A Historic Context for the Archaeology of

Industrial Labor in the State of Maryland


by Robert C. Chidester

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IX. Analysis and Discussion of Labor Archaeology in Maryland

     Virtually all of the archaeological study of labor in Maryland has been cultural resource management archaeology.  The financial and time limits imposed upon such research may sometimes lead to the recording of more visible industrial sites rather than less visible labor sites.  However, this does not mean that contract, or compliance, archaeology is inimical to the study of labor, as many examples have shown.

            Extensive (i.e. Phase II/III) archaeology on labor sites that has occurred in Maryland has been done in both rural and urban areas.  The urban archaeology of labor in Maryland has generally been of a high quality (i.e. the Mechanic Street site excavations in Cumberland, BCUA work in Baltimore City).  Rural industry, being the predominant type of industry in Maryland, has also received a certain amount of archaeological attention.  However, no comparative work has been done, and this is a glaring hole.  Particularly, the transition from small-scale, proto-capitalist industry to large-scale corporate industry and its social ramifications in Maryland are poorly understood from an archaeological perspective.

Similarly, the differences between northern and southern industrial communities could be a prime area of investigation for archaeologists in Maryland.  For instance, how similar are the domestic deposits from a mill town like Laurel (Prince George’s County) or Savage (Howard County) and those from a mill town like Lowell, Massachusetts?  This can be shown through a variety of material culture analyses, such as ceramics, faunal and floral data, activity items, personal items, etc.  Do such comparisons illustrate similarity or difference in the way that Northern and Southern industrial laborers lived, or in their treatment by capitalists?  How can such differences be correlated with differences in “Northern” and “Southern” culture, or can they be?  Would more specific categories such as Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic be more appropriate?

Status is the one topic that almost never fails to receive attention from archaeologists working on labor sites in Maryland.  Socio-economic status can be investigated in a number of ways. For instance, how much disposable money did laborers have and use?  What did they use it on?  Did they use old, hand-me-down ceramics or the latest fashions?  How did they procure most of their food?  Was it bought at the company store, raised at home or culled from the wild, or all three?  Did they eat the best cuts of meat or did they often take cheaper cuts?  In industrial communities such as early ironworks where several status levels existed among the laborers (enslaved, indentured, hireling, free), how did status differences affect these groups’ respective material culture?  Archaeologists asking these types of questions often focus on evidence provided by ceramics and faunal remains, but similar questions can be asked of other types of material culture.  A more general question that can be addressed by a combination of archaeological and historical data is how relative socio-economic status affected the material culture of working-class property owners versus that of renters.

As fruitful an area of research as status can be, however, Jed Levin has made the case that class is a more useful tool of analysis.[753]  Many Maryland archaeologists working on labor sites gloss over the question of class, or reduce it to socio-economic status.  Archaeologists in Maryland need to begin to ask more sophisticated questions about class, its effects on industrial laborers, and the ways in which such information can be addressed through the archaeological record.  The emergence of capitalist personal discipline can be shown by the introduction of such items as time-keeping devices, as well as the types of ceramics present: Did a family keep a matching table set, or did they use a wide variety of ceramic types and decorations?  More importantly, how did workers react to the emergence of capitalist discipline, domination and exploitation?  Resistance to domination and exploitation can be illustrated in a number of ways through archaeology.  For instance, are there remains that suggest workers broke certain restrictions placed on them, such as alcohol consumption or drug use?[754]  Do landscape analyses suggest a change from the home as a production unit to the separation of work and domestic space?  Is there evidence that workers rebelled against such changes?[755]  How did unionization (or attempts to forestall unionization by owners) affect the material culture available to and chosen by industrial workers, and does this reflect a “class consciousness?”  Were community sites (such as churches, schools, fraternal lodges, or union halls) sites of subtle popular resistance, and if so, what forms did this resistance take?  How could such resistance be identified in the archaeological record?  If community sites were controlled (either physically or financially) by capitalists (rather than the community), what effects might this have had on the types of activities that occurred there and the material manifestations of those activities?

