Scholars following the lead of Clifford Geertz use the concept of "thick description" in order to assemble as many details as possible about a group of people. Such an approach pays as much attention to the everyday and ordinary as to proscribed and ceremonial behaviors. The key to formulating thick description is to resist temptations to analyze a subject before a requisite number of details are revealed and clear patterns can be discerned. Sometimes such a construction requires the realization that some behaviors have no discernible logic, some meanings are ambiguous, and a few cultural productions can be appreciated but not fully understood. Often thick description tends to reveal cultural secrets in a deeper, if less determinate, way.1
It is with the goal of providing thick description that I turn to a historical look at the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor (KOL), the largest and most powerful labor organization of late-nineteenth-centuryNorth America. This study will not deal with the institutional history of the Knights so much as it will wrestle with the practices and behaviors of those men and women who identified with the Order. Political and organization studies show clearly why labor in general, and the Knights in particular, fared poorly during the nineteenth century. But such a focus tells us little about the men and women who took part in the struggle. What was it like to be part of the Knights of Labor? What were the Order's values and how did members respond to them? How did values and practices change over time? Why did organized capital react so viciously to the KOL? What, if anything, remained when the KOL passed?
For answers to these questions I turn to KOL cultural production. My use of the term "culture" is a broad one gleaned from those of anthropologists Clyde Kluckhohn and E. B. Tylor. By "culture" I refer to a set of group practices that are learned, shared, and socially influenced.2 To____________________