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A provocative and exceptionally well-researched book, Robert Kristofferson’s Craft Capitalism offers nothing less than a fundamental reinterpretation of Ontario’s early industrialization in the mid-nineteenth century. Focusing on the embryonic urban environment of Hamilton from 1840 to 1872, Kristofferson argues persuasively that the effects of early industrial capitalism among craftsworkers were largely positive, leading not to urban proletarianization, but to increased economic opportunity. Taking issue with the “dispossession theory” held by labour historians such as Gregory Kealey and Bryan Palmer, Kristofferson claims that “Hamilton craftsworkers were eager participants in the unfolding of industrialization because their situation within it allowed them to understand themselves and to act as its beneficiaries.” (243) Emphasizing the triumph of craft continuity over the uneven pace of capitalistic change, Kristofferson stresses the commonality of interests and experiences held by artisanal masters and journeymen. Craft Capitalism presents a carefully nuanced vision of the “transmodal” phase of early urban industrialism, as craftsworkers and artisans successfully straddled emerging industrial capitalist modes of production with an enduring craft culture.
The first three chapters situate the material composition of craft capitalism within the burgeoning industrial expansion of Hamilton itself. The resulting flexibility of this industrial growth was achieved without a fundamental altering of economic relationships, as “an expanded number of small handicraft enterprises stood in generally peaceful co-existence with a considerable number of enlarged manufactories.” (21) Utilizing meticulously gathered census schedules, city directories, urban newspapers and individual biographies, Kristofferson offers a convincing depiction of an industrial city built by its migrant craftsworkers. The relative absence of class conflict is explained through these migratory labour patterns; with the vast majority of craftsworkers emigrating from the British Isles, many came to Hamilton in search of economic advancement and prosperity, aspirations seemingly unattainable in the Old World.
And, by and large, they succeeded. With assiduous attention to detail, Kristofferson traces the origins of 233 proprietors of industrial establishments in Hamilton, and concludes that roughly 85 to 95% of these owners were former artisans who “rose through the ranks.” (72) Their visible presence within the industrial community provided a powerful symbol of craft mobility for journeymen and apprentices, and the mentoring process offered by craft culture would provide practical means of “masculine independence” for a large majority of journeymen artisans and craftsworkers.
With the socio-economic context of craft capitalism firmly established, Kristofferson argues that both master and journeymen forged a particular craft culture, one that emphasized “mutualism” in social relations rather than adversarial capitalistic competition. This craft continuity reinforced the social construction of workplace masculinities, through shared workspace on the shop floor and seminal cultural celebrations such as picnics, excursions, testimonials and parades.
Kristofferson is particularly persuasive when he adheres to the inner workings of workplace craft mutualism, and the craft identity of masculine exclusiveness. However, the author does not explore as thoroughly the intricate negotiations of power inherent in these obligations and dependencies—contractual or otherwise—between masters, journeymen and apprentices, nor does he examine how these employment responsibilities might have been atypical in a capitalist shop. Less convincing is his discussion of craft mutualism when it moves outside the workplace context. The rhetoric of craft mutualism found in various testimonials merely resonates as a remnant of earlier paternalist discourse. Likewise, while Kristofferson claims that the larger dwellings of masters illustrate craft continuity and economic promise, it could easily be demonstrated that differentiated urban space could become an authoritative symbol of the power dynamics existing between masters and journeymen.
A comparable difficulty in recognizing occupational power relationships exists in Kristofferson’s otherwise engaging look at the culture of the “self-made artisan” and the ideology of the “self-improving craftsworker.” Correctly accentuating the reality that the “self-made man is a slippery concept and needs to be used with some caution,” (138) Kristofferson notes that craftsworkers employed this image to foster a craft ideology of masculine independence, sobriety and industriousness, separate from the aristocratic pretensions of the commercial/professional classes. Similarly, recognizing that self-education was the key to craft continuity and advancement, craftsworkers often took advantage of such institutions as the Hamilton Mechanics’ Institute, mercantile libraries and literary societies.
While this perspective offers a welcome and effective corollary to the existing paradigm that craftsworkers and artisans operated in opposition to the “producer ideology” of industrial capitalism, his argument appears to mirror an outmoded liberal historiography of the Victorian period as an age of improvement and progress. By taking the rhetoric of the self-made and self-improved craftsworker at face value, Kristofferson once again runs the risk of ignoring the complex negotiations of cultural authority in the fluid gradations of class existing between the craftsworkers themselves, and the development of power relations within the larger urban community. Surely the lessons of Horatio Alger and Samuel Smiles were manipulated and enforced by the hegemonic forces of commercialization in dissimilar terms and often in direct opposition to this durable craft culture, often in the very same periodicals and institutions exemplified in Craft Capitalism.
The strengths and weaknesses of Kristofferson’s book are exhibited in the final chapter, as the Nine Hours Movement of 1872 is described as a divergence of this transmodal culture of mutualism in the face of increasing capitalistic pressure. Although a compelling argument, it becomes difficult for Kristofferson to simply localize these conflicts to Hamilton masters and journeymen, particularly as he positions the conflict around debates over the nature of “industrial citizenship.” If, as Kristofferson claims, that younger craftsworkers demanded shorter hours as their natural right in an emerging “liberal economy,” (207) then he should engage with the broader political tenets of liberalism and their effects within the larger urban community.
Although Craft Capitalism may at times deliver less than what was promised, Kristofferson’s conclusions are both original and wide-ranging, calling on historians to recognize the complexities of urban industrial development in the mid-Victorian era, while opening up valuable new avenues of investigation in the process.