Reforming Urban Labor

Reforming Urban Labor: Routes to the City, Roots in the Country

Janet L. Polasky
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Reforming Urban Labor
    Book Description:

    Reforming Urban Labor is a history of the nineteenth-century social reforms designed by middle-class progressives to domesticate the labor force. Industrial production required a concentrated labor force, but the swelling masses of workers in the capitals of Britain and Belgium, the industrial powerhouses of Europe, threatened urban order. At night, after factories had closed, workers and their families sheltered in the shadowy alleyways of Brussels and London. Reformers worked to alleviate the danger, dispersing the laborers and their families throughout the suburbs and the countryside. National governments subsidized rural housing construction and regulated workmen's trains to transport laborers nightly away from their urban work sites and to bring them back again in the mornings; municipalities built housing in the suburbs. On both sides of the Channel, respectable working families were removed from the rookeries and isolated from the marginally employed, planted out beyond the cities where they could live like, but not with, the middle classes.

    In Janet L. Polasky's urban history, comparisons of the two capitals are interwoven in the context of industrial Europe as a whole. Reforming Urban Labor sets urban planning against the backdrop of idealized rural images, links transportation and housing reform, investigates the relationship of middle-class reformers with industrial workers and their families, and explores the cooperation as well as the competition between government and the private sector in the struggle to control the built environment and its labor force.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6240-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    “From the point of morality, do we even need to compare the city to the countryside?” the principal Belgian inspector of agriculture, Paul De Vuyst, asked his countrymen in 1911. Peasants in the countryside thrived, nourished by “clean air, moralizing work, watchfulness and the encouragement of the family,” while industrial workers in the city succumbed to “filthy air, disastrous promiscuity, and were overcome by loneliness in a world filled with indifferent strangers, wicked examples and, at each step, the dangerous lure of unhealthy temptations!”¹ In the first two industrial countries in Europe, Britain and Belgium, factories were drawing masses of...

  5. 1 A “Sprawling” City of “Outcast Masses”: Overcrowded Capitals
    (pp. 14-40)

    Teeming, chaotic, and congested cities troubled reform-minded British and Belgian observers at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1883, the secretary of the London Congregational Union, Andrew Mearns, gave readers of a Bitter Cry of Outcast London a vicarious tour of the poorest districts, exposing them to the “poisonous and malodorous gases arising from accumulations of sewage and refuse” and to the sights of the shadowy courtyards, where “the sun never penetrates, which are never visited by a breath of fresh air, and which rarely know the virtues of a drop of cleansing water.” He invited the middle class...

  6. 2 “Give Men Homes, and They Will Have Soft and Homely Notions”: Reformers’ Schemes for Housing Urban Workers
    (pp. 41-75)

    In the wake of industrialization, domestic disorder spilled out of the wretched lodgings inhabited by workers and their families fomenting social chaos. Civilization, like breathable air and sunlight, had failed to penetrate these enclosed spaces in which the poor lived and bred. Malnourished infants perished, unschooled children misbehaved, gossiping women neglected their families, and men drank up their earnings in cafés and pubs. Drawn to the cities to build the infrastructure of an industrial society, the laborers and their unruly families threatened to undermine public order.

    The middle class feared that laborers, newly arrived in the cities, were being lured...

  7. 3 “Network of Iron Rails”: Workmen’s Trains
    (pp. 76-99)

    On 21 April 1869, Joseph Kervyn de Lettenhove, a Catholic deputy from the Belgian village of Eeklo, introduced a scheme to reduce railway fares for laborers riding to work on the national railways. He proposed government subsidies to encourage laborers to travel daily by train from their homes in rural villages to employment in industrial centers throughout Belgium. Workmen’s trains running on the state rails would remove the industrial classes each evening from the large cities where “they contract the habits of immorality and disorder.” The Belgian railways would root laborers in their ancestral villages away from the promiscuous cities...

  8. 4 “Le Cottage”: Pastoral Villages and Tidy Suburbs
    (pp. 100-133)

    In 1901, Charles Booth, the renowned author of the multivolume survey of poverty in the British capital, Life and Labour in London, addressed the Browning Hall Conference on housing in London, which was convened by the clergyman and reformer Francis Stead. The assembled reformers agreed with Booth that “locomotion” was key to relieving the overcrowding of London and “that a complete system of transportation radiating from congested centers, which shall be cheap, rapid, and owned by the London County Council, is a primary step towards dealing with the Housing problem in London.” The working class needed to be convinced to...

  9. 5 “Charged by the Workingmen, Pelted and Charged Again”: The Politics of Reform
    (pp. 134-161)

    Most Belgian and British reformers had come to the conclusion in decades preceding the First World War that the migration of skilled workers to the London suburbs and the rooting of Brussels laborers in the Belgian countryside would substantially alleviate the misery of their overcrowded capital cities. Convinced that workers and their families would thrive outside the modern city, urban reformers applauded the Belgian transportation policy that subsidized workmen’s trains, and they urged British railways to follow their neighbor’s example. Many, but not all, of the reformers called on the governments to help house the workers in the greenery beyond...

  10. 6 “With Morality Brimming Forth”: Rooted Workers and Their Families
    (pp. 162-181)

    The Belgian and the British middle class envisioned workers’ homes beyond the city that gathered affectionate parents and their children around the hearth at the end of the workday. In the first issue of the Belgian journal Le Cottage, the editors described this “home”: “a habitation that is airy and joyous, surrounded by greenery in the middle of a big garden, truly healthy and comfortable, with morality brimming forth, the foyer where one lives happily and in the midst of which one is loved.”¹ They consciously adopted the English word home to describe their ideal. Like the English cottages built...

  11. 7 “To Live Like Everyone Else”: Commuting Labor, 1918–2010
    (pp. 182-196)

    The French writer and former minister of agriculture Jules Méline was not convinced in 1905 that the workmen’s trains daily plying the tracks between the industrial capitals and the countryside littered with laborers’ cottages would reform the working class. His description of the threat of rural exodus had contributed to the anxiety that triggered the nineteenth-century housing and transportation reforms in London and Brussels. He did not, however, share the British and Belgian reformers’ conviction that their housing and transportation schemes would cause their industrial nations to evolve “towards a semi-industrial, semi-agricultural society.”¹ He was skeptical that the urban capitals...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-228)
  13. Index
    (pp. 229-238)