When it comes to teaching my kids about what life what like for my great-grandparents and their children in this urban industrial environment, I struggle. I struggle finding age-appropriate educational resources to help them understand this part of American history. There simply aren't that many children's books about average people during this time in American history. Why? Well, there isn't a whole lot of American nostalgia associated with dirty factories and the pollution that came with them. The people who worked these factories, steel mills, mines, and foundries were poor and uneducated, and, unfortunately, a lot of personal tragedy followed these families. Some were immigrants and some were African-Americans who came northwards during The Great Migration. They were all looking for unskilled labor jobs, and, although their manpower was needed, they were usually socially unwanted by the established neighborhoods and populations of the towns and cities to which they were moving.
It's called the Rust Belt for a reason. The neighborhoods in which these people lived and worked do not exist any longer - and that is often a literal statement - many homes, storefronts, and factories have been demolished, and those that haven't are often boarded up, no longer offering any clues to their former purpose or resemblance. And historical societies in most places aren't interested in restoring the small, utilitarian former homes and businesses of turn-of-the-century working-class families.
But, despite all of this, I have found a few resources and ways that I can use to help my children learn more about the lives of their industrial ancestors, and I will share some of them below:
No Star Nights by Anna Egan Smucker & Steve Johnson
(Told from the perspective of a girl growing up in a steel mill town in West Virginia during the 1940s and 50s, this book is the BEST storybook for helping kids understand what everyday life was like for working-class families whose livelihoods depended on coal and industry.)
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel & Melissa Sweet
Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop (children's novel)
Bread and Roses, Too by Katherine Paterson (children's novel)
Factory Girl by Barbara Greenwood
Shovelful of Sunshine by Stacie Vaughn Hutton and Cheryl Harness
In Coal Country by Judith Hendershot and Thomas B. Allen
Finder, Coal Mine Dog (Dog Chronicles) by Alison Hart and Michael G. Montgomery
Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Kids on Strike by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor by Russell Freedman
Immigrant Kids by Russell Freedman
Working Children by Carol Saller
The Great Migration: An American Story by Jacob Lawrence
Historical Sites & Museums:
Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, New York
Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in Homestead, Pennsylvania
The National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum in Coatesville, Pennsylvania
Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, Kentucky
Youngstown Historical Center of Industry & Labor in Youngstown, Ohio
Steel Plant Museum of Western New York in Buffalo, New York
Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee, Michigan
Coppertown USA Mining Museum in Calumet, Michigan
The Sterling Hill Mining Museum in Ogdensburg, New Jersey
The Museum of Science & Industry: Coal Mine in Chicago, Illinois
The Baltimore Museum of Industry in Baltimore, Maryland
National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Some local historical societies and universities also have resources (books, photos, maps) that can help you learn more about the daily lives of your industrial-era ancestors, and the good news is that more and more of these institutions are digitizing their collections for online access. Once I discovered where my great-grandfather worked, I did my own research, using information gathered online from Google Books and local history websites. Several years ago, I published this blog post about what I learned, and now my 9-year-old son can read the post and learn more about what his great-great-grandfather did for a living.
Kids always connect better with visual images of the past, but finding photos of old homes, churches, and neighborhoods that are no longer around can be difficult. A simple Google image search may yield some surprising results, not only from collections of libraries, historical societies, and universities, but also from private collections that another person may have posted on a personal website or blog. In some locations, properties were photographed for tax purposes, so check with local town and county archives to see if that might be part of their collection; I obtained this photograph (on the left) of my great-grandfather's hardware store from old tax records held at the county archives. The photo on the right is what the property looks like today.
The Industrial Age in America: Sweatshops, Steel Mills, and Factories from the National Endowment for the Humanities (Grades 6-8)
Teacher Guide: The Industrial Revolution in the United States from the Library of Congress
Industrial Revolution from Middle Tennessee State University (High School)
Photographs of Lewis Hine -- Documentation of Child Labor from the National Archives
©2017 Emily Kowalski Schroeder.