J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

John Box: Not a Ropemaker?

The 1896 history of King’s Chapel states of one Revolutionary-era member of the congregation:
On the record of the death of Mr. John Box in the Church Books he is called ropemaker. This is a mistake. He owned much real estate, and belonging to it was a ropewalk. His niece was highly indignant at this statement of the record; said he never spun a rope in his life, but had a foreman who carried on the business.
In fact, Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette stated on the man’s death:
Oct. 31, 1774. Died of a consumptive disorder, and on Thursday was decently interred, Mr. John Box, aged 75 years, who for upwards of 40 years was an eminent Ropemaker in this town. He was a Man of a fair unblemished character, strictly just in his dealings, a constant attender of Divine worship, Several years (in turn) a Warden of King’s Chapel and one of the Vestry, its assistant and promoter in rebuilding that Church. He was no medler in politicks, yet a well-wisher to the publick welfare; he loved Order, and condemned too great a stretch of power; much esteemed by his worthy Acquaintance, and by the publick in general. He was a tender, affectionate Husband and Parent.
Obviously Box’s family or friends supplied this death notice and didn’t object to the word “ropemaker.” The legal papers from his estate also used that term. What made his niece object sometime later?

I blame the Industrial Revolution. In the 1770s ropewalks were among the few American manufacturing enterprises with a large workforce. Shipyards were another proto-industrial business that had to employ lots of men on the same project. By contrast, most craftsmen worked in relatively small shops in which the boss directly supervised journeymen and apprentices and put his own hand to some advanced tasks.

With the Industrial Revolution, enterprises expanded, and a new profession and class of men developed: managers. These men ran businesses from behind desks. They dealt with customers, juggled supplies and inventories, and got large staffs to do the work. Paul Revere was the most famous Bostonian to make this jump, from working silver himself in the North End to supervising a copper-rolling mill in Canton in the early 1800s.

In eighteenth-century British and American society, men were legally identified by their profession or place in society. Legal documents referred to “Aaron Wood, yeoman [i.e., small farmer],” or “Benjamin Burdick, barber,” or “William Wemms, laborer.” These labels were crucial. One summons for John Hancock was squelched on the grounds that it didn’t refer to him as “John Hancock, gentleman.”

By the end of the century people were using the term “manufacturer” to refer to the men overseeing large enterprises, like Revere. John Box appears to have been an early example of that type: at Box and Austin’s ropewalk in the West End, he managed the money and sales and his partner Benjamin Austin ran the production process. But I don’t think society understood and accepted the term “manufacturer” yet. Thus, both Box and Austin were labeled as “ropemakers.”

And no one saw anything wrong with that in 1774. Ropemaking was an important business in a seafaring town. People knew it could lead to wealth. Another of Boston’s ropemakers, John Gray, was one of the richer citizens and brother of the provincial treasurer. He probably didn’t spin any more rope than John Box did. But there were so few men like them who “made” things without using their hands that the culture didn’t yet have a name for them.

Only after the Industrial Revolution reshaped the American economy and class system did it seem desirable to label ropewalk owners differently from the skilled workers they employed.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

You really suss out evolving social consciousnesses/language around class and occupation very nicely in this one, John!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Don! That first passage about Box has been in my notes for over a decade, so I've been mulling over its meaning for a while.

Anonymous said...

Great explanation on those distinctions! Before the Industrial Revolution, wouldn't a man such as Revere have been referred to as a mechanic?

J. L. Bell said...

"Mechanic" was a catch-all term for the class of men who made things with their hands. It doesn't show up as a legal label; Revere was called a goldsmith or silversmith in that context.

The founding of the Massachusetts Mechanics Charitable Association, with Revere as first president, shows some if the shifts in terminology and class interests. It was originally called the Mechanics' Society. But it also represented the interests of manufacturers and owners of large workshops over their workers, the ordinary mechanics.