Michael K. Rosenow. Death and Dying in the Working Class, 1865-1920. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015. xii + 223 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08071-5.
Reviewed by Atiba Pertilla (New York University, German Historical Institute of Washington, DC)
Published on H-SHGAPE (February, 2016)
Commissioned by K. Stephen Prince (University of South Florida)
How "Deathways" Enlivened the Working Class
In Death and Dying in the Working Class, 1865–1920, Michael K. Rosenow traces ideas of death and encounters with the dying in American working-class culture from the Civil War to the World War I years. In many ways Rosenow is striking out in new territory, noting that studies of injury and occupational disease among the working class are “far more voluminous” than those examining death (p. 157). In order to pursue his examination of class identity, Rosenow uses space, the body, masculinity, and ethnicity as tools of analysis. He argues that “deathways”—the routines and rituals surrounding death, mourning, and burial—provided opportunities for mourning families and coworkers to take solace and gain psychological strength for resistance to oppressive working conditions. Deathways also allowed working-class men and women to assert their dignity in the face of their dehumanization by indifferent corporate managers, government officials, and journalists. Collective mourning gave fractured ethnic communities opportunities to recognize each other’s humanity and gather together to resist class-based oppression.
The Gilded Age years saw an “industrial accident crisis” in which workplace deaths ranged from 25,000 to 80,000 per year (p. 8). Rates of death and injury were far higher in the United States than in Germany and other major industrial nations. Ideas about race and ethnicity proved useful in justifying this human toll. As the industrial workforce included ever larger numbers of southern and eastern European immigrants, “native-born Americans” (largely, that is, men and women with colonial-era British emigrant ancestors) “mapped to workers’ bodies” pseudoscientific theories of mental inferiority in order “to justify exploitation” (pp. 27–28). These attitudes produced a broadly felt callousness which held that, in the words of one census officer, the “‘best interests of society will be served by permitting the least valuable members … to be victims’” of workplace deaths (quoted p. 29). In this sense, Rosenow’s study might profitably be read alongside Daniel E. Bender’s American Abyss (2009), which examines from the viewpoint of native-stock Americans the intertwining of hopes for industrial progress with fears that other ethnic and racial groups threatened American civilization and national development. Such dehumanizing attitudes helped establish the conditions in which deathways became key components for industrial workers in resisting social exclusion and workplace exploitation.
The first chapter, “The Marks of Capital,” is an excellent model of how the history of the body and labor history can be brought together. This chapter on its own might be a useful selection for a course reading as an example of connections between Progressive reform and specific health crises. While the late nineteenth century is most often thought of as an era when the scale of industrial production rapidly boomed to unprecedented levels, Rosenow argues that it must also be seen as a period that transformed the bodies of industrial workers. Injuries from hand tools in a craftsman’s workshop were as nothing compared with the dangers of mechanized factories and mines carved out with dynamite and propped up with flimsy scaffolding. Workplace injury came to be seen as a valid public policy concern, first by focusing on bodily difference (i.e., female workers needing special consideration as potential mothers) and then gradually expanding to all workers. “Vulnerable bodies” became “a key narrative of Progressive Era reform” (p. 39). These concerns interacted with increasing attention to workplace death.
The three following chapters focus on deathways in three different but very important contexts. Chapter 2 is about graveyards and the commemoration of death in Chicago, the archetypal industrial metropolis. The third and fourth chapters focus on coal and steel, arguably the raw material and finished product that fueled the industrial economy more than any others, with chapter 3 examining miners’ lives and deaths in southern Illinois while chapter 4 is about factory workers in Homestead and other steel communities in the industrial suburbs of Pittsburgh. While this geographic diversity is noteworthy, it is regrettable that the study does not look further west or southward. It would be interesting to know how workplace deaths were marked in Southern textile mills, for example, where women and boys and girls worked in large numbers.
The heart of the study is chapter 3, in which Rosenow vividly reconstructs life in the coal-mining communities of downstate Illinois. Here, Rosenow delves into official statistics, local newspapers, and labor journals to illustrate the variety of hazards miners faced and how communities developed “hybrid deathways” that combined religious, ethnic, and fraternal-order traditions to mark deaths due to accidents, labor violence, and mass disasters. As one Illinois state agency grimly noted, for every 250,000 tons of coal mined, “there is burned the flesh and bones of some unfortunate man” (p. 79). In that state alone, some 3,000 men and boys died in mining accidents over the course of thirty years.
Rosenow’s discussion of how miners and other industrial workers sought to secure for themselves a “good death” shows how the history of deathways sheds light on ideas of masculinity and labor in the Gilded Age. The components of a good death included a funeral whose cost did not exhaust family resources and a tombstone with one' s own name rather than burial in an anonymous potter's field. Working men were anxious to demonstrate by these signs that they had been good providers to their families. When they gathered together to commemorate their fellow workers' deaths in gravesite funerals, men validated each other’s roles as family patriarchs and their humanity. Workers killed in the course of labor violence were commemorated in mass funerals that deliberately echoed traditions associated with commemorating the war dead. Afterward, the circulation of symbols of mourning in print culture (e.g., labor periodical reports of funerals) and the establishment of permanent gravesite memorials all “created a culture of solidarity that buttressed the economic calculus of craft unionism” (p. 97). Communities that might initially have been divided by geographic or denominational traditions found over time that commemorating their shared humanity with these rituals and permanent symbols made labor union and political organizing more feasible.
Rosenow’s nuanced treatment of gender ideology makes me wish he had provided an additional case study focused on the deaths of working-class women and the response of working-class women to death. As Rosenow briefly notes, industrial communities were perilous for women and children as well as male laborers. In one steel-town neighborhood one in every three children died before the age of two. Deaths in childbirth were also likely high. I found myself wondering what terms were used to describe the deaths of working-class women due to grimy living conditions, and about the meanings ascribed to the deaths of women killed in the workplace. In addition, what would we learn from listening to the voices of the women who prepared bodies for burial and cooked the repasts that were an important component of mourning male workers?
In the book’s final pages, Rosenow suggests that the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, in which 123 women and 23 men died, illustrated the emergence of a new culture in which deathways had the power to shape political action. It would have been interesting to learn in more detail whether the Triangle fire’s male and female victims were commemorated in the same ways and how memories of their deaths were deployed in the successful campaign for factory safety regulation that followed. The epilogue carries the book’s arguments from the end of World War I to the threshold of the New Deal. Rosenow argues that these years saw the culmination of a long process by which workers had learned to use funerals and death rituals to demonstrate their humanity, stake claims to public recognition of workplace injustice, and name potential solutions for its amelioration. Death rituals “made powerful arguments that the country’s industrial present and economic future were being built on the backs of millions of workers” (p. 154). If we would seek to understand the emergence of a unified working class from communities fractured along ethnic lines, Rosenow argues, we must understand how deathways offered a stark challenge to traditional American narratives of individualist upward mobility. For scholars seeking insight into the formation of class identity among the industrial workforce and an intellectually creative use of methodologies to examine the links between religion, ethnicity, and class, Rosenow’s study provides an evocative study of social transformation as well as introducing a rich field for further research.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-shgape.
Atiba Pertilla. Review of Rosenow, Michael K., Death and Dying in the Working Class, 1865-1920.
H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews.
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