All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


Between the Civil War and World War I, the United States experienced great economic changes, ultimately emerging as an industrial power. The Gilded Age and Progressive Era saw business giants achieving unparalleled wealth, while in the cities, factories, farms, and mines, Americans' worst nightmares of poverty and degradation became reality. The tumultuous and often bloody relationship between the business magnates and a burgeoning labor movement continually shocked and fascinated the American public. On the streets, in the pulpit, and in a variety of literary forms, Americans debated the rights of the worker and the social responsibilities of business, government, and the church. In short, as Alan Trachtenberg writes, these debates "took the appearance of struggles over the meaning of the term 'America'" (p. 73).


With the mobilization of the Civil War, the United States began its shift from a small-scale agricultural and manufacturing economy to one dominated by massive industrial corporations. The emergence of the railroads played an important role in this transformation. In 1869 the first transcontinental railroad was completed. Over the next decades railroads helped increase the settlement of the West, providing transportation for settlers and the goods they produced and consumed. The rail boom also fueled the steel, iron, and coal industries. Meanwhile gold and silver mines proliferated, particularly in the West.

These large-scale industries required unprecedented amounts of capital. Corporations, used primarily in the antebellum era for financing large state-associated projects such as bridges and banks, became the major vehicles for private investment, soon emerging as a dominant force in the economic and social landscape. Although the corporation is by definition a conglomeration of people invested in a common enterprise, the great corporations the Gilded Age came to be identified with powerful individuals such as J. P. Morgan (banking), Andrew Carnegie (steel), Jay Gould (rail), and John D. Rockefeller (oil and coal). These men were known as the "robber barons," men whose notoriously ruthless competition led to virtual monopolies in their respective industries. Rockefeller (1839–1937) pioneered corporate consolidation, or "vertical integration." His Standard Oil Company took control of every step of production, transportation, and marketing, even making and selling the products that used his oil. Control of the rails enabled Rockefeller to ship his own oil at a discounted rate, and his efficient marketing system allowed him to cut prices so low that his competitors were forced to capitulate. Another corporate development was the "company town," a settlement populated by workers at the local factory, which owned all of the town's housing and businesses. By controlling wages, rents, and the price of goods, owners could keep their workers in perpetual debt to the company. Sometimes industrialists, instead of competing with each other, set up pools and trusts, sharing monopolies and cornering markets. Although the robber barons were reviled by their competitors and employees, they were also admired by much of the American public for their business acuity, rugged individualism, and philanthropy.

With the emergence of industry came a shift in the composition of the labor force. Ten million immigrants came to the United States between 1873 and 1897. Before 1880 northern and western Europe provided the bulk of immigrants; however, after 1880 many more came from southern and eastern European countries. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) notwithstanding, Chinese immigration accounted for the majority of migrant farm laborers in the 1880s and 1890s. Although many immigrants came to America intending to return to Europe, most stayed, and while many immigrants were able to move up the economic ladder, many more remained in unskilled jobs.

Wage laborers often faced long hours and dangerous working conditions. The railroad industry was particularly hazardous, with two hundred on-the-job fatalities recorded yearly between 1890 and 1910. Workers were often subject to wage cuts, which were frequently used to finance ruinous price wars. Overproduction led to numerous recessions and depressions. In addition to creating massive unemployment, these economic downturns enhanced the consolidation of large industries, driving out the weaker companies and strengthening the positions of the robber barons.


Edwin Markham's (1852–1940) famous poem "The Man with the Hoe" (1899) was inspired by Jean-François Millet's painting The Man with a Hoe, which depicts an exhausted laborer leaning on his hoe in an empty field.

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
To have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;
To feel the passion of Eternity?
Is this the Dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
And marked their ways upon the ancient deep?
Down all the stretch of Hell to its last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this—
More tongued with censure of the world's blind greed—
More filled with signs and portents for the soul—
More frought with menace to the universe.
What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
Are Plato and the swing of Pleiades?
What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose?
Through this dread shape the suffering ages look;
Time's tragedy is in that aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned and disinherited,
Cries protest to the Judges of the World,
A protest that is also prophecy.
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
Is this the handiwork you give to God,
This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?
How will you ever straighten up this shape;
Touch it again with immortality;
Give back the upward looking and the light;
Rebuild in it the music and the dream;
Make right the immemorial infamies,
Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes?
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings—
With those who shaped him to the thing he is—
When this dumb Terror shall reply to God,
After the silence of the centuries?

The Little Book of Modern Verse, edited by Jessie B. Rittenhouse (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913), pp. 116–118.


Early efforts to organize workers faced challenges from business and government as well as from class conflict and ethnic tensions among the laborers themselves. For years corporations enjoyed the support of government against the demands of labor, partially due to the notorious corruption of Gilded Age politics but mostly because of a dominant laissez-faire (hands off) philosophy of political economy. Grounded in Adam Smith's free market ideology and supported by Herbert Spencer's theory of Social Darwinism, the government and public believed that in business competition the fittest would survive, creating wealth and prosperity for the deserving and progress for the human race. Within this theoretical framework, a series of laws and court decisions entitled corporations to the same protections as citizens under the Constitution, authorized corporations to create their own police forces, and banned not only strikes but also union organization. Corporations also exploited the ethnic tensions among workers, particularly during the "new immigration." Poles, Slavs, and Italians as well as African Americans were often excluded from unions and denied access to the skilled trades. When workers went on strike, the company owners hired blacks and immigrants as strikebreakers, or "scabs," in their place. The presence of scabs, often protected by armed detectives, frequently led to violence. Jay Gould (1836–1892) once bragged, "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half " (Murolo and Chitty, p. 111).

The first attempt at organizing skilled and unskilled workers in a national union was the National Labor Union (NLU), formed in 1866. Cooperating with the Colored National Labor Union (founded 1869), the NLU agitated for working-class solidarity (despite its exclusion of women and the Chinese) and the eight-hour day. Although neither the NLU nor the CNLU survived the depression of 1873, local organization continued, and the 1870s saw strikes and demonstrations occurring with growing frequency. In January 1874, twenty-five thousand workers and unemployed demonstrated in New York City's Tompkins Square, resulting in a riot when mounted police attempted to disperse the protesters. A secret society known as the Molly Maguires was implicated in a variety of terrorist acts in the Pennsylvania mines, ranging from sabotage to assassination. In 1877 a series of rail strikes across the nation became known as the "Great Uprising." Beginning with a strike against the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to protest wage cuts, the strike spread across the country. As militias were called in to quell the uprising, riots flared up in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Louis. Ultimately the National Guard and federal troops intervened; by the end of the uprising, the death toll exceeded one hundred. Newspaper accounts of the strikes and riots sparked fears of anarchy, evoking the French Commune of 1871.

In the wake of the Great Uprising of 1877, a secret organization called the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor went public. The Knights of Labor (KOL) was founded as a garment workers union, but by the time of its emergence from secrecy, the organization included a variety of trades. After its initial leader, Uriah Stephens, stepped down, the machinist and mayor of Scranton Terence Powderly (1849–1924, mayor 1878–1884) took the reins. The KOL became the most powerful labor organization of the Gilded Age, claiming 750,000 members in 1886. Known for being the most inclusive U.S. labor organization of the nineteenth century, the KOL admitted women, immigrants, and blacks. Its political message was against monopoly and the entire wage-labor system, advocating instead the "cooperative commonwealth." Organizing producer and consumer cooperatives as well as social and educational programs, the KOL supported hundreds of strikes and sympathy strikes, its greatest victory coming against Jay Gould's southwestern rail lines in 1885.

Events in 1886 and 1887 dramatically reversed the fortunes of the KOL. After Gould, with the support of lawmen, crushed a February 1886 strike, the KOL organized a national strike for the eight-hour day. Beginning on 1 May, about 350,000 workers struck, including 65,000 in Chicago. On 3 May, Chicago police fired on workers picketing outside the McCormick Harvester Works, killing four. Chicago anarchists called for a protest at Haymarket Square for the following night. As the demonstration was winding down, police arrived to disperse the crowd; at that point, someone (it was never determined who) threw a bomb into their ranks, killing eight and wounding sixty more. The fallout from the Haymarket affair was devastating to the labor movement. Chicago activists were rounded up in massive sweeps. Eight anarchists were ultimately arrested and convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, although only two of the defendants were actually present when the explosion occurred. More so than the Great Uprising of 1877, the Haymarket episode polarized the nation. Newspapers and magazines followed the trial and subsequent execution of four of the defendants. Social activists and trade unionists denounced the proceedings and appealed for clemency, while many others denounced the labor movement. Powderly attempted to distance the KOL from the Haymarket Eight and tried to quell militancy in the organization as a whole. This led to a series of conflicts with local unions, as a series of unauthorized strikes created rifts between the national organization and individual chapters. Powderly was ousted in 1893, and by 1896 the KOL's membership had dwindled to twenty thousand.


After the Haymarket affair, a new national labor organization supplanted the KOL, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Led by the cigar maker Samuel Gompers (1850–1924), the AFL took a markedly different approach from the KOL, called "pure and simple craft unionism." Instead of fighting the wage-labor system, the AFL focused on tangible rewards for its members, such as shortened hours or higher pay in specific industries. Rather than attempting to be all-inclusive, the AFL was mostly made up of highly skilled workers, who had a stronger position in the workplace and tended to be white and male. By 1892 forty national unions were affiliated with the AFL, including the United Mine Workers and the United Garment Workers. In its first four years the AFL staged over seventy-five hundred strikes and utilized sympathy strikes effectively, winning the eight-hour day for the Brotherhood of Carpenters with a national strike on 1 May 1890. But a crushing defeat of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, an AFL affiliate, not only showed the limitations of the AFL but also added a dark chapter to the nation's history.

When the contract between Amalgamated employees at Carnegie's steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania, expired in 1892, the mill manager, Henry Frick, announced that the new union contract, to go into effect that July, would cut union wages by an average of 22 percent. The Amalgamated rejected the new contract, and on 30 June, Frick locked out the union members and replaced them with scabs. The unskilled workers at Homestead and the local government rallied to the union's defense, and when armed guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency arrived to escort the strikebreakers, fierce fighting erupted. A daylong battle on 6 July repulsed the Pinkertons, leaving three Pinkertons and seven workers dead. On 12 July the eight thousand members of the Pennsylvania militia arrived to protect the mill and the strikebreakers, and the mill reopened. By November the union was broken.

On the same day that the Pennsylvania militia intervened in Homestead, federal troops moved on Couer d'Alene, Idaho, where striking mine workers had clashed with armed scabs. In the initial battle both strikers and scabs suffered casualties, and a crusher mill was destroyed. Although this episode was overshadowed by the Homestead strike, it further served to disconcert both labor activists and the American public.

A deep depression beginning in spring 1893 provided the background for one of the more innovative labor protests, Coxey's Army. Since 1892, the Ohio businessman Jacob Coxey (1854–1951) had been lobbying Congress for a federal highway program, which would provide work for the unemployed as well as improve the nation's infrastructure. Forming a group called the Commonweal of Christ, Coxey and the itinerant lecturer Carl Browne drafted a petition supporting the project and organized a mass march of the unemployed on Washington, D.C., to deliver the petition personally. In spring 1894 news of the march reached the national press, and recruits began to gather across the country, as far west as California and Washington State. Coxey and Browne left Coxey's Ohio home with two hundred marchers on Easter Sunday and reached Washington, D.C., in five weeks. The march was a media event, with a press corps traveling alongside the marchers. Meanwhile the western contingents had a series of run-ins with the railroad and militias; some were arrested and returned home. A young Jack London traveled for a short time with a group that had originated in San Francisco. On 1 May, International Labor Day, Coxey's Army paraded through the streets of Washington, D.C., but his army clashed with police and the leaders. As the western contingents arrived, the Coxeyites moved to camps in Maryland and Virginia. Soon money and food ran out, and media attention shifted elsewhere. Congress ignored Coxey's proposal, and the camps were raided and dispersed in August by state militias.