            Ethnicity is a topic that several projects have attempted to address, with mixed success.  While excavations such as those in Texas (Baltimore County) and the various projects undertaken by Goodwin & Associates in Baltimore City have attempted to identify ethnic markers in material culture, often such evidence is lacking.  Perhaps part of the problem is the habit of presupposing certain ethnic markers.  Instead of beginning a project by looking for evidence of Irish or German or African-American ethnic identity (as opposed to American identity), archaeologists need to compare different groups with each other.  For instance, do various ethnic groups utilize domestic space in different ways?  Did they spend their money on different classes of material culture?  What other types of material culture (besides the always-popular ceramics and faunal remains) can shed light on the question of ethnic identity?  If America was a “melting pot,” did immigrants from different cultures experience different rates of cultural assimilation?  Ethnicity was often not imported wholesale by immigrants; instead, they adapted their native cultures to new circumstances.[756]  The archaeological record will not be able to answer the questions above unless this is realized and taken into account by archaeologists.

Gender is a topic that has not been studied much by labor archaeologists in Maryland.  Indeed, research to this point paints a picture of either a gender-less or male society in many of Maryland’s “company towns.”  Women existed alongside men in these communities, however, and there needs to be more research on gender strategies, gender identities, and the contestation and negotiation of gender roles within the working classes.  Does the gender of the head of household affect the material culture assemblage, as the excavators of the Mechanic Street site suggested?  Can gendered activity areas or differential use of space based on gender be defined?  How is a family’s material culture affected when women are also part of the industrial labor force?  Can gender be discerned in single-sex industrial communities?[757]  How do gender identification strategies affect the material record?[758]  Was a household’s material culture affected by the presence of women known to have been active in political and social movements?  These are some of the questions that labor archaeologists must begin to tackle in Maryland.

While landscape approaches have been important to historical archaeologists studying labor and “company towns,” only one such archaeological project in Maryland has explicitly used a landscape research design (the Lonaconing excavations).  Archaeologists could address questions of landscape and its effect on people in several ways.  For instance, if the date of a site or district is known, and especially if it has stratified chronological deposits, it can provide information on the rate of acceptance of capitalist work and personal discipline.  Before the institution of capitalist work discipline, the distinction between work areas and home areas was often blurred or even absent altogether (as was noted during the Sharpe-Ridout-Boone Mill Complex and Steward Shipyard projects).  With the advent of capitalist industry, however, work was taken completely out of the domestic sphere.  Is there archaeological evidence of this change over time, such as the presence of tools and discarded products at the home in earlier deposits?  Capitalist discipline can also be addressed through a study of the architectural features of industrial housing.  For types that have very few or no extant examples, can archaeology uncover evidence of capitalist ideology in design and construction, as can be done with “company town” housing?  For instance, were there differences in slave quarters in industrial communities and those on agricultural plantations?  Did workers rebel against the standardization inherent in mass-produced housing by making small alterations to their homes, planting gardens in their backyards or ornamental flowers in their front yards, in effect creating “multilocal spaces?”[759]

Temporary domestic sites for industrial laborers are usually associated with massive construction projects, such as the building of the C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad.  On the Eastern and Western Shores, migrant labor was used by the canning industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so it is likely that temporary domestic sites exist from this industry.  Mining, quarrying and lumbering are also industries that produced temporary housing.  Despite what would appear to be ample opportunity to discover such sites, none have yet been found in Maryland.  A possible work site for C&O Canal construction workers (18FR335) has been identified,[760] but no extensive excavation has occurred there.  Louis Berger & Associates is currently conducting a field survey along the length of the C&O Canal, but has yet to identify any temporary shanty towns.  The excavation of such sites could answer questions related to a number of the topics discussed above.  For instance, what kinds of material culture was present on these sites?  Did the laborers have many possessions or few?  How did they choose to spend their wages?  How many of these laborers (who were primarily men) were bachelors and how many took their families with them?  How did the presence of women and children affect the material record?

