Book Review: We Kept Our Towns Going

Genre: Nonfiction | American History

Stars: 3-1/2

Synopsis from Goodreads: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is known for its natural beauty and severe winters, as well as the mines and forests where men labored to feed industrial factories elsewhere in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But there were factories in the Upper Peninsula, too, and women who worked in them. Phyllis Michael Wong tells the stories of the Gossard Girls, women who sewed corsets and bras at factories in Ishpeming and Gwinn from the early twentieth century to the 1970s. As the Upper Peninsula’s mines became increasingly exhausted and its stands of timber further depleted, the Gossard Girls’ income sustained both their families and the local economy. During this time the workers showed their political and economic strength, including a successful four-month strike in the 1940s that capped an eight-year struggle to unionize. Drawing on dozens of interviews with the surviving workers and their families, this book highlights the daily challenges and joys of these mostly first- and second-generation immigrant women. It also illuminates the way the Gossard Girls navigated shifting ideas of what single and married women could and should do as workers and citizens. From cutting cloth and distributing materials to getting paid and having fun, Wong gives us a rare ground-level view of piecework in a clothing factory from the women on the sewing room floor.

This title focuses on the Gossard lingerie company, specifically its plants in Ishpeming and Gwinn, Michigan, in the cold expanse of the Upper Peninsula, and it’s importance to the small communities where the plants were located. Told through many oral history interviews of both the workers and, in some cases, their children, the book chronicles the impact these plants had on the lives of very rural communities with little other industry to support the local residents. Spanning most of the 20th century, from the opening of the plants in 1920 through their closer in the late 1970s, this book examines changing women’s roles, as well as union and labor movements during that time period.

I most enjoyed the transcriptions of the interviews with the women who worked in the factories. At a time when most women would have been stay-at-home wives and mothers, the Gossard company allowed them to have a place to earn money to support their families in an uncertain labor climate for their husbands. Many of the Gossard workers had husbands who were laid off from the mines (which were the only other local industry of any size), were widows trying to support themselves and their children, or younger women who worked to support their parents and siblings. The money that the Gossard factory workers were able to send back into their local economies also cannot be understated and the book’s title perfectly sums up the large impact that these factories had on the women, their families and those of the small shops in the towns. The factories were also like big extended families where women made life-long friendships, and where people supported each other with advice, baby-sitting, or life lessons. Various perks before unionization included hot meals at lunchtime, summer cookouts and baseball games, and a good rate of pay for fast, hard workers.

While the story of unionization was an important one for the history of the factories themselves, I found that chapter dry and hard to engage with. I also wished that the author had been able to include photographs of the women she interviewed, the buildings themselves and the changing styles the factories produced to help really bring this story to life. I think the book is likely not to appeal to a broad-range audience, as it is very place-specific (and not everyone even knows where/what the UP is) and filled with a lot of dry research, but will be a helpful resource for historians interested in learning more about women’s labor in the early 20th century.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: We Kept Our Towns Going

  1. This does sound like a drier book than I would usually read, but the topic is an interesting one! Are there any pictures at all? I saw that you wanted pictures of the women who were interviewed, but it seems like this is the kind of book that really needs some photos of the area as well to bring everything into context.

    1. Sadly, no. No pictures of either the people or the factory or advertisements or even of the lingerie besides the corset on the front cover. 😦 I think photos would have been of great help and made the social history portions resonant even more.

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