At the turn of the century the labor movement suffered both from failed strikes and new corporate strategies. A particularly violent strike by American Railway Union members at the Pullman Palace Car Company left twenty-five civilians dead and its leaders in jail. Meanwhile American industrial productivity was bolstered by a new management philosophy known as Taylorism, or "scientific management." Frederick Taylor (1856–1915), an engineer and manager at the Midvale Steel Works, analyzed his workers' tasks, timing each motion and determining the most efficient way to complete each task. Breaking down long, complicated tasks into shorter repetitive ones that unskilled workers could perform, Taylor standardized plant operations. He began publishing the results of his Midvale experiments in 1895; soon Taylorism was widely popular among employers. Taylorism's appeal lay in its effects on both plant efficiency and unions. Not only could companies replace craftsmen with lesser-paid unskilled workers, but skilled workers also lost a valuable bargaining chip—their intimate technical knowledge of their jobs—to managers and engineers. The decreased status of the skilled worker made strikes and unions harder to sustain. Meanwhile corporations organized against labor. In 1903 the National Association of Manufacturers launched the open shop drive, compiling blacklists of labor activists and distributing antiunion literature.

These setbacks created dissent in the labor movement. The Socialist Party, led by the former American Railway Union leader Eugene Debs (1855–1926), advocated a more militant and expansive approach than the AFL's "pure and simple craft unionism." The Socialists ran political campaigns in an effort to redesign the social order, and although many members of the AFL were Socialists, Gompers discouraged their activities. In 1905 a number of Socialists broke off from the AFL and formed the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW (whose members were known as "Wobblies") reached out to the unskilled workers who were excluded by the AFL. Of the major labor organizations, the IWW was best known for prolific songwriting. The Chicago poet Carl Sandburg, whose verse celebrated the workingman, was an IWW cardholder.

The IWW gained national attention with a victory in Lawrence, Massachusetts. When the owners of the American Woolen Company cut wages, mill workers went on strike, attacking the scabs and sabotaging the factory. The AFL textile union, representing a minority of the workers, attempted to suppress the strike, so the strikers turned to the IWW. The organization helped strikers defy injunctions against picketing by creating moving picket lines and arranged for the children of strikers to be sent to safe havens in New York and Philadelphia. When police attacked mothers who were putting children on outbound trains, public opinion was indignant. Congress investigated the mills, and the strike ultimately succeeded.

Women played significant roles in several strikes in the years preceding World War I. In 1909 female workers in New York City's garment industry led a successful strike. The following year, the Chicago garment worker Hannah Shapiro led a strike against Hart, Schaffner, and Marx which spread across the city, ultimately encompassing over forty thousand workers. Mary "Mother" Jones (1830–1930) lectured and raised funds for labor activity over the course of decades. She supported Coxey's Army in the 1890s and was present at one of the bloodiest battles of the labor struggle, in Ludlow, Colorado.

Striking miners had left Rockefeller's Colorado Fuel and Iron works in September 1913 and set up a tent colony. Months of small confrontations between the strikers, the scab workers, and the state militia ensued. The standoff exploded on 20 April 1914, when the militia burned down the tent colony, killing three workers, eleven children, and two women. Armed unionists descended on Ludlow, and by the time federal troops had restored order, sixty-six miners or their family members had been killed. Although the strikers were defeated, shortly thereafter Congress passed the Clayton Act, which formally legalized unions and barred injunctions against peaceful strikes.

As the United States entered World War I the labor movement seemed to be making progress. Although the IWW refused to support the war, Samuel Gompers committed the AFL and its member unions to the war effort. Not only did the war give the AFL the opportunity to demonstrate labor's patriotism to a skeptical public, the shortage of labor and the industrial needs placed labor in an advantageous bargaining position. More strikes occurred during the war than in any two-year period before, but they were often resolved quickly and to the strikers' advantage.

After the war the situation soured very quickly for the labor movement. Antiwar groups such as the Socialist Party and IWW had already suffered repression as the government sought to root out disloyalty, particularly among recent immigrants. The fall of Russia to the communists brought a red scare to the United States, and soon the IWW was crushed. Returning veterans increased the labor pool while industrial output slowed, and the working classes divided along racial lines. In 1919 race riots flared in St. Louis and Chicago, and the Ku Klux Klan flourished in both North and South. Also that year, a general strike in Seattle and a strike by the Boston police not only failed but also aroused public opposition to unionism in general. In the 1920s government legislation and widespread racketeering further weakened unions; not until the Great Depression would the labor movement regain national significance.


In much of the literature and rhetoric of the Gilded Age, a republican ideology predominated, hailing the virtues of work and the importance of labor to the moral foundation of America and its citizens. Writers of success literature such as Horatio Alger (1832–1899) promoted honest labor as necessary for material and moral self-improvement. Union leaders echoed Alger's sentiments, grounding their appeals for fair treatment in rhetoric championing the dignity of labor and laborers. Furthermore, argued the KOL in its Declaration of Principles, by offering workers "sufficient leisure in which to develop their intellectual, moral, and social faculties" (Sorge, p. 253), a shortened workday would help create a stronger citizenry.

As strikes became more prevalent, writers disagreed on the cause of labor discontent. Alger often expressed sympathy for laborers attempting to organize. Many, however, saw the labor movement as the product of criminals and con men. Such is the case in John Hay's (1838–1905) The Bread-Winners (1883), set in a fictional Lake Erie city during the Great Uprising. The "Bread-Winners" are a fictional labor organization headed by the "professional reformer" Andrew Jackson Offitt. Offitt corrupts the slow-witted carpenter Sam Sleeny, convincing him to join the Bread-Winners by getting him drunk and stoking his jealousy over a girl. During the strikes, Sam, Offitt, and the Bread-Winners attempt to loot the mansions of Algonquin Avenue, in particular that of Captain Farnham, Sam's supposed rival for Maud Matchin. Captain Farnham and his militia of Civil War comrades are portrayed as heroic, defending not only Farnham's home but that of the beautiful Alice Belding and her widowed mother. More important than the bravery of Farnham's militia is the contrast between Farnham's gentility and the Bread-Winners' crudeness. As Sam meets the brotherhood for the first time, he recognizes "the laziest and most incapable workmen in town—men whose weekly wages were habitually docked for drunkenness, late hours, and botchy work" (p. 118). Offitt's character is exposed after he frames Sam for robbery and assault and tries to run away with Maud himself. After being acquitted of Offitt's murder by a verdict of "justifiable homicide," Sam returns to his old position, marrying Maud. Thus The Bread-Winners restores Sam to an understanding of his proper station, affirming the social order and relegating labor discontent to the grumbling of the shiftless and manipulative con men. Yet Hay's description of life after the strike is ominous. "The rich and prosperous people," he writes, "gave no thought to the questions which had come so near to an issue of fire and blood" (p. 229). Instead they "kept on making money, building fine houses, and bringing up children to hate politics as they did, in fine to fatten themselves as sheep which should be mutton whenever the butcher was ready" (p. 229).


Increased strikes and riots throughout the 1880s, culminating in the Haymarket bombing, seemed to confirm Hay's sense of foreboding. In the wake of Haymarket, however, several influential writers took a more sympathetic view of the labor movement. Edward Bellamy, William Dean Howells, and Albion Tourgée penned utopian novels, imagining a variety of solutions to the labor crisis.

Edward Bellamy (1850–1898), a former newspaper editor with a lifelong passion for reform, set the standard for American utopian fiction with Looking Backward (1888). The novel was arguably the most influential American book in the last decades of the nineteenth century, sparking "Bellamy clubs" dedicated to social reform across the nation. The novel imagines America in the year 2000, when the state has taken control of the economy. Julian West, who has fallen asleep in 1887, awakens in the future, where he receives a tour and detailed description of the utopia. By taking over all industry and making employees of its citizens, the United States has applied "the principle of military service . . . to the labor question" (p. 58). In the Industrial Army, "service of the nation, patriotism, [and] passion for humanity" impel "the workers as in [the nineteenth century] they did the soldier" (p. 79). Meanwhile competition has been eliminated, not only in the domestic marketplace but also among nations, making for a peaceful and prosperous world.

Bellamy appeals to the power of science to create the perfect society. West's guide marvels that Americans of Bellamy's time could "fail to compare the scientific manner in which the nation went to war with the unscientific manner in which it went to work" (p. 212). In Bellamy's utopia the state determines the levels of production and is responsible for assigning workers the jobs for which they are best suited. While Looking Backward inspired the social scientists of the Progressive Era, Bellamy's rigidly structured utopia also eerily anticipates the "scientific management" developed by Frederick Taylor to promote the interests of business.

One devoted fan of Looking Backward was William Dean Howells (1837–1920). Already a famous author and editor by the mid-1880s, Howells had encountered harsh criticism by publicly protesting the Haymarket trial. In his 1890 novel A Hazard of New Fortunes, debates about the labor problem occupy major portions and precipitate the central crisis of the story, when the socialist agitator Berthold Lindau insults the owner of the periodical that employs the main characters. Engaging both Lindau and the capitalist Dryfoos are former Confederate Colonel Woodburn, who advocates a return to slavery, and Dryfoos's son Conrad, a would-be minister with labor sympathies. The arguments are mediated by Basil March, the editor of Every Other Week, who struggles with the labor question throughout the novel.

Critics generally agree that March functions as a stand-in for Howells, though there is debate about the extent to which the author identifies with Lindau. Some critics have argued that by presenting Lindau's arguments in German dialect, Howells marks him as a foreigner and his doctrines as un-American. Yet Howells markedly updates Hays's depiction of labor activists. Lindau may be a boor, but he is no crude con man. Rather, he is a Union army veteran who lost an arm in the war, translates European literature for the periodical, and moves out of his Greenwich Village apartment because he found he "was begoming a lidtle too moch of an aristograt" (pp. 164–165). March's social consciousness is shaped not only by Lindau but also by his own labor experiences. The offer of a "promotion" at his insurance firm to a position with a lower salary encourages March to take the editor's job of Every Other Week, where he must face the decision either to fire Lindau or be fired himself. Although these experiences do not lead March to adopt Lindau's radicalism, they demonstrate that even the middle class is subject to the dictates of the labor market.

The characters Conrad Dryfoos and Margaret Vance introduce Howells's interest in Christian socialism. This movement attempted to revise a predominant version of Christianity that linked poverty and vice, considering wealth a sign of God's election. Christian socialists drew on the image of Jesus as the friend of the poor and cited the communal lifestyle of the apostles to argue that Christ was a proto-socialist. In 1890 the novelist Albion Tourgée (1838–1905) published Murvale Eastman, Christian Socialist, in which Reverend Eastman risks losing his congregation and his love by preaching this new doctrine. According to Eastman, the function of the church "is to be, not the controller, but the main-spring of civilization; to see to it that in government, in business, in society, the underlying impulse is that which is enjoined for the regulation of human life, 'Bear ye another's burdens'" (p. 272). In Hazard, Conrad and Margaret, two members of the upper class, minister to the poor and sympathize with the railway workers who strike at the end of the novel. Conrad functions in the novel as a Christ figure; his death during the strike serves as the catalyst for his father's redemption.

The rail strike provides the most intense action of the novel. Like Hay, Howells uses the strike both as a metaphor for the class war and as a warning about the national failure to address the labor issue. However, the policeman who fatally beats Lindau does not represent order and chivalry like Captain Farnham but "irresponsible and involuntary authority" (p. 368). Ultimately Howells's solution to the labor crisis lies not in revolutionary violence but in the literary project Every Other Week, where the contributors share in the magazine's profits.


