Double Indemnity: Bits of America in 1944

It seems that each December we look at a movie here at the HP, beginning with the 2008 defenestration of the horrid Bing Crosby movie Holiday Inn. This year we turn our attention to Double Indemnity, the classic 1944 movie starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. There’s no moral problem with DI; we’re taking a look here at the interesting and intriguing glimpses into everyday life in the U.S. in the 1940s that it provides.

One must admit to turning it on about a third of the way in, so that’s where our comments begin.

The two main characters, Walter and Phyllis, are plotting to murder Phyllis’ husband.  They meet in a Los Angeles grocery store—the big new market, according to Walter. It’s interesting that it’s not a chain: “Jerry’s Market” is written on the outside in cursive signage. The next decade would see the birth of the chain-store era. This grocery store is fascinating. There seemed to be no produce at all at Jerry’s. Everything, but everything, was in boxes or cans, and all of the boxes and cans are white with black letters. I didn’t see a single picture on any packaging, which certainly is not representative of packaging in general at the time—we all know the lovely, full-color images that were the mainstay of advertising from the late 19th-century on (and which are so popular as poster art today). Perhaps Jerry’s black-and-white world was a sign of daring modernity in 1944.

The signs on the isles that I could see were: CAND BEANS, CAND MILK, DRY BEANS, BABY FOOD, and MACARONI. Beyond the unusual abbreviation of “canned”, which I haven’t seen anywhere else, I was intrigued to see that the macaroni aisle was half bags, half cans. I have never seen canned macaroni, but it reminds me of a movie from the late 1930s I saw wherein a character said she was running to the market for a can of potato salad.

 Each one of these items takes up an entire aisle; I have never seen an entire aisle of a grocery store, even a large one, devoted entirely to canned beans or baby food or any other single item. In the second grocery-store scene a store worker appears with a feather duster, dusting all the cans and boxes. Another store worker is seen with a large cart with a crate on it that is overflowing with black-and-white cans, ready to stock the shelves.

One last note on the grocer’s is that of course Walter smokes the whole time he’s in Jerry’s Market.

Interesting housing notes: Walter refers to “my apartment house”, which makes me wonder when people stopped adding “house”; and Phyllis’ mansion has an enormous garage door that slides open horizontally on a track, which I’ve never seen, and moves smoothly enough to be opened with one hand.

Personal notes: Walter, a bachelor, wears a large gold band on his wedding ring finger. I know that wearing a wedding ring on the left-hand ring finger is a very new tradition in the U.S., mostly cemented at exactly this time: WWII. When men went to war, their wives or girlfriends or fiancees wanted a symbol of their commitment, both to ward off other men and to show their pride and love. Thus the engagement ring was born, and the wedding ring became universally accepted. So it’s odd that Walter is wearing a ring on that finger, and not a seal or class ring but a very wedding-type band.

Phyllis shows up at Walter’s office wearing a mourning veil after she helps kill her husband, and every time she speaks or exhales the fabric puffs out; the hazards of wearing a veil. Finally, when Walter takes Phyllis’ step-daughter for a fun jaunt at the beach, he is wearing a full suit and tie and hat, and she is wearing a dress suit. Back to the days when formal wear was rarely inappropriate.

Miscellaneous: When Walter’s boss is listing all the data they have on suicides, he says they have data “by race, by color…”. Clearly the antebellum distinctions between people whose skin was one “color” but whose race was defined by the old alchemy of percentages (what “percent” black or Asian or Native American or Eastern European, etc.,  you were compared to what percentage white) were still in play.

Finally, if you haven’t heard Fred MacMurray, who will always be remembered by most people as the affable, a-sexual father on My Three Sons, grind out the words “Shut up, baby” before he kisses a woman… you are probably well-off.

Until next December!

Child labor in the U.S. during the Industrial Revolution

Following up on our earlier post on child labor in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries, we consider how any child who worked 12-hour days 6 days a week experiencing ungodly levels of air and noise pollution; financial, physical, and often sexual exploitation; fatigue, hunger, and illness or injury lived to tell the tale. What got children through this sort of life?

One leavening factor was that the child usually worked alongside family members. This meant the child worker could share food with someone, had company, and knew someone at work spoke and understood her language if she hadn’t learned English yet.  Another was that, as we described in the first post, most of these children expected to work like adults, and were proud of their ability to contribute to the family economy. They weren’t snatched from a happy childhood of school and play and thrown into the factory; they were born to work and in some sense could not fully miss what they never had.