A related issue is the “battlefield” archaeology of labor.  In Maryland, this could be primarily applicable to the sites of labor violence that broke out during the construction of both the C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad.  While battles are ephemeral events by traditional archaeological standards, they can nevertheless leave behind abundant material traces.  One need look no further than the Ludlow Battlefield project in Colorado to find a highly successful example of an archaeological project based on both a temporary labor community and a site of labor strife.[761]  While no such sites have been identified in Maryland thus far, it would seem likely that they do exist.  Historical research will be needed to locate possible sites.  A number of questions can be asked of such sites.  Can movements during the battle be traced?  Can different groups of combatants be identified from each other?  Were there any general features of such engagements that were common across time and space?  Can the involvement of the militia be discerned?  How did labor strife affect the domestic material culture of workers?  These are just a few of the questions that archaeologists might be able to answer if they join the study of labor and the study of battlefields.

            Many sites in Maryland could significantly increase the current knowledge of industrial slavery in the United States.  While historians have not failed to consider this phenomenon, the total fund of knowledge about industrial slavery from archaeological investigations could be summarized in just a few paragraphs.  This is a rather surprising scenario, given historical archaeology’s traditional pride in being able to recover information on those segments of past populations that were often left out of the documentary record.  Enslaved laborers were used in a variety of industrial pursuits in Maryland, most notably milling and iron production.  Investigations of sites associated with enslaved industrial laborers could answer a number of questions.  Were industrial slaves treated differently from those who worked in agricultural contexts?  To what kind of diseases and injuries were they prone?  Historians have noted that industrial slaves were often allowed to perform extra work for money.  Is this reflected in the material record in the types of goods present on industrial slaves’ domestic sites?  How were industrial slaves treated in comparison with other classes of industrial workers, such as indentured servants or free laborers?  Were industrial complexes and communities dependent on slave labor organized differently from those dependent on other classes of laborers?  Are differences within enslaved industrial laborers’ communities, such as different African ethnicities, gender, and occupation, detectable in the archaeological record?

            A number of industries and types of industrial labor have been virtually ignored by archaeologists in Maryland.  For instance, despite the influence of canning on the Eastern Shore during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, no archaeology beyond preliminary testing has been undertaken.  The archaeology of lumbermen, coal miners, quarrymen, textile workers and a number of other minor classes of industrial laborers has yet to be attempted in Maryland.  Were there differences between laborers working in different industries?  Were company towns developed for different industries designed differently?  How did different occupations affect worker health?  Was capitalist discipline resisted longer in some industries than others?

Industrial archaeology in Maryland often fails to incorporate questions about labor.  Examples can be seen at most of the colonial iron furnaces that have been investigated, where study has concentrated on industrial components.  In part, this may be because funding is limited and it is easier to investigate the often above-ground industrial ruins than the archaeological deposits created by laborers.  Nevertheless, questions about labor can be asked of industrial sites.[762]  How was the labor force organized?  Did changing technology effect this organization?  Did laborers resist changing technology or encroaching factory discipline, and if so, how?  For instance, one excavation of a cutlery factory in Connecticut yielded a large spoil heap of imperfect cutlery.  Through a rigorous contextual analysis the investigators concluded that the spoil heap represented not typical factory detritus, but rather conscious attempts on the part of the workers to ruin pieces.  This both undercut the company’s profits and acted as a form of resistance to factory discipline.[763]

Industrial archaeologists also need to realize that industrial sites often contain labor components.  The cemetery at Catoctin Furnace is a good example of this, as are the numerous mills with associated millers’ residences in Maryland.  Yet, very little study has been undertaken by archeologists working on industrial sites in Maryland to determine how proximity to an industrial complex affected the lives and health of those living in the communities engendered by such industries.

The archaeology of industrial labor in Maryland would benefit greatly from the exploitation of the resources available in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties (MIHP).  The majority of registered archaeological sites in Maryland that have anything to do with labor are actually industrial sites.  This is not very useful if one is also trying to study the everyday lives of laborers outside the workplace.  Houses, churches, and other community buildings are needed as well.  A great many of these types of individual sites are included in the MIHP files (especially for Western Maryland), as well as a large number of survey districts.  While it is sometimes difficult to determine whether or not an individual property is related to labor from individual site records, the information provided for survey districts is plenty to determine whether or not the community in question was (or had) a labor community.