At the turn of the century a new breed of writers developed and refined a journalistic tradition that exposed the horrors of industrial labor. Police reporter Jacob Riis (1849–1914) toured the tenements of New York, gathering the material for a series of articles that resulted in the 1890 best-seller How the Other Half Lives. While Riis's primary interest is the deplorable housing conditions in New York's slums, the book also details the conditions of the Ludlow Street sweatshops and describes the lives of Bohemian cigar makers working seventeen hours a day for $15.50 per week. In the 1890s McClure's Magazine specialized in this type of investigative journalism, later called "muckraking," providing pieces such as Stephen Crane's (1871–1900) "In the Depths of a Coal Mine" (August 1894). Crane's vivid descriptions elicit sympathy for the laborers, which include children "yet at the spanking period" (p. 157). The article seeks to spark outrage at the mine, "imperturbably cruel and insatiate, black emblem of greed," as well as at "the gods of this labor" (p. 163).

Realistic treatments of factory work, strikes, and unemployment form integral sections of Sister Carrie (1900) by Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945). Carrie Meeber's experiences at the Chicago shoe factory are pure drudgery. "Not the slightest provision had been made for the comfort of the employees," writes Dreiser, "the idea being that something was gained by giving them as little and making the work as hard and unremunerative as possible" (p. 41). Although Carrie is able to escape this sort of labor for a life on the New York stage, her onetime lover Hurstwood demonstrates the coldness of the capitalist system to the less fortunate. Once his bar goes out of business, Hurstwood joins the ranks of the unemployed. Desperate, he works as a scab during a trolley strike. Dreiser is sympathetic not only to the strikers but also to the strikebreakers and the police whose job it is to protect them. The policeman guarding the trolley offices is torn between his sympathy for the strikers and his duty. Even the scabs understand the strikers' plight, but they have no other options. Workers in Sister Carrie are tossed out because of illness and layoffs, and no job is safe. The capitalist marketplace pits the working classes against one another, making good on Gould's boast.

The apotheosis of the "muckraking" trend was The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair (1878–1968). Sinclair, on assignment from the socialist journal Appeal to Reason, spent seven weeks investigating the meatpacking plants of Chicago. The Jungle, the story of the immigrant Jurgis Rudkus's journey from the Old World to the Chicago stockyards, exposes the meat industry as corrupt and degrading. Sinclair details the hazardous working conditions that lead to injury and death, and the harsh treatment of the managers, who cast out old and injured workers, blacklist union members, and continually demand increased production.

What Sinclair's audience found most appalling, however, was not the conditions of the worker but the unsanitary treatment of the meat. Descriptions of spoiled meat being masked with chemicals and rats being turned into sausage elicited such an uproar that Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act within months of the book's publication. This response was somewhat disheartening to Sinclair, who saw the meat industry as emblematic of the abuses of capitalism and had hoped to convert his audience to socialism.

By the First World War many literary artists were firmly on the side of the worker against the "gods of labor." While their critiques of capitalism gained the public's attention, sympathy, and occasional indignation, the labor movement did not win the approval of the majority of Americans, nor did it enlist a majority of workers as members. The literature of labor did, however, force America to examine its values and the extent to which the nation was enabling opportunity for all.

See alsoAnarchism; Business and Industry Novels; City Dwellers; Haymarket Square; A Hazard of New Fortunes; The Jungle; McClure's Magazine; Muckrakers and Yellow Journalism; Poverty; Reform; Sister Carrie; Socialism; Utopias and Dystopias


Primary Works

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. 1888. Foreword by Erich Fromm. New York: Signet Classic, 1960.

"Carl Sandburg." In The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd ed., edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair, pp. 268–270. New York: Norton, 1988.

Crane, Stephen. "In the Depths of a Coal Mine." 1894. In The American 1890s: A Cultural Reader, edited by Susan Harris Smith and Melanie Dawson, pp. 156–163. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. 1900. Afterword by Willard Thorp. New York: Signet Classic, 1980.

Hay, John. The Bread-Winners. 1883. Edited by Charles Vandersee. New Haven, Conn.: College and University Press, 1973.

Howells, William Dean. A Hazard of New Fortunes. 1890. Afterword by Benjamin DeMott. New York: Meridian, 1994.

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. 1890. Edited by David Leviatin. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. 1906. Afterword by Emory Elliot. New York: Signet Classic, 1990.

Tourgée, Albion. Murvale Eastman, Christian Socialist. New York: Fords, Howard, and Hulbert, 1890.

Secondary Works

Babson, Steve. The Unfinished Struggle: Turning Points inAmerican Labor, 1877–Present. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.

Dulles, Foster Rhea. Labor in America: A History. Northbrook, Ill.: AHM Publishing, 1960.

Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Le Blanc, Paul. A Short History of the U.S. Working Class:From Colonial Times to the Twenty-first Century. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 1999.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Gold Standard and the Logic ofNaturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Murolo, Priscilla, and A. B. Chitty. From the Folks WhoBrought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States. Illustrations by Joe Sacco. New York: New Press, 2001.

Parrish, Timothy L. "Haymarket and Hazard: The Lonely Politics of William Dean Howells." Journal of American Culture 17, no. 4 (1994): 23–32.

Phelan, Craig. Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000.

Rennick, Andrew. "'A Good War Story': The Civil War, Substitution, and the Labor Crisis in Howells' A Hazard of New Fortunes." American Literary Realism 35, no. 3 (2003): 247–261.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Horatio Alger, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Schwantes, Carlos A. Coxey's Army: An American Odyssey. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Sorge, Friedrich A. Friedrich A. Sorge's Labor Movement in the United States. Edited by Philip S. Foner and Brewster Chamberlin. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1977.

Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Andrew Rennick

views updated


LABOR. As the nearly 4 million Americans recorded in the census of 1790 grew to more than 280 million in 2000, the character of their work changed as dramatically as their numbers. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, most Americans were farmers, farm laborers, or unpaid

household workers. Many were bound (as slaves in the southern states, indentured servants elsewhere). Most farmers, craft workers, and shopkeepers were proprietors of family businesses. Most workers were of British origin, though there were large German and African American minorities. Many workers received part or all of their pay in the form of housing, food, and goods. The workday and work year reflected the seasons and the weather as much as economic opportunity or organizational discipline. Two hundred years later, farm labor had become insignificant, employees vastly outnumbered the self-employed, bound labor had disappeared, and child and unpaid household labor had greatly declined. Family and other social ties had become less important in finding work or keeping a job, large private and public organizations employed more than a third of all workers and set standards for most of the others, the labor force had become ethnically diverse, labor productivity and real wages were many times higher, wage contracts and negotiated agreements covering large groups were commonplace, and workplace disputes were subject to a web of laws and regulations.

These contrasts were closely associated with revolutionary changes in economic activity and particularly with the growth of modern manufacturing and service industries. After the middle of the nineteenth century, virtually all new jobs were in these sectors, which were also centers of innovation.


The changing character of work was closely related to the classic technological innovations of the nineteenth century and the beginning of modern economic growth. Innovations in energy use were particularly influential. Thanks to the availability of numerous waterpower sites in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, industry developed rapidly after the American Revolution. By the 1820s, the massive, water-powered Waltham Mills of northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire were among the largest factories in the world. By midcentury, however, steam power had become widespread in manufacturing as well as transportation, and steam-powered factories became the basis of the industrial economy. In 1880, the Census Bureau announced that non-factory manufacturing had become insignificant. The advent of electrical power at the turn of the century had an even greater impact. It made possible the giant manufacturing operations of the early twentieth century, the smaller, more specialized plants that became the rule after the 1920s, the great versatility in machine use that characterized the second half of the twentieth century, and the mechanization of stores, offices, and homes.

Steam and electrical power and related innovations in machine technology not only made it feasible to create large organizations but gave them an economic advantage over small plants and shops. Workers in the new organizations were wage earners, usually not family members (unlike most nineteenth-century executives), and often they were not even acquainted outside the plant. They rejected payment in kind or in services (company housing and company stores in isolated mining communities became a persistent source of grievances), started and stopped at specific times (the factory bell remained a powerful symbol of the new era), and became accustomed to a variety of rules defining their responsibilities and behavior. Mechanization also led to specialization of function. Factory workers (except for the common laborers, the least skilled and most poorly paid employees) were almost always specialists. Elaborate hierarchies of pay and status grew out of the new ways of work.

The industrial model soon spread to the service sector. Railroad corporations created hierarchical, bureaucratic structures with even stricter lines of authority and more specialized tasks than the largest factories. Insurance companies, department stores, mail-order houses, and large banks followed this pattern, though they typically used only simple, hand-operated machines. The growth of regional and national markets (a result of technological innovations in transportation and communication as well as the expanding economy) made the hierarchical, bureaucratic organization profitable even when power-driven machines played little role in production.


Most workers who filled nonexecutive positions in the new organizations were European immigrants or their children. The rapid growth in the demand for labor (confounded by periodic mass unemployment) forced employers to innovate. In the nineteenth century, they often attracted skilled workers from the British Isles or Germany. By the latter decades of the century, however, they hired immigrants mostly to fill low-skill jobs that veteran workers scorned. Although immigration from Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia never ceased, most immigrants increasingly came from the economic and technological backwaters of Europe. By the early twentieth century, more than a million immigrants were arriving each year, the majority from eastern and southern Europe, where most of them had worked as tenant farmers or farm laborers.

An obvious question is why ill-paid American agricultural workers did not respond to the opportunities of industrial and service employment. Several factors apparently were involved. The regional tensions between North and South, where the majority of poor, underemployed agricultural workers were located, and the post–Civil War isolation of the South discouraged movement to industrial centers. Racial prejudice was also influential, though few white southerners moved north before 1915. Lifestyle decisions were also important. In the midwestern states, where industry and agriculture developed in close proximity and where racial distinctions were less important, farm workers were almost as reluctant to take industrial or urban service jobs. (There was, however, significant intergenerational movement, particularly among children who attended high schools and universities.) Consequently a paradox emerged: American farm workers seemed content to eke out a modest living in the country while European agricultural workers filled new jobs in industry and the services.

Mass immigration was socially disruptive. Immigrants faced many hazards and an uncertain welcome. Apart from the Scandinavians, they became highly concentrated in cities and industrial towns. By the early twentieth century, most large American cities were primarily immigrant enclaves. (Milwaukee, perhaps the most extreme case, was 82 percent immigrant and immigrants' children in 1900.) To visitors from rural areas, they were essentially European communities except that instead of a single culture, a hodgepodge of different languages and mores prevailed. It is hardly surprising that observers and analysts bemoaned the effects of immigration and especially the shift from "old," northern and western European, to "new," southern and eastern European, immigrants.

In the workplace, native-immigrant tensions took various forms. The concentration of immigrants in low-skill jobs created a heightened sense of competition—of newer immigrant groups driving out older ones—and led to various efforts to restrict immigrant mobility. These tensions were exacerbated by ethnic concentrations in particular trades and occupations and the perception of discrimination against outsiders. A concrete expression of these divisions was the difficulty that workers and unions had in maintaining solidarity in industrial disputes. The relatively low level of labor organization and the particular character of the American labor movement have often been explained at least in part as the results of a heterogeneous labor force.

The end of traditional immigration during World War I and the low level of immigration during the inter-war years eased many of these tensions and encouraged the rise of "melting pot" interpretations of the immigrant experience. World War I also saw the first substantial movement of southern workers to the North and West, a process that seemed to promise a less tumultuous future. In reality, the initial phases of this movement increased the level of unrest and conflict. Part of the problem—repeated in the early years of World War II—was the excessive concentration of war-related manufacturing in a few congested urban areas. The more serious and persistent irritant was racial conflict, with the poorest of the "new" immigrants pitted against African American migrants. Although the wartime and postwar wave of race riots waned by 1921, the tensions lingered. In most northern cities, African Americans were much more likely to live in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods than were any immigrant groups.

By midcentury, most Americans looked back at immigration as a feature of an earlier age and celebrated the ability of American society to absorb millions of outsiders. Yet at the same time, a new cycle of immigration was beginning. It had the same economic origins and many similar effects, though it differed in other respects. Most of the post–World War II immigrants came from Latin America and Asia rather than Europe. They settled over-whelmingly in the comparatively vacant Southwest and West, areas that had grown rapidly during World War II and continued to expand in the postwar years. In contrast, the Northeast and Midwest, traditional centers of industrial activity, attracted comparatively few immigrants. Most of the newcomers were poorly educated and filled low-skill positions in industry and the services, but there were exceptions. Among the Asian immigrants were many well-educated engineers, technicians, and professionals who quickly rose to important positions, a development that had no nineteenth-century parallel.

