Imagining a scene on the docks of Baltimore in 1816

I recently picked up Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore by Seth Rockman – a study of poor and working-class laborers in early 19th century Baltimore. I have not read much labor history and sincerely appreciated Rockman’s revealing observation about the growth of Baltimore and similar cities during the early Republic period:

“At a moment of great entrepreneurial energy and social mobility, prosperity came to Americans who could best assemble, deploy, and exploit the physical labor of others. The early republic’s economy opened up new possibilities for some Americans precisely because it closed down opportunities for others.”

What really hooked me on the book was this masterful paragraph painting a vivid portrait of Baltimore in relationship to the broader Atlantic world:

“Imagine a scene on the docks of Baltimore in 1816, as American-born stevedores loaded crates of ready-made shirts aboard a merchant ship bound for South America. Focusing in on the ship, one might see a rural miller haggling with the captain over the price of one of the indentured teenagers whom the ship had recently brought from Bremen, or a free black mariner signing articles to work the outgoing voyage as an ordinary seaman. Expand the view, and one might glimpse that sailor’s laundress wife washing clothes in Harford Run, or the sailor’s enslaved sister serving tea in the home of the merchant who owned the ship and hoping that her brother might one day accumulate enough money to purchase her freedom. A widening perspective reveals the widowed seamstresses stitching shirts at home, as well as the apprenticed boys winding thread in Baltimore’s first manufactories on the outskirts of town. Along the waterfront, a middle-aged white domestic servant might be cooking breakfast in a Fells Point boardinghouse, where some of the ship’s crew spent its shore leave in the company of women supporting themselves through prostitution. In the harbor, Scotch-Irish dredgers on the mudmachine were battling sedimentation to keep Baltimore’s port open. From an even broader vantage, one might see the enslaved field laborers of a distant cotton plantation, whose growing market value encouraged urban slaveholders to resist liberating the men, women, and children they owned in Baltimore or even the menial workers in Lancashire, Cap Francois, Ouidah, and Paramaribo– the “Atlantic proletariat” whose labor integrated an already global economy.”

Awesome. More local history situated in a trans-Atlantic political economy please.

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