Other than identification of new sites, what can be done with the MIHP files?  To begin, a number of the standing structures listed there most likely have intact archaeological deposits.  Thus, the pool of potential archaeological sites increases exponentially.  Further, the survey districts provide many examples of towns that would be well suited to a landscape archaeology approach.  Such topics as gender roles and relations, ethnic identity, and worker agency and resistance to domination and exploitation could be fruitfully studied in this manner.

The MIHP files point to another topic that archaeologists working on labor sites in Maryland have yet to consider in a systematic fashion: the company town.  Company towns have been extensively studied by historians[764] as well as archaeologists.[765]  The term “company town” is used most often to apply to communities that were built virtually overnight to house workers for a specific company, and in which all of the houses are built on a uniform plan and the company in question owns every house, renting them to their workers.  However, there have been many different types of industrial communities and most of these have shared several aspects with the typical company town.  While industrial communities cannot be clearly divided into different types with definitive characteristics, a few broad categories of industrial communities throughout Maryland can be delineated.

Perhaps the earliest type of industrial community was the crossroads mill village.  Such settlements developed as people began to congregate around custom grist mills.  Such mills were usually the most public place available to agricultural populations, and as such were popular gathering places.  Before long post offices and general stores would be added, and then a few people not explicitly engaged in farming would build their houses near the mill.  Many of these villages remained small and eventually died out.  While these communities were centered around an industrial enterprise (as much as custom grist mills can be considered to be industrial enterprises), however, many of their inhabitants were not industrial laborers.

A second type of industrial community is typified by the 18th to early 19th-century rural ironworks community.  Some historians have called such communities “iron plantations,” but at least one historian of Maryland labor has illustrated that such an analogy is not really appropriate.[766]  These communities were often in isolated rural areas with abundant natural resources.  The labor force consisted of a mix of enslaved, indentured, and free laborers.  Housing was provided, at least for enslaved and indentured laborers, but not mass-produced or constructed on a uniform pattern.  The community often had a store and a church, but not much else.

A third type of industrial community is, of course, the typical company town discussed above.  During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the company town underwent a metamorphosis.  As workers continued to resist in ever more vocal fashion the domination of one class by another that is symbolized by mass-produced company-owned housing, companies began to outwardly change certain characteristics of company towns.  For instance, more community buildings were constructed, fraternal orders were encouraged, and workers were provided with more modern amenities than ever before.  Perhaps most importantly, however, families were no longer crowded four to a house.  Instead, many companies began to construct single-family housing.  Such industrial communities were modeled after “Garden Cities” such as Greenbelt, Maryland.

Despite the seeming enlightenment of the capitalists, however, they still retained a measure of economic, social and ideological control.  Houses were still built on a uniform plan.  Following the German Bauhaus School of architecture, company towns and worker housing were designed to integrate form and function.  By the 1920s some companies began to sell the housing to their workers, but the measure of control held by the companies was retained in the public sphere.[767]

Other types of industrial communities existed in Maryland, and many fall somewhere in between the types outlined above.  Others, however, are more ambiguous.  For instance, it is still not clear where working-class rowhouse neighborhoods in Baltimore City fit into the spectrum of industrial communities.  Rowhouses were certainly mass-produced, but usually not by a single company with the intention of housing its workers.  However, many distinct neighborhoods within Baltimore such as Canton and the Loft area were inhabited by laborers working for specific industries (if not always for specific companies).

It is important that archaeologists in Maryland begin to think about labor sites in terms of the communities in which they were located.  The influence of such contexts are often not considered except in terms of the contrast between rural and urban sites (see below).  Ideally, a comparative study of different industrial community forms should be undertaken.  This would require a great deal of original research and re-analysis of existing data.  However, such a project may not be so difficult.  Many of the different types of industrial communities that have existed in Maryland have seen examples develop in or around Baltimore City, where a great deal of archaeological and historical research has already been carried out.  Thus, a synthesis of this research could yield invaluable insights.