Employer Initiatives

Managers of large organizations soon realized that they were dependent on their employees. Turnover, absenteeism, indifferent work, or outright sabotage were significant threats to productivity and profits. Conversely, highly motivated employees could enhance the firm's performance. Traditional tactics such as threats of punishment and discharge were less effective in a factory or store with numerous work sites and a hierarchy of specialized jobs. Uncertain about how to respond, nineteenth-century employers experimented widely. A handful introduced elaborate services; others devised new forms of "driving" and coercion. Most simply threw up their hands, figuratively speaking, and delegated the management of employees to first-line supervisors, who became responsible for hiring, firing, and other personnel functions. As a result, there were wide variations in wages, working conditions, and discipline, even within organizations, as well as abuses of authority and high turnover. Friction between supervisors and wage earners became a common cause of labor unrest.

Remedial action came from two sources. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, state governments began to impose restrictions on employers, especially employers of women and children. By 1900, most northern and western states regulated the hiring of children, hours of labor, health and sanitation, and various working conditions. During the first third of the twentieth century, they tightened regulations, extended some rules to male workers, and introduced workers' compensation, the first American social insurance plans. In the late 1930s, the federal social security system added old-age pensions and unemployment insurance, and other legislation set minimum wages, defined the workday and workweek, and restricted child labor. Still, none of these measures directly addressed a variety of shop-floor problems. To remedy this deficiency, as well as to raise wages, the New Deal also promoted collective bargaining, most notably via the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

Employers also played an important role in this process. Beginning at the turn of the century, a relatively small number of employers, mostly large, profitable corporations, introduced policies designed to discourage turnover and improve morale. Two innovations were particularly important. The first was the creation of personnel departments that centralized and standardized many of the supervisors' personnel functions. By the 1920s, most large industrial and service corporations had personnel departments whose functions and responsibilities expanded rapidly. The second innovation was the introduction of systematic benefit systems that provided medical, educational, recreational, and other services.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the federal and state governments embraced many features of this "welfare capitalism" in the process of creating a modest welfare state. Government initiatives extended some benefit plans to workers at smaller and less generous firms and encouraged the larger employers to create even more elaborate benefit programs. The spread of collective-bargaining contracts and a more prosperous postwar economy reinforced this trend. The years from the early 1940s to the mid-1970s would be the heyday of corporate benevolence.

Labor Unrest

The growth of industrial and service employment also introduced new forms of unrest and protest. The years from the 1870s to the 1940s witnessed waves of strikes, which were widely viewed as a perplexing and troubling feature of modern society. Yet strikes were only the most visible examples of the many tensions and conflicts characteristic of industrial employment. Dissatisfied wage earners had in fact two basic choices, "exit" and "voice." Unhappy workers could quit, or exit, and search for more satisfying jobs, or they could try to improve their current jobs through the use of their collective "voice," that is, through protests, complaints, and negotiations. Historically, most workers have concluded that quitting is easier than trying to create and maintain a union. Still, the history of organized labor (because it has been carefully documented) is the best available valuable measure of the tensions associated with modern employment and the ability of workers to exercise a "voice" in industry.

Nineteenth-Century Unions

The American labor movement dates from the early nineteenth century, first became an important force during the inflationary prosperity of the 1860s, and flourished during the boom years of the 1880s. During those years a pattern appeared that persisted through the twentieth century. The individuals most likely to organize were so-called autonomous workers, those who had substantial independence in the workplace. Most, but not all, were highly skilled and highly paid. They were not oppressed and with notable exceptions were not the employees of the new institutions most closely associated with American industrialization: the large factories, railroads, and bureaucratic offices. Rather they were the men (with very few exceptions) whose skills made them vital to the production process and who could increase their influence through collective action. Their strategic roles also made employers wary of antagonizing them, another critical factor in union growth. Employers typically countered unions with threats and reprisals. Low-skill employees had to take those threats seriously; autonomous workers could resist employer pressures.

Regardless of their particular jobs, workers were more likely to organize successfully in good times and when they could count on sympathetic public officials. Prosperity and a favorable political climate were important determinants of union growth; recession conditions and state repression often made organization impossible, regardless of other factors.

Two groups dominated the nineteenth-century labor movement. Miners were autonomous workers who were not highly skilled or highly paid. But they worked alone or in small groups and faced extraordinary hazards and dangers. Organization was a way to express their sense of solidarity, increase (or maintain) wages, tame the cutthroat competition that characterized their industries (especially coal mining), and restrict the entrance of even less skilled, lower wage workers. Unions flourished in both anthracite and bituminous coal fields in the 1860s and early 1870s, and they emerged in the western "hard rock" industry in the 1870s. After great turmoil and numerous strikes during the prolonged recession of the mid-1870s, miners' organizations became stronger than ever. Their success was reflected in the emergence of two powerful unions, the United Mine Workers of America, formed in 1890, and the Western Federation of Miners, which followed in 1893. They differed in one important respect: the coal miners were committed to collective bargaining with the goal of regional or even national contracts, while the Western Federation of Miners scorned collective bargaining in favor of workplace activism.

The second group consisted of urban artisans, led by construction workers but including skilled industrial workers such as printers and molders. Some of the unions that emerged in the 1820s and 1830s represented workers in handicraft trades, but in later years, organized workers were concentrated in new jobs and industries, though not usually in the largest firms. Organization was a way to maximize opportunities and simultaneously create buffers against excessive competition. Railroad workers were a notable example. Engineers and other skilled operating employees formed powerful unions in the 1860s and 1870s. Through collective bargaining, they were able to obtain high wages, improved working conditions, and greater security. However, they made no effort to organize the vast majority of railroad workers who lacked their advantages. Most railroad managers reluctantly dealt with the skilled groups as long as there was no effort to recruit other employees.

The limitations of this approach inspired efforts to organize other workers, and the notable exception to this approach was the Knights of Labor, which briefly became the largest American union. The Knights attempted to organize workers regardless of skill or occupation, including those who were members of existing unions. Several successful strikes in the mid-1880s created a wave of optimism that the Knights might actually succeed, and membership rose to a peak of more than 700,000 in 1886. But employer counterattacks, together with the Knights' own organizational shortcomings, brought this activity to an abrupt halt. Thereafter, the Knights of Labor declined as rapidly as it had grown. By 1890, it had lost most of its members and was confined to a handful of strongholds.

Twentieth-Century Unions

After the severe depression of the mid-1890s, which undermined all unions, the labor movement enjoyed a long period of expansion and growing influence. Autonomous worker groups, led by coal miners and construction workers, dominated organized labor for the next third of a century. The debate over tactics was decisively resolved in favor of collective bargaining, though a dissenting group, the Industrial Workers of the World, rallied critics with some success before World War I. Collective bargaining was effectively institutionalized during World War I, when the federal government endorsed it as an antidote for wartime unrest. The other major development of this period was the emergence of an effective union federation, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which dated from the upheavals of 1886 but only became influential with the membership revival of the early twentieth century. Under its shrewd and articulate president, Samuel Gompers, the AFL promoted the autonomous worker groups while professing to speak for all industrial workers. Gompers and his allies disavowed socialism and efforts to create an independent political party, policies that led to an erroneous perception (encouraged by their many critics) of indifference or hostility to political action. On the contrary, Gompers closely aligned the AFL with the Democratic Party and created aggressive lobbying organizations in the states and in Washington.

Labor's political activism seemed to pay off during World War I, when Gompers was appointed to a high post in the mobilization effort and the federal government directly and indirectly encouraged organization. The greatest gains occurred in the railroad industry, which was nationalized in 1917. Under government control, railroad managers no longer could oppose organization and collective bargaining. By 1920, most railroad employees were union members. Government efforts to reduce unrest and strikes also resulted in inroads in many manufacturing industries. In 1920, union membership totaled 5 million, twice the prewar level.

These gains proved to be short-lived. The end of wartime regulations, the defeat of the Democrats in the 1920 national elections, new employer offensives, and the severe recession of 1920–1922 eliminated the conditions that had encouraged organization. Membership contracted, particularly in industry. The decline of the coal and railroad industries in the 1920s was an additional blow. By the late 1920s, organized labor was no stronger than it had been before the war. The one positive feature of the postwar period was the rapid growth of service sector unionism.

The dramatic recession that began in 1929 and continued with varying severity for a decade set the stage for the greatest increase in union membership in American history. Recessions and unemployment typically reduced the appeal of any activity that was likely to provoke employer reprisals. This was also true of the 1930s. Union membership declined precipitously between 1930 and 1933, as the economy collapsed and unemployment rose. It also plunged in 1937–1938, when a new recession led to sweeping layoffs. Union growth occurred in 1933– 1937, and in the years after 1939, when employment was increasing. Yet the generally unfavorable economic conditions of the 1930s did have two important indirect effects. Harsh economic conditions produced a strong sense of grievance among veteran workers who lost jobs, savings, and status. Because the depression was widely blamed on big-business leaders and Republican officeholders, it also had a substantial political impact. The 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had strong progressive and activist credentials as a Democratic politician and especially as governor of New York, proved to be a turning point in the history of the labor movement.

The expansion of union activity after 1933 reflected these factors, particularly in the early years. Roosevelt's New Deal was only intermittently pro-union, but it effectively neutralized employer opposition to worker organization, and with passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 it created a mechanism for peacefully resolving representation conflicts and introducing collective bargaining. Although the ostensible purpose of the legislation was to foster dispute resolution and higher wages, it indirectly promoted union growth by restricting the employer's ability to harass union organizations and members. In the meantime, industrial workers, notably workers in the largest firms such as steel and automobile manufacturing companies, reacted to the new opportunities with unprecedented unity and enthusiasm. The depression

experience and the New Deal appeared to have sparked a new era of militant unionism. An important expression of this change was the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a new labor federation created in November 1938 by John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers, and devoted to aggressive organizing, especially in manufacturing.

Although the National Labor Relations Act (and other related legislation designed for specific industries) most clearly and explicitly addressed the industrial relations issues of the 1930s, other New Deal measures complemented it. The move to regulate prices and production in the transportation, communications, and energy industries, which began with the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and continued with a variety of specific measures enacted between 1935 and 1938, created opportunities for unions. Regulated corporations had powerful incentives to avoid strikes and cooperate with unions. As a result, about one-third of union membership growth in the 1930s occurred in those industries. If the United Automobile Workers of America and the United Steel-workers of America were symbols of the new militancy in manufacturing, the equally dramatic growth of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters symbolized the labor upheaval in transportation, communications, and energy.

Government regulations played a more direct role in the equally dramatic union growth that occurred during World War II, when aggregate membership rose from 10 million to 15 million. Most new jobs during the war years were in manufacturing companies that had collective bargaining contracts and in many cases union security provisions that required new hires to join unions. War mobilization thus automatically created millions of additional union members. Government efforts to discourage strikes also emphasized the unions' role in a bureaucratic, intensely regulated economy. By 1945, the labor movement had become a respected part of the American establishment.

Postwar Labor

By the mid-1940s full employment, high wages, and optimism about the future, based on a sense that government now had the ability to manage prosperity (together with awareness of the social safety net that government and business had created since the mid-1930s) replaced the depressed conditions of the 1930s. The experiences of workers in the 1940s and 1950s seemed to confirm the lessons of the New Deal era. With the exception of a few mild recession years, jobs were plentiful, real wages rose, and the federal government continued its activist policies, gradually building on the welfare state foundations of the 1930s. The labor movement also continued to grow, but with less dynamism than in the 1940s. Optimists viewed the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955, ending the internecine competition that dated from the late 1930s, as a likely stimulus to new gains.

