History of Working in 19th Century US

At the country’s founding, the government felt that the economy should run on its own. The government should not interfere with business. One the key issues during the Revolution was the Tea Act which gave one company, the English East India Company, a monopoly on necessity items. Many felt business should not be in bed with the government. For most of the 19th century, the government operated along those lines and many agreed and supported that position. However as technology developed and the machines workers used became more dangerous, the belief in a “hands off” approach by government started to fade. Essentially we went from a largely agrarian economy staffed by farmers working on their own to an increasingly urban economy of manufacturing and big business. What did this mean to the average American worker?

Initially we were a nation of small farmers in the north. In the south, you had large plantations and the growth of cash crops for market. In the west you had diversity, some small farmers in northern areas and to the south, miners who needed those crops from the north. Our economy changes by the region you examine when studying our past. The area with the most diversified economy, and the region that began the industrialization process for the US was the north.

Prior to large scale industrialization, the north relied on the small farmer. In towns that conducted international trade, they relied on those farmers for food. In turn the growing cities supplied the farmers with tools they needed. Americans began making their own tools though and started to rely less on trade. In the 19th century new water powered tools were introduced. Northern rivers provided an excellent source of energy for these new looms and devices. Factories sprang up in the north. As some items became cheaper and cheaper to make in a factory, the small farm that may have produced those things, like soap for example, became more obsolete. We began the shift from a producer economy to a consumer economy. In a producer society all members of the family, regardless of age, worked to make it productive. Today, many would not consider household chores that many children are assigned to do at home, to be harsh child labor. Work within the home is still viewed differently than work outside the home.

With the rise of the new technology came a change in the way our businesses functioned. New laws of incorporation allowed businesses to increase their investors since investors were legally only risking the actual amount of money they put into the business. Investors were no long held liable for a company’s debt. With these changes, businesses began to grow, unchecked and unregulated. As the businesses grew, they competed with one another. Some companies became predatory and would actively work to undercut another business to run them out of business. After the Civil War in particular, businesses followed at least one if not both of the following methods: vertical integration or horizontal integration. Under vertical integration, Andrew Carnegie was able to buy all the supplies necessary to produce and then distribute his product. While it would cost money for him to pay off the boxcar needed for the cheaper railroad rate, eventually it was paid off and he essentially paid less than his competitors, increasing the size of his profit. Under horizontal integration, John D Rockefeller was able to buy out his competitors directly and form a monopoly. Big businessmen sought profits and constantly looked for ways to cut costs.

The Worker in the New Industrial Era
The worker in the new industrial era faced many challenges. Many had to sell their small farms and move into the growing cities to earn a living working for someone else during times of economic recession. Every odd numbered decade in the 19th century faced a major economic recession. Others who could not inherit land or purchase land for themselves, went into the new cities for jobs as well. As families moved into the cities, they took their ideas regarding work with them. Work, however, moved out of the house and into a workplace in the city. Husbands might work outside the home while wives and children stayed inside the home, if they were perhaps upper middle class. As is true today, our working class was stratified. Some earned more money than others. Some households on the lower end of the pay scale had every member of the family working, just as they did on the farm. Again, there were no laws to regulate labor. There were no age restrictions and no minimum wage. Men typically worked longer hours than women, although the average number of hours per day was 10. Workers in factories also worked a typical 6 day week. That means the average work week involved working 60 hours.

Men, women, and children as young as 5 worked outside the home. The increasing problem facing all workers was dangerous nature of the work itself. Few of the new machines had safety devices on them. While men and women could easily injure themselves, that probability of injury goes way up when one is talking about children. In New York City, 5 year old boys sold newspapers on street corners. While that may not sound dangerous, think about a 5 year old up before dawn, wandering around New York City alone, making his way to the depot to pick up the newspapers to sell. Then he sells them for cash which he keeps on him all day. How hard is it to rob a 5 year old? Boys as young as 8 and 9 were hired by building contractors to run along beams of a building a floor above the completed floor to catch red hot rivets in buckets to take to the man putting those rivets in the beams. Does this sound like a safe work environment? Girls as young as 8 or 9 went with their mothers to work in textile factories keeping threat from knotting up. They stood sometimes on small beams barefoot while the gears operating the looms ran just under their feet. One slip and they lose that foot. Most children who worked suffered some major injury at some point in their life. In fact there is a museum in Rhode Island of a former factory that is deemed one of the most haunted places in the US because of the sheer number of children who died working there. Child labor did not end in the cities either. Breaker boys were boys as young as 6 who worked in coal mines breaking up coal from refuse as it would wash down a long tube in water. Most of the boys had at least one crushed finger in the working life there. Child labor did not end until the Great Depression.

Despite the horrible conditions men, women, and children worked in, they were not paid that well. The average for factory work for women was $1 a day. Children made anywhere from 5 cents to 25 cents, but men tended to make more, sometimes even $3 a day if they were lucky. The low pay was one of the primary reasons everyone in the house worked. Working class families tended to be large with 5 or more kids each. They needed everyone to work and earn what they could. They lived in pretty poor housing, typically furnished by the employer. These tenements could house thousands and yet be designed to hold a few hundred. An entire family might be given 400 sq ft of space to live in with a communal kitchen and bathroom down the hall and no running water.

Working Class vs. Upper Class
The working class fought back as best they could. They utilized every means at their disposal. They organized into unions. Your book talks about the Knights of Labor, a union for all who earned wages. It was an umbrella union, but faced difficulties such as controlling their members or the fact that some members had issues that contradicted issues other members had. The American Federation of Labor served the skilled labor population only. No women were allowed or anyone of color. They attempted to control the supply of skilled labor and its value. The primary means for doing so was the tactic of collective bargaining. A company was required under collective bargaining to set wages, hours, etc for all members of the group at once. They also required high membership dues to be in the union so that if a strike were necessary, workers could still get paid a salary out of that collective pot.

Workers also went on strike to directly challenge some of the business leaders. The usual impetus for the strike was a wage cut. The Great Strike of 1877, which was spontaneous and not union affiliated, lasted two weeks and resulted in massive property damage in Pennsylvania. The railroad strike spread across the country and President Hayes ended up stepping in to end it because he argued the national economy was at stake. The Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago in 1885 started out as a peaceful protest until a bomb exploded in the middle of the square. The protest was over announced wage cuts to a local factory.

The upper class response to the issues facing American workers was complex. The government began an investigation into the depression in labor and business and found that workers were fine. From the upper class perspective, I guess things were fine. They also explained away their wealth and the growing gap between the rich and the poor with the Gospel of Wealth and Social Darwinism. With the Gospel of Wealth, they argued that directly helping the poor with money would not work to change things. Social Darwinism took the theories of Darwin and applied them to society, arguing that it was natural selection and survival of the fittest. They just argued that the wealthy were more fit than the poor.

19th Century Attitudes and Today: Discussion Question
By the end of the 19th century it appeared to many Americans that the American Dream was becoming more myth than reality. The economy and big businesses were running unchecked and unregulated. The growing technology made work more dangerous. It appeared our economy grew faster than our government could keep up with. It would take many more decades to create safety laws or labor laws to regulate things. One of the big issues today involves how involved the government should be in business. So here are a few questions to think about and discuss. Should the government have acted sooner in the 19th century to regulate businesses? How well do you feel our government does now regulating business? Since we have seen growing gaps between the rich and poor in our own times, do you feel it was a greater or more dire condition in the 19th century? Or do you feel like it is a more pressing and significant issue today?

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