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2023 Cummings Award

Sarah Fayen Scarlett

Company Suburbs: Architecture, Power, and the Transformation of Michigan’s Mining Frontier 

The University of Tennessee Press, 2021

The 2023 Abbott Lowell Cummings Award for “the book that has made the most significant contribution to the study of vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes” is presented to Sarah Fayen Scarlett’s Company Suburbs: Architecture, Power, and the Transformation of Michigan’s Mining Frontier (The University of Tennessee Press, 2021).

Sarah Fayen Scarlett’s fine-grained study of what she calls “company suburbs” establishes a new and fruitful understanding of the spatial and social organization of small towns. Focusing on several Michigan copper mining towns at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries, Scarlett argues that the traditional, paternalistic company town model was slowly subsumed by a new urban form, the company suburb. Rather than building and distributing houses to their own managers and laborers, mining companies began to use their extensive landholdings to develop small suburbs where they could sell lots and encourage the construction of stylish homes by a burgeoning local bourgeoisie. Like company towns, these new company suburbs contributed greatly to social control and to social strife, even as they allowed homeowners to access a national consumer culture that upheld their local class status. The kicker is that these new company suburbs developed immediately adjacent to, and even overlapping with, the commercial districts, working-class housing, mine shafts, and mills of existing resource towns.

Scarlett’s book sets a useful pattern for others to follow in vernacular architecture and cultural landscape studies. Her chapters operate at different scales, from a regional understanding of Copper Country landscapes, to urban relationships, street platting, and close readings of extant individual houses and the spaces within them. While the first few chapters emphasize design and the intentions of the mining companies-cum-suburban developers, the final two chapters dive deeply into spatial practices and experiences on the street and in the domestic spaces of company suburbs. Scarlett is particularly adept at the scale of material culture, making meaning from door finishes, coal chutes, and ghostly inscriptions in fuse boxes. Scarlett studies a common set of buildings and spaces recognizable to anyone familiar with North American resource towns, but her innovative approach and insightful conclusions provide readers with new eyes to see how these small-town landscapes established social relationships.

The jury particularly admired how, in Company Suburbs, Scarlett draws on such a diversity of sources to describe and analyze these spaces. Documentary evidence includes, among other items, company correspondence, diaries, directories, Census data, and tax rolls. The book is a visual feast, including old and newly-drawn maps, plats and plans, historic photos, and contemporary photodocumentation by the author and others. The book also draws on years of cultural landscape studies in the Copper Country, building on this research and addressing middle-class spaces not previously considered in labor-oriented histories. Scarlett takes all this descriptive data and anchors it in the existing literature of vernacular architecture, material culture, suburban history, and urban geography, producing a book that is far greater than the sum of these parts.

Reading Sarah Fayen Scarlett’s Company Suburbs, the jury looked forward one year to VAF’s 2024 conference in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With Scarlett’s clear writing, evocative description, and meaningful analyses of these small-town spaces, it was easy to imagine walking the streets in person and exploring extant spaces, while remembering the social relationships that company suburbs once upheld. Scarlett has provided a masterful introduction to that landscape.

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