Historical Fiction Research Sources for Working Class and Labor History

B.J. SEDLOCK

Are you writing about characters among the working classes in the British and American past? Here are books on the social aspects of working class life, which I think historical novelists will find useful. Some may be out of print, but most public libraries will request older books for you via interlibrary loan, or you can purchase them on used book websites such as abebooks.com.

I’m limiting my recommendations to books only for this article (no websites) for a very practical reason. The library I work for has been withdrawing many older books recently. After deleting them from our catalog, I’ve set aside some that I felt would be useful for HNS members to know about. The pile in my office is getting too large for comfort, so I need to share these and move them out, to make room for more as we continue withdrawing.

Apologies to those HNS members researching Canadian or Australian history. This list is American- and British-centric because our library owned books on US and British history only in this particular subject area.

American Labor

Clockwork: Life In and Outside an American Factory, by Richard Balzer.  New York: Doubleday, 1976.  ISBN 0-385-11036-7

Balzer provides an interesting snapshot of what blue-collar work was like in an American factory in the early 1970s. He arranged with management and the union of Western Electric in North Andover, Massachusetts, to work in the factory for five months, where he was allowed to take photographs and interview the workers. There are chapters on how workers felt about quality control, working conditions, family members working together, and what life is like for a shop steward. Any novelist setting their book among the American working class in the 1970s will discover story ideas and facts galore.

 

Early America at Work: a Pictorial Guide to Our Vanishing Occupations, by Everett B. Wilson.  New York: A.S. Barnes, 1963.

Picture1

A footman, from Early America at Work

This book will be most useful as a story-idea generator. There is some text, but the black-and-white illustrations predominate.  “The purpose of this book is to recall the old-time occupations and epithets and to picture the neighbors to whom they applied…The illustrations were reproduced for the most part from magazines and books published prior to the turn of the twentieth century.” The chapters group like occupations together, such as “horse people,” “farm folk,” and “servants.” Not a great source for factual information, but it could spark ideas and lead authors to find more on a particular occupation elsewhere.

 

Homestead: the Households of a Mill Town, by Margaret Byington.  New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1910.

Picture2

Blast furnaces in Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1907; Credit: Library of Congress LOT 12053-1 Catalog number 2006681167

This book was a publication by the Pittsburgh Survey, a sociological study by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907-1908, considered an important part of the Progressive era reform movement. A novelist will find material on both English-speaking working class and Slavic immigrants in Homestead, Pennsylvania.  There is an entire section on what daily life was like for Eastern European immigrants in the steel mill town. Byington’s appendices contain valuable information for a novelist, like comparing the cost of food in different cities to that of Pittsburgh, pay scales in Homestead, and even weekly expenditure amounts for the families she studied.

 

 

Slavic Immigrant Woman, by Bessie Olga Pehotsky.  Cincinnati, Ohio: Powell & White,1970 (reprint of 1925 ed.)

The tenement bath tub; Credit: Library of Congress SSF-POOR Catalog number 2003655419

The tenement bath tub; Credit: Library of Congress SSF-POOR Catalog number 2003655419

While this book exhibits some bias in that it seems to have been written by a Protestant missionary, it could still be useful to the historical novelist looking for ideas when setting a story in an immigrant population in the early part of the 20th century. Pehotsky explains what life was like back in Russia for peasant immigrants, how Slavic immigrants tend to segregate themselves, how families cope with high rent by taking in boarders, their social activities and home life, etc.  Authors of inspirational fiction may get story ideas from the section towards the back of the book, where the author discusses how women’s church groups can help the immigrants.

 

U.S. Department of Labor History of the American Worker, edited by Richard B. Morris.  Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, [1976].

From The History of Labor in America series at the Frances Perkins Federal Building; Credit: Library of Congress Call no.: LC-DGI-highsm-11339 (online) Catalog: 2010720809

From The History of Labor in America series at the Frances Perkins Federal Building; Credit: Library of Congress Call no.: LC-DGI-highsm-11339 (online) Catalog: 2010720809

Some of the text of this government document is available at the Department of Labor’s website but it does not contain the illustrations that the print version has. The book was published by the government in commemoration of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, and presents a lavishly illustrated volume of the history of the American worker. The six main sections were written by different authors. Novelists will be able to find useful material here, such as a section with lyrics to labor songs, a picture essay on the workplace during World War II, labor-themed poetry, a chronology, and an extensive bibliography.