In retrospect, however, those lessons are less compelling. The striking feature of the economy of the 1950s and 1960s was not the affirmation of earlier developments but the degree to which the character of work and the characteristics of the labor force changed. Farming and other natural-resource industries declined at an accelerated rate, and industrial employment also began to decline, but service-industry employment boomed. Formal education became even more important for ambitious workers. Married women entered the labor force in unprecedented numbers. Employers, building on the initiatives of earlier years, extended employee benefit programs, creating a private welfare state that paralleled the more limited public programs. Civil rights laws adopted in the early 1960s banned racial and other forms of discrimination in employment decisions.

One other major development was little noticed at the time. Organized labor stopped growing, partly because it remained too closely wedded to occupations, such as factory work, that were declining, and partly because the employer counterattack that began in the late 1930s at last became effective. A major factor in the union growth of the 1930s and 1940s had been an activist, sympathetic government. Although some postwar employer groups sought to challenge unions directly, others adopted a more subtle and successful approach, attacking union power in the regulatory agencies and the courts and promoting employment policies that reduced the benefits of membership. These attacks gained momentum during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961). One additional tactic, locating new plants in southern or western states where there was no tradition of organization, also helped to isolate organized workers.

The impact of these varied trends became inescapable in the 1970s, when the economy experienced the most severe downturns since the 1930s. Manufacturing was devastated. Plant closings in traditional industrial areas were common during the recessions of 1973–1975 and 1979–1982. Well-known industrial corporations such as International Harvester collapsed. Unemployment reached levels that rivaled the 1930s. Productivity declined and real wages stagnated. Exploiting anxiety over the future of the economy, Republican Ronald Reagan ran successfully on a platform that attacked the welfare state and industrial relations policies that emphasized collective bargaining.

The experience of the 1970s accelerated the changes that were only dimly evident in earlier years, creating a labor force that was more diverse in composition and overwhelmingly engaged in service occupations. The return of favorable employment conditions in the 1980s was almost entirely a result of service-sector developments. Formal education, antidiscrimination laws, and affirmative action policies opened high-paying jobs to ethnic and racial minorities, including a growing number of immigrants. At the same time, industry continued its movement into rural areas, especially in the South and West, and unions continued to decline. Indeed, according to the 2000 census, only 14 percent of American workers belonged to unions.

The results of these complex developments are difficult to summarize. On the one hand, by the 1990s many workers enjoyed seemingly limitless opportunities and accumulated unprecedented wealth. Severe labor shortages in many industries attracted a flood of immigrants and made the United States a magnet for upwardly mobile workers everywhere. On the other hand, many other workers, especially those who worked in agriculture or industry and had little formal education, found that the combination of economic and technological change, a less activist government, and union decline depressed their wages and made their prospects bleak. At the turn of the century, the labor force and American society were divided in ways that would have seemed impossible only a few decades before.


Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Blatz, Perry K. Democratic Miners: Work and Labor Relations in the Anthracite Coal Industry, 1875–1925. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Blewett, Mary H. Men, Women, and Work: Class, Gender, and Protest in the New England Shoe Industry, 1780–1910. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Brody, David. Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. Illini edition, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

———. In Labor's Cause: Main Themes on the History of the American Worker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Christie, Robert A. Empire in Wood: A History of the Carpenters' Union. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1956.

Commons, John R., et al. History of Labour in the United States. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1918–1935.

Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

———. The State and Labor in Modern America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine. John L. Lewis: A Biography. New York: Quadrangle, 1977.

Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine, eds. Labor Leaders in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Fine, Sidney. Sit Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936–37. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.

Gitelman, H. M. Legacy of the Ludlow Massacre: A Chapter in American Industrial Relations. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Gross, James. Broken Promise: The Subversion of U.S. Labor Relations Policy, 1947–1994. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Jacoby, Sanford M. Employing Bureaucracy: Managers, Unions, and the Transformation of Work in American Industry, 1900–1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Kochan, Thomas A., et al. The Transformation of American Industrial Relations. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Lankton, Larry D. Cradle to Grave: Life, Work, and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Lingenfelter, Richard E. The Hardrock Miners: A History of the Mining Labor Movement in the American West, 1863–1893. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

McMurry, Donald L. The Great Burlington Strike of 1888: A Case Study in Labor Relations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Montgomery, David. Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862–1872. New York: Knopf, 1967.

———. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Nelson, Daniel. Managers and Workers: Origins of the Twentieth Century Factory System in the United States, 1880–1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

———. Shifting Fortunes: The Rise and Decline of American Labor, from the 1820s to the Present. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.

Oestreicher, Richard Jules. Solidarity and Fragmentation: Working People and Class Consciousness in Detroit, 1875–1900. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Stockton, Frank T. The International Molders Union of North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1921.

Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Zeiger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935–1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Daniel Nelson

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Arbitration ; Business Unionism ; Collective Bargaining ; Strikes ; Work .

views updated



Jamie Bronstein


Jamie Bronstein


Jamie Bronstein


Jamie Bronstein

Labor: An Overview

As had been true since the colonial period, American workers during the Civil War, male and female, occupied a continuum from unfree and unpaid to free and paid. Neither slaves nor indentured servants nor apprentices were completely in control of either their work schedules or their labor contracts. The Civil War proved to be the key event that changed the nature of labor in the United States. Not only did the end of the war bring the end of slavery in the form of the Thirteenth Amendment—but the rapid industrialization associated with the war also helped to end apprenticeships in many fields and emphasize the use of larger amounts of semiskilled labor. Finally, the removal of large numbers of workers from industrial or agricultural labor into military service gave the remaining workers temporary leverage to seek higher wages and better working conditions, thus paving the way for the trade union movement of the postwar period.

Labor in the South

In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, approximately four million African Americans remained enslaved in the South. Even after the eleven states that would form the Confederate States of America seceded, four border states remained in the Union, making unfree labor a characteristic of both the Union and the Confederacy. As the slaves had before the Civil War, they continued to perform a vast array of duties during the conflict. These included field work in diverse settings; domestic labor; the performance of artisanal trades; animal husbandry; work in industrial settings, like iron foundries; and coal mining. Although slaves were theoretically unpaid and unwaged, in practice some owners who hired out their slaves did allow them to keep their earnings after paying the master a set fee; or, as in the case of William Weaver's Buffalo Forge, the owners allowed slaves to perform "overwork" for credit that could then be used to buy consumer goods (Dew 1994). Slaves and their masters continually renegotiated their economic relationships during the Civil War.

As the war wore on, many slaves found that the nature of their work was transformed. Lucinda Davis, a young Creek woman from Oklahoma then working on a plantation in Texas, reported that adult male slaves had all slipped away behind Union lines, leaving the women and children to bring in a harvest of green corn in the midst of the battle for the area (Davis 1996, p. 116). John Fields, a slave living in Kentucky, credited the use of slave labor by the South with its ability to earn early victories. He learned of the Emancipation Proclamation's passage in 1864 at the age of sixteen. Fields and his brother ran away to try to join the Union Army only to be refused for being too young. Fields was able to hire out his labor for $7 per month, marking his transition from slave to paid worker (Fields, p. 3).

The Civil War forced a transformation in the nature of work for factory workers. The South had lagged far behind the North in its level of industrialization and manufacturing before the war; however, as soon as the war began, the Confederate government embarked on an ambitious state-led manufacturing program. The Confederacy gave advances of 33 to 50 percent on government contracts to entrepreneurs who thought they would be able to provide essential materials for the use of the army and the states. The Confederate states also regulated the wartime labor market, first by legislating a draft covering all white men between eighteen and thirty-five, and then by exempting industrial workers in those industries that were productive. (Morgan 2004, pp. 4, 11).

The shortage of skilled white workers in some industries in the South elevated the status of workers who had previously been overlooked in a society where slaves and land conferred status. For example, because steel production was in its infancy, iron was a key commodity during the Civil War. As a result, the demand for the services of blacksmiths and farriers (persons who shoed horses) soared in both the North and the South. Some blacksmiths and farriers worked in uniform for army units, but others worked for the government from their own small shops or had their slaves do so. Both the Northern and the Southern armies exempted blacksmiths and farriers from the draft, but used bonuses to entice them into military service.

The Southern labor shortage also brought more white women and children into the manufacturing labor force. Augusta, Georgia, became a center of Southern manufacturing, as one large textile factory named the "Augusta Factory" employed 750 hands. Factory work remained culturally problematic, however. On the one hand, manual labor was associated with slaves, making the status of male factory workers ambiguous; on the other hand, married women and children were supposed to be economic dependents and not work in factories at all. A compromise was struck whereby factories hired almost exclusively single women; only three percent of the Augusta Factory's mill women were married (Whites 1995, p. 82).

The removal of breadwinners from the family circle combined with the lack of paid work opportunities for married women meant destitution for many families. In response, institutions like Augusta's Purveying Association were set up to organize the distribution of charity. The Augusta Purveying Association ended by serving 800 families, including some who had been displaced and were living in railroad cars (Whites 1995, p. 78). The Augusta Factory made a donation of $40,000 to the town's poor in 1863, and also distributed vast amounts of cloth to the poor. The fact that the factory acted paternalistically helped increase the acceptability of factory work in that part of Georgia.

Wartime realities made continued employment in Southern factories uncertain. One such factory, in Bellville, Georgia, supplied not only cloth for clothing and hats for "negroes and laborers" but also tents for soldiers and cloth casings for artillery. When the factory burned in 1862, poor white families were deprived of their only means of support (Daily Morning News, February 28, 1862). In 1864 the Daily Richmond Examiner reported that 400 young Southern women working in one Roswell, Georgia, factory found their work had been interrupted by Sherman's march; the factory that they had worked in was burned to the ground and they were involuntarily shipped north, away from their families (August 11, 1864).

Southern middle-class families coped with the strains of the war and the absence of male breadwinners by sending into employment many members who had not had to work before. Paid sewing assignments became a major resource for married women, whether they were hired by those few upper-class women who could afford to have dresses made or by the Confederate government in the "sewing manufactories" popping up in many government buildings by 1863.

Other government jobs—including hand-signing Confederate banknotes—became a major source of employment for male and female white workers, but such assignments did not ensure prosperity. Employees of the postal service petitioned the Confederate government to allow their families to shop at military commissaries, since with rising prices their salaries were totally inadequate. J. B. Jones, a Confederate war clerk, noted that meat was scarce and that the price of all groceries had risen; he was thankful that he and his family owned their own furniture, despite the fact that it had probably passed through twenty families before ending up in his own home (Jones 1866, p. 35).

While work in Southern factories and for the Confederate government was noteworthy because it represented change, the majority of white workers in the South who were not incorporated into the army still lived and worked on farms. Women and children did assume new tasks, including the marketing of crops and livestock as well as bookkeeping; however, gender roles died hard. Bad harvests and the commandeering of goods by both Northern and Southern troops kept many Southern families in a perilous state, and as James McPherson has argued, resulted in demoralizing letters begging loved ones to go absent without leave and come home to resume work with the harvest (1997, p. 135).

Labor in the North

The Northern economy suffered through a recession in 1861, as the immediate impact of war was a decrease in the demand for goods and services. By 1862, however, many manufacturing plants were able to shift over to production for the government or the army, and the economy began to recover and then to boom. Prices for necessities escalated as material was diverted from the consumer market to fill army contracts; wages also escalated, albeit less quickly. In many industries, workers took advantage of their temporary scarcity to strike for higher wages and better conditions; one historian, Joseph Ray-back, counted 300 new union locals spread over sixty-nine different trades (1966, p. 111).

The fate of free black labor in the North, which had always been controversial, became even more of a flashpoint during the war. There were a few white workers like Alonzo Draper—the leader of a major strike among the shoemakers of Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1860, who then stepped forward to lead a regiment of black troops during the Civil War. But more typical were the hundred white caulkers whose case was reported in the Boston Liberator. In April 1863, these men walked away from their jobs at the Navy Yard, refusing to work alongside a skilled black caulker from Baltimore. Frederick Douglass had written of similar discrimination in New Bedford years before in his autobiography (Douglass, 1963, p. 113).

