Ten-Hour Day Movement

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Ten-Hour Day Movement

United States 1820s-1850s


The 10-Hour Movement began among skilled craftsmen in the major East Coast cities of the United States in the early 1820s. Workers' early efforts were unevenly successful in the short term and, with the exception of the building trades in New York City, uniformly unsuccessful in the long term. In the 1830s the movement spread as skilled workers organized across crafts to form community trades unions. These organizations saw some successes, but only among skilled workers in particular crafts and cities. In 1840 President Martin Van Buren ordered the 10-hour day for workers employed on federal projects. In the early 1840s interest in the 10-hour day spread to noncraft workers. By the mid-1840s the 10-hour day was a central demand of the new "Labor Reform" societies that attempted to organize industrial workers across skill levels and genders. Labor Reformers petitioned for and won state legislation for the 10-hour workday in seven states. These laws, however, proved to be loophole-ridden and did little to change the actual hours of labor for most workers. In the 1850s sectional politics led northern merchant-capitalists to embrace the 11-hour day, the adoption of which effectively quelled the 10-Hour Movement.


  • 1820: In the Missouri Compromise, Missouri is admitted to the Union as slave state, but slavery is prohibited in all portions of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36°30' N.
  • 1821: Mexico declares independence from Spain.
  • 1823: U.S. President James Monroe establishes the Monroe Doctrine, whereby the United States warns European nations not to interfere in the political affairs of the Western Hemisphere.
  • 1825: Opening of the New York Stock Exchange.
  • 1826: French inventor Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce makes the first photographic image in history.
  • 1828: Election of Andrew Jackson as president begins a new era in American history.
  • 1831: Young British naturalist Charles Darwin sets sail from England aboard the H.M.S. Beagle bound for South America, where he will make discoveries leading to the formation of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.
  • 1835: American inventor and painter Samuel F. B. Morse constructs an experimental version of his telegraph, and Samuel Colt patents his revolver.
  • 1838: As crops fail, spawning famine in Ireland, Britain imposes the Poor Law. Designed to discourage the indigent from seeking public assistance, the law makes labor in the workhouse worse than any work to be found on the outside, and thus has the effect of stimulating emigration.
  • 1842: Scientific and technological advances include the development of ether and artificial fertilizer; the identification of the Doppler effect (by Austrian physicist Christian Johann Doppler); the foundation of biochemistry as a discipline; and the coining of the word dinosaur.
  • 1846: The United States declares war on Mexico, and adds California and New Mexico to the Union.
  • 1851: Britain's Amalgamated Society of Engineers applies innovative organizational concepts, including large contributions from, and benefits to, members, as well as vigorous use of direct action and collective bargaining.
  • 1852: Publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Though far from a literary masterpiece, it is a great commercial success, with over half a million sales on both sides of the Atlantic. More important, it has an enormous influence on British sentiments with regard to slavery and the brewing American conflict between North and South.
  • 1856: British inventor Henry Bessemer introduces his process for producing steel cheaply and efficiently.
  • 1859: American abolitionist John Brown leads a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His capture and hanging in December heighten the animosities that will spark the Civil War 16 months later.

Event and Its Context

The Early Movement: The 1820s

The early 10-Hour Movement emerged in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston in the 1820s. All were centers of the rising merchant and capitalist classes and had large and active artisan populations. The struggle over hours was twofold. First, it was a conflict between masters and journeymen to control the latter's free time. The household labor system in which masters and journeymen worked and lived together had been breaking down and masters struggled to retain control over the time and lives of their workers. Second, it was a conflict between merchant-capitalists and workers. As time rather than task became the dominant method of measuring work, control of the hours of labor came to mean control over labor itself to both the employers and the employed.

Workers in the building trades formed the core of 10-hour activists during this period. In 1825 Boston carpenters struck for the 10-hour day. Their protest was easily met by a combination of masters who refused to hire 10-hour agitators and merchants and capitalists who would not contract with master carpenters who employed such journeymen. The Columbian-Central reported that merchant-capitalists issued a resolution that they were prepared "to suspend, if necessary, building altogether," so as to put down the strike. Carpenters went back to work in Boston without achieving the 10-hour day.

In 1827 the movement gained momentum in Philadelphia from the speeches and pamphlets of William Heighton, who wrote as "An Unlettered Mechanic." Heighton argued that capitalists were stealing the extra labor of working men and that in order to be good citizens of the Republic, working men needed shorter hours to allow time for education about public affairs. This reasoning resonated with Philadelphia carpenters and 600 of them went on strike for 10 days in support of the 10-hour day. The strike was unsuccessful, but they rebounded the next year, along with the city's bricklayers, and won the 10-hour day for at least a season. Organized through the Workingmen's Party for political action, Philadelphia's workers elected office-holders with the backing of the Jacksonian Democratic Party. Despite their political origins as elected officials the Workingmen's Party, candidates failed to produce legislation for shorter hours.

The only city that enjoyed solid success was New York City. Carpenters there had enjoyed the 10-hour day since the early part of the century. In 1829, however, their customary hours came under attack from employers who wanted to increase the number of working hours to 11 per day. This threat spawned a massive reaction among skilled workers who believed the change in hours would create unemployment. Craftsmen rallied together to form the New York Workingmen's Party. Hours in New York's shops remained at 10 hours per day.

Trades Union Activism: The 1830s

The 10-hour demand continued to be central to the labor movement in the Northeast as skilled workers continued to strike into the 1830s. New organizations that were more broadly conceived to include workers from a variety of trades and drawn from a larger geographic area developed in the name of the 10-hour day.

Seth Luther, a New England carpenter, was a pivotal player in the new organizing efforts. Luther traveled around northern New England in 1832 delivering lectures calling for the 10-hour day. His lecture, "Address to the Working-Men of New England," argued for the unity of skilled workers and factory operatives in pursuit of the 10-hour day. Although his speech, and later pamphlet, failed to inspire such a union of skilled and unskilled workers, it did spur the creation of the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Working Men. Under the banner of this new organization, machinists and workers in the building trades made vigorous efforts in March and April to secure the 10-hour day, but were unsuccessful. Strikers went out in Lowell, Rochester, Fall River, South Boston, Wheeler's Point, and Taunton, Massachusetts; Bath, Maine; Providence, Rhode Island; and even as far away as Utica, New York; Louisville, Kentucky; and Detroit, Michigan. Boston and New Bedford, Massachusetts, were the sites of the largest strikes.

In 1834 the Boston Trades' Union (BTU) formed. Modeled on a similar group in New York City, the BTU was more strongly organized along trade lines than the New England Association had been. This trade orientation, however, did not limit the unionists to discussion on issues related to skilled workers alone. At the National Trades' Union meeting in August 1834, six city Trades Union representatives met; their discussion about hours included the condition of female factory operatives and resulted in a resolution that noted the damaging effects that long hours had on child laborers.

The publication of the "Ten-Hour Circular" in 1835 incited a new wave of strikes centered on the hours issue. In part authored by Seth Luther, the circular summed up the arguments for the 10-hour day. It argued for 10 hours on the basis of natural rights, religious rights, bodily necessity, mental necessity, intellectual need, and republican virtue. It showed how employers' arguments about long hours of work keeping workers from drunkenness and sinfulness were a lie. Employers made such arguments in the summer when they wanted workers on the job from sunrise to sunset, but felt no such interest in workers' morals in the winter when there was much less work. In Boston, union members went out on strike for two months, but to no avail. The union collapsed and workers went back to their jobs under the old system.

The strike in Boston and the publication of the "Ten-Hour Circular" in Philadelphia inspired the already agitated work-force in the latter city to form a general citywide strike of all working men. Workers who had been thinking of their struggles over piece-rates as wage issues came to define them as hours issues. They argued that they should make enough in piece rate to make a living wage working a 10-hour day. The strikers petitioned the city's Common Council, which responded with a law mandating the 10-hour day for all city workers. Private employers followed suit and workers in Philadelphia won the 10-hour day. The success in Philadelphia became the model for skilled workers in other cities. Not every city or trade won the 10-hour day, but advances were made by several groups of workers in cities in the Northeast.

Although 1835 brought great albeit uneven success for skilled workers in achieving a shorter work day, unskilled workers were largely unaffected. Industrial workers were also involved in labor activism in this period, but their issues differed from those of skilled workers. Workers in textile mills in places like Lowell, Massachusetts, and Dover, New Hampshire, struck against wage reductions, speed ups, and stretch outs. Turn outs involved mostly women workers who saw wages, not hours, to be their most important issue. The Panic of 1837 dampened union activity in the late 1830s but did not undo the gains that the unions had made in securing shorter hours among some skilled laborers. The depression, however, delayed efforts to spread the 10-hour day to all skilled and unskilled laborers until the early 1840s.

The Federal 10-Hour Law: 1840

On 31 March 1840 President Martin Van Buren issued an executive order mandating that all manual workers employed on government contracts would be required to work only 10 hours per day. This order brought government manual labor in line with the hours of government clerical labor; government offices were open eight hours per day in winter and 10 in summer under an 1836 federal law. Workers happily received this order. In particular, shipwrights who worked in the Navy Yards were pleased with the act. Their shortened hours inspired other shipyard workers to organize for the 10-hour day with great success in Maine, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

Historians have not come to a definitive explanation for why Van Buren issued this order. Early interpretations focused on labor activism among workers and point to the example of workers in the Philadelphia Navy Yard who successfully petitioned President Andrew Jackson for shorter hours in 1836. However, the dissolution of the National Trades Union in 1837 and the generally weak state of organized labor, despite local and state efforts, seem to undermine that argument. Other historians have advanced the position that the executive order stemmed from an effort to secure the votes of workers to the Democratic Party. Skilled workers had long made the argument that a reduction in the number of hours worked was necessary to ensure that workers would be able to participate fully as citizens of the Republic. These egalitarian sentiments meshed well with Jacksonian ideals of democracy.

Labor Reform Movement: 1840s

The 10-Hour Movement changed in the 1840s. Whereas 10-hour agitators in the 1820s and 1830s had been mainly male skilled workers striking against masters and merchant-capitalists, in the 1840s this was not the case. Not only did the demographics of the protesters change, but the manner and objects of their protests were transformed as well.

In 1840s the 10-Hour Movement attracted the attention of factory workers and unskilled laborers, many of whom were female textile workers. Operatives formed organizations to protest the long hours of labor which could run from twelve and half to fifteen hours a day. The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA), founded by Sarah G. Bagley and a small group of Lowell operatives in 1845, was the center of hours activism in New England. The association grew rapidly as Bagley and British activist John C. Cluer toured New England, assisting mill workers in other cities in forming their own Labor Reform Associations. Associations all over New England corresponded with and encouraged each other through the pages of the LFLRA's newspaper, the Voice of Industry, which Bagley edited.

Women were major players in the 1840s movement, but they did not act alone. Men also took part in these struggles. In 1844 the New England Workingmen's Association (NEWMA) formed. Unlike its predecessors in the 1830s, the NEWMA was organized by community rather than by trade except in large cities and included significant numbers of industrial workers. Despite its name, the NEWMA welcomed both men and women and tried to make hours an issue that would unite all laborers. Women's participation was so strong that the group's name was changed to the Labor Reform League in 1846.

Strikes against the corporations had been the major weapons of mill workers in the 1830s. In the 1840s they employed the petition. Aimed at the state legislature, rather than at mill owners, petitions called for the state to exercise its power over the corporations that it had chartered. The reasoning was that because the state could form the corporation, it could also establish operating parameters within which the corporations would have to act if they proposed to maintain the legal benefits of incorporation. In making the case for reduced hours for women and children, petitioners particularly emphasized the deleterious health effects of mill work by pointing to the short meal breaks, bad air, and pollution from lamps during winter evenings. In making the case for the 10-hour day for men, reformers emphasized the need for education in public affairs and the securing of the rights of citizenship to working men. These gender differences highlight both how labor reform included but differentiated between men and women. Women needed protection while men were exercising their rights.

Massachusetts was the epicenter of Labor Reform activism. In 1845 petitioners won the attention of the Massachusetts state legislature, which established a Special Committee to Investigate Labor Conditions. Unfortunately for the reformers, the chairman of the committee was William Schouler, a Whig newspaperman who had run a smear campaign against activist John Cluer. The committee interviewed several women workers from Lowell, Sarah Bagley among them. Despite the workers' consistent testimony that long hours were detrimental to health, both mental and physical, the committee found that legislation on the matter was not needed.

Unlike Massachusetts, many states did respond to the petitions of mill workers and set limits on the hours of labor. New Hampshire was the first to enact such a law, passing its statute in 1847. State laws followed in Pennsylvania and Maine (1848), Ohio (1852), Rhode Island and California (1853), and Connecticut (1855). These laws, however, changed nothing. The 10-hour rule, according to the laws, applied only to those who had not made some other contract or arrangement with an employer. Lawmakers argued that this protected free labor from government interference with private contracts. For employers, the solution to the 10-hour law was clear: upon employment have workers sign a contract that requires them to adhere to the "customary hours" of labor. Many workers had, in fact, signed such contracts before the laws took effect.

Labor Reform was part of a constellation of reform movements, along with temperance and antislavery, that swept the United States in the 1840s as associational life proliferated. Yet, despite the affinities Labor Reform shared with other reform movements, it fizzled out in the late 1840s due to the effects of economic depression and corporate blacklisting.

