BLOG: A Quick Look at Early Shovel Company Workers

Did the men who worked at the shovel company in 1850 achieve the American Dream of home ownership and community membership?

When did the American Dream of home ownership actually became the American Dream? City planners today seem to be pushing the idea that this is some aberrant impulse that struck our country after World War II. The evidence in Easton seems to suggest otherwise with entrepreneurs creating subdivisions as early as the 1890s. I recently set out to discover if the typical shovel worker of the mid-nineteenth century could achieve home ownership.

Almost immediately complications arose. There were hundreds of shovel workers throughout the century-too many to examine every one. That led me to the 1850 U. S. census, the first one to list all household members and occupations. I thought it would provide a simple snapshot of one set of shovel makers. It quickly became apparent that the complications  weren’t over.  In North Easton there were people listed as shovel workers and people listed as laborers, lots of laborers. Checking other data like the 1855 state census it was clear that many, perhaps almost all laborers in North Easton worked for the shovel company. Inevitably, some farm laborer or day laborer would sneak into my calculations unless I undertook a time consuming search of the shovel company archives. A further complication was that all the census takers and tax collectors of the era were Yankees who couldn’t spell an Irish name the same way twice to save their lives! Was Patric Conlin the same person as Patrick Conlan?

You would think Patric age 20 in 1850 would be Patrick age 25 in 1855. You’d think that until you actually looked at the records and discovered that Paddy, a young man displaced by famine, may only have had the roughest idea of when he was born! So lets say until I get a chance to look at those payroll records we are looking at “shovel workers” which are not exactly the same thing as real shovel workers. In other words add an “ish” to any hard numbers you read below.

In 1850 I identified 123 shovel workers. Three were English immigrants, 66 were Irish immigrants and the remaining 54 were born in New England. Once the workers were identified I developed some research questions: Who had been a family head in Easton a decade earlier in 1840? Of the “class” of 1850 who remained in Easton for five years? For ten years? Who stayed in Easton until they died? And how many ever achieved home ownership?

There was a clear difference between the Americans and the Irish immigrants. In 1850 only ten of the 54 Americans were listed as laborers instead of shovel workers while 30 of 66 Irish immigrants were laborers. Many of the Americans were clearly remnants of the original work force that Old Oliver Ames drew from his Easton neighbors. Ten of the 54 were already head of a household in 1840. Only two Irishmen can be identified in the 1840 census as a household head and a shovel company employee in 1850. Thirty of the Americans stayed in Easton until they died compared to only 19 of the Irish.

There was apparently a high turnover in shovel company employees. Of the 54 Americans only 25  (46%) were still working at the Ames Company five years later and only 20 (37%) remained a decade later. Among the Irish, 27 (41%) remained five years and 19 (29%) lasted the entire decade.

In our mound of numbers today, the turnover rates between the Americans and the Irish are the most similar. The ongoing Industrial Revolution provided many opportunities for workers and they clearly took advantage of them.

It would be interesting to know how many men who started the decade at the shovel works moved on to different factory work and how many became small time entrepreneurs in their own right.

Only one Irishman owned his own home in 1850 compared to ten Americans. This is perhaps a reflection of a number of older American workers in the study group who we would consider to be “townies.”

A researcher could look at the amount of property owned in 1860 and make an educated guess as to whether it was a house or simply land, but I chose to look at tax records for 1861 and 1870. Remember we are now looking at shovel workers in 1850 who owned houses in 1861 and/or 1870 not necessarily shovel workers in 1861 or 1870 who owned houses. The homeowners were those men who “made it” in Easton whether they remained in the shovel works or not.

Of the original 54 Americans in the study, 14 (26%) owned a home here in 1870 down from 16 in 1861. Among the original 66 Irishmen only nine (14%) had become homeowners by 1870 up from seven in 1861. Not a terribly high percentage for either group, but let’s look more closely.

How many of our class of 1850 who were still here in 1860 achieved homeownership? These are the people one would assume were putting down roots here. Among Americans nine (64%) of the 14 Massachusetts born workers had achieved homeownership by 1860. Most of these homeowners had “Easton” names like Andrews, Packard, Willis, and Randall. John Bisbee had been working in the shovel shops since the War of 1812 and Lucius Seaver became enough of an Easton institution to get a street named after him. These homeowners were already townies.

Interestingly, the story is different when we look at the out-of-staters. None of the seven workers from Maine and New Hampshire had achieved homeownership by 1861 (two would by 1870). This is even a poorer record than that of the Irish immigrants. Conceivably, this group made their money and then went home to their native states.