The relationships among black and white workers became an urgent question as slaves freed themselves by running away to the Northern lines, where they were pressed into largely unpaid service as valets, cooks, ditch-diggers and water carriers for the Union forces. The tension broke into a firestorm in the first few days of July 1863, as mobs of white workers in New York City destroyed the city's central draft recruiting offices, burned black homes and schools, and tortured black people.

While some Northern workers fought for higher pay or quarreled over the question of who deserved work, other workers slipped into the jobs that grew up as a result of the war. Black and white women as well as some men served as nurses in makeshift army hospitals and on hospital ships. The poet Walt Whitman worked in a part-time job in the Army Paymaster's Office during the three years that he visited convalescent wards around Washington, DC, bestowing little gifts of food, tobacco, and time on the wounded soldiers (Price 2004). Others performed volunteer labor with the two great wartime institutions on the Union side: the Sanitary Commission, which provided soldiers in the field and convalescing in hospitals with clean bedding, bandages, letter-writing services, and an improved diet; and the Christian Commission, which provided soldiers with Bibles and religious tracts.


Daily Morning News (Savannah, GA), February 28, 1862.

Daily Richmond (VA) Examiner, August 11, 1864.

Davis, Lucinda, "Creek Freedmen" In The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives, eds. T. Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996, pp. 107–117.

Dew, Charles. Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1963.

Fields, John W., in WPA Slave Narrative Project, Indiana Narratives, Volume 5, Federal Writer's Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA); Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, available from

Jones, John Beauchamp. A Rebel War Clerk's Diary at the Confederate States Capital. Volume 2. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1866.

The Liberator (Boston, MA), April 10, 1863.

McPherson, James. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Morgan, Chad. "The Public Nature of Private Industry in Confederate Georgia." Civil War History 50, no. 1 (2004): 27-46.

Price, Angel. "Whitman's Drum Taps and Washington's Civil War Hospitals" (2004), available from

Rayback, Joseph. A History of American Labor. New York: The Free Press, 1966.

Whites, LeeAnn. The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender: Augusta, Georgia, 1860-1890. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Jamie Bronstein

Child Labor

Although white children—especially those living in urban areas—were likely to receive at least a few years of organized education, most nineteenth-century Americans felt there was a moral benefit to children's gainful employment. "A certain amount of work is necessary for the proper education of children," the Colorado Daily Miners' Register noted in 1865. "Their future independence and comfort depend on being accustomed to provide for the thousand constantly recurring wants that nature entails on them." The extent to which this ideal was met, however, depended on the region of the country in which one lived and the race of the child in question.

Southern Children

For black children living in the South, work was a fact of life. The youngest children watched the babies and did errands; older children often performed a stint of labor as domestic servants before graduating to the fields as quarter- or half-hands at the age of ten or twelve. Except for those black children who were able to flee with their families to Northern battle lines, the Civil War did not change the reality of work. "The times I hated most was pickin' cotton when the frost was on the bolls," former slave, Mary Reynolds, reported:

My hands git sore and crack open and bleed. We'd have a li'l fire in the fields and iffen the ones with tender hands couldn't stand it no longer, we'd run and warm our hands a li'l bit. When I could steal a tater, I used to slip it in the ashes and when I'd run to the fire I'd take it out and eat it on the sly. (Reynolds, p. 239)

As the war continued, black child workers faced long days in the fields supported by dwindling food supplies, suffered punishment at the hands of frustrated masters for wartime reverses, did heavy farm labor tasks formerly performed by men, or endured involuntary relocation to areas far from Union control, like Texas. And for children, even the war's end did not mean an end to involuntary servitude—apprenticeship laws forced children to labor on plantations without wages until the age of twenty-one, even without parental consent (Mintz 2004, p. 114).

Poor Southern white children also suffered hardship, assuming childcare responsibilities for younger siblings, foraging in the woods and fields for weeds and berries to supplement meager wartime diets, and peddling small items. With fathers absent, they also assumed larger responsibilities for farming chores alongside their mothers.

Northern Children

In the North, children were more likely to attend school, but those old enough to supplement the family income through paid labor might attend only intermittently. In industrializing Massachusetts, the law required that children under fifteen attend school for eleven weeks out of the year and children under twelve for eighteen weeks; but as the Civil War wore on, this requirement, often disregarded, became even more moot. The scarcity of factory labor attracted children into the workforce who might otherwise have been at school; with fathers and older brothers gone off to the war, these younger children were a crucial support to their families. In the absence of safety covers over mill machinery, disasters could easily happen. The Dover Gazette told the sad tale of John Francis Horrocks, a fourteen-year-old boy working in the Portsmouth Steam Factory in New Hampshire in 1863. He found his leg caught in the mill gearing, which stripped his thigh of half its flesh and pulled his femoral artery out of his body.

During the war, young children were encouraged to labor to support the war effort, as well as to bring income to their families. Fourteen-year-old Susie Baker—a former slave—did laundry for a United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiment, taught school, and served as a nurse (Mintz 2004, p. 119). In Ohio, ten-year-old Emma Andrews took to her needle and sewed 229 towels for soldiers in connection with her local aid society. During school vacations, children flocked to the woods to pick fruit, which was used both to make medicinal wine for soldiers and to help them prevent scurvy (Brockett and Vaughn, 1867, p. 82). Children enlisted with both the Confederate and Union armies as drummer boys, or, if they were able to lie about their age, as infantrymen. Adelaide Smith, an army nurse, made one injured and emaciated fifteen-year-old boy her hospital orderly rather than send him back to the Thirty-seventh New Jersey Regiment, where he had enlisted against his parents' wishes (Smith 1911, p. 86).

In contrast with children living in the Northeastern part of the Union, fewer than half of school-aged children living in the West spent their days in school. Thus in the many areas of the West that were untouched by the war, children engaged in work from the time they could be helpful. They planted and harvested, fed animals, rode the range after livestock, sewed clothes, ran errands, cooked and cleaned, and sometimes helped out in retail establishments and mining camps.

Stephen Mintz has described the gradual development over the course of the nineteenth century of two warring concepts of childhood (2004, p. 152). One concept was rooted in the idea that children, whether in farm or factory, should contribute through their work and wages to the success of the family. The other concept regarded childhood as an innocent time during which children should be protected from labor and from other worldly realities and given an education. The Civil War set back the progress of the second concept of childhood, as orphaned children and young war veterans were absorbed into the postwar labor force.


Brockett, Linus, and Mary C. Vaughan. Woman's Work in the Civil War. New York: R.H. Curran, 1867.

Daily Miners' Register, Central City, Colorado, March 4, 1865.

Dover Gazette, Dover, NH, May 1, 1863.

Hindman, Hugh. Child Labor: An American History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002.

Mintz, Stephen. Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

Reynolds, Mary. The American Slave, vol. 5: 236-246, available online at

Smith, Adelaide W. Reminiscences of an Army Nurse during the Civil War. New York: Greaves Publishing Company, 1911.

West, Elliott. Growing up with the Country: Childhood on the Far Western Frontier. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

Jamie Bronstein

Paid Labor

At first, despite the removal of about one-third of the industrially-employed waged workers from the Northern labor market to the Union army, wages for labor in the North during the Civil War were not much different than they had been in the antebellum period. Laborers earned about a dollar a day, while master artisans took account of the cost of their materials and added a standard fee for working the materials into finished products. Prices began to climb as agricultural produce was diverted for army use, and more than one-third of the workforce was diverted into uniform.

In the antebellum period labor activism had been channeled in the direction of land reform, cooperative workshops and stores, and the ten-hour work day. Throughout the Civil War, however, rampant inflation combined with more slowly rising wages brought financial issues to the center; the cost of living index escalated from 100 in 1860 to 176 by 1865. Workers responded to their immediate wage problem by forming union locals; Joseph Rayback reports in his 1966 book A History of American Labor that by November, 1865, sixty-nine trades had organized three hundred locals. Also formed during the Civil War were some of the large cross-trade labor associations that would dominate the postwar period: the miners, the train engineers, and the house carpenters among them.

The war did not deter these new locals from striking. Urban artisans demanded a rise in the rates that they were paid for piecework. Laborers on canals and railroads from San Francisco to New York struck for higher wages. The New York Herald reported on March 24, 1863, that four hundred tailors at Brooks' Brothers paraded down the streets of the Bowery demanding a pay raise. Miners in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, protested low pay and poor conditions by turning off pumps and allowing mines to fill with water. Other miners withheld coal from the government, a move that their employers argued was tantamount to treason. By the war's second and third years, those workers who remained in the workforce achieved some success using the leverage of the labor shortage to wrest concessions from their employers. In 1864, for example, Pennsylvania miners were receiving $3 to $4 a day in wages, well up from their prewar level.

The need to raise and maintain an army also contributed to conflict between workers and employers. The prevailing wage rate of $13 a month for Union soldiers, plus a $100 bonus, was well under the market rate for paid labor, never mind life-threatening labor—and this resulted in a shortage of volunteers. The government's decision to respond with a draft, yet allow individuals to hire a substitute or pay a commutation fee, helped to convince workers that the Civil War was a "rich man's war but a poor man's fight." Urban workers' resistance to the draft became most patent in July 1863, when mobs attacked black homes and schools and destroyed New York's recruiting office. The denouement of the Draft Riots illustrates that even when workers were not dissuaded from striking by arguments centering on nationalism or patriotism, their attempts could be limited by the large numbers of men in uniform available to put down labor unrest. An 1864 military order, General Order 65, outlawed picketing and protected strikebreakers.

As Northern workers were siphoned away from the labor market and into the army, new categories of workers took their place, at least temporarily. The war attracted many women into paid positions, and wages rose across all classes and grades of labor. Nonetheless, women were still paid less than were men working in the same industries. In 1864 a Contract Labor Law allowed employers to bring European workers into the country—the first step in the major wave of European immigration that would follow the war and begin to make up for the demographic disaster that war had caused.

While labor scarcity during the war had done much to advance the cause of paid labor, demobilization after the war accomplished the opposite—especially as a recession set in between 1866 and 1868. Terence Powderly, later the Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, noted in his 1889 memoir Thirty Years of Labor that as soon as the war ended, a dozen men would show up for an advertised position that had lain open an entire week during the war. The National Labor Union, one of the forerunners of the Knights of Labor, was founded in 1866 as a result of workers' perceptions of their declining position.

The South

The South faced an even more intractable labor problem than the North: not an absence of workers, but an absence of industrial production. At the outset of the war the South had 20,600 factories with 111,000 workers, compared with the North's 100,500 factories with 1.1 million workers. Part of the Southern response was to expand its existing factories for wartime production and to fill the factories with unpaid labor of every description: slaves who had been impressed from their masters, convict labor, and prisoners of war.

The reliance on various types of slave labor both before and during the Civil War meant that Southern workers lacked the history of labor activism that characterized the antebellum North. Thus despite levels of price inflation that reached 900 percent, strikes were rare. In 1862, as the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel reported, journeymen printers at a major Richmond newspaper struck for an increase in wages, taking advantage of the fact that their skills were scarce and that every printer not at work in a newspaper office had been conscripted; but the printers were the exception.

The largest paid-labor question in the South was not the formation of a union movement or any kind of class cohesiveness among white workers, but rather, "Will the freedmen work for wages?" As early as 1862, as soon as some Southern areas were under federal control, former slaves came forward to demand wages for their continued labor on plantations; and plantation owners were forced to pay. Former slaves were also quickly contracted to build roads for the government and to mine coal for mine owners, also for wages.

In the South after the war, while some former slaves were hired directly under labor contracts, the majority worked as sharecroppers. The war had set back the Southern infrastructure—much was destroyed, and nothing could be built during the war. The collapse of banking and the worthlessness of the Confederate dollar also pre-vvented postwar investment. Without capital and infrastructure Southern workers could not be as productive as Northern workers. Southern wages declined from their wartime levels, creating a situation whereby the North and the South were two distinct and separate labor markets: one flourishing, and one poor.


