"Graceful, engaging work."
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Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore
Cowinner, 2010 Merle Curti Award, Organization of American Historians
Winner, 2010 Philip Taft Labor History Book Award, ILR School at Cornell University and the Labor and Working-Class History Association
Winner, 2010 H. L. Mitchell Award, Southern Historical Association
Enslaved mariners, white seamstresses, Irish dockhands, free black domestic servants, and native-born street sweepers all navigated the low-end labor market in post-Revolutionary Baltimore. Seth Rockman considers this diverse workforce, exploring how race, sex, nativity, and legal status determined the economic opportunities and vulnerabilities of working families in the early republic.
In the era of Frederick Douglass, Baltimore's distinctive economy featured many slaves who earned wages and white workers who performed backbreaking labor. By focusing his study on this boomtown, Rockman reassesses the roles of race and region and rewrites the history of class and capitalism in the United States during this time.
Rockman describes the material experiences of low-wage workers—how they found work, translated labor into food, fuel, and rent, and navigated underground economies and social welfare systems. He also explores what happened if they failed to find work or lost their jobs. Rockman argues that the American working class emerged from the everyday struggles of these low-wage workers. Their labor was indispensable to the early republic’s market revolution, and it was central to the transformation of the United States into the wealthiest society in the Western world.
Rockman’s research includes construction site payrolls, employment advertisements, almshouse records, court petitions, and the nation’s first "living wage" campaign. These rich accounts of day laborers and domestic servants illuminate the history of early republic capitalism and its consequences for working families.
"Graceful, engaging work."
" Scraping By is an impressive, eloquently written study that provides a seminal history of Baltimore's working class, and makes a fine addition to the already outstanding list of titles in the Studies in Early American Economy and Society series."
" Scraping By is about breaking new ground: the often nasty, unhealthy labor essential to Baltimore's growth as a boomtown from the 1790s to 1830s. Rockman breaks new ground himself in studying 'low-end laborers': slaves, free blacks, European immigrants, and the native-born who struggled to cobble together a few days' ill-paid toil... Highly recommended."
"Seth Rockman has written a powerful book... 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, William B. Morris, Gary B. Nash, Billy G. Smith, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Alfred F. Young."
"Seth Rockman has written a book to be reckoned with... This is a terrific book, at times abrasive, which deserves a wide audience. That would include undergraduates, for whom Rockman’s vivid writing and clear argument should resonate, especially within an economic climate that is forcing millions more to scrape by."
"A creative treatment of an intriguing and important topic... The effort to make slavery history a part of labor history, and vice versa, is commendable, effective, and overdue."
" Scraping By offers an entirely new way of understanding the early republic. Through a combination of prodigious research, keen insight, and graceful, lively prose, Seth Rockman brings to life the labor and laborers who built early America from the cobblestones up. Here are workers free and enslaved, male and female, black and white, immigrant and native born, all struggling to attain the basic wherewithal of survival in a boomtown of their own making. This is no local story but a fresh paradigm, nothing less than the future of American social history."
"The economy of the Early Republic has long served as a kind of Rorschach test for American historians, with some perceiving a world of unprecedented opportunity and upward mobility and others a class-ridden society riven by inequality, exploitation, and conflict. In this exhaustively researched and vividly rendered book, Seth Rockman reminds us that these competing visions represent two sides of the same coin, that the ability of some Americans to prosper hinged on their ability to mobilize and exploit the labor of others, including enslaved and free people of color, women, indentured servants, immigrants, and others excluded from the full promise of American freedom. Scraping By is essential reading for anyone interested in American economic history."
"Rockman began working on Scraping By well before the current economic downturn, yet the recent record-breaking rates of un- and under-employment make this analysis of American capitalism's development all the more timely. Rockman's skillful work, however, seems likely to outlast this stage of the business cycle... All historians of the era, as well as economic historians of every era, will want to read this fine book."
"This is an engaging, deeply researched, and well-written study of labor, class, and capitalism in early national-era Baltimore."
"Well researched, attentive to larger national and international contexts, and admirably written, this book is a commendable step forward in the writing of the history of U.S. labor."
"An important work of labour history."