The 11-Hour Day: 1850s

The hours question emerged in the 1850s as part of the national struggle over slavery. Although factory workers had compared themselves to slaves in talking about the oppressiveness of long hours, their condition as "free" workers who could contract their labor of their own volition made them into a political enigma in the emerging national debate. Traditionally supported by Democrats, the 10-hour issue was also given attention by Free Soilers and Republican ex-Whigs.

Strike activity increased over the 10-hour issue in the first few years of the 1850s. Some workers won concessions to the 11-hour day from employers who belonged to parties seeking workers' votes. By the mid-1850s, however, the issue had become a political hot potato. Democrats did not want to endorse it because any sort of national legislation would conflict with their states' rights stance. Republicans shunned it because it confused the issue of free labor. Ultimately, the 10-hour demand was removed from politics as widespread adoption of the 11-hour day effectively ended the movement.

Key Players

Bagley, Sarah G. (1806-?): Bagley worked in the Lowell mills for eight years. As the editor of the Voice of Industry and organizer of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, she was an outspoken advocate of women's rights and the 10-hour day. In 1845 she was elected as an officer of the New England Workingmen's Association.

Cluer, John C. (1806-1886): Cluer was an English weaver with a background as a temperance agitator, land reformer, and Chartist. A charismatic speaker, he arrived in the United States in 1845 and traveled around New England preaching the 10-hour day to textile workers. He was the victim of a smear campaign waged by William Schouler, a supporter of the mill owners.

Heighton, William (1800-1873): Heighton was an English cordwainer who immigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1827 he wrote a pamphlet under the pseudonym "An Un-lettered Mechanic," that animated the 10-Hour Movement in East Coast cities. In his pamphlet he argued that the 10-hour day was needed so that workers would have time to educate themselves and act as good citizens in the Republic. He also argued that workers were exploited by capitalists who paid them less in wages than the value that their work produced.

Luther, Seth (1799-1846): Luther was a carpenter who lectured widely on the 10-hour day. In 1832 he wrote and delivered a speech that was later issued as a pamphlet titled, "Address to the Working-Men of New England," in which he called for unity between skilled craftsmen and factory operatives under the banner of the 10-Hour Movement. He also helped produce the influential "Ten Hour Circular" (1835), which summed up the arguments for the 10-hour day.

Schouler, William (1814-1872): Schouler was a procorporation Whig who published the Lowell Courier. He also funded the procorporation Lowell Offering, a magazine that was published to showcase the dignity of the mill girls and the beneficial environment and working conditions offered to them. As a representative to the Massachusetts legislature, Schouler acted as chairman of the 1845 Special Committee to Investigate Labor Conditions. The committee found that there was no legislation needed to protect workers.

Van Buren, Martin (1782-1862): Van Buren was a lawyer, the eighth president of the United States, and a career politician who spent eight years each in the U.S. House and Senate. In 1840 he passed an executive order that mandated a 10-hour day for workers on federally funded projects.

See also: Dover Textile Strike; Eight-hour Day Movement; Factory Girls' Association; Workingmen's Party (1828).



Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826-1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Dulles, Foster Rhea. Labor in America: A History. 3rd ed.New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1966.

Langenfelt, Gö sta. The Historic Origin of the Eight Hours Day: Studies in English Traditionalism. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1954.

Murolo, Priscilla, and A. B. Chitty. From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States. New York: The New Press, 2001.

Murphy, Teresa Anne. Ten Hours' Labor: Religion, Reform, and Gender in Early New England. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Roediger, David R., and Philip S. Foner. Our Own Time:The History of American Labor and the Working Day.Contributions to Labor Studies, Number 23. New York, Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Seldon, Bernice. The Mill Girls: Lucy Larcom, Harriet Hanson Robinson, Sarah G. Bagley. New York: Atheneum, 1983.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the Early Industrial Revolution.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

Zonderman, David A. Aspirations and Anxieties: New England Workers and the Mechanized Factory System, 1815-1850. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Additional Resources


Frankfurter, Felix, assisted by Josephine Goldmark. The Case for the Shorter Workday: The Supreme Court of the United States, October Term 1915. Franklin O. Bunting v. The State of Oregon. Brief for the Defendant in Error, vols. I and II. New York: National Consumers' League, 1915.

Kleene, Gustav Adolph. History of the Ten-Hour Day in the United States. Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1896.

Luther, Seth. "An Address to the Working-Men of New England." Boston, 1832. In Religion, Reform and Revolution: Labor Panaceas in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Leon Stein and Philip Taft. New York: Arno, 1969.


Thompson, E. P. "Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism." Past and Present 38 (December 1967): 56-97.

—Kimberly F. Frederick