SISKIND, Janet. Rum and Axes: The Rise of a Connecticut Merchant Family, 1795-1850. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002. 191p. Resenha de: GILLIS, Michael J.. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.2, p., 2004.
Siskind’s Rum and Axes is an examination of the rise of industrial capitalism in Connecticut after the American Revolution. The author uses the Watkinson-Collins family as her vehicle to reveal the social tensions and economic motivations that permeated the rise of capitalism during this era. Relying on three generations of primary materials Siskind recreates and explains the changing world of the Watkinsons. As members of a religious ‘dissenting society’ while living in East Anglia England, the Watkinsons subscribed to the practice of maintaining social distinctions based on class. However, as middle class dissenters the family found itself being squeezed between an aristocratic land owning class above them and a tradesman and shop-owning class below them. As religious and economic conflicts continued to grow in England, they sought safe harbor for themselves and their capital in America.
In America the families discovered that labour was too expensive to go into farming or wool production so they entered the West Indies import business, focusing mostly on rum and dry goods. As importers and merchants they were able to become a member of New England’s elite without severing their personal relationships with their workers. Eventually, however, the Watkinsons and Collins moved beyond the simple importation of goods when they established their own axe factory and by doing so they firmly established themselves as part of New England’s emerging industrial capitalist class.
Siskind does a good job of examining the inner workings of the Collins Axe Company and its labour force. Initially the company sought to employ skilled workers by providing long-term contracts, company housing and schools. With the introduction of new machinery, however, there was a gradual transition in the factory from skilled to unskilled labour. As skilled Yankee artisans were replaced by Irish labourers so too did the Watkinsons and Collins move from being paternalistic employers to distant supervisors with little interest in their employee’s welfare. Remarkably, when it became apparent that many of their axe company employees were dying from lung diseases brought on by the airborne particles created in the axe grinding process, the owners simply wrote it off as the price of doing business. Here we can see how removed from their employees the company owners had become. The transition from Christian ‘dissenters’ on the run to crass company owners who see the deaths of their employees as the price of progress makes for interesting reading. Siskind explores this transition by examining the family’s letters, their religious ideology, and emerging capitalist society in New England.
This book ably examines the early rise of capitalism in New England as well as exploring numerous familial and business relationships associated with it. The author’s close reading and interpretation of Samuel Watkinson Collins’ memoir is also valuable. Here she traces how quickly the relationship between worker and company owner had changed and how the ideology of the capitalist class was changing as well.
Rum and Axes is suitable for use in high schools with the understanding that this is more than just a simple straightforward colonial history. Siskind, an anthropologist, places strong emphasis on the means of production and how its attendant labour systems create culture. For younger students, this approach will perhaps be difficult to understand and for teachers difficult to demonstrate. However, there is plenty here to create lively classroom discussions. In addition, the author’s extensive use of primary materials offers the readers an intimate look at a remarkable yet troubled family in post-revolution America.
Michael J. Gillis – Department of History. California State University, Chico
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