New exhibit explores Connecticut’s 19th-century 'gig economy'
The so-called “gig economy” may seem like a 21st century phenomenon, but a new exhibit at the Connecticut Historical Society chronicles a 19th-century farmer from Glastonbury and his many side hustles.
The Albert in the exhibit “Albert’s Odd Jobs: Making a Living in the 1800s” is Albert Walker, a Glastonbury farmer, who, like many farmers of the era, supplemented his tobacco farm income with a variety of side hustles.
“As a farmer, work fluctuated and you could never quite count on your income for the year,” said Katie Heidsiek, the Connecticut Historical Society’s exhibit developer. “Farmers were always subsidizing that work with other small jobs, and that was absolutely what Albert was doing. He was a very strong participant in the gig economy.”
According to Albert Walker’s decades of diaries, which CHS obtained in 2007, Walker supplemented his income with a number of side jobs. He made cutlery — the exhibit features some of his handmade kitchenware. He repaired and painted wagons. He was at various times a factory worker. And he was a clock repairman. Heidsiek showed me an intricate set of tools he used for his clock repair business.
“The thing I like about this artifact is that you see all of the tools, you see the small metal pieces, and you can see how the skills that he developed in clock repair could have been transferred to other elements of his life, such as his magic hobby where you see him working with very intricate little metal pieces and engineering his magic tricks.”
Yes, magic tricks. Albert Walker, 19th-century farmer from Glastonbury, Connecticut, fancied himself a magician.
“He had this whole side hustle of trying to see if he could do stage magic for people, and charge people 15 cents admission to come and see his shows. We can tell from his records that he invested a ton of time, money and energy into this. We can’t tell whether he really thought he was going to make it as a professional magician.”
Heidsiek said his diaries mention that his magic act got good reviews in local newspapers, though the names of those newspapers are either long forgotten or a figment of Albert Walker’s imagination. What we do know for sure is that his collection of magic tricks is vast, elaborate and remarkably well preserved. Heidsiek showed me one of them, the “Disappearing Doll” trick, which still works to this day.
“It’s a very simple engineering system that involves flipping a lever that holds on to a little sheet of plywood that keeps the doll locked in the box, and then you flip the lever the other way and she comes out. To me, that’s the fascination - thinking about Albert trying to figure out how to make this trick.”
Magic wasn’t Albert Walker’s only show business pursuit. In a name tag on display, he refers to himself as a “ventriloquist and magician.” He also dabbled in puppetry. On display are three Punch-and-Judy puppets handcrafted by Walker himself: a grumpy-looking man, a much smaller woman and what appears to be their slave.
“The Punch-and -udy shows are very complicated, they have lots of elements of sexism, misogyny and racism,” said Heidsiek. “That’s something you can see in the puppets and how they were styled, and so that’s certainly a part of Albert’s story and the story of entertainment in the 19th century.”
It’s hard to say whether Albert Walker was hoping he could parlay his magic skills into a whole new career that would take him off the farm. Heidsiek said his diaries often express frustration about working the family farm alongside his overbearing father. Still, she thinks Walker’s pursuit of magic was merely a hobby and side hustle.
“I don’t get the sense that he ever expected to do this professionally. I think he enjoyed making the magic tricks almost as much as, possibly more than performing them. I think he wanted to put together the trunk full of magic objects and to build the puppets, and to do the engineering and handiwork.”
“Albert’s Odd Jobs: Making a Living in the 1800s” runs through April of next year at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford.