A Massachusetts Shoe Town

BROMPTON was one of the earlier New England settlements. Its cemeteries contain numerous stones dating back almost to the middle of the seventeenth century, and the town celebrated its bicentennial years ago. Its first meeting-house was burned by Indians. In the Revolutionary era its citizens hurried away to the earliest engagements around Boston ; and of that period it preserves many memorials, notably two line old taverns, in which some of the most famous of the Continental officers are known to have lodged. But we are not now concerned with its history, and I come directly to the time, a decade or so before the civil war, when the town, after having been for more than a century and a half a small farming community, for which all necessary boot and shoe making and repairing were easily done by a few cobblers, was beginning to make shoes on a larger scale, for export.

Brompton has neither water - power nor any of the other natural advantages which would have made it possible to predict a manufacturing community. Indeed, most shoe towns lack natural advantages. The Providence which determined the establishment of the first shoe-shop in a new locality was inscrutable. The first person to make shoes in Brompton for sale elsewhere was a native of the town, who had returned thither with a competence, after several years of experience in the shoe trade in a neighboring town. A very old man, now a hermit on a farm in Maine, who worked in this Brompton shop during his early manhood, recently said to me : " They’re always a-tellin’ they’s a powerful lot o’ wonderful new machines been invented sence I worked in the shop, nigh fifty year agone, an’ I ’m willin’ to believe ’em ; but I 'll bet anything they’s one thing they can’t never make, with all their inventin’, an’ that’s a machine to peg shoes with.” This, from a shoemaker, nearly a generation after the pegging-machine had come into general use, serves better than any detailed statement to illustrate the simplicity of the shoemaking methods of the early time. The shop did not employ more than a dozen men, all acquaintances of the manufacturer. The sons of the resident farmers were quick to take to the new occupation, and several other shops were started before the outbreak of the civil war. A number of them, remodeled into cottages, barns, store - houses, even henhouses, still stand, reminders of the meagre beginnings of a great industry.

The immigrants to Massachusetts from the northern New England States, — more especially from Maine, — who began to come about this time, found their way to Brompton, as soon as the supply of workmen from the neighborhood became inadequate. The newcomers were for the most part enterprising, unattached young men, of good habits and antecedents. They were cordially received. Although the transformation from a farming town to a manufacturing town was fast taking place, the community was yet essentially homogeneous in race, customs, and religion.

The first foreign immigrants were the Irish, who, though they began work with pick and shovel, speedily found employment in the shops. While not openly maltreated by the native workmen, — Brompton was a dignified and orderly community, — they did not receive a hearty welcome. The ill-omened KnowNothing movement came to embitter the mutual dislike. Something of a community of feeling was brought about, however, by the later arrival of a common enemy, the French Canadians, to whom, curiously enough, the Irish, in spite of the identity of their religion, were quite as hostile as the native Americans. In some shops, the excitement waxed so fierce that the Canadians were put to work in rooms by themselves. Many devices were employed by the jealous Irishmen to make their lives miserable, one of which was to dangle a big green-headed frog on the end of a line before the windows of their work-rooms ; the dangling being accompanied, of course, by loud jeers regarding the traditional frog-eating proclivities of Frenchmen. By a happy chance, the first Frenchman who ventured into Brompton is still living there; by a happier chance, he has a sense of humor. He loves to tell of the mingled curiosity and abhorrence his appearance excited. “ They had no notion of what a Frenchman was like,” he says. “ They stared at me and whispered about me as if I were some strange animal. For a long time they could n’t make up their minds whether I had horns under my hat or not, but in the end they decided that I had.”

Early in the seventies — to choose a period long enough subsequent to the civil war for the exceptional war conditions to be eliminated — Brompton had grown from a farming town of two thousand inhabitants or less to a shoe town of six thousand or more. A few wooden blocks of business buildings were strung along a central street, which was still bordered in part by dwelling-houses and open fields. There were a new and expensive town hall, the sole brick structure, a creditable soldiers’ monument, and a high-school building, lineal descendant of the original academy. On the principal streets were the town pumps. The town had two Catholic churches (for French and Irish respectively), five Protestant churches, graded schools crowded into two large barnlike buildings, the beginnings of a public library — thanks to the generous thought of one of its “forehanded” storekeepers — which was kept in a room of the town hall, lodges of several secret orders, a recently organized post of the Grand Army of the Republic, a single weekly paper, a volunteer militia company, two volunteer fire companies, a brass band, a choral society, a temperance reform club, and the like. But the inner life of Brompton then was in every way significant.

Aside from the ready deference to the ministers, doctors, lawyers, and editors, which was accorded always and everywhere, Brompton was absolutely without social distinctions. The typical American shoemaker was under no social condemnation for the work he did. He was able to associate on equal terms with all the other people, including even the families of his employers; and while the town was already of such a size that it was not literally true that everybody knew everybody else, it was at least true that everybody could know everybody else. The young man went courting wherever his affections led him, and married into whatever family he wished, without question as to social privilege. Then he rented an upstairs tenement, in which his family lived on terms of equality and the greatest intimacy with the family of the landlord, occupying the ground floor, until such time as he could buy or build a house for himself, the upper story of which could in its turn be rented.

The newly married woman, trained in the belief that it was her duty to do her part in one way or another — either by earning or by saving, or by both — toward the support of the family, kept on working in the shop, if she had been employed there before marriage, until the arrival of children forced her to withdraw. Then she did shoe-work at home; for the development of machinery, considerable as it had been, had not gone so far as to preclude that possibility. If she had not been a shop-worker before marriage, she found some immediately remunerative home-work soon after, — straw-sewing, perhaps ; for the regular visitations of the “straw-men” with wages and relays of work were an important part of the daily routine on many streets. She made her husband’s shirts and stockings, all the children’s clothes, and a large part of her own millinery and dresses, and, except in cases of invalidism or illness, did all her housework, including the washing. How she did all these things without neglecting her children, or breaking down utterly in health, is a mystery that only one of these calculating, hard-working women could explain ; and then it would be only another calculating hard-working woman who could understand the explanation. That it meant no end of aches, worries, and self-sacrifice is certain. Indeed, these women were as true pioneers in their way as the wives of the original settlers. There was no great financial risk involved in marrying, in those days. On the contrary, marriage was likely to prove a good investment ; for such women saved their husbands far more than they cost them.

The husband was no less devoted and industrious after his fashion. Beside working ten hours a day in the shop, he toiled night and morning over a garden plot. Many other things also he thought he must do : there were ledges to be cleared away; uneven spots to be leveled; cellars to be banked ; wood to be sawed and split; grapevines, raspberry, currant, blackberry, and gooseberry bushes, plum, peach, cherry, and apple trees, to be set out and watched and pruned ; hens, and sometimes a pig and a cow, to be cared for. These out-of-shop activities assured the family a bountiful supply of fresh eggs, and fruit and vegetables in larger variety than the average farmer had, who devoted his attention to staple crops. Furthermore, there was always a surplus, greater or less, to be bartered for meats and groceries. With an upstairs tenant more than providing for the expense of repairs and taxes, the orchard and garden going a long way towards supplying food, and the thrifty wife saving in a hundred ways, it was possible for the shop-worker who owned his house to put by a considerable part of his wages. A description of the economical devices of these workingmen’s households would fill a volume, and be good reading all the way through, so replete would it be with the humor and the pathos of primitive living.

Sunday was scrupulously observed as a day of rest even by those who were not members of the churches, the only labor done being the rather formidable getting ready for church, the preparation of meals, and the putting of the clothes in soak for the Monday washing. This conscientious observance of Sunday is in all likelihood one reason why these men and women did not succumb under the strain of work to which they deliberately subjected themselves.

The pleasures of their lives were of the simplest, most inexpensive sort, so homely as to seem hardly worth mentioning. In the winter, when the days were too short to admit of much work out of doors, and on occasional spare evenings in the summer, the men strolled down town, after supper, to attend their lodges or to gossip in the stores and markets, which still retained the tendency to sociability characteristic of country’ marts. A curious social feature of the town was the gathering at the postoffice, to await the distribution of the mails, of the business men, who made it a point to be on the ground a full halfhour too early, to chat together the longer. Noteworthy, too, was the social atmosphere of the shop, under the easy supervision then in vogue. Good-natured raillery and capital jokes did much to vary the monotony of labor. There was a healthy helpfulness among the workers that felt no need of the machinery of organization. Financial misfortune falling suddenly on any one of their number evoked immediate and generous subscriptions, and in cases of serious sickness there were many volunteer watchers.

