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Where We Worked: A Celebration of America's Workers and the Nation They Built    by Jack Larkin order for
Where We Worked
by Jack Larkin
Order:  USA  Can
Lyons Press, 2010 (2010)

Read an Excerpt

* *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

In this volume museum scholar Jack Larkin brings together 400 photos and first-person accounts that evoke the workplace in America from the 1830s to the 1930s, the golden age of labor.

Although perhaps it is not as true today, during this decade the work place, for better or for worse, shaped much of who we were, what we knew, and how we lived as Americans.

Larkin chooses to focus on the experience of ordinary workers rather than the managers, professionals and upper level white collar office people who staffed the corporate sector. The narratives that make up the text of this book are drawn from diaries, travelers' accounts, reminiscences, autobiographies, eyewitness accounts and oral histories of the period.

These are the voices of wheat growers and sharecroppers, mill girls and housemaids, gold miners and railway porters, farmwives and cowboys, and newsboys and stenographers.

The illustrations are primarily gleaned from the remarkable visual resources of the Library of Congress which, for this 100 year period, has a rich treasure trove of photographic and other pictorial documentation of American workers and their workplaces.

The volume is divided into five sweeping sections that lump various jobs together. These broad chapters include Working the Land, Workshop and Household, Wrestling with Nature, Power and Production and Ordinary Jobs.

This was a period when the country's population was vastly increased by millions of immigrants and the great cities were built. 'The nation's stunning economic growth was the result of almost incalculable effort, the work of many millions of hands, and often came at great cost,' writes Larkin.

As you visit the forests, mines, farms, and factories of America while reading this book, it will eventually dawn on you that many of these jobs are gone. In some cases that is probably a good thing, but there's also a sense of loss as well because much of this was what we often refer to today as good, honest labor done with one's hands. There was dignity in the work and the sense of accomplishment that so many of these jobs provided.

A western reader will also realize that this story, as Larkin elects to tell it, is heavily weighted to what happened east of the Rockies and, in great measure, east of the Mississippi River.

There's a cursory mention of the Gold Rush, the migration of refugees to California during the Dust Bowl period and the orchard industry in the southland but that's about it.

No matter, though, this is still a fascinating look at the American worker and how these men and women transformed this country during a pivotal century. The vintage illustrations alone are worth the price of admission and the narrative strikes an authentic tone not often present in history books of this nature.

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