and Sociology, rather than Economic History. Nevertheless, this does not mean that there is a dearth of excellent work on this subject, produced by economic historians in Brazil and abroad.

Navigating Life finds its place among a set of studies where one of the biggest references is the work of Warren Dean. Originally published in 1969, his book entitled The Industrialization of São Paulo opened up a field of research opportunities on labor and industry in one of Latin America’s immigration cities. Dean was a pioneer in highlighting the role played by foreign migrants in the development of industry in São Paulo. Other researchers followed Dean down this path, including Wilson Cano with his Raízes da concentracão industrial em São Paulo (The Roots of Industrial Concentration in São Paulo), first published in 1977. However, Ball’s book is most importantly in dialog with immigration studies in Brazil. It is an addition to other valuable studies on migration streams and living conditions for workers coming into southeastern Brazil. In this sense, she opens a window, allowing us to penetrate deeper into rank-and-file Paulistano workers’ lives. Using an up-to-date statistical method combined with other social research techniques, Ball lays bare some of the quirks of the labor market in Old Republic São Paulo, such as the discriminatory practices used against women workers, Portuguese immigrants, and Afro-Brazilians.

It is crucial to put her study in perspective in relation to others, because it has advanced an understanding of how life and work were articulated in São Paulo during the period in question. It is interesting to note that Sidney Chalhoub, the author of Trabalho, lar e botequim (Labor, Home and Tavern), did something quite similar in his study on the daily life of workers in Rio de Janeiro during the belle époque. Moreover, Santos e Imigração na Belle Époque (Santos and Immigration in Belle Époque), a diligent study by Marília Cánovas, also deserves mention regarding the historical reality of Spanish immigrants in Santos, a port city in the state of São Paulo. These works (the former published in 1986 and the latter in 2017) provide us with a range of evidence that can be compared to some of Ball’s findings.

Ethnic identity is one of them. Ball shows that there was a pronounced difference in relation to workers’ nationality that strongly impacted how immigrants entered São Paulo’s formal labor market and the results they were capable of obtaining. The prejudice held by Paulistano entrepreneurs, as identified by the author in her discussion of workers from Portugal, is emblematic and revealing in this regard. She shows how Portuguese immigrants experienced hiring discrimination in São Paulo, while German, Austrian and Italian immigrants could hold jobs that led to mobility into the working middle class. This unequal treatment also impacted access to health and education services for their children and relatives. This meant that Portuguese and Afro-Brazilians descendants were disproportionately hired for unskilled positions as compared to other foreign nationals. According to Ball, white workers were more likely to find a job in medium-skilled positions, corresponding to nine out of every ten workers hired. In contrast, black and pardo workers were more likely to be hired for unskilled positions, accounting for around 19 percent of these positions.

As Joel Wolfe had already pointed out in Working Women, Working Man, a study published in 1993, the gender gap is another fascinating topic highlighted by Ball. The wage disparity between men and women in the city of São Paulo is shown by using original archival and primary sources, like company reports, worker records, newspaper price databases, and cost-of-living surveys that she found in researching several Brazilian, American, and European archives. In examining the historical reality of four economic sectors (railroad, energy and urban transport, textile, and department stores), Ball discusses patterns and trends related to the hopes and behaviors of workers in the Paulistano labor market. What opportunities were available to them in terms of going on strike, job replacement, wage bargaining, and so on? The author emphasizes how different groups had shared expectations based on gender, racial, and national identities. In fact, black people, unskilled workers, and women frequently faced significant hiring discrimination and persistent wage disparities in Old Republic São Paulo. The research she has undertaken makes this clear and shows how difficult it was for these groups of people to find opportunities for advancement and social mobility throughout this period. She succinctly writes that “workers adapted their strategies to navigate the discrimination they faced.”

The most remarkable feature of Navigating Life is its research method, in line with New Economic History guidelines. Throughout the book’s six chapters, but particularly in Chapters 1 and 4, robust statistical evidence puts the labor history of Old Republic São Paulo at the same level that others have already placed places like Buenos Aires in Argentina and New York in the United States. Like São Paulo, these cities were highly sought out by European immigrants during the so-called First Globalization, i.e., between 1870 and 1914. Undoubtedly, Ball’s book has already found a place as essential literature in studies on living conditions experienced by workers in São Paulo during the golden age of the coffee economy. With plenty of well-founded arguments, it is an outstanding work of research that goes beyond paraphrasing the best and most widely-known interpretations of São Paulo’s economic and social history, so to speak, along with classical works on Brazilian historiography. Researchers with an interest in the labor history and economics of Brazil’s biggest city have a lot to gain from a reading of Navigating Life.


Cano, W. (1990), Raízes da concentração industrial em São Paulo. 3a ed. São Paulo: Hucitec.

Cánovas, M.D.K. (2017), Santos e Imigração na Belle Époque. Os Espanhóis – Cotidiano Urbano, Práticas Associativas e Militância Política (1880-1922). São Paulo: Edusp.

Chalhoub, S. (2012), Trabalho, lar e botrquim: o cotidiano dos trabalhadores no Rio de Janeiro da belle époque. 3a ed. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp.

Dean, W. (1969), The Industrialization of São Paulo. 1880-1945. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Wolfe, J. (1993), Working Women, Working Men: São Paulo and the Rise of Brazil’s Industrial Working Class, 1900-1955. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Guilherme Grandi is Professor of Economics at University of São Paulo. His research focuses on the history of transports, immigration, and labor history. He is the author of Estado e capital ferroviário em São Paulo (Alameda, 2013) and the co-organizer of História Econômica do Brasil: Primeira República e Era Vargas (Hucitec/Eduff, 2020).

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII