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Exploring local connections to industrial working conditions through primary documents

By Beth on January 8, 2014 in Flow of History
0

Author: Andrew Tufts, Windsor High School, Windsor, VT
Grade Level: 8-12
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Historical Context

  • Theme: Economic and Technical changes and their Relation to Society, Ideas, and the Environment
  • Era: The Development of Modern America (1865 to 1920)
  • Freedom and Unity Link: Quarries, Mills, and Factories

Essential Question: What were working conditions like for Vermonters during the late 1800s? Who was working at the factory that the American Precision Museum now occupies?

Background Information:
During the latter half of the 1800s, the factories in Windsor, Vermont went through several transitions and were retooled to serve a variety of purposes. The factory located at what now houses the American Precision Museum was at various times used to make guns, sewing machines, machine tools, and textiles (textiles represented only a brief period).

Among the vast collection of books and ledgers retained by the Museum are a number of accounting books used to monitor payroll as well as various aspects of production. It is from the pages of these books that students will search for clues, make inferences, and ask questions of the time period, gaining some insight into the challenges of historical research as well as a glimpse into the lives of Windsor area industrial workers in the late 1800s.

Further background information on this period of history may be found at:
http://www.flowofhistory.org/themes/technology_transportation/overview.ph

Materials/Primary Sources:

  • Images of pages from American Precision Museum Time and Payroll ledger books (provided as .jpg files):
    • TuftsAPMLedger1.jpg
    • TuftsAPMLedger2.jpg
    • TuftsAPMLedger3.jpg
    • TuftsAPMPayroll1.jpg
    • TuftsAPMPayroll2.jpg
    • TuftsAPMPayroll3.jpg
  • Images of 1880 and 1900 census materials (more available with direct online access through a 14-day free trial at www.ancestry.com)
    • TuftsCensus1800p18.jpg
    • TuftsCensus1900p8A.jpg
    • TuftsCensus1900p8B.jpg

Activity Plan:

1. Examining a primary source:
Distribute copies of two ledger pages (TuftsAPMLedger1 & 3) that display the names of individuals at the top of a column. Working in small groups, have students try to decipher what the point and purpose of the ledger page is. (Depending on the students and the teacher, specific focusing questions or hints might be needed.)

Teacher Notes: The number on the left represent dates (notice there are never more than six consecutive dates because no one worked on Sunday, but most worked Mon-Sat.) The middle column, I believe, represents tasks assigned, the right column shows hours worked, with a subtotal and pay calculation at the bottom. The three workers in Ledger 1 appear to have been paid between $.75 to $1.75 per day. A slash in the right hand column appears to indicate a full 10 hour day; if they didn’t work a full ten, then another number is written in. (Another ledger page, TuftsAPMLedger2, appears to keep track of total labor expenditures for Jones, Lamson & Co.)

2. Matching census data with workers.
Use the “Payroll” ledger that lists the individual employees on the left, the amount of credit they have, the amount they are paid, and their signatures on the right to then probe for clues about the workers themselves. In a number of cases there are several workers with the same last name and only one worker signed for the whole family. Were some of these workers children? Where were they from? Was this common practice?

Using data from the 1880 and 1900 censuses available at Ancestory.com, students can try to find the names in the ledger and seek out information related to age, gender, place of birth, and a host of other data. (

Teacher Notes: Page 18 of the 1880 Census contains “LaClares” [sic] and “Laundrys” that match the people listed on the Payroll Ledger (2). In the 1900 census, “LeClair” was correctly spelled. This shows another challenge of working with primary documents, and why searching for “LeClair” in the 1880 census wouldn’t necessarily find this family.

Assessment: Informal observation and verbal feedback are the primary assessment tools for a simple activity such as this. The activities could be followed with a written reflection upon what was discovered, questions raised by the documents, or a creative writing piece incorporating the names and details of some of the individuals examined.