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Tin Men

by Archie Green
University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago, USA, 2007
216 pp., illus. 101 b/w, paper, $29.95 USD
ISBN: 978-0-252-07375-4.

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, "…a fairy-tale 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.

Green’s 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 "…the 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’ International Association.

In Green’s 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 didn’t already have," will be a polish, shine, and a drop of oil.



Updated 1st June 2007

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