While industrial communities in Maryland are often classified as being either rural or urban, most historians and archaeologists fail to consider the ramifications of this distinction.  As the eminent labor historian Herbert Gutman illustrated, middle-class attitudes toward the working class varied considerably from city to country.  In the city, the middle class was much more likely to envision the working class as being separate from themselves and lower on the social scale, leading to widespread support of capitalists during strikes and other forms of labor unrest.  In small towns and rural areas, however, the middle class was intimately familiar with working class laborers—almost everyone knew almost everyone else, and distinctions of income and job description were not as important in day-to-day interactions as they were in the city.  Thus, the middle class was more likely to support workers in disputes concerning wage cuts, child labor, and other important issues.[768]  But what does this mean for the archaeological record?  How did middle-class support affect the material culture of workers?  Did they have access to more consumer goods?  Were rural workers’ consumption patterns more similar to middle-class consumption patterns than those of urban workers?  Did general support for laborers lead to better workplace conditions in rural industries?  Where does the “company town,” a rural industrial community in which the middle class was largely absent, fit into this scheme?  These are just a few of the questions that need to be asked in a sustained comparative study of urban and rural industrial communities in Maryland.

One final task that faces archaeologists in Maryland working on sites related to industrial labor is public education and outreach.  A recent symposium hosted by the University of Maryland at College Park titled “The Future of Maryland’s Past” illustrated the lack of knowledge about labor heritage and archaeology among even Maryland’s professional archaeological community: The chronologically-ordered sessions ended with the Colonial period.  If even Maryland’s professional archaeologists do not understand the significance of labor heritage in Maryland, how can the public be expected to understand it?  Several public outreach activities that will follow the completion of this report are outlined in Appendix VI.

One of the most important things that archaeologists working on labor sites in Maryland must do is to acknowledge the influence upon the present of the public’s perception of Maryland’s past.  Specifically, the archaeological community needs to realize that like Native Americans and African Americans, industrial laborers have given rise to a descendant community of sorts.  And just like Native Americans and African Americans, members of this descendant community, while diverse, have definite interests in the manner in which their history is represented.  Several organizations exist in and near Maryland devoted to the study of labor and its heritage, including the George Meany Center for Labor Studies—The National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland and the Labor Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.  It is essential for the archaeological profession (as well as historic preservationists) in Maryland to begin to work with the labor community.

The field of historical archaeology realized years ago that continued disciplinary emphasis on “great men” (read: rich white males) would, in effect, make the field silently complicit in the continued subjugation of ethnic and gender minorities in the present.  In the same way, continued ignorance of labor heritage by archaeologists and historic preservationists in Maryland, along with a lack of public outreach and collaboration with the labor community, will mark these fields as continuing to be silently complicit in the attempted muting of the needs, interests and identity of the working class in Maryland today.

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[753] Levin 1985.

[754] Levin 1985, articles in Beaudry and Mrozowski 1987-1989.

[755] Cf. Shackel 1996:152-155.

[756] See Baxter and Allen 2002:392-395.

[757] Cf. Kryder-Reid 1994.

[758] See Hardesty 1994.

[759] Metheny 2003.

[760] Stuart Fiedel, Archaeologist, Berger and Associates, 2003, pers. comm.

[761] Walker 2000, Ludlow Collective 2001, Walker 2003b.

[762] See Leary 1979, 1990 and 1992.

[763] Nassaney and Abel 1993, 2000.

[764] See Hareven and Langenbach 1978, Wallace 1978, Lozier 1981, Hareven 1982, Prude 1983, and Garner 1992.

[765] See Selvafolta 1980, Lowe 1982, Gradwohl and Osborn 1984, Beaudry and Mrozowski 1987-1989, Bennet 1990, Mrozowski et al. 1996, Shackel 1996, and Metheny 2002 and 2003.

[766] See Bining 1970; Robbins 1986:241.

[767] Much of this description of Garden City company towns is taken from Bloomfield 1995, cited in the National Register nomination for the Bata Shoe Company Complex in Belcamp, Harford County.

[768] Gutman 1987:70-92.