Reflecting on First Strike Fest

As at least 415 million people now know, Everyday Anthropology had a booth at the second annual First Strike Festival. The First Strike Festival is a celebration of the first industrial labor strike in the United States. It’s put together by the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, and held at the Old Slater Mill.

In May, 1824, mill owners in Pawtucket cited a “general depression” and proceeded to cut wages by 25%, increase the work day by an hour, and shorten meal times. Somehow this didn’t go over well, and on May 26, 100 women who worked as weavers in Pawtucket’s mills walked off the job.

There are unfortunately no surviving records of the settlement reached between the mill owners and the workers, but on June 3, 1824, work resumed. Two days earlier on June 1, an “incendiary device” was thrown into one of the mills, and on the 2nd, the settlement was reached.

The First Strike Festival is a celebration of that legacy and what it means to the history of labor in the United States.

Earlier this year, Everyday Anthropology was invited to take part. At first it seemed almost like it was a bit of a stretch to find the talking points. Yes, Everyday Anthropology has touched on about 476 different subjects, but having a lot to say and having something relevant to say are very different things.

But then…as it would turn out, Everyday Anthropology has put out two documentaries on DVD that are directly related to changes in the face of labor in the United States–one of which is actually on the textile industry and, more specifically, a textile strike. Granted, Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution is about the 1922 textile strike, but it’s still directly related.

Pedal for Pongo deals with the changing face of labor in modernizing nations and how labor rights first addresses the concerns of the workers and then later environmental concerns. And then also how those environmental impacts addressed by activists in the United States are effectively outsourced to places that don’t have strong rights or representation. And the cycle continues.

But the topic to bring to the [literal] table for our contribution to the First Strike Festival was iron. About a year ago now Joe published his book, The Cast Iron Field Guide, which is one part identification guide, one part research guide, one part historical narrative. The book talks about changes in the structure of labor within the United States and the foundries housed here. And a lot of iron was produced in Rhode Island.

And so, our booth at the First Strike Festival focused on talking about the labor changes in the 19th century that impacted the stove foundry industry, how those changes can be seen within early iron and used to some extent to identify it, and touched on the underappreciated history of Rhode Island’s stove foundries. It honestly went better than could have been anticipated.

Joe giving the spiel at First Strike. There were two people who gave Joe their card, and I think one of them was the guy who took this picture. Those cards seem to have vanished, so if you’re reading this, please get in touch because it doesn’t seem like they’re going to turn up.

It was hot. The tents helped a lot, and so did the water and gatorade provided by the park. But mostly, this was Everyday Anthropology’s first real presentation since the Covid shutdowns! And it was a different structure than most previous. Rather than a 5-10 minute talk followed by a screening, or even a Q&A session, or even one 45 minute presentation…this was a 10-15 minute interactive rant, available on demand. It was a different sort of format, and a different sort of challenge.

There were individuals and groups, there were latecomers to the talk, there were questions and comments. It was tricky to note what part of the talk we were moving through when someone showed up late, and then make sure to backtrack so they’d get all the information. It was an awesome time. It was challenging in terms of real questions from real people with real curiosity in real time. Also about halfway through the day Joe was losing his voice. This was helped by the gatorade, which was just syrupy enough to take the edge off.

The highlight came after everything had died down, and Heather from the Public Archaeology Laboratory came over to hear what we had to say. As an archaeologist, she has a similar background to Joe and understands the lens of anthropology and how to view literally everything you see in terms of it being an artifact tied to a culture. As Joe and Heather made their way through the discussion and started to talk about when and why iron took a turn for the absurdly ornate, she stopped him and asked, “Wait, does this mean there was regional stylization!?”

That is effectively the point of The Cast Iron Field Guide, and curiosity about the potential for stylization is what drew Joe to look into early iron before he’d even had a notion he would have been correct. But, training as an archaeologist or anthropologist really instills that everything humans have ever done has regional stylization. Humans everywhere, every time, every age, have all come up with different answers to the same questions, however slight those differences may be. Whether it be a different language, a different dialect of the same language, the cut and fit of a shirt, or how we paint the lines on a road, you may not know why something is different, but you’re sure likely to notice the difference.

That right there is the base of anthropology–studying what it is that makes us human and what makes humans different from one another. Always expect the slight differences to be there, because that’s where the fun is. In the case of artifacts, those differences give us the clues to help us come up with the questions. In some cases, those questions can be tied to some other bit of information–an old text, a painting, or in the case of iron, trade literature and business records. It’s tying the objects to their stories that makes them relatable. Understanding the hands that made something makes it less abstract.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the turn out was such that Joe couldn’t check out any of the other activities. One person after another came up and asked “oh so are you selling iron?” or “ok so what’ve you got here?” It wasn’t until we were breaking down our booths that we could appreciate the music and the dance. And really that’s amazing. There were probably a bit over 300 people throughout the day, all of them very engaged in the different activities they had come to see.

Next year, 2024, is the 200th anniversary of the First Strike. We are already bearing that in mind as we move through the tail end of 2023, and hope to have some amazing stuff to show you. You won’t want to miss it, so I’m sure we’ll see you there.

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