But the most important factor in America was that child laborers and their families believed their days in the factory might be numbered—in America, land of opportunity, one could reasonably hope to work one’s way up from the factory floor. If a boy worked hard, learned English, and stayed alive, he could become the floor manager or boss. If he was really sharp, he could become a white-collar assistant manager. A girl hoped to work only until she got married—if she was smart and lucky, she might marry an overseer and retire to a life of non-factory work (working from home as a seamstress, laundress, or hat-maker, for example). If she was very lucky, she could marry one of those white-collar managers and never work again.

The promise of rising up, even entering the middle class, white-collar world after a relatively brief if truly hellish few years on the factory floor drove many child workers, and gave them the mental fortitude to make it through the factory work day. This was their parents’ hope, too. And even if a child worker never progressed past overseer, his own children might do better, and then a grandchild might end up going to school and being a doctor or lawyer. That was the promise that didn’t exist for most immigrants in their “old country”. American exacted a toll, but it offered a payoff.

Even children who labored without hope of their own advancement did it for a sibling; stories abound of siblings working slavishly to pay for one smart, usually younger brother to go to school and even college. If that one brother made it, he could relieve the sufferings of his whole family. Many a young girl worked tirelessly to give her brother a better life, and dreamed of the day his success would allow her retirement from the machine floor.

So there was a powerful psychological impetus for many of the children who worked in factories during this period, namely the belief that it would pay off one day and they would no longer have to work so hard, even if it was a brother or son who eventually made a life of relative leisure possible. That was the promise of America.

As we turn our throughts back to today’s child laborers, most of whom are basically enslaved in cotton fields or gold mines, we see there is no promise of a payoff of any kind motivating their labor—just fear and hopelessness. One story about the children who are enslaved to work in “fair trade” cotton fields in Burkina Faso we heard today actually made the claim that the farmers there who beat children almost to death for not picking enough cotton don’t know that that is wrong because “no one has told them it’s wrong”. We think Clarisse Kambire, shown here, knows that it’s wrong:

Clarisse Kambire
Clarisse Kambire, 13, a child laborer, poses for a photograph in the room where she sleeps in Benvar, Burkina Faso, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2011. In Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, where child labor is endemic to the production of its chief crop export, paying lucrative premiums for organic and fair traden cotton has — perversely — created fresh incentives for exploitation. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

And so we will state that it’s impossible that any adult could “not understand” the injustice of child labor, the inhumanity of child slave labor, and the crime of beating child workers. Bosses and plantation farmers in the U.S. in the 1800s knew it was wrong to exploit children; they just also knew that no one would stop them from exploiting those children, and therefore they did it. Everyone, everywhere, knows that this is wrong.  More power to those who are working around the world, and in the U.S., to try to stop child labor once and for all.

Why was there child labor in America?

The stories in the news recently on child labor in gold mines in Mali remind us that, although it has been outlawed in many countries, child labor is not a thing of the past. We are shocked here in the U.S. to read about six year-olds being forced to work in factories, or in gold mines, using mercury and other poisons, and wonder how anyone could do that to children. We are shocked and dismayed to read about child labor in our own country—not just the child labor that continues today, under the radar, but more particularly the fully sanctioned, completely legal exploitation of young children that fueled our Industrial Revolution in the 19th and well into the 20th centuries.

Photos of child labor in American factories like this one are typical, yet still powerfully able to stir one’s revulsion:

child labor

We’re all pretty familiar with the dangers children like these faced, from the machines they basically stood inside of to run to their overseers, who were free to exercise brutality without qualm. What’s less clear, and not very often explored, is how and why the parents of these children let them work in these terrible conditions, and how any child survived the experience physically or emotionally.

If we look at child workers in the 19th and 20th centuries in the U.S., we see that they were predominately urban, and that the majority of urban child workers were immigrants or children of immigrants. There was child labor in textile mills in rural towns, of course, and black children were forced to work as sharecroppers, putting in 12-hour days with their parents. In all of these cases, children worked for one simple reason: they had to. For their families to survive financially, everyone who was able had to work. Women went back to work one or two days after giving birth. Men worked when they were fatally ill or injured. And children worked when they should have been in school, or playing. They all did this because, whether they were immigrants who had spent their last dime (as it were) getting to America and paying rent on a tenement apartment, or whether they were the children of former slaves who had their freedom but nothing else (no land, no money, no education or opportunity for any of these), or whether they were poor rural whites in much the same position as black sharecroppers, these people were on the brink of annihilation. They were in debt, one step away from deportation, the poorhouse, the orphanage, or worse. Everyone had to work to give the family the smallest scrap of security, the flimsiest safety net.