Among the women neigliborliness prevailed to the fullest extent, and in this lay a large share of their diversion. There were continuous borrowings and lendings of household supplies, shrill communications from window to window, and exchanges of confidence over the back yard fences. Housewives sallied forth, after the dinner dishes were cleared away, sewing-work in hand, and as like as not baby in arms, to sit and work and rock and gossip with the neighbors. Then there were the formal invitations to “ come and spend the afternoon and stay to tea,” the acceptance of which involved “fixing up” and the substitution of fancy-work for necessary sewing on the part of both hostess and guest. The church sewing-circle, the hospitalities of which were often extended to non-members, was another large feminine resource, and funerals were still another.

It was the era of croquet, surprise parties, wedding anniversaries., church “sociables ” that did not belie their name, baby-shows, singing-schools, school exhibitions, Grand Army of the Republic camp-fires open to the public, exciting religious revivals, pledge-soliciting temperance crusades almost as exciting, political rallies taken seriously, Election Day militia musters, and annual prize exhibitions and parades by the farmers and tradesmen. Thanksgiving Day and Fast Day had still some civil and religious significance ; the war was yet near enough for the Decoration Day exercises to provoke real emotion. The rivalry of the two local fire companies with those of the neighboring towns and with each other prompted many challenges, highcolored parades, and thrilling trials of strength. An annual lecture course was directed by a committee of the citizens, and the choral society could be counted on to give at least one concert a winter. Not the least interesting of the events of each year were the regular and special town meetings, which gave to all the men an opportunity of informing themselves and expressing themselves on matters of town policy, and to the few who were ambitious to become proficient in public speaking and’debate an excellent opportunity for practice. The town meetings were undoubtedly a strong influence in arousing and keeping eager an enlightened public spirit. In nearly all the events and diversions, even the town meeting, the children shared. Just as they were taken to church long before the age of comprehension, so they were taken to lectures, concerts, and social functions quite beyond them; the family, not the individual, being accounted the social unit.

The limitations of this life are apparent, especially the limitations that come from the narrowness of the church creeds and from a too exclusive attention to the acquisition of money for its own sake. Protestants and Catholics despised one another cordially, not as individuals, but as Protestants and Catholics. Congregationalists and Unitarians were unwilling to forget their ancient disputes and the schism that had caused them to separate. The evangelical denominations, though united in scorn of Universalists and Unitarians, were jealous of one another in the pettiest conceivable ways ; and while no one church claimed social superiority over the others, church life was so disproportionate a part of the whole life that church lines were in too many cases the lines of friendship, and even of acquaintance. Cards, billiards, the dance, and the theatre were held in abhorrence by the members of the evangelical churches, — though, with the humorous inconsistency characteristic of narrowness, they raised no objection to their children’s playing the most vulgar kissing-games, — and it made no end of garrulous scandal, especially at the sewing-circles, if a church member was even suspected of indulging in any of these amusements.

Economy often shriveled into pitiful miserliness ; and even when it did not turn out so badly, it became a fixed habit which it was impossible to break after the necessity for it had long passed away. Every aspect of existence was somehow, sooner or later, adjusted to a financial standard ; even religion, which, translated into the vernacular, meant a hard, methodical, assiduous “laying up of treasure in heaven.” Utility was everything; beauty, emotion, were as nothing. Vegetable patches were allowed to invade front yards ; hens were permitted everywhere except in the gardens ; the grass around the houses was mown only at long intervals because of its value as hay; and if a pet cat, though loved as a child, was detected catching chickens, it had to die, because chickens were worth money, and cats were not. Such a habit of life, while it assured an old age free from danger of the poorhouse, also assured a resourceless, joyless one.

It was a peculiar period, this of the early seventies of Brompton, unfamiliar enough already to most of us, though so near in time. A simple, frugal, industrious, earnest, honest, homely existence, it was also a hard, narrow, sombre one. Did the people take themselves altogether too seriously ? Perhaps. At any rate, whatever its merits and defects, Brompton was to all intents and purposes, at that time, a pure social democracy. Because it was a social democracy it has been worth describing in detail. Let us leap over a quarter of a century. Brompton has to-day more than twice the population it had in the earlier period, and it is governed by a mayor and aldermen instead of by a town meeting and a board of selectmen. The Irish and the French have continued to come in, until they constitute a majority of the population. There has also been a large immigration from the maritime provinces of Canada. Other industries than shoemaking have been introduced from time to time, but, except those that are cognate to shoemaking, they have not been able to gain a permanent foothold. Accordingly, Brompton remains, and for a long time yet is likely to remain, a town of a single industry.

