by Archie Green
University of Illinois Press, Urbana,
Chicago, USA, 2007
216 pp., illus. 101 b/w, paper, $29.95
Reviewed by Rob Harle
University of New England, Australia
Like me, when most people think of "Tin
Men", they probably think of the
tin woodsman in The Wonderful Wizard
of Oz, that is, "
wanderer (alongside the Scarecrow and
Lion), searching for a heart, a brain,
or courage" (p. 27). Interestingly,
this work was first published in 1900
by L. Frank Baum, with the tin man being
designed by W. W. Denslow. The 1939 film,
in which Judy Garland starred as Dorothy,
helped establish the importance of tin
men in the American psyche.
In many respects, as this amazing book
reveals tin men as fairy-tale wanderers
could not be further from the truth. Tin
Men are first and foremost advertising
icons for sheet-metal workshops; they
are displayed in a prominent position
near the entrance and show the level of
skill of the workers who are employed
by the business. As the numerous black
and white illustrations in this book show,
tin men come in all shapes and sizes,
and many varieties of metal especially
copper, tin and sheet steel. They are
also a kind of unofficial symbol for the
Sheet Metal Workers Union which
alludes to the main purpose of this book.
Archie Green is an academic (University
of Texas) as well as a passionate union
man and supporter of workers in all the
manual trades he calls himself
a worker-scholar. This book is an attempt
to present historical, personal, and technical
aspects of the lot of sheet-metal workers.
It is meticulously researched and an essential
reference work for anyone interested in
the labor movement and folklore. Together
with an excellent Index, extensive Bibliography,
and a comprehensive inventory of tin men,
the book has 12 chapters, and as mentioned,
over a hundred illustrations.
Greens passion for tin men is evident
throughout the book and I dare say somewhat
contagious. "I have long sought to
"see" the "unseen"
gifts of tinsmiths, as well as the living
men and women behind the screens and panels
that hide their work" (p. xiii).
As he explains much of the sheet-metal
work that keeps our modern society functioning
is hidden above ceilings and behind walls
like heating and cooling ducting as one
example. In contrast some sheet-metal
work is prominently displayed for all
to see and admire, such as copper church
spires and metal-clad dome turrets.
Tin Men has opened up a new level
of research in material culture studies
and labor history. Green has coined the
term laborlore for labor history
and folk-art research. This book is an
extension of his research into "
traditions of coal and hard-rock miners,
textile hands, mariners, pile drivers,
shipwrights, millwrights, and other workers"
(p. xvi). Aspects of the long lived "tin-knockers"
union, with its history of fighting for
fair wages and fair working conditions,
which troubled Green, were the lack of
heroes like Joe Hill (mining) and the
apathy or neglect of the artistic aspects
of their own work. This study explores
all these issues and delves deeply into
the details that motivate and inspire
the artisans of sheet-metal. The book
is somewhat parochial in that it mainly
looks at American aspects of tin men and
sheet-metal workers even though their
union is the Sheet Metal Workers
In Greens own words, "I trust
my experience as a worker-scholar have
combined to offer a book useful in the
academy, union hall, and tinshop"
(p. xv). I found this book a delightful
and enjoyable, easy read. It has alerted
me to keep an eye open for tin men hidden
away in antique and old wares shops. If
I find one, maybe the only thing I will
have to give the tin man "that he
didnt already have," will be
a polish, shine, and a drop of oil.