11: Anthony Wallace’s Rockdale

Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the Early Industrial Revolution is a long and winding 485-page “microhistory” of the Rockdale Manufacturing district in the first half of the 19th century.

Or, as Anthony Wallace summarizes it: “An account of the coming of the machines, the making of a new way of life in the mill hamlets, the triumph of evangelical capitalists over socialists and infidels, and the transformation of the workers into Christian soldiers in a cotton-manufacturing district in Pennsylvania in the years before and during the Civil War.”  Does it get any better than that?  (On reading that, I started wondering if this book were somehow a reprint of something from the 1800s, but no, it was published in 1978, and as far as I can tell Wallace is still alive and kicking.)

The point of this book, I think, is to use the history of Rockdale to test his theory of “paradigmatic processes of cultural change,” which he published as a separate journal article in 1972.  Basically, this theory expands on the ideas of a gentleman named Thomas Kuhn, who argued that scientific research alternates between periods of normal and revolutionary science.  In “normal” science, students are taught the dominant scientific paradigm in schools, where they replicate the experiments and learn the formulas that support the paradigm, and then, in their professional lives, they discover new applications of the same paradigm.  Revolutionary science happens when the sheer number of problems not addressed by normal science becomes so big that scientists have to devise a new paradigm; they start developing new ways to solve old problems instead of using old ways to solve new problems.

Wallace expands Kuhn’s theory from two phases to five: innovation, paradigmatic core development, exploitation, functional consequences, and rationalization.  He also argues that scientists hum along happily doing research in their secret science communities (innovating and occasionally changing their research paradigm) until someone from the real world realizes that a scientist has devised a solution to their real world problem – at which point the exploitation, functional consequences, and rationalization phases come into play, because the innovation has made the leap from abstract research to real-world application.

I don’t like his argument that scientists and regular people are in two separate worlds (er, scientists go to the grocery store just like the rest of us).  Also, I’m honestly not entirely sure how this whole paradigmatic cultural change thing applies to Rockdale.  But the application of a theoretical model of cultural change, especially that one, is by far the least interesting part of the book.  Wallace is an anthropologist who is fascinated by the everyday lives of real people.  He also, as it turns out, is one hell of a researcher: the book is chock full of old love letters, chatty notes between the wives and daughters of the manufacturers, rent account books, pay ledgers, census data, household accounting data, workers’ letters, newspaper articles, and lots and lots of technical information about the mechanics of cotton mills – all woven together so skillfully that you can almost smell the cotton and oil and sweat and hear the grinding of the machinery and feel the old stone tenements the workers lived in.

One of the most interesting parts, I think, is his discussion of the internal workings of the cotton mills themselves, from the water-driven “power train” that uses a system of geared shafts and belts to transfer the power from the water to the various machines, to the flow of cotton from one machine – and one worker – to the next.  The cotton mills in Rockdale were built in the 1820s and 1830s, so they were basically smaller versions of English mills, filled with English spinning equipment and – at least at first – managed by English technicians and English mill managers.  Cotton came in 300-350lb bales that were first cleaned, then carded, then throstled (pre-spun, or converted into roving) and then spun on massive spinning mules – all, as it turns out, by real people who lived in particular houses (usually with 5 or 6 other people) and who made specific wages (anywhere from $4 to $50 a month), and the majority of whom, under Wallace’s care, now have their names recorded for posterity.  Truthfully, what the book lacks in theory it more than makes up for in its remarkable ability to bring Rockdale to life.

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3 thoughts on “11: Anthony Wallace’s Rockdale

  1. Barbara

    Sounds like Wallace just wanted a venue to publish all his tidbits that he collected about this town and really wanted to inform the reader about the cotton mills. 485 pages would be a lot to fill.

    Reply

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