Its streets now have sidewalks, and they are lighted by electric lights and traversed by electric cars. The main street is an unbroken double row of wellconstructed brick blocks. There are a hospital, a park, an opera-house, a water supply, a sewerage system, and a mail delivery service. The dwelling-houses are almost pretentious, and their grounds are scrupulously trim with velvety lawns. The public schools are better housed and better equipped than they used to be, and the long-languishing district schools have been happily suppressed; the few children still living in the outskirts are brought into the centre daily at the city’s expense. The public library, much increased in size, improved and supplemented by a complete reading-room, in a beautiful memorial building of stone adorned with works of art, is now second in educational influence only to the schools.

The early hostility between the French and the Irish is extinct. Between the Protestants and the Catholics something of the old religious antagonism persists, it is true, but it has ceased to have virulence or any influence in town affairs. It has well-nigh succumbed to the mutual understanding and appreciation produced by long and constant association ; and it is a significant if trifling fart that the first one of the clergymen of Brompton to call upon the rector of a newly founded Episcopal church was the Irish priest. It is no uncommon thing for all the churches to unite in a work of general beneficence.

Sunday, without ceasing to be a day of rest, has become a day of rational and quiet pleasures also; for Sunday is the especial day for bicycling, driving, and social visiting. Church-going has decreased relatively to the growth in population. and the influence of the churches upon the community has been even more than correspondingly lessened. The authority of the churches is but the shadow of what it once was in Brompton. This new independence, however, is a sign of honest personal thinking rather than of indifference to serious things. It is accompanied in many instances by an awakening of intelligent interest in practical charity, philanthropy, or social reform.

In the last twenty-five years, then, Brompton has not only grown rapidly in size and improved greatly in appearance, but it has been “liberalized in theology and life.” The element of charm has entered. Life has been softened, sweetened, refined ; it has come to touch the big world at more points and enjoy it at more; it is freer, fuller, brighter, more graceful, — in a word, more civilized.

There have been other and more radical changes. Tenement-houses have become numerous; not yet, fortunately, those of the large city type, nor the dreary, monotonous block-houses of mill towns, but houses built to rent solely as a speculation by non-resident as well as resident owners. With the disappearance of the upstairs tenement has disappeared also the old cordial social relation between landlord and tenant, which has been replaced by a purely commercial relation. It is no longer considered respectable to belong to the class of manual laborers. A young man, and even more a young woman, who is employed in a shoe-shop suffers a discrimination which only an exceptional bonhomie or social talent is sufficient to overcome. Just as the young men of the farms came to work in the shops of Brompton, years ago, quite as much because they felt themselves disgraced by farm labor as because they hoped to mend their fortunes, so their sons, inflamed by the sanguine circulars of commercial colleges and the braggart talk of “ drummers,” feel contempt for the métier of the fathers, and are seeking positions as clerks and salesmen. And just as the young farmers found the young women of their native places reluctant to become their wives while they continued farmers, so in Brompton the young men find the young women slow to marry shop-workers.

How far the more and more complete subdivision of labor through the multiplication of machines is a reason of the loss of respect for the man who works in the shop it is difficult to say. In the shoe industry, however it may be in other employments, it has probably been a less important influence than it is usually thought to be. It requires as good judgment and as great care, and involves quite as much responsibility, to run most of the machinery of a modern shoe-shop as it did to do the hand-work of former days; the difference between the old worker and the new being not unlike that bet ween the horse-car driver and the electric-motor man.

Women who do their own work, not to mention those who help the family exchequer by earning money after the former fashion, are considered as little respectable as men who do manual labor. Recently married women, no better off financially than their mothers were at the same period of their lives, contract large hills for millinery and dressmaking, and employ servants to do all the work, or outsiders to come in for the harder part of it; while young husbands, no better off than their fathers were, smoke expensive cigars, — whereas their fathers smoked cheap pipes if anything, — and hire laboring men to shake down their furnaces and to mow their lawns. Summer outings in the country (though Brompton itself is still country enough to be a resort for city people) are regarded as an indispensable part of the yearly programme of families who would be considered comme il faut.

