Perambulating Scrapbooks and Saloon-Sawdust Sifters: Ghosts along the Labor/Material Culture Trail
Green, Archie, Western Folklore
Workers' expressive culture (railroaders' dialect, cowboys' laments, seafarers' shanties, loggers' ballads, miners' customs, and trade unionists' rhetoric) has long attracted students of language and literature. During recent decades, labor advocates have joined peers in the humanities in extending study, initially, to objects (badges, banners, tools, trade signs) and, eventually, to public monuments and urban landscapes.
To address this latter sphere, the late Stuart Kaufman of the George Meany Memorial Archives and Harry Rubinstein of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History convened a "Symposium on Labor and Material Culture" at the Meany Center on November 12, 1995. In the same year, Labor's Heritage devoted its Spring issue to "Labor Landmarks."
Participating in the symposium and contributing to the journal, I addressed the roles of scholars and enthusiasts in viewing work and workers as integral to the treatment of narrative, artifact, or landmark. I have lumped sardonic tale, esoteric ritual, bronze plaque, and marble sculpture under the rubric laborlore, others have used occupational folklife, workers' culture, or revolutionary working class counterculture, as defining terms.
In a personal sense, with four-decades of "progress" from ballad/ blues case studies (Only a Miner), to civic advocacy (preserving an obsolete copra crane on a San Francisco Bay inlet), I have been acutely conscious of antiquarian ghosts who have simultaneously haunted and illuminated my journey.
To open, trade unionists are not immune from ghostly spirits. At the Knights of Labor national convention in 1893, Daniel De Leon and John Sovereign combined socialist and populist votes to terminate Terence Powderly's reign as the Grand Master Workman. Unable to sustain their victory, the new allies quarreled among themselves and across ideological fences. One skirmish touched matters of who should guard labor history, with what tools, and in which manner.
De Leon's camp seemed especially keen to punish and banish deviants within the Socialist Labor Party. Among many targets, Charles Sotheran, an emigrant from Britain's Yorkshire, had published a book on Horace Greeley and other Utopian pioneers. The SLP's inner fight gravitated to New York's Knights of Labor District Assembly 49, where in July, 1894, Sotheran fought back by denouncing De Leon over his status as a lawyer. The latter then smote his foe, thundering that the Socialist Labor Party had no room for "this 250-pound perambulating scrap book and historic junk shop." (Quint 1953:155)
In unceremoniously expelling Sotheran from the Socialist Labor Party, De Leon bore in upon a rival's role as a radical historian, omnivorous reader, and dedicated bibliophile. In turn, the book man tagged his former comrades as "socialist marplots, casuists, irreconcilables, disruptionists, falsifiers, and boodlers." (Quint 1953:68) I do not desire to fan ancient embers; rather, I call attention to De Leon's terms, scrap book and junk shop. Did he use them figuratively only to demean a rival, or did Sotheran surround his bookcases with buttons, banners, and brica-brac? Unable to rebuild Sotheran's collection, I ask: Did he literally treasure trade-union artifacts in a Dickensian curiosity shop: How did he extract meaning from scrapbook memorabilia. In short, if not Sotheran, when and where did any labor partisan first undertake to gather those items now placed under the rubric material culture? A related question follows: Was De Leon the initial hard-head to blast union pack rats for their obsessions, or had he in 1894 simply fallen back on a pejorative stance previously sanctified in labor discourse?
Over the years, I have experienced some of the intense feeling projected both by pragmatists and visionaries against laborlore enthusiasts. In 1964, Joyce Kornbluh completed Rebel Voices, an exciting anthology of IWW writings and graphics; academic and popular journals alike praised her book. …