Q&A with Betsy Wood, Author of Upon the Altar of Work

Author of Upon the Altar of Work: Child Labor and the Rise of a New American Sectionalism, Betsy Wood answers questions about her influences, discoveries, and motivations for writing her new book.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

I wanted to understand how North-South conflict, rooted in the slavery crisis, influenced modern American capitalist society. It seemed to me that historians weren’t really connecting the 19th and 20th centuries in a way that would illuminate this influence. A lot of the scholarship on North-South relations after the Civil War emphasized white sectional reconciliation. And scholarship on consumer capitalism in the early twentieth century argued that the new economic order represented a break with the 19th century. 

Early on in my research, I came across an abolitionist pamphlet in which the writer lamented that enslaved children in the South were not receiving wages for their labor and, therefore, not able to learn important values from their labor. I wondered why this abolitionist wasn’t more concerned that these children were required to labor at all. The writer went on to brag about how Northern children did receive wages for their labor and were therefore learning how to become independent and “free.” I scribbled “child labor” in my notebook followed by exclamation points. I realized that the labor of different groups of children – and how people reacted to this issue – was tied up with the North-South conflict over slavery. And I knew that “child labor” had become an iconic struggle in the modern industrial period. I wondered if anyone had traced this issue over time, in both North and South, to see how these debates had evolved from the sectional crisis over slavery. When I consulted the secondary literature and found that no one had approached the issue from this angle, I knew I had found my book!

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

My work is indebted to so many scholars, especially the historians I worked with at the University of Chicago. Thomas C. Holt, Julie Saville, Catherine Brekus, Tara Zahra, Amy Dru Stanley, and many others there encouraged me to ask probing historical questions about capitalism, slavery, work, and freedom. Having these scholars as my interlocutors was by far the biggest influence on this book. Each of them modeled the kind of perceptive historical analysis I aspired to, and each has shaped this book immeasurably. 

Eric Foner has been a critical influence, especially his work on free labor. David Brion Davis’s work on antislavery helped me to conceptualize moral problems within capitalist society, and T.J. Jackson Lears’ work on antimodernist movements at the turn of the century influenced my thinking about cultural resistance to consumer capitalism. I’ve also been influenced by many historians of the American South, including Barbara Fields, Stephanie McCurry, Rebecca Scott, Steven Hahn, and William A. Link as well as historians of childhood that have paved the way for this kind of history, including James Schmidt, Ruth Wallis Herndon, John E. Murray, Shelley Sallee, Gary Cross, Walter Trattner, Hugh Hindman, and others.

Betsy Wood is a Professor of History at Hudson County Community College.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

That free labor ideology, once the heart of antislavery Republicanism and child rescue efforts in the North before the Civil War, resurfaced in the rural South and became the heart of a Southern capitalist vision and opposition to child labor regulation in the modern industrial era. It’s such a delicious historical irony! 

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn? 

We usually learn that child labor existed a long time ago, was very bad and, thankfully, was abolished by reformers. I hope my book helps readers to unlearn this simple tale of progress in favor of a new understanding that child labor was actually a hotly contested issue for more than 80 years of American history. The legacy of these disagreements – which broke down along sectional lines between the North and South and intersected in important ways with gender, race, and class – influenced the modern industrial era just as much as did the eventual passage of a federal child labor law. Even the child labor provisions of the New Deal that we are taught “outlawed” child labor in America were much more limited than what reformers sought, which reflected how contentious this issue was. 

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

It’s hard for me to narrow it down to just one. Here are a few ideas, stated briefly. That sectionalist conflict continues in capitalist society. That the roots of the alliance between rural America and big business can be traced back to the 1920s around the child labor issue. That racism / white supremacy shows up in unexpected places in American history, including the iconic and celebrated struggle to abolish child labor. That capitalists in America have long fanned the flames of North-South conflict for their own gain. These are a few of the important ideas that I hope readers will take away. 

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I’m a big fan of memoir—I’m currently reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, which is absolutely spellbinding! I also love anything by Joan Didion or Anne Lamott. Before I was a professional historian, I dabbled in poetry so I continue to read my favorites like Mary Oliver, Tim Seibles, and Naomi Shihab Nye. 

I think some of the most creative filmmaking being done is in animation, which is fortunate since my viewing companion is often my 5-year old son! Some of my recent favorites are “Coco,” “Smallfoot,” “Toy Story IV,” “Frozen II,” and “Zootopia.” I also love all the recent live-action remakes of animated classics.

Although my taste in music is pretty eclectic, I have a special affinity for Americana, folk, and alt-country. A few staples are Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Kacey Musgraves, and Joni Mitchell. Singing and writing songs is actually my favorite hobby! I grew up singing in church and performing in talent shows, so I enjoy singing and playing guitar at Open Mic nights in Jersey City, NJ. 

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