Alpert, Cady, and Kyle D. Kauffman. "The Economics of the Union Draft: Institutional Failure and Government Manipulation of the Labor Market during the Civil War." Essays in Economic and Business History 17 (1999): 89-107.

Craig, Lee A., and Thomas Weiss. "Agricultural Productivity Growth during the Decade of the Civil War." Journal of Economic History 53, no. 3 (September 1993): 527-548.

Crews, Edward. "The Industrial Bulwark of the Confederacy." Invention and Technology (1992): 7-17.

Hutchinson, William, and Robert A. Margo. "The Impact of the Civil War on Capital Intensity and Labor Productivity in Southern Manufacturing."Explorations in Economic History 43, no. 4 (2006): 689-704.

Kneller, Pamela. "Welsh Immigrant Women as Wage Earners in Utica, New York, 1860-1870." Llafur, Journal of Welsh Labor History 5, no. 4 (1991): 71-79.

Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, August 21, 1862; November 20, 1862.

The New York Herald, March 24, 1863.

Palladino, Grace. Another Civil War: Labor, Capital and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840–1868. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Powderly, Terence Vincent. Thirty Years of Labor. Columbus, OH: Excelsior Publishing, 1889.

Rayback, Joseph G. A History of American Labor. New York: Free Press, 1966.

Jamie Bronstein

Women Laborers

During the Civil War, the scale of participation by working men in both North and South meant that women—previously relegated to the domestic sphere by the ideals of the time—were forced to assume greater and more varied work responsibilities. Not only did they continue their unpaid labor at home—unwaged labor that expanded to include home production of textiles in the South—they also engaged in farming, in paid factory labor, and in paid and unpaid positions supporting the armed forces.

Slave women, who found the prospect of running away to Union lines more logistically challenging than did slave men, continued to perform the fieldwork, domestic service, cooking, and childcare they had been doing for generations. Increasingly, this work was done under greater than usual duress: Troops crossed through plantations, commandeering food, while masters who became impoverished were no longer willing or able to provide for their slaves. Mary Chesnut, the wife of a Confederate brigadier general, reported that because the price of raw cotton had sunk to five cents a pound, and finished cloth was thirty-seven cents a yard, masters were hiring out slaves for the price of food and clothing (Martin and Avery 1905, p. 139).

Southern white women who had never been expected to work outside the home took on new economic roles. Because it was impossible to industrialize the Southern economy speedily, the kind of work that was done in factories in the North—like the production of cloth—was often farmed out to white women and slaves working on individual plantations. Virginian Myrta Lockett described sewing for the soldiers:

Sewing machines had been carried into the churches, and the sacred buildings had become depots for bolts of cloth, linen, and flannel. Nothing could be heard in them for days but the click of machines, the tearing of cloth, the ceaseless murmur of voices questioning, and voices directing the work. Old and young were busy. Some were tearing flannel into lengths for shirts and cutting out havelocks and knapsacks. And some were tearing linen into strips and rolling it for bandages ready to the surgeon's hand. Others were picking linen into balls of lint. (Lockett Avery 1903, pp. 28–29)

The notion that the work was being done in the service of the war effort helped to redirect suspicions about the unladylike nature of manual labor. J. B. Jones, a Confederate war clerk, noted in his memoir, "Everywhere the ladies and children may be seen plaiting straw and making bonnets and hats." He remarked that even Jefferson Davis's wife could be seen with her household sitting on the front porch making straw hats (Jones 1866, p. 16). Young women were also sent from their homes to work in Confederate cotton factories. In 1864 four hundred young Southern women working in one factory in Roswell, Georgia, found their work interrupted by Sherman's march to the sea. The factory that they worked in was burned to the ground and they were involuntarily shipped north (Daily Richmond Examiner, August 11, 1864).

In the North as in the South, farmwomen filled the gap when husbands went off to fight. Those sectors of the farm economy traditionally given over to women and children—the production of eggs, chickens, and hogs, for example—boomed as workdays became longer. Women also performed work traditionally relegated to men: They plowed, planted, and harvested crops; mended fences; tended animals; kept household books, and oversaw the work of slaves and servants. Eliminating the traditional gendered division of labor in this way helped to produce a permanent increase in farm production (Craig and Weiss 1993, p. 544).

Northern women also undertook volunteer work with the United States Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission—sewing tents, rolling bandages, and holding bazaars to raise funds. In the South, although there were no similar overarching organizations, Mary Chesnut recalled writing letters to "sister societies at home," for women's help with nursing and rounding up supplies (Martin and Avery 1905, p. 100). All these activities were seen as extensions of the normal domestic duties of women, as was women's labor in field hospitals and hospital ships.

Nonetheless, the departure of men from the labor force led to a temporary reevaluation of the capabilities of women workers in other sectors of the paid workforce. The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin reported that the former Massachusetts governor Edward Everett called for women to contemplate work as bookkeepers, clerks, accountants, artists, sales personnel, and "attendants in establishments of every kind where the labor is not too severe for females" (September 13, 1862). Women were hired by the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel to set type—a move that precipitated a strike by all of the newspaper's male printers. As H. M. Gitelman (1965) records, the Waltham Watch Company recruited women in Maine and the Massachusetts countryside. In 1864 Waltham's female workforce, its wages lagging far behind those of male workers, threatened to strike, but the company capitulated before a strike became necessary.

Women's wartime participation in the workforce— and the creation during the war of vast numbers of disabled veterans—helped to create permanent changes in the notion of "women's work." In the face of an enormous number of casualties, Northerners reevaluated the concept of the "family wage"—the notion that male breadwinners should earn enough to support their families without their wives working.


Craig, Lee A., and Thomas Weiss. "Agricultural Productivity Growth during the Decade of the Civil War." Journal of Economic History 53, no. 3(1993): 527-548.

Daily Richmond Examiner, August 11, 1864.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of theSlaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,1996.

Gitelman, H. M. "The Labor Force at Waltham Watch during the Civil War Era." Journal of Economic History 25, no. 2 (1965): 214-243.

Jones, J. B. (John Beauchamp). A Rebel War Clerk's Diary at the Confederate States Capital. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1866.

Lockett Avery, Myrta, ed. A Virginia Girl in the Civil War, 1861-1865: Being a Record of the Actual Experiences of the Wife of a Confederate Officer. New York: D. Appleton, 1903. Electronic edition available at

Martin, Isabella D., and Myrta Lockett Avery, eds. A Diary from Dixie, as Written by Mary Boykin Chesnut. New York: D. Appleton, 1905.

Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, January 29, 1863.

San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, September 13, 1862.

Jamie Bronstein

views updated








Labor is one of the three primary factors of production, next to capital and land. However, different from the other two, labor deals with the work of humans rather than money or the property it can rent or buy. Being part of labor requires thus that one is paid for ones labor services.

The provision of labor was seen by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (18581917) as part of the identification of a worker with society or part of the struggle of the personality with society. The laborer as the member of a classthe working classis also a recurring theme in sociology. Two classical expositions come from the political philosopher Karl Marx (18181883), who offers a historical analysis of class struggle, and the sociologist Max Weber (18641920), who uses class more as a classification of stratification. The reward of wages in the context of labor, especially its share of the entire production process encompassing all factors of production, also mirrors the importance and power of the class within society.


Ancient labor markets, especially in ancient Greece and Rome, were based on agriculture and manufacturing. Both relied heavily on slave labor, which provided both skilled and unskilled labor.

In medieval times, the common agricultural laborer, or peasant, produced for self-sufficiency, and there was little exchange economy. Labor was dependent on the aristocrats, who were the landowners. The feudal landlords granted protection and the right to use the land in exchange for taxes that included labor services, which is commonly called bondage. This hierarchy from lord to serf was common from higher to lower aristocracy and from aristocrats to peasants. Extortion of both goods and labor services were enforced not only by the aristocracys ownership of the land, but also by their executive and judicial power.

Manufacturing, which was usually strong in the free cities (i.e., those not under the rule of an aristocrat), was in the hands of guilds whose members organized themselves to protect their interests. Workers had to learn a craft by going through the apprenticeship as journeyman, and they depended on their guild master both financially and also professionally as the guild masters decided upon elevation to the master level. While labor was in this sense not free, moving to the free cities to become a craftsman allowed one to free oneself from aristocratic rule.

Factory work forms the core process of industrialization, moving away from small-scale production at home and toward large-scale, specialized production. This specialization process is described with the example of the pin factory by the Scottish economist Adam Smith (17231790):

[I]n the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactures, are all performed by distinct hands. (Smith 1776, p. 15)

While Smith understood the importance of specialization, in his time the impact of machines was probably still underestimated. Mechanization using the steam engine in the eighteenth century led to a higher productivity of factory work, which is commonly seen as the breakthrough in the process of industrialization.

Smith did provide the intellectual underpinning of the capitalist model in which the pursuit of self-interest under free competition leads to higher wealth for society. His influential work was even used in English courts to prohibit union activities, as the unionization of labor was seen as a hindrance to free competition.

Together, mechanization and specialization led to a certain alienation of the laborer toward the production process. Labor became, next to capital, a true factor of modern production. During the period of industrialization, peasant workers moved away from agricultural work and toward that of unskilled labor in the newly established manufacturing plants. These laborers were no longer dependent on landowners but became wage workers, forming the working class. The process of industrialization was a long one. Exploitation of the workers was the norm rather than the exception as sufficient labor arrived from the ranks of agricultural workers. Edward P. Thompson, in The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (1971), writes of the formative years from 1780 to 1832 in England. He describes in detail the life and the movements of the English working class of that time. It was through the struggle of the workers that the notion of a working class evolved, which was necessary to develop labor organization.

It took about a century for wage labor to become the norm in the nineteenth century as increasingly more workers were employed, replacing work on the land with work in the newly established factories. The movement from larger workshops to mechanized industries took two centuries, from the late eighteenth century into the early twentieth century. Industrialization commenced in England and was started in continental Europe several decades later, starting with Flanders, France, and later in Germany, Switzerland, and some southern European countries.


Labor organization commenced in Europe in the eighteenth century, first within an urban setting or within factories, solely to perform the social functions of exchange and insurance against illness. National organization arose in Europe in the late nineteenth century. It was the skilled worker, at a level between owner and unskilled labor, who participated in the organization of labor in unions. Labor organization was not at first a reaction to hardship. In fact, the living standards of workers, unionized or not, were steadily rising throughout Europe from 1850 to 1900.

The history of unions in the United States started in the nineteenth century. In the turbulent decades from 1870 to 1890 the groundwork for organized labor was laid. The National Labor Union (NLU), founded in 1866, was the first federation of unions, followed by the Knights of Labor in 1869. The latter disintegrated after the Haymarket Riot on May 1, 1886, in Chicago in which unions unsuccessfully demanded the eight-hour working day.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886, organized mainly skilled workers, while the more radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905, provided a federation for unskilled labor. The membership in the IWW declined with the Palmer Raids (19181921), named for Alexander Mitchell Palmer, the U.S. attorney general after World War I who led the government attack on the radical left during the Red Scare period.

Unions in the United States did not become a political factor in those years. This has been attributed to several reasons: The U.S. political system was fragmented between states and the federal level, and it discouraged worker movements. Furthermore, employers associations reacted very strongly against the labor organizations. Janet Currie and Joseph Ferrie argue in the Journal of Economic History (2000) that despite some legislative changes in favor of the laborer, unions refrained from a national political influence and instead sought to negotiate on a company level.

This changed after the Great Depression and especially under the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The labor movement was strengthened, and the government found its role in brokering agreements between businesses and labor unions. The governments aims were to provide some assistance to poor and unemployed workers and to establish the rights of labor unions, which culminated in the Wagner Act.