Among the immigrants, all three Englishmen came to Easton to stay. They all eventually died in town. One had achieved homeownership by 1861 and a second did so by 1870. The third Englishman, John Reed, died in 1869. Among the nineteen Irish who stayed a decade five (26%) had bought a house by 1861. Three more had bought homes by 1870. Thus, within 20 years 42% of the Irish who “toughed it out” at the shovel works had become homeowners. Whether they bought a home or not, these men became Eastoners; fifteen of the nineteen died in town. Further study is needed in later censuses and valuations to see if others became homeowners in later years.

The employees who were here in 1850 worked at the original shop on the Island. In fact, it was a member of our study group, Patrick Quinn, who was probably responsible for the fire that led to the construction of the shovel plant we now know. Did the new workers in the 1855 census have a different experience from the older workers? The study of this group is a little more complicated than the original 1850 workers, but I’ll try to present some information in the coming days.

What can we conclude about the class of 1850? First, the distinction made between laborers and shovel men especially when so many of the laborers of 1850 became shovel workers in the 1855 state census seems to indicate a pattern of discrimination against the Irish. Evidence from the Ames family and political history have made it clear this prejudice existed and our data further supports this view. Whether this was discrimination on the part of the census taker or the company, awaits further research.

Second, persistence at shovel making among both Americans and immigrants was not particularly high. The relatively small differences between the groups can easily be explained by the higher percentage of Americans with long standing ties to the community. These roots also explain the high percentage of homeownership among the Massachusetts born workers who stayed at the shovel works throughout the decade of the 1850s. Other Americans persisted at shovel making, but did not put down roots.

Finally, 79% of the nineteen Irish who worked at the shovel company during the decade beginning in 1850 remained to die in Easton. Only 42% achieved homeownership in their first twenty years in town. For the Irish was the shovel company an “American Dream Factory?” Would more of this persistent group have become homeowners by 1880 or 1890? Or was this generation of Irish founding fathers content to put down roots here without desiring to or being able to afford a home of their own? My guess, always pending further research, is that this generation through hard work achieved whatever dream of life in America they had back in the old country. In one way or another, the Ames shovel company enabled the achievement of the American Dream.

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Dwight Mac Kerron December 12, 2012 at 02:52 PM
As I recall from the Ames records, the first Irish laborers boarded with James Adams, somewhat before the time of your study. It is not clear if Adams actually owned the house in question, or simply served as supervisor of a property owned by Oliver Ames. It seems to me that data on who was living in the Ames' boarding-houses would be another useful piece of information here. Here's a snippet I found in an old file of OA's acct with James Adams: 1833 May 6, plowing your garden .50 3 lds of manure 3.00 May 10 to paying your singing school subscription 1.00 In May or June of 1833, James Adams begins boarding A Calinan, T Farrel, Henry Roberts, and Hugh Kaplan June OA bills Callinans for money paid to James Adams May 27 i/2 bbl mackeral 4.18 June 4 (crossed out) to the Frugal Housewife .50 July 15 settlement? Debits 193.77 it balance new account 35.99=229.76 (meaning what?) many bushels of meal bought in August Aug 10 charges John Ames for payingJames Adams (8/20 charges Jere Vose for 10 sq ft o) Credit page goes back to “by your bill of work from March 30 to July 93.15(3 months) note given up 91.39 (total of his previous notes?) also by boarding J Alden 13 days- 3.25 J Calihan 12 weeks 21.00(So the rate is 25 cents a day
Dwight Mac Kerron December 12, 2012 at 02:53 PM
And a bit more: Settlement around July 27 By boarding: now has debit and credit PAGES A Calihan 12 weeks 21.00 T Farrel 7 weeks one day 12.50 Henry Roberts 8 weeks 14.00 Hugh Kaplan 7 weeks 23d 13.80 Bill of work to July 27 22.59 By bill angst Joel Randall .57 Willard “ .60 Geo Winchester 4.85 229.76 Aug 31 bill of work 41.61 1834 Feb to April Adams now boards Kasson, 2 Calinans.], two Lynches, Lowens, Fralley, Oneal, and Middleton
Jimmy Donnelly December 12, 2012 at 10:05 PM
I once had a guy, not a townie mind you he'd only lived in Easton for 60 years, but he told me that he thought there was more to Easton than the Ames Shovel Works. Rising from my chair I threw my drink in his face and shouted "How dare your Sir?"
Pat Maguire Parrie December 12, 2012 at 11:30 PM
Fascinating to read bits of information about names I still recognize from 'long ago.' Some of the spellings may be a tad off, and a few names might actually be ancestors.
Sinclair December 26, 2012 at 05:12 AM
One of the early Irish families arriving in circa 1849 (Irish famine) and who still live in North Easton are members of the McMenamy family.


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