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The Way We Work: Jobs That Are Gone in Foxborough, Around the Country

For Labor Day, Patch looks at how jobs have changed during the last century.

Foxborough's history of being a hard working, blue-collar community began not long after the town was founded in 1778.

The Foxboro Company, founded in 1908, was a prime example of the town's hard work when it was manufacturing machinery and machine tools while employing thousands of local workers in town. Despite its financial struggles, it was a well-known manufacturer of industrial controls. The company was acquired by Siebe in 1990, according to Stocklobster.com, and is currently part of Invensys Software Systems, "a global leader in enterprise automation."

Foxborough's blue-collar reputation began well before the Foxboro Company, however, as the town was the site of many factories and mills in the mid to late 1800s.

Perhaps most famous among them was the Union Straw Works, built on Wall Street in 1853. The factory put Foxborough on the map as the straw-hat capital of the world. According to the Foxborough Historical Commission, Union Straw Works offered more than 6,000 jobs to men and women, including factory workers, while operating as the world's largest straw production factory.

The Union Straw Works erected the Reservoir on Powder House Hill, located behind Town Hall, in 1858, according to the Foxborough Historical Commission and a windmill provided power to draw up water from the Reservoir, which fed to the factory.

Tragically, the factory was destroyed by fire in 1900 and never rebuilt. Foxborough's Post Office building currently occupies the site of the old straw factory. In 2003, the site became a historical marker.

The Reservoir on Powder House Hill still stands behind Town Hall and became a historical marker in 2002.

Other notable mills and factories, according to the Foxborough Historical Commission, include a sawmill, gristmill and a hoe factory in "Morseville" Foxborough the 1700-1800s. 

And in 1813, a thread mill was located on Lakeview Road. A wool-scouring mill later occupied the same site.

Today, the town's reputation continues to precede itself, as recently noted by Fourth Congressional District candidate Joseph Kennedy III during his visit to the Foxborough fire station last week.

"It’s a fantastic community,” Kennedy said of Foxborough. “They are people willing to work hard, they’re not asking for anything special, they’re not asking for a handout, they’re just asking for the opportunity to do the most with what they got.”

But in the evolution of jobs, advancement in technology and struggling economy, we have to ask ... what happened to the jobs?

On this Labor Day, Patch is examining jobs that, by and large, simply don't exist in the United States anymore. Or if they do, are holding on by the fiber-optic thread that will soon extinguish the occupation for good.

Some are ancient history, like Foxborough's straw-hat makers or the iceman who has not cometh since the Eisenhower Administration. And others – including the minimum wage Wal-Mart “greeter” - were here just yesterday.

A LESS DISPOSABLE TIME

At the Baltimore Sun, a legacy newspaper founded in 1837 – where many wonder if reporters will eventually go the way of the typewriter (and the skilled folks who repaired them) – there used to be an aged, exceedingly polite elevator operator named Barney Barney.

[Yes, his first name and his last name were – inexplicably - the same.]

Though extraordinary buildings like the Space Needle in Seattle still use an elevator operator, the job largely disappeared in the early 1950s with advancements in lift technology. But The Sun kept Barney on into the mid-1970s because he was considered part of the founding A.S. Abell company family, which owned the paper until 1986.

Corporations still say they treat employees like families, but those types of ties – like the technology that stays relevant for an entire century—is mostly a thing of the past.

Not the sweet stuff made of apples and peaches and latticed with fresh dough. The guy who runs the shoe repair shop and makes the old new again.

Cobblers have disappeared as shoes have become disposable. You can’t fix a pair of athletic shoes or anything else in which the sole and the heel is a single piece of rubber. You can wipe off a pair of gym shoes with Formula 409 – as some enterprising youngsters do on city streets for a buck – but they won’t take a shine.

As one descendent of a Hoosier cobbler said: “Most shoes just aren’t worth fixing anymore.” 

The New Orleans folksinger Trey Yip, a disciple of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, put himself through college one summer about a decade ago by selling encyclopedias door to door in the Dakotas. The filmmaking Maysles brothers – Albert and David – made a documentary in 1969 about door-to-door Bible salesmen.

Strangers don’t sell anything door-to-door anymore. “Slumber parties” thrown by women to sell sex toys to their friends and neighbors are flourishing, but the doorbell ringing Avon Lady has gone the way of the milkman – who now services less than half of one percent of American homes.

POST-PAPER

The most recent news of jobs lost – because the world doesn’t work the way it used to – arrived just before Labor Day and concerned the products used to make encyclopedias: ink and paper.

According to Business Week, Lexmark International laid-off 1,700 workers around the globe in late August after deciding to get rid of its inkjet printer division.

The reason is the same one wreaking havoc with the United States Postal Service.

Each day, by leaps and bounds, paper is being made obsolete by increased dependence on cyberspace. From 2006 to 2009, according to reports, North American consumption of paper and cardboard declined 24 percent.

Add the paperboy to the list. As long ago as two decades ago, adults with minivans and station wagons began pushing aside the kid who threw papers on your doorstep out of a canvas satchel. As circulation and home subscriptions continue to plummet, there are fewer people of any age tossing the morning paper (evening papers are dead) into the bushes.

Already there are computer-driven algorithms spitting out “copy” that is sold by a Chicago company called Narrative Science to big-time magazines like Forbes.

THE NOISE WE LOST

And finally, a word about how work used to sound.

The American workplace once made a lot of noise. The racket – whether in the Foxborough factories and mills or construction sites - was constant and as comforting as the jingle bell of a cash register: It meant production.

There are still a few American factories making that kind of noise but none are so close to the homes of their workers that breadwinners can fall asleep to a boom-chaka-chaka lullaby that lets them know they’ll have a job in the morning.

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