________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 16 . . . . March 30, 2007


Cowboys and Coffin Makers: One Hundred 19th-Century Jobs You Might Have Feared or Fancied.

Laurie Coulter. Illustrated by Martha Newbigging.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2007.
96 pp., pbk. & cl., $16.95 (pbk.), $25.95 (cl.).           
ISBN 978-1-55451-067-2 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-068-9 (cl.).

Subject Heading:
Occupations-United States-History-19th century-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 8-12.

Review by Shannon Ozirny.

**** /4


It takes 20,000 tiny stitches to make a man’s shirt. Working 12 to 14 hours a day, you can make about seven shirts a week for 12 cents a shirt. If the tailor doesn’t like your work, he can take the finished shirt but refuse to pay you. When you don’t have any work, you may have to depend on charity just to survive or to feed your family if you’re a single mother with children who are too young to work.

Rats ate the mules’ oats in the underground stables and drank the miner’s lamp oil. Coal miners liked having them around, though. They believed they were safe from a cave-in as long as the rats scampered around their feet. When their furry friends left suddenly, the miners knew it was time to get out fast.


Would you rather be a Lightning Rod Man, a Breaker Boy, or a Sandhog? Here’s a hint; one will probably give you Caisson disease, one involves back-breaking pebble picking, and one will send you to bed with a guilty conscious. Welcome to the fascinating, humorous nineteenth-century world portrayed by Laurie Coulter and Martha Newbigging. In Cowboys and Coffin Makers, history gets personal.

     Admittedly, this reviewer is one of those people who stare blankly into the distance at any mention of historical dates or places. However, the content in Cowboys and Coffin Makers is undeniably captivating. Rather than presenting historical events like the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War in general terms, Coulter approaches them through the eyes of blacksmiths, whaleboat boatheaders, candy makers, dime novel writers, cartographers, robber barons, and 94 other professions. This perspective, besides being fresh and innovative, is completely kid-friendly. The book is organized in rough chronological order with 20 short chapters in all. The succinct job descriptions (about five in each chapter) will quickly satiate kids who are hungry for anecdotes and facts they can share with their friends.

     That being said, this book is thoughtful in its balanced approach to some controversial issues. It was certainly no fun to be a minority in nineteenth-century America, and Coulter addresses this issue again and again. In her job description of a forced laborer she tells kids, “As a Native American, you do the hard, dirty work that Anglo Californians don’t want to do” (p. 43). Furthermore, Martha Newbigging’s cartoon style should not be automatically associated with comedy. While many of the illustrations contain some tongue-in-cheek humour, Newbigging also pictures a Chinese-American laying stones (Chinese masons went on strike in 1852 after learning they were being paid less than American masons) and a group of unhappy African-American field slaves. While the cartoons keep the general tone of the book light, they also show the darker side of the period.            

     Teachers and librarians will be happy to hear that Cowboys and Coffin Makers far surpass the standard information book criteria; a comprehensive introduction provides background to the time period, a huge index helps students navigate the text, and recommended readings include both fiction and non-fiction. The focus is largely American, but this should not serve as a purchasing deterrent; this book is a truly invaluable supplement to any nineteenth-century study. The book would also be great for a road trip since it facilitates multiple readings as kids can’t possibly absorb all the wacky, jaw-dropping facts in one sitting.

     Like its predecessor, Archers, Alchemists, and 98 Other Medieval Jobs You Might Have Loved or Loathed, this informational gem manages to stay fun and entertaining while still maintaining authority on the subject. Hopefully the folks at Annick will keep this series rolling; truly, Cowboys and Coffin Makers is more fun than getting a tooth pulled after the invention of laughing gas in 1844. And, by nineteenth-century standards, that is a pretty darn fun.

Highly Recommended.

Two hundred years ago, Shannon Ozirny would have liked to work as a Socialite, but she probably would have been stuck as a Laundress.  She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in Children’s Literature at the University of British Columbia.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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