In further evidence of the social change may be cited a socially exclusive club for men, housed in a richly appointed club building ; a similarly exclusive club for women ; a supplanting of the old neighborly running in and out by formal calls ; the giving of conventionally stupid afternoon teas and pretentious evening receptions ; the entry, very recent, into the latter, of the dress coat for men and the décolleté corsage for women ; the appearance of the punch-bowl; a general elaboration of dress and house - furnishings, and a decided amelioration of street, drawing-room, and table manners. In a word, the people of Brompton who do not work with their hands imitate the society of the large cities, and hold themselves aloof from those who do work with their hands; and those who work, hoping against hope to secure social recognition, imitate the imitators, whose claims to social superiority they acknowledge only too readily.

More avenues of expense and relatively fewer sources of income mean extravagance, and extravagance means habitual non-payment of debts, which in the end saps integrity, as several firms at Brompton, obliged to go into bankruptcy, not from dearth of custom, but from inability to collect outstanding bills, would feelingly testify. A part of the decrease of integrity may be traced to the deceits practiced in these later days in the making of a shoe. Though the workmen hold themselves no more responsible for these deceits than the machines through whose aid, as well as their own, they are effected, the influence in the long run can hardly fail to be morally deleterious. Under these conditions, cheating comes easily to be regarded as a necessary and legitimate business operation.

Greater extravagance has made marriage a formidable thing, and it is accordingly postponed, with the inevitable bad result on morals. An additional cause of immorality and of other moral disorders is the utter lack of rational evening amusement for the young men and young women who, owing to the insistence on social distinctions, cannot go into “ society,” and who, feeling that they must go somewhere, frequent the most available place, the street. The presence of a branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association is at once a confession of this social destitution, and an attempt, not too wisely nor too well directed, to relieve it. Any evening, but especially on Saturday evening, crowds of these young men and young women, arrayed in their “loudest” clothes, promenade up and down the main street, ogling and chaffing and flirting. That the ogling and chaffing and flirting sometimes result disastrously scarcely need be said; that they do not oftener result disastrously is a marvel, to be explained only by the proverbial virtue of the shop-girl.

Yet the transformation of Brompton is far less complete than might appear from these somewhat bald statements. The life of the former Brompton has not entirely disappeared. Such is not the manner of social evolution. Always the old persists within the new. The working men and women who established themselves under the democratic régime are still granted social consideration, however far from the genteel path their course of life may be, and a portion of this consideration is extended to their children, whatever may be their means of livelihood. There are still detached families who have a simple, wholesome, satisfying home life, and many parents who are practicing a rigid, self-sacrificing economy. All classes of citizens patronize the public schools, and in them social democracy prevails almost as of old, and it abides also in some of the churches. But these and other traces of the past are really exceptions to the rule. Broadly speaking, Brompton has undergone an internal revolution, as a result of which economy, simplicity, and social equality have been superseded by extravagance, display, and social distinct ions.

The foreigners of Brompton deserve separate and special consideration. The improvement they have made in their ways of living, particularly in the last quarter of a century, is nothing short of phenomenal. Originally, they were untidy as well as wretchedly poor, and their settlements — for, with the clannishness characteristic of foreigners, they herded together — were veritable slums in aspect. Their unpainted houses, little better than shanties, and their grassless and disorderly yards, swarmed with smutty, frouzly - headed, half - naked children. Now, their houses are so well built and well painted, their grounds so well kept, and their families so well groomed, that it would not be easy for a stranger to distinguish the abodes of the foreigners from those of the American population. Their children are sent to school, and are capable, alert, and ambitious. So far as the foreign young men are concerned, they are more resolute, in appearance at least, and they make more serious attempts at self-teaching and general selfimprovement, than the young men of native parents. Indeed, it is not improbable that the young Irishmen of Brompton have to-day, as a class, the fullest portion of the American spirit, as this term used to be understood. It was my own lot — if a single intimate personal reference may be pardoned — to grow up in a shoe town similar to Brompton. When I go back for occasional visits. I find none among the young men of my acquaintance whom I am every way happier to meet than my old Irish playmates and schoolmates, and none taking a keener interest in the larger things of life, or putting forth more honest and earnest efforts to make the most of their opportunities. The foreigners, moreover, have contributed their due proportion of successful manufacturers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and school-teachers, as well as of skillful workmen, and they have sent their due proportion out into the world. As citizens they are, in public spirit, the more zealous element, — always ready to appropriate money for the common weal, particularly for the library and the schools. Hardly a public improvement has been carried through, since they came to be an important factor in the population, that has not encountered more active and serious opposition from the native element than from them.