The way to the 12-hour factory day for 7 year-olds was paved with precedent. Children (except for wealthy children)  had always worked. Most Americans were farmers, and so children worked on the family farm. This was hard work with long hours, but it was overseen by caring parents who had every incentive of love and practicality to keep their children safe, and not force them to do jobs that were too hard for them. The whole family worked long hours together, and shared in the wealth they created. This was true of most immigrant families in their homelands, too.

As the Industrial Revolution developed, the ratio of urban to rural families shifted very significantly very quickly, but what did not change was the tradition of children working. Now children in large numbers worked in shops or on the streets as bootblacks, cart vendors, newsboys, gutter cleaners, etc. They worked in the first sweatshops—family apartments where everyone sewed, made shoes, or did laundry, etc.,  for 10 hours a day, six days a week. And, eventually, they worked in factories, sometimes the same factories as their parents.

Labor unrest helped this process along, as factory owners looked for workers who could not organize labor unions and strike for fair wages and safe working conditions. Immigrants who didn’t speak English and/or had no experience with democracy were a good choice, but these men were quickly educated in both once in America. Children, on the other hand, were ideal: they had no legal rights, they didn’t have to be paid even half what an adult earned, and their wages could be given directly to their parents, thus preventing children from understanding what their labor was worth. Children could also be horribly abused without any legal repercussions (see children having no legal rights), and they were small enough to reach into (running) machinery to fix small pieces. In short, children were ideal factory workers, and the tradition of children working eased the transition from family farm work to factory labor.

Next time: how child laborers in the U.S. coped

The Boston Tea Party: what does it mean today?

Part the last of our series on the Boston Tea Party considers its legacy in U.S. history, memory, and mind. With the rise of the Tea Party political party after the 2008 presidential election, this question of the meaning of the original act of protest is particularly important.

We’ve seen in this series that the original Tea Party (which was not called by that name, incidentally, until decades after the fact) sprang from a complicated and not very appealing tradition of using physical violence to achieve political goals. The governor of Massachusetts himself, Thomas Hutchinson, was forced to flee for his life with his wife and children in 1765 when a mob destroyed his home—literally ripping it to pieces—in protest of the Stamp Act.  The men of Boston who supported the Body of the People carried out many attacks on tea commissioner’s homes, families, and persons in the months before the  night of the Tea Party, attacks which we cannot approve of today. Using violence to get people to do what you want, especially in the name of justice, is the polar opposite of democracy, the representative democracy the U.S. is founded on. None of us would want to see mobs of people burning down the homes and businesses of people whose policies they didn’t approve of.

But we also see that patriot leaders in Boston realized that mob violence was not a long-term solution to Americans’ problems with British rule, and that it would not work as a political tool. Men like Samuel Adams and John Hancock knew that their goal—democratic self-rule—had to be based on civil political debate, freedom of conscience and speech, and rule of law. A war would have to be fought, perhaps, to gain independence, but after that rule of law must win the day.

That’s why the men who rallied the common people to protest were not the ones who ended up drafting the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. John Adams, not Samuel Adams; Thomas Jefferson, not Paul Revere: the men who enshrined rule of law through representative democracy were ones untainted by association with violence (except for John Hancock, an exception which proves the rule). So we can think of the Tea Party as the last act of colonial mob violence before the inauguration of the era of American democracy.

Today the Tea Party has become a synonym for “no taxes”, but we have seen that the protest against the tea was not a protest against the principle of taxation. It was a protest against a) taxation without representation, and b) taxes levied simply to fund government, with no benefits accruing to the people being taxed. No one wants to pay taxes that go only to fund the office of tax collection. Taxes are meant to better society, to provide services to those who can’t afford them on their own, not to entrench the government’s power to tax. The men who organized the Tea Party, the men who carried out the destruction of the tea, the women who boycotted tea even when they considered it vital to their families’ health all did so to establish the ideal of taxation for the general welfare. Warping that democratic goal by saying that all of those people actually wanted no taxation, that they didn’t want their money going to anyone else no matter what, is a cynical and unacceptable lie.

Let’s remember the Tea Party as it was: a gauntlet thrown down to set in motion the necessary violence of a war for independence that would, if successful, create a society where violence had no part in politics, and taxation represented a bit of freedom and justice for all.