Unskilled Labor

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Unskilled Labor

After the American Revolution (1775–1783), economies in the North and South changed and grew. In the North, manufacturing and industry emerged, while in the South industry and agriculture diversified. These developments required a pool of unskilled laborers. The unskilled workers, while facing new and difficult work environments, nevertheless created lively communities and maintained an ideology premised upon independence. Many, however, would find that their condition conflicted with their ideas.

the north

In the North, numerous economic factors pushed men and women into the unskilled labor force. The scarcity of land in parts of the North forced some rural Americans to move to cities in search of higher wages, where they found work in the emerging manufacturing economy. This dearth of land led aspiring male farmers into the workforce, and it had a similar effect on women. The propensity of young men to search for better economic opportunities created a labor shortage in some areas. There, women and children filled the void, especially in textile mills. After the American Revolution, merchants also invested capital in manufacturing. They centralized production into small factories and attempted to make the job process more efficient. This required the existence of a large mass of unskilled workers, filled by hopeful young farmers, women, and children; European immigrants; and free and enslaved African Americans. Thus, race, gender, and ethnicity segmented the unskilled workforce.

Unskilled workers in the North had a diverse array of occupations. In maritime-oriented cities, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, men and women found jobs as seamen, long-shoremen, carters, and domestic servants as well as in ship construction, woodcutting, and road building. Workers also found jobs in the emerging factories. In Massachusetts, for instance, men and women worked in cotton mills and the shoemaking industry. These jobs were monotonous and repetitious and lacked individuality. Under the outing system, whereby manufacturers advanced the raw materials of shoes to women living on farms, the workers mass-produced shoes, working long hours and frequently finding themselves indebted to their employer.

Unskilled workers also faced capricious job conditions. Since they lacked a discernible skill, employers could fire them on a whim. Unskilled ironworkers in New Jersey, for instance, faced termination for drinking, negligence, or defiance. Fishermen in Massachusetts worked long hours and faced the dangers of the sea. Construction employees paid canal workers with alcohol (either on credit or in lieu of wages) or with credit, forcing them into a system that resembled debt peonage. The nascent capitalist system fully exploited unskilled workers. Because of the poor working conditions, many unskilled laborers were notoriously mobile. They moved from city to city in search of good wages. While this mobility enabled the laborers to escape places where work conditions were deteriorating, it also prevented effective efforts to organize them.

Despite their mobility and the dangers associated with work, unskilled workers created a common community life and ideology. Canal workers, for instance, typically lived near their job sites in shanty-towns or temporary work camps. After the workday had concluded, canal workers entered a male bachelor subculture. They imbibed alcohol and participated in a variety of rough-and-tumble sports, including horse racing and boxing. Naturally, this subculture had a dark side. Excessive alcohol consumption led to fights between workers. This too was a world riddled with crime. Thefts, robbery, and assaults were common in the canal workers' camps. Yet men and women flocked to unskilled jobs, primarily because they still believed that wage work was temporary. Men aspired to own land and believed that working for wages in their youth would enable them to save enough money to purchase land in the future. Women, too, considered unskilled labor temporary because they expected eventually to marry someone and leave the factory. Still, by the 1830s many men and women were becoming lifelong wageworkers.

the south

In the South, many unskilled workers were slaves, and their conditions varied according to region. After the American Revolution, mixed farming, with an emphasis on wheat, replaced tobacco cultivation as the primary economic enterprise in the Upper South. Wheat production required fewer year-round workers than tobacco. This precipitated two important changes in the lives of unskilled slave workers. For one, mobility and movement was the norm. Some slaveholders sold African Americans into the Deep South because they no longer needed their labor. Other slaveholders, however, moved blacks into skilled jobs, both in the countryside and, increasingly, in the city. Since most men became skilled workers, women worked in the fields and, sometimes, in iron factories in unskilled jobs. Second, the agricultural revolution broadened job opportunities for slaves. Rather than working in a monoculture, slaves worked in a diversity of crops, freighted goods, and tended to livestock. Lastly, slaves in Upper South towns who worked in the ironworks earned cash wages for working overtime.

In the Deep South, on the other hand, rice production returned to prewar levels, and the expansion of cotton spread slavery into the interior Southeast. The expansion and intensification of slavery required slaveholders to import slaves from the North, Upper South, and Africa (until 1808). In rice-producing areas, the number of skilled workers increased slightly, which forced more women into the fields. In the cotton regions, however, slaveholders required many unskilled workers and thus brought men and women, young and old, into the fields. Unskilled slave workers contested changes in their workday. In the rice areas, tasking still dominated production, mainly because slaves resisted efforts to change the pace of the workday. However, in cotton-producing areas, slaveholders moved to a gang labor system, which irritated slaves removed from the rice areas of South Carolina.

Unskilled slave workers created a community life. After the American Revolution, slaves flocked to Christianity in increasing numbers. Upper South slaves utilized their newfound mobility to travel to other plantations and create a pan-plantation community life. This freedom of movement allowed Upper South slaves to maintain families, even when slaveholders sold a spouse to another plantation. Lastly, the American Revolution and emancipation in the North had opened the door, if slightly, to the possibility of freedom. Slaves resisted the efforts of slaveholders to limit their freedom and opportunities. When masters attempted to speed up the pace of work, slaves fought to maintain tasking, which granted them some free time, and instituted stints, whereby slaves agreed among themselves the amount of work they would accomplish in a given day.

After the American Revolution, economic changes in the North and South made America's unskilled workforce expand. It absorbed landless young men, single women, children, and enslaved African Americans. Women, both free and unfree, entered the unskilled labor force in increasing numbers. Yet the Revolution's rhetoric of freedom captivated some workers. Young men believed that wages were the ticket for landed independence, while African American slaves gravitated to the messages of the Revolution and northern emancipation. Still, unskilled workers faced dangerous and exploitative work environments and faced a future where they would labor in perpetuity.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; Industrial Revolution; Labor Movement: Labor Organizations and Strikes; Slavery: Slave Life; Textiles Manufacturing .


Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Vickers, Daniel. Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Way, Peter. Common Labour: Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780–1860. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

William J. Bauer Jr.