Queen's University

Rosanne Currarino, History

History professor Rosanne Currarino.

Rosanne Currarino‘s research looks at the conflict between capital and labour in late 19th century America. The U.S. manufacturing industry was rising to become a global powerhouse and production was shifting from small shops to large, assembly line-style manufacturing. Jobs were changing from blue collar to white collar as managers and clerks were needed to run corporations.

In her first book – The Labor Question in America: Economic Democracy in the Gilded Age – Dr. Currarino chronicles the struggle to define the nature of democratic life in an era of industrial conflict and severe economic strife. She was interested in the way Americans talked about democracy and the way it changed over the course of the late 19th century, as more men confronted a lifetime of wage work. In the first part of the nineteenth century, “many workers expect they will work as an apprentice or a journeyman for a bit but they will eventually have their own shop. By 1875, that’s a pipe dream,” says Dr. Currarino, a professor in the Department of History.

Faced with the disappearance of the independent proprietary producer, Americans tried to figure if democracy could survive in this new era of industrial capitalism. Some observers suggested giving everyone a lump sum of money or giving everyone a plot of western land. Increasingly, though, many advocated a consumerist democracy, in which the ability to purchase was more important than property ownership or the ability to produce.

Such arguments showed up in the writings of economists and the American Federation of Labor. But they also showed up in more unexpected places, such as the virulent anti-Chinese movement of the late nineteenth century. Dr. Currarino was surprised by just how far Chinese xenophobia stretched across the U.S. at the time. “The Chinese were predominately on the West Coast so it seemed unclear why people in Maine cared deeply about this,” she says. But this too was part of an effort to understand what democracy might mean in the waning years of the nineteenth century. Consistently, she explains, “the Chinese were criticized for working too much, not buying American goods and spending all their money home, whereas good American workers bought American products.”

The Labor Question is published by the University of Illinois Press in the Working Class in American History series.

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Last updated at 2:22 pm EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
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