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Common Labour
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  • 1 b/w illus. 19 tables
  • Page extent: 324 pages
  • Size: 234 x 156 mm
  • Weight: 0.569 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 331.12/92713/097
  • Dewey version: 20
  • LC Classification: HD8039.C259 N78 1993
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Canal construction workers--North America
    • Canals--North America--History

Library of Congress Record


 (ISBN-13: 9780521440332 | ISBN-10: 0521440335)

Replaced by 9780521102650


This study of canal construction workers between 1780-1860 challenges labor history's focus on skilled craftsmen. Canalers were unskilled workers, often members of despised social groups such as Irish immigrants and African-American slaves. They worked twelve or more hours a day in all weather, exposed to diseases and job-related risks, going home at night to rude shanty towns. Their harsh lifestyles bred conflict that undercut worker unity but promoted battles with employers over workplace issues, and the state was increasingly drawn in to enforce industrial production. Lacking the power that skill brought, canalers had little control over their working conditions. Their experiences represent a different strand of the labor story.


Introduction; 1. Early canals 1780ā€“1812; 2. 'As low as labour and capital can afford': the contracting system 1817ā€“1840; 3. 'Human labour, physical and intelligent'; 4. Payment 'fit for labouring people'; 5. 'The greatest quantity of labour'; 6. 'Canawlers and citizens'; 7. 'Guerilla war': labour conflict in the 1830s; 8. 'This new order of things': the 1840sā€“1850s; Conclusion; Appendices; Index.

Prize Winner

Organization of American Historians' 1994 Frederick Jackson Turner Award


"Peter way is a gifted writer who presents here an enormous amount of new information about the canal workers and their families, the totality of which he sees as elements in the process of class formation....Way is powerful and eloquent in his descriptions of the conditions under which these men--an woman and children--had to work....a veritable storehouse of information, with scattered data on individual canal projects and considerable detail on the demongraphics of the laborers, pay rates, hours, and the omnipresent riots and strikes. It thesis about class formation is clear and persuasive, and Way is not bashful about challenging interpretations by others." American Historical Review

"...distinguished by a prose style of eloquent brevity and irony that makes its insights stand out all the more sharply....Ways book will be long unsurpassed in its convincing rendition of the canaller industrial experience in the bleak terms of a Hobbesian and Malthusian universe." Reviews in American History

"...the book is unmatched as a descriptive account of manual labor in one of North America's earliest industries." The Annals of the American Academy

"Way's book... has much to recommend it... an interesting book, quite ambitious in its attempts to describe the working conditions and culture of unskilled labor in the antebellum United States and Canada, the links between these factors and the rise of industrial capitalism in the northern United States and Canada, and the drama of conflicts between workers and owners." Industrial and Labor Relations Review

"...exceptionally thought-provoking. Like the internal improvements of the Canal Era, Way's book cuts through uncharted territory; it is truly path-breaking. And like the transportation revolution itself, Way's success results from a combination of creative vision and arduous labor. Whether or not future historians agree with his findings, they will need to grapple with his argument that workers can be at once downtrodden and fully human." Carol Sheriff, William and Mary Quarterly

"...what will surely be the definitive account of the world of the unskilled, often Irish, laborers who built the network of canals that crisscrossed the north-east within a few decades of U.S. independence." Work History News

"...a model of historical reconstruction and of monograph writing....[Way] has given us a rich and complex book, the kind of breakthrough study that moves a field of history onto a new plateau. His work offers a fresh view of the social and economic dynamics of the period, and deserves the attention of all those interested in antebellum social and economic theory and history." Milton Cantor, Journal of the Early Republic

"This is an extremely nuanced, balanced, and valuable contribution that expands our understanding of the diversity of the working-class experience in the United States." Eric Arnesen, Journal of American History

"...a work rich in description, illumination, and irony. His prose is often of a caliber reserved for fine essays and novels. He has done a masterful job of weaving government records, travel accounts, and memoirs of clergy, businessmen, and community leaders into his fascinating account of the lives, both on and off the job, of tens of thousands of workers who built the canals of America and Canada...Way's Common Labour...was awarded the prestigious Frederic Jackson Prize by the Organization of American Historians in ably argued and beautifully written study which will reward any reader who wants to explore development of antebellum business enterprise and working class life within the trenches and along the banks of North America's canals." John P. Beck, Michigan Historical Review

"...this is a very good book....Way has produced a fine book....the book is written in colourful and often powerful prose, it only increases its appeal..." Michael S. Cross, Northern Mariner

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