Date of Graduation
Petersburg, Virginia presents a unique opportunity to examine the lives of southern artisan workers in the nineteenth century. Ranked as the forty-ninth most industrialized U.S. city in 1860, Petersburg was home to nearly 3,000 skilled white and free black male workers in the antebellum era. Crossed by five railroads, commerce and industry were the backbone of the city's economy. The tobacco factories, iron foundries, cotton textile mills, and smaller workshops attracted skilled workers from Virginia, other parts of the South, northern states, and even Europe. The industrial activity of Petersburg makes it possible to draw comparisons with existing studies of northern cities and communities. Artisan workers in the antebellum upper South shared much in common with their northern counterparts. The introduction of a market economy and the changing relations of production created a growing divide within the artisan community as some masters took advantage of new opportunities to transform themselves into merchants, entrepreneurs, and factory owners. Both new technology and machines, and a new division of labor allowed enterprising masters to advance into an emerging middle class. For many journeymen and small masters, these changes meant that opportunities for independence withered. Increasingly, artisans faced a life of wage labor with no possibility of advancing to master status. Despite the parallels between northern and southern artisans, for those in the South, the effects of economic transformation were buffered by the primacy of slavery in the region. White artisans in the upper South enjoyed a psychological wage that placed them above African Americans socially, and usually, economically. Free black workers also benefitted from their residence in the South Because of the high percentage of African Americans in the general southern population, free black artisans were able to find a foothold in the economy denied them in most northern cities. Location in a slave economy meant that southern artisans differed from northern workers in other respects. They complicated the artisanal value of free labor by owning slaves, or aspiring to own slaves, themselves. Although both successful white masters and declining journeymen embraced the republican language of the American Revolution, they failed to see the contradiction inherent in their support of slavery. Examining the antebellum transformation of Petersburg allows for the exploration of these important distinctions.
Barnes, L Diane, "Hammer and hand in the Old South: Artisan workers in Petersburg, Virginia, 1820-1860." (2000). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 8445.