 

 

 

British working class and labor

British Seaman, 1200-1860, a social survey, by Christopher Lloyd.  Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970.  [also published in London by Collins, 1968.]

Paying sailors, British Navy, ca.1910-1915; Credit: Library of Congress Call number LC-B2-3176-1 Control no.: ggb2005016984

Paying sailors, British Navy, ca.1910-1915; Credit: Library of Congress Call number
LC-B2-3176-1
Control no.:
ggb2005016984

The author’s introductory statement of “there has been so little written about the British seaman himself” was true at the time of publication. Since then, interest in Patrick O’Brian and other authors’ works has generated more recent books on the age of sail and lives of seamen. Still, historical novelists will find Lloyd’s older work useful. He includes a whole chapter on the methods of impressment, plus several chapters on sailors’ lives in medieval, Tudor, and Stuart times. The “Life at sea” chapter covers discipline, food, pay, and health. An appendix contains the text of letters written by sailors to their friends and families between 1800 and 1806.

 

Country Folk: a Pleasant Company, by Peter H. Ditchfield.  New York: E.P. Dutton, [no date but probably 1923; also published by Methuen in London in 1923].

Ditchfield writes of life in his Berkshire village. Chapters include the squire, parson, doctor, schoolmaster, farmer, landlord, gamekeeper, shepherd, etc. Given the time of publication, it is not surprising that he only devotes one chapter to the village’s women. Some chapters contain brief histories of the various professions, as well as the author’s impressions of their life and working conditions. A novelist setting his or her book in the between-the-wars era of English history may get some story ideas from Country Folk.

 

England Speaks, by Philip Gibbs.  New York: Literary Guild, 1935.

A gentleman farmer; Credit: Library of Congress Call no.: Illus. in TS1960.P6 Catalog no.: 2006686162

A gentleman farmer; Credit: Library of Congress Call no.: Illus. in TS1960.P6
Catalog no.:
2006686162

The lengthy subtitle is pretty descriptive of the contents: “Being talks with road sweepers, barbers, statesmen, lords and ladies, beggars, farming folk, actors, artists, literary gentlemen, tramps, down-and-outs, miners, steel workers, blacksmiths, the man-in-the-street, highbrows, lowbrows, and all manner of folk of humble and exalted rank, with a panorama of the English scene in this Year of Grace 1935.” Sometimes the people Gibbs talks with are allowed to speak for themselves, but other passages are filtered through Gibbs’ own impressions.  So England Speaks might prove a better source for story ideas than for research.

 

English Yeoman under Elizabeth and the Early Stuarts, by Mildred Campbell.  New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960.  [originally published by Yale and H. Milford/Oxford University Presses in 1942.]

Campbell researched primary sources and presents chapters on how Elizabethan yeomen earned a living, their dwellings, education, religious life, etc. The appendices will be interesting to a novelist, such as a list of professions to which yeomen’s sons were apprenticed, servants’ wages between 1592 and 1635, and tax rates.

 

Yeoman in Tudor and Stuart England, by Albert J. Schmidt.  Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1961.

This is one of a series of booklets the Folger published on the cultural history of the 16th-17th centuries. Schmidt says that Thomas Baker described a yeoman in 1703 as “half farmer and half gentleman; his horses go to plow all the week, and are put into the coach o’Sunday.” This brief booklet gives an overview of the yeoman’s life in Shakespeare’s time, accompanied by a bibliography and black-and-white illustrations from Folger-owned books published in the Tudor and Stuart eras.

 

What the Butler Saw: Two Hundred and Fifty Years of the Servant Problem, by E. S. Turner.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1963.  [also published in London by Joseph, 1962]

Maid scrubbing steps, 1941; Credit: Library of Congress Call no.: LC-USF34-044780-D Control no.: Fsa2000026339/PP

Maid scrubbing steps, 1941; Credit: Library of Congress Call no.: LC-USF34-044780-D
Control no.:
Fsa2000026339/PP

Turner covers the world of the servant in both Britain and America beginning with the 18th century.  There are separate chapters on male and female servants, how religion was brought into play by employers, the portrayal of servants in contemporary literature, and how 20th century wars changed servants’ roles.  Unfortunately, there is no bibliography.

 

 

About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Metadata and Archives Librarian at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.


In This Section

About our Articles

Our features are original articles from our print magazines (these will say where they were originally published) or original articles commissioned for this site. If you would like to contribute an article for the magazine and/or site, please contact us. While our articles are usually written by members, this is not obligatory. No features are paid for.