A Tight Spot - Laboring in Industrial America

The rise of the large factories in the late nineteenth century dramatically transformed the nature of work. The new industries were "capital intensive," meaning that there was more capital and less labor than in the older industries-more cash had to be put into building the factories and stocking them with equipment, but they relied less on human labor than the older factories. Entrepreneurs paid close attention to building factories that would produce efficiently and according to market demand, which they learned to cultivate through the kind of advertising campaigns pioneered by J.B. Duke. Sales and distribution networks grew. Managers were recruited to coordinate and monitor production and distribution.

The new equipment, the relentless emphasis on efficiency, the investor's need for returns on the greater investments required to construct modern factories-all of these factors left the free laborer in a tight spot. Some of the new industrial machinery, such as the kind you'd see in a textile factory, required skilled workers to run it properly. Other factories, and other parts of factories employing skilled workers, needed cheap unskilled workers to do one thing over and over again (not unlike the Starbucks barista that makes one latte after another). In short, huge shifts were occurring in the nature of work, with more and more people leaving the countryside for factory work, training of workers for different kinds of skilled labor, displacement of workers whose skills in the older factories were no longer needed, and a vast need for workers to perform routinized labor efficiently. The United States became a huge producer of jobs in the nineteenth century, and immigrants had flocked into the country to fill them.

During the earlier period of industrial change Irish, British, Chinese, and Germans came to fill jobs in coal mines, textile factories, and railroads. Immigrants from Ireland, Britain, and Germany continued to migrate to the United States after 1880, but they were joined by many others, and in all 23 million immigrants made their way to American shores between 1880 and 1920. During this later period, three quarters of the immigrants came from Europe, while non-Europeans came from China, Japan, the Philippines, and Mexico. Compelled to leave their home countries due to changing economic circumstances there, immigrants came in search of economic opportunities that seemed to elude them at home.

Yet, when these immigrants came, they were most often handed the most tedious and difficult jobs in industrial America: Greeks, Italians, Japanese and Chinese built and maintained the railroads out West, Irish and Slovaks mined coal in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Poles worked on the killing floors in Chicago's meatpacking plants, Italians and Jews worked in the garment industries of New York City.

Nor were these immigrants, on the whole, paid well. With so many people available to fill such jobs, employers could easily pay unlivable wages. If one person quit the assembly line, another could easily be found to take his or her place. Many jobs were so simple that children could perform them; children could be worked harder and paid less that adults, and they were. In short, for a great mass of Americans, "free labor" in the sense of bargaining fairly for a good wage in exchange for honest and dignified work was not an option. While some did indeed gain wealth in the United States, many worked ten to twelve hours in dangerous factories, yet lived out their entire lives in grinding poverty or returned to the homeland in disgust. Others remained, and hovered close to the poverty line, terrified that employers might cut wages or lay them off at any time. And there were no laws to prevent exactly that from happening.

Consider the not-unusual case of Thomas O'Donnell, a British immigrant employed by a New England textile factory in 1883. O'Donnell made $1.50 a day when he had work. Though he worked hard, his factory did not employ workers on a regular basis. Only thirty years old, O'Donnell could nonetheless find no other jobs in his town. Desperate for income he needed to feed his family that year, he told of how he ventured out and foraged for "a couple dollars' worth of coal last winter, and the wood I picked up myself. I goes around with my shovel and picks up clams and wood." Still, in the year 1882-83 he made a total of $133 with which to support himself, his wife, and two young children. Things were not as expensive as they are today, but that $133 did not go very far even in 1883: In a year he and his family had eaten meat twice, bread for most meals, and whole days had passed without him tasting a single morsel of food.8 Thomas O'Donnell wanted to work more hours for more pay, but the factory owners began laying off workers for long periods of time after a strike years earlier. Moreover, men who had sons or young male relatives old enough to come to work to assist the adults were given priority over men like O'Donnell, who son was still too young for such responsibility. Hence O'Donnell felt forced to take work from the factory that had employed him for years for wages that clearly would not support his family.

How was it that some individuals, Andrew Carnegie for example, could emigrate to America penniless and make a fine living, while many others, like O'Donnell, craved work yet had such a hard time finding it? The fact was that the United States in the late nineteenth century was as much a land of poverty as it was a land of wealth. In his famous late-nineteenth century study of poverty in New York City, How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis reported that in that city, 10% of the people that died between 1885 and 1890 had received paupers' burials. Current estimates are that about 40% of all Americans lived in poverty in 1900. Many of these people, moreover, were working poor, unable to earn wages to make a decent living because their employers were not compelled to pay those wages. Unions arose to address the issue.


8"Immigrant Thomas O'Donnell Laments the Plight of the Worker, 1883," in Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman and John Gjerde, eds. Major Problems in American History, Volume II: Since 1865 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002)

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