In view of the race and religious prejudices current at the time, the entry of the foreigners, first into unskilled and later into skilled labor, was one of the influences which brought manual work into disrepute with the native population. That it was not the only influence, however, is shown by the fact that farm labor fell into a similar disrepute a full generation before foreigners began to take up the farms. Brompton has unquestionably done great things for its foreign population ; and its foreign population, if it cannot as yet he said to have done great things for Brompton, has at least a lively sense of gratitude for benefits received, and the desire, and it is to be hoped the capacity, ultimately to repay them. On the other hand, there are two or three things much to the discredit of the foreigners, which in all fairness should be mentioned. In politics, they have always given the blindest, most unthinking, most servile allegiance to a single party. A great part of the drunkenness with which the town has been cursed has occurred among their number. They have also furnished a large proportion of the saloon-keepers, — a fact which would not of itself be so much to their disgrace, perhaps, if it were not true also that the saloon-keepers have carried on their business badly-

The trade union is another factor of the life of the community with which it is hard to deal fairly. It is not too much to say, however, that in the shoeshops of Brompton, as wherever the trade union exists, notably in England, the ripe result of the organization of labor has made just as surely for industrial peace as the groping, feeble beginnings of its organization made for industrial disturbance. This is a peace like the armed neutrality of Europe, it is true, based on the fear which the strength of each party inspires in the other; nevertheless it is a peace to be counted on. Thus, in the later seventies, during the days of the raw and badly organized Knights of St. Crispin, there were serious labor troubles at Brompton, leading to riot and to personal violence ; but since the genuine, closely organized trade union has become powerful enough to be feared, labor adjustments have been achieved without strikes, as a rule, and when strikes have occurred, they have been of short duration and free from violence. Under the present régime of factories so large that employers cannot have personal knowledge of their employees and take a personal interest in them even if they wish; of indifferent, non-resident employers who would not take notice of their employees even if they could ; and of a rapidly growing contempt for labor, and social ostracism of the laboring man, the trade union is for the Brompton shop-worker an absolutely indispensable weapon of self-defense.

In illustration of the changes taking place in manufacturing New England, I have chosen to present a shoe town, partly because the shoe town employs a comparatively high grade of labor, and partly because I am familiar with its life and growth. The history and present status of Brompton are typical, however, not only of the shoe towns, but, mutatis mutandis, of all the manufacturing communities of New England ; the only important difference between them and the mill towns, for instance, being, that in the mill towns the social changes have been effected more rapidly, and are consequently more complete.

The social stratification of the large cities admits of no question. Now, if it be true that the tendency in the rural districts is towards the development of an “ aristocracy ” attached to the land, through the gradual transformation of the summer visitor into the permanent resident; and if it be true also that the manufacturing communities, which practically constitute the residue, are, like Brompton, in a process of social stratification, is it too bold to suggest that for New England as a whole —which, after all, is not greater in extent than many a single State, nor greater in population than the city of London — a highly civilized society, so clearly stratified as to have pronounced types like the civilizations of the Old World, may be the final and not too remote outcome ?

Why not ? Is there any good reason why such an outcome should be deplored ? May it not be that class distinctions are an inevitable product of civilization ? Surely, social democracy, except in new, raw pioneer communities such as Brompton once was, is as yet a pretty dream which has never been realized. One must needs be doctrinaire indeed to be sure that a clearly stratified, highly civilized society is necessarily inferior — unless too much virility be lost in taking on the graces — to a socially democratic but unlovely pioneer society, if the two be measured in all their hearings. Each may he the best for its time. It may be a question simply of age, after all. Stratification is among the marks of maturity, and New England is getting old enough to have some of the characteristics of maturity.

Alvan F. Sanborn.