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Review: Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore

by Seth Rockman

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008

Seth Rockman has written a powerful book that works in a sustained and convincing way on three levels simultaneously. At the most basic level, Scraping By is a rich history of poor people, a deeply-researched account of the multi-ethnic men, women, and children who performed the unskilled, often dangerous, and utterly necessary labors of Baltimore, a dynamic Atlantic port city, between 1790 and 1840. At a second level, the book exemplifies a new kind of labor history that treats race, class, gender, and capitalism in sophisticated, multi-dimensional ways. As such it offers a critique of previous artisan-based labor histories of early America. At a third level, the book is a moral and political commentary on conservative free-market ideology of late twentieth- and early twentieth-first century America and, relatedly, on the mythology that profoundly affects the way many see the nation and its history.

The book begins with shit. More precisely it begins with the labor of scraping shit off the streets of Baltimore and four men who in 1829 believed that they deserved to make more money for performing this important work. Worried that they might end up in the almshouse, toiling on the farm to which they now delivered the shit to serve as fertilizer, they petitioned authorities for an increase in wages. Thus begins what is truly a history from below with a profound materialist perspective.

The book is elegantly designed, even when earthy in subject. Chapter One, “Coming to Work in the City,” inaugurates an extended exploration of the Baltimore labor market and the profound economic insecurities it fostered. Chapter Two focuses on the experience of working men: how to get a job, is the question. It illuminates the varieties of work and the differential experiences of “term slaves,” hired-out slaves, indentured servants, and “free” proletarians. Rockman finds that mixed-race work-sites were common in Baltimore; the heterogeneity of workers expanded opportunities for exploitation by “enterprizing Capitalists” (231). Chapter Three analyzes life and work on the “Mud Machine,” the contraption that kept Baltimore’s busy harbor usable by sailing ships. For its workers, wage labor not a stage of life but a harsh, filthy lifelong fate.

Chapters Four and Five center on women’s work and “the hidden labor of capitalist economies” (101). Rockman explores the social and material lives of laundresses and domestic workers, then seamstresses and the important role they played in the strike of 1833 and a surrounding national debate about women’s wages, which in Baltimore were 6¼ ¢ per day. The argument of Chapter Six is conveyed by its title: “The Hard Work of Being Poor” surveys the survival strategies of Baltimore’s proletarians, from scavenging to pawning, to working at various menial jobs, to using poor relief. Chapter Seven maps the overlapping social functions of the Baltimore almshouse, as a place workers used for their own ends, a place elites used to establish up their own benevolent self-image, and a place capitalists used to create social discipline. The relevant motto was not “work or starve” as poor relief agencies insisted, it was “work and starve” (230). Rockman shows in Chapter Eight, “The Market’s Grasp,” that the combination of enslaved and so-called free labor intensified the treatment of labor as a commodity and expanded the power of the market, which did not undermine slavery, but rather entrenched it.

The book features dozens of life stories culled from fragmentary sources and assembled with great skill by Rockman. All are revealing and many are heartbreaking. The overseer of the Baltimore almshouse reduced the life of Zachariah Stallings to five words: labourer, venereal, no religion, tobacco. An enslaved young man named Equillo, seventeen or eighteen years old, worked at the backbreaking pumps at Jones Falls to enrich his master by a dollar a day. Michael Gorman, a runaway Irish indentured servant turned mudmachine worker, and his wife Bridget landed after some unknown calamity in the almshouse. Bridget died after three months “in a state of mental derangement.” Michael never regained independence, perishing in the institution nine years later (91-92). Rockman treats every life with an understanding of basic human needs, for food, shelter, health, family, and community, explaining why these were, for many, consistently denied within a capitalist political economy.

The likes of Stallings, Equillo, and the Gormans are among the most difficult historical subjects to study. Poor, mobile, and often illiterate, they left few records of their own and at the same time they usually slipped beneath the gaze of tax collectors because they had nothing to tax. Rockman has drawn comprehensively on municipal and state records, often of institutions such as the almshouse or the prison, and he has made tremendously creative use of commercial newspapers. Many will be surprised that a book of this depth and range on Baltimore’s motley proletariat has proven possible.

