BLOG: Irish Shovel Workers Part 2

A completion of a previous post about early shovel shop employees.

My first blog on early shovel workers was a snapshot of people who were shovel workers in the U. S. census of 1850. I used other census and tax records that reached back to 1840 and swept forward to 1870, and I also looked at death and burial records that stretched into the beginning of the 20th century. Today, we will be looking at the state census of 1855 for people who became shovel workers from 1851 to 1855. We need to remember that we are pulling this group out from those of the earlier group who were still working at the shovel shop. These new workers saw the building of the shovel shops we know today, and many were probably hired to fill the increased capacity of those new shops.

Prejudice was also growing in Easton. It’s a mistake to think that all the Irish immigrants to Massachusetts poured in at the height of the potato famine in the mid-1840s. Immigration from Ireland continued strong for decades. In the 1850s a political party, the American Party, sprang up to fight the growing influence of Irish and German immigrants. This party’s membership was supposed to be secret, and members when asked a question about membership were supposed to respond with “I Know Nothing.” The Sergeant Schultz response gave the party the nickname it is best known by today “The Know Nothing Party.” I would be factually inaccurate not to note that most Massachusetts “Know-Nothings” ultimately joined the Republican Party (both parties were anti-slavery) as did a majority of the German immigrants in the Mid-West! The Republicans bought bigger tents in those early days.

There were 131 new men listed in the census of 1855 as shovel makers including three “engineers” who ran the brand new steam engines at the rebuilt shovel factory. Thirty-three men were born in New England and six men came from Scotland. Ninety-two men came from Ireland. OK, 91 men said they were born in the Emerald Isle and a man named Gallagher claimed he was Dutch, but I’m just not going to believe it. While all these men were new to the shovel business, there were many who had come of age in Easton in families where a father or older brother was already a shovel maker.

In 1855 the shovel shop was becoming decidedly more Irish. In 1850 only 54% of the workers were Irish, but among the new workers in 1855 70% were Irish. This new group was a much less stable work force as well. In the 1855 group only one in four of the Irish workers were still on the job in 1860. This is a dramatic change from the earlier Irish immigrants of which 41% were still on the job five years later.

Something was either pushing or pulling Irish workers out of the shovel shops. Taking a closer look we find that in 1850 three of every five Irish shovel workers were unmarried exactly the opposite of the American born workers. These unmarried Irishmen were the most transient members of the shovel shop’s work force. Even back in 1850 three quarters of the single Irish were not at the shovel shop five years later. These numbers did not change dramatically among the new men of 1855. With them 80% would be gone by 1860.

Although fewer married Irishmen worked at the shovel factory in 1850, they were much more likely to stay there for five years. In fact, almost 60% of the married Irish remained for five years a much better rate of stability than the less than half of the married native-born Americans who stayed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that older American born workers, the ones most likely to be married, may have left for opportunities in other local businesses or to start local businesses of their own.

Persistence rates for unmarried American-born workers remained about the same in 1850 and 1855 with around 40% lasting at least five years. This higher rate compared to the single Irish can probably be explained by hometown family connections. The present generation was not the first to have an unmarried son living in a basement or attic!

In 1855 once again 61% of the Irish were unmarried. As we have seen, these unmarried men were slightly less likely to remain here than their counterparts in 1850. More surprising we discover that less than 40% of the married Irish remained for at least five years compared to the nearly 60% in the 1850 group. This is a remarkable difference.

In summary, nothing much changed for the single shovel worker. An American born single man was not quite twice as likely to stay for five years as an Irishman just about the same as in 1850. Family connections and a greater availability of Protestant brides (“mixed” marriages were rare) probably account for this difference. In a growing economy, unattached men could move where they thought the financial opportunity was best. However, given the relatively good pay at the shovel shops it is doubtful that money alone accounts for the difficulty the Ames family had in holding onto their single Irish workers. Our exciting downtown was about as stimulating in 1855 as it is today, but imagine not having a car to visit someplace else! Add Yankee prejudice, and the turnover rate is not that surprising.

On the other hand something made working at the shovel shop much less attractive for married Irish men and much more attractive for married Americans in 1855. Good wages, a decent school system, an equitable company store, and available rental housing would seem to have been very attractive to a family coming from poverty in Ireland. The shovel shop was indeed an “American Dream Factory” for the Irish families that were here in 1850.

By 1855 changes in working conditions related to the new factory may have reduced the attractiveness of shovel work, but the other difference between 1850 and 1855 is the presence of an organized anti-immigrant party. This may have provided a less than welcoming atmosphere in North Easton Village. Oliver Ames II and his brother Oakes favored the employment of the Irish. There are several anecdotes of warm relations between Oakes and individual Irishmen. On the other hand Old Oliver Ames, now officially retired from the shovel company, was a leading Know Nothing. We don’t know how Yankee shovel workers, overseers, or local shop keepers reacted to the Irish, but we can assume from human nature that many joined the “hot” new political party while others kept silent in the face of prejudice. Dr. Caleb Swan, a friend of the younger Ames men, was an exception and a thorn in the side of the Know Nothings.

How likely were the new men in the 1855 census who continued to work at the shovel shops for at least five years to achieve homeownership? Interestingly, as fewer Irish families chose to remain at the shovel shops, more married Americans did so. However, among those Americans of 1855 only 39% eventually owned a home here compared to 64% of those Americans from the 1850 census. It seems as the shovel shops became more Irish, it became less likely that an American would buy a home in Easton. Opportunity elsewhere or prejudice? As always more research needs to be done.

Remember the vast majority of Irishmen left the shovel shops and most moved away from Easton, but for Irish immigrants who stayed at least five years there was no difference between homeownership in the 1850 and 1855 groups. About one third of the men in each group eventually owned a house here. Many more continued to rent housing. Among the 27 Irish who were in the 1850 census and continued at the shovel company at least five years two-thirds lived the remainder of their life here. For the persistent members of the class of 1855 nearly 80% eventually died in town. By 1855 the Irish had strong roots in Easton that eventually wore away the prejudice although it would take many more decades to fully end.

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Sinclair December 26, 2012 at 05:05 AM
Perhaps there was an atraction to migrate to New York where more Irish were settling. New York might have had the image for more opportunity to attract these factory workers toward a better life. Local New England industries like the shovelworks offered work to the starving immigrant. Once sated, the attraction to move on with hope for an even better life might have been a reason for local Irish worker attiition.
Edmund Hands December 27, 2012 at 05:52 PM
This is a very good point. We definitely need to look at comparative wages for jobs in New York and Pennsylvania before drawing any final conclusions. Given the Ames connections to railroads in the 1850s, news of railroad construction jobs in the Midwest might have been easy to come by as well.


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