Title: Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper
Author: Paul Johnson
Categories: Labor History, Celebrity, Patriarchy, Industrialization, Market Economy, Working Class, Wage Labor, Mass Culture, Early Republic, Environmental History, Space
Place: Northeast Mill Towns (Pawtucket, Paterson, Niagara, Rochester)
Time Period: 1800-1830
Paul Johnson uses microhistory to tell the story of Sam Patch, a drunken working-class spinner who became famous for jumping off waterfalls in the late 1820s. Although the historical record is spotty, Johnson situates Patch within a series of broader themes based on the locations of his jumps. First, growing up in the mill town of Pawtucket, Johnson tells a narrative of dispossessed patriarchy: Sam's father was an artisinal shoemaker who lost his business in the face of industrialization. This was part of a broader narrative of the rise of wage labor and dwindling land-holding, both of which served to undermine the control and position of fathers. After the adult Sam Patch moves to Paterson, NJ, he does his first public/political jumps. First, he jumps to subvert the opening celebration of a middle-upper class nature reserve built by a local entrepreneur who was trying to exclude the working class from his more genteel notions of leisure (vs. the working class public access to spaces of recreation). Second, he jumps in solidarity with a protest at the factory over changing the lunch hour.
Patch's fame grew and he turned to jumping for commercial reasons. He then jumps at Niagara and Genesee (where he eventually dies in a jump). Both of these locations highlight the central conflict in Johnson's narrative: a contest over the uses and purposes of natural space (waterfalls) that occurred between the raucous working class and reform-minded middle-class. The middle and upper class wanted to transform waterfalls into symbols of progress and a space for safe appreciation of the natural sublime, whereas Sam Patch's jumps were a "working man's sublime" that used the falls for recreation. Finally, Johnson paints Sam Patch as one of the first modern celebrities who fashions his own fame, speaking to the rise of Andrew Jackson and the "self-made" American celebrity.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Rise of wage labor mirroring decline of patriarchy
- Uses of nature - as working class recreation ("the working man's sublime" vs. middle class leisure (contests over place)
- Sam Patch as Jacksonian democracy - Whig vision vs. Democratic vision (and remembrance)
- Rise of popular, self-made celebrity culture (like Andrew Jackson himself)
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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