Moving to the second level on which the book operates, here is a novel treatment of laborers black and white, enslaved and free, male and female, old and young, waged and unwaged—all in the same story, within a great Atlantic moment of capitalist transformation. This combination of subjects is most unusual, especially in contrast to the artisan-based labor narratives that have long dominated early American history. Rockman offers “history from the bottom up,&lrquo; not history from the lower-middle up as studies of craftsmen have tended to be. He joins Peter Way and others in striking a blow against narrow labor histories that concentrate on artisans to the neglect of the proletarians below them in urban class systems.

The most original part of the Scraping By is, in my view, the analysis and critique of the market, a third level of engagement. Most accounts of the working of markets represent them as abstract, remote, neutral, and benign. Rockman presents a different image. In the lives of the workers of Baltimore the market was radically and concretely present, fiercely aggressive, actively malign, and perhaps above all else violent in the extreme. This is made clear through close attention to the workings of casual and seasonal labor markets according to skill, race, ethnicity, gender, age, and legal status. Rockman shows that the transformation of labor into a commodity and its ruthless subjection to laws of supply and demand made the market something other than “a force of human liberation” (258). The “invisible hand” was actually a fist that beat people bloody and often killed them.

By “Feeling the Invisible Hand” (252), Rockman engages the extended historical moment in which the book was written. Scraping By is thus a long, loud cri de couer against one of the main ideological mystifications of our time. In this regard the book put me in mind of another historical indictment, written in the era Rockman has studied, about an urban proletariat on the other side of the Atlantic. I refer to the classic work by Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844).

Against the myths of boundless upward mobility and liberty for all, Rockman writes, “To tell the story of American opportunity and freedom also requires telling the story of brute labor, severe material privation, and desperately constrained choices” (259). Moreover, the prosperity of the few depended on the misery of the many as wealth and poverty in early national Baltimore advanced together: the work of “chronically impoverished, often unfree, and generally unequal Americans…made the United States arguably the most wealthy, free, and egalitarian society in the Western world” (3).

The book ends with nationalist mythology. Rockman concludes with grand symbolism on the labor history of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Behind the anthem written by Baltimorean Francis Scott Key lay the seamstresses who sewed the “broad stripes and bright stars” and the black and white proletarians who built the ramparts, not to mention the mudmachine workers who made Fort McHenry worth defending in the first place!

I wish to make three modest criticisms. First, we need closer study of how Baltimore’s laborers were created—as laborers. How did they lose their means of subsistence and therefore have to work for wages or in slavery in Baltimore? Given how much Rockman has done to recover lost lives, it may seem ungrateful in the extreme to ask for more. But we must. Tracing the various paths of proletarianization requires learning all we can about the social and economic processes in West Africa, England, Ireland, Germany, and the United States that produced these propertyless workers in the first instance. In addition to the social relations of class, studied well by Rockman, we need more on the structural origins of class, which requires a broader Atlantic approach.

Second: resistance runs like a red thread through the book. Workers run away again and again, from masters, bosses, and almshouse overseers. They use their fast feet, their autonomous mobility, against the aggregating powers of capital. They re-appropriate the value of their labor through what the legal system called “theft.” They wage “perpetual warfare” against their employers (121). They make domestic service in the household “an increasingly confrontational site of class conflict” (125). They talk of strikes, conspiracies, riots, and the struggle for the ten-hour day. Why then is resistance never treated as the object of direct, sustained analysis in itself? Why is it never fully explored in its varieties and connections? This was, after all, the Atlantic “Age of Revolution.”

Third: if these are the workers who reproduced other workers; who built a “physical infrastructure of wharves, streets, canals, and railroads to facilitate the movement of goods” (18); who dredged the harbor and loaded and unloaded and manned the ships; if these are, in short, the workers who built Baltimore and made its dynamic production and trade possible, how on earth can Rockman call them marginal?

Scraping By is an ambitious, impressive, and fully realized piece of work that will engage and educate scholars, teachers, citizens, and activists. The book will take its place on the shelf beside the classics of early American labor history, written by Ira Berlin (yes, slavery has a labor history too), Richard B. Morris, Gary B. Nash, Billy G. Smith, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Alfred F. Young. By bringing together the histories of Baltimore’s enslaved and free workers in a new and creative way, Seth Rockman joins distinguished company.

Marcus Rediker
University of Pittsburgh

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