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This important contribution to the literature on mobility in nineteenth-century America examines with a fine microscope the world of work in Poughkeepsie, New York. The careers of all workers in each occupation—the entire labor force in this city with an 1870 population of 20,000—are traced over three decades. The book clarifies for the first time in any mobility study the meaning of shifts in employment through detailed examination of individual occupations. It shows concretely how industrialization altered the structure of opportunity; it specifies how the change affected the occupational niches and paths of mobility found by Irish, German, and British newcomers compared to white and black natives. By reassessing the significance of achieving particular occupations such as clerking and craft proprietorships, the book poses important questions for historical interpretations of gross indices of mobility such as shift from blue-collar to white-collar status.
The authors favor comparability in their general analysis of mobility from federal census rolls and city directories, but they refine it through a broad research base, including tax rolls, local newspapers, and voluntary association records. Their study is one of the first to make systematic use of the credit reports on every business in one city from the R. G. Dun & Co. manuscripts. It also provides the first full description of the employment of women, permitting comparison with the opportunities for men. Other distinctive aspects include treatment of the crucial dimension of wealth and income, close attention to shifts in occupations produced by transformations in technology, marketing, and finance, and some disentangling of the influence of religion and nationality upon achievement.
The fine lens of this microscopic study has enabled Clyde Griffen and Sally Griffen to describe geographic, occupational, and property mobility in a small city with statistical precision, to illuminate the larger social processes which shaped that mobility, and, simultaneously, to vivify the working lives of anonymous American men and women.