During the 1930s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organized industrial workers who were part of the emerging large-scale corporations. This represented a movement from crafts-based unionism toward industry unions. The CIO argued that crafts-based unionism was no longer suitable to many industries in which several crafts were undertaken, thus artificially dividing the unionized workers within a firm. One union organized within the CIO was the United Auto Workers (UAW). The CIO split off from the AFL to form its own entity in 1938. After World War II (19391945), as most differences were settled, the two combined into the AFLCIO, under which most unions are aligned.


The 1960s marked the beginning of steady decline in union membership. After the economically strong years following World War II, workers faced increasingly more plant shutdowns. During the 1970s the fear of mechanization and the displacement of men by machines was a recurring theme. In the 1980s cheaper foreign labor began replacing domestic labor. This was most explicit within the automobile industry, in which European and especially Japanese manufacturers provided fierce competition against the American car manufacturers. Under this pressure, union power eroded over time. The fear of globalization was amplified during the negotiations about the North American Free Trade Agreement, which opened up the markets of Mexico, Canada, and the United States in 1994. The opponents feared U.S. workplaces being moved to Mexico, with cheaper labor and lower working standards. In consecutive years, intensifying trade and the outsourcing of labor-intensive industries, especially to Asian countries, weakened the union even more.

This increasing globalization was anticipated in Robert Reichs book The Work of Nations (1991). His main theme is that the division of workers into skilled and unskilled occupations is extended to a threefold partition into routine producers, in-person service providers (services that have to be provided person to person), and knowledge workers. The last type is rather broad as it includes some people who are usually not considered part of labor, such as entrepreneurs. It is this last type of worker for whom Reich foresees the best prospects, while the routine producers in particular will be replaced either by foreign competition or machines. The in-person service workers are somewhat protected from foreign competition as they require the physical availability of labor.

While the traditional struggle between the capitalist class (the providers of capital) and the labor class seems outdated, Stanley Aronowitz argues in How Class Works (2003) that labor still struggles over institutional arrangements such as working hours, overtime pay, and working conditions. These social movements are in essence class struggles over the division of power between capital and labor. In the United States capital is still the decisive element, argues Aronowitz, as the workers did not unite the aims of the different groups (immigrants versus native, black versus white, male versus female), but Aronowitz argues labor should still strive to unite as a force in order to strongly support its common goals.


Labor law reflects the struggle and achievement of labor in a nation. In the United States, the following legal developments show the evolution of current laws. While not intended to forbid the labor unions, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was used for many years to hinder union work. Its unspecific nature prohibiting combinations in restraint of trade allowed its use against combined, unionized demands from workers. The Clayton Antitrust Act, Section 6 (1914), remedies this shortcoming as it explicitly exempts labor unions. The National Labor Relations Act, or the Wagner Act (1935), allowed union representation and established the National Labor Relations Board. It allowed for collective bargaining and strikes to enforce demands. However, the Wagner Act does not encompass all workers; agricultural workers, for example, are excluded.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) enacts minimum wages and overtime pay, and it abolishes oppressive child labor. While it originally included many exemptions, over time several of those have been eliminated so the act covers all blue-collar workers while excluding supervisory functions.

During World War II, the Fair Employment Act (1941) was introduced, prohibiting racial discrimination. Initially it was intended only for the national defense industry, but it was later extended to encompass all labor relations and to prohibit many forms of discrimination in the workplace.

The Taft-Hartley Act (1947), or Labor-Management Relations Act, and the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (1959) amended the National Labor Relations Act to restrict union power. The acts prohibit unfair labor practices by unions, which were previously only prohibited for employers. Unions were no longer allowed to influence the employers in their allocation of work to different plants. Secondary boycottsfor example, the refusal to handle the goods of non-unionized companieswere also prohibited. Closed-shop agree-mentsthat only union labor could be hired by employerswere also outlawed.


The International Labor Organization (ILO) was created in 1919. There were several reasons for the establishment of such an organization. Its primary concern, a humanitarian one, was for the welfare of the worker. Numerous workers in many different countries had to work under exploitative circumstances, threatening their life, health, and family life. A second purpose was to integrate the growing working class into the political process and thereby to avoid social unrest or revolutions that could impede international peace. This aim is also found in the constitution of the ILO, as peace can only be achieved along with social justice. An economic motivation for the establishment of the ILO was concern over the cost of upholding humanitarian working standards. It was generally agreed that international standards for working conditions would avoid a race to the bottomthat is, a competition among nations over low labor costs, to the detriment of the workers. The organization of the ILO is tripartite. Each member country has two representatives of the government, one of the employers associations, and one of the labor unions.

In 1926 the ILO introduced a supervisory system to control the implementation and enforcement of its standards. This was an important step toward a more functional organization that went beyond discussing pressing issues. The United States, which was involved in several aspects of the founding and establishment of the ILO, became a member in 1934. One of the main steps forward was the Declaration of Philadelphia, adopted in 1944, which introduced freedom of association for workers. In 1969, the ILO was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The U.S. Department of Labor is the governmental organization responsible for labor in relation to occupational safety, wage and hour standards, unemployment insurance benefits, reemployment services, and labor statistics. On the national level, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the principal organization within the United States to provide statistical information and research for the government. While it is part of the Department of Labor, it serves as an independent statistical agency and provides labor market statistics as well as occupational forecasts. Other countries have organizations that have similar goals, albeit often less extensive ones.

SEE ALSO Agricultural Industry; Capitalism; Class Conflict; Division of Labor; Factories; Factory System; Industrialization; Industry; Labor Force Participation; Labor Market; Labor Supply; Labor Union; Management; Productivity; Smith, Adam; Thompson, Edward P.; Unions; Work; Work Day; Work Week


Aronowitz, Stanley. 2003. How Class Works: Power and Social Movement. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Berger, Stefan, and David Broughton, eds. 1995. The Force of Labour: The Western European Labour Movement and the Working Class in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Commons, John R., David J. Saposs, Helen L. Sumner, et al. 19181936. History of Labour in the United States. New York: Macmillan.

Currie, Janet, and Joseph P. Ferrie. 2000. The Law and Labor Strife in the U.S., 18811894. Journal of Economic History 60: 4266.

Durkheim, Émile. 1984. The Division of Labor in Society. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: Free Press.

Geary, Dick. 1981. European Labour Protest, 18481939. New York: St. Martins Press.

Henderson, W. O. 1954. Britain and Industrial Europe, 17501870: Studies in British Influence on the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press.

Marx, Karl. [18671894] 1971. Das Kapital. Vols. 13. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Reich, Robert B. 1991. The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st-Century Capitalism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Smith, Adam. [1776] 1904. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 5th ed. London: Methuen and Co.

Thompson, Edward P. 1971. The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century. Past and Present 50 (1): 76136.

Weber, Max. [1922] 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ben Kriechel

views updated


In the antebellum United States, labor and literature were so entangled with each other that one cannot be understood without consideration of the other. These were the years of America's celebrated "literary declaration of independence" from the European past, of that extraordinary outburst of creativity known later as the American "renaissance." Yet, these were also the years when Thomas Jefferson's dream of an America populated by independent yeoman farmers yielded to the inexorable pressures of industrialization, to its concomitant divisions of labor, and to the drawing of sharp class distinctions based on the different kinds of labor men and women performed. Industrialism not only threatened some of the traditional republican values espoused by Jefferson and many others but called into question the work ethic itself: After all, if industrialism was transforming the work many Americans performed into mindless drudgery, how could these Americans be persuaded that hard work was a critical constituent of their moral personhood?

Nor were working-class men and women the only ones to feel the changes wrought by industrialism and the spread of a market economy. The widening separation of middle-class men's and women's "spheres" increasingly made work both a signifier and a creator of gender identity. Not only were certain kinds of work deemed suitable or unsuitable depending on one's gender, but one's very success in being a man or woman depended more and more on successful performance of gender-appropriate work.

These challenges to the nature and organization of work had profoundly unsettling consequences. Americans in the antebellum years were forced to rethink their understanding of labor and to reassess which kinds of labor had value, and for whom, and why. Writers found themselves fully engaged in this process of reevaluation. Indeed, they did not merely observe their society's deep uneasiness about the ways the nature and shape of work seemed to be changing; nor did they merely represent the labor they witnessed in the world around them. Highly self-conscious about the social status, political consequences, and gender implications of their own work of writing, they understood that it was not just a medium for representing labor but a kind of labor itself. Literature was not just about labor. Literature itself was labor.


When industrial mills began to spread throughout eastern Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the second and third decades of the century, neither owners nor operatives (as the factory hands were called) foresaw the extent to which they would change the way men and women worked. Until that time the farm had been the primary unit of economic organization in the colonies and in the newly created nation; likewise, the individual family working a farm was the prevalent unit of organized labor. The work performed by the farmer and his family was regarded as a noble calling—indeed as the life most suited to a republican society with a republican form of government. The independence of the farmer—an independence secured by his ownership of his property and his possession of all the knowledge and skills required to farm that property—was thought to be the indispensable foundation of republican citizenship. In theory, the independent farmer's vote could not be bought or sold; nor could economic pressure render him subservient to political factions and other concentrations of power.

The work of the independent farmer was also thought to produce moral qualities along with these political virtues. These qualities sprang in part from the farmer's close ties to the soil and the landscape, from the fact that the rhythms of farmwork were in harmony with the seasonal rhythms of nature itself. Farmwork also produced a model family working together in a spirit of cooperation under the benevolent and protective eye of the paterfamilias. While men and women performed many separate tasks on farms, they also shared a good deal; the rigid distinction between work suitable for men and work suitable for women had not yet been established. Children grew up learning work from both of their parents and living in a world in which work and life were largely coextensive. Work was not an activity carved out as a separate domain of life, taking place only in certain hours and at particular locations; work was woven into the patterns of everyday life, and life itself was inextricably connected with work.

Before the arrival of the factory system, the work of many artisans—shoemakers, printers, carpenters, and the like—was likewise characterized by personal independence and patriarchal family structure. Master artisans were the lords and masters of their workshops and were able to exert a good deal of control over the scope and pace of the work performed therein. Their rhythms of work were established by custom, not regulated by the impersonal mechanism of the clock. The master and his journeymen and apprentices usually took their meals together, and the master's role was modeled on that of a father; the master was held responsible for the training and the general well-being (including the moral rectitude) of his workers. Moreover, there was also a considerable degree of social mobility built into the artisanal organization of labor. In theory, at least, an apprentice would become a journeyman after he had served his years of indenture; eventually, a hardworking and skillful journeyman could set himself up as an independent artisan in his own workshop. Artisans could also control much of the production process. They bought their raw materials, they designed their products, and they oversaw the production process from start to finish—from sheets of hide to finished shoes, from iron ore to horseshoes and nails.

The combination of authority and independence that made farm and artisanal labor perfectly congruent with the principles of republicanism was immediately jeopardized by the new factory system. Industrialism's production process could be undertaken with little regard for the seasons, and work rhythms were strictly governed by an abstract sense of time measured out by clocks. Operatives in the factory exercised very little control over the production process; instead, they had to adapt their labor to the requirements of the factory's machinery. This loss of control was exacerbated by industrialism's division of labor, which split the production process into separate units, each performed by individuals working repetitively and exclusively on their one part of the whole. Whereas the village blacksmith had overseen his work from design to finished product, the factory operative merely worked on one part of patterns others had designed; he or she had little responsibility for the finished product and proportionately less pride in it. Work was transformed into drudgery.

As these changes in the nature and scope of work became known, they sparked an intense debate in which writers and intellectuals figured prominently. Advocates of industrialism hailed the efficiency of the new factories, whereas critics deplored what they saw as an alarming dehumanization of work. A wide range of writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1814–1862), Herman Melville (1819–1891), and Rebecca Harding Davis (1831–1910) took the side of the critics. In "The American Scholar," Emerson complained that the original unity of man "has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man. Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things" (p. 54). In Walden (1854), Thoreau asks: "Where is this division of labor to end? and what object does it finally serve?" (p. 44). Melville's story "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" is a scathingly satirical depiction of the way factory labor usurps human sexuality, and Davis's Life in the Iron Mills (1861) bitterly condemns its extirpation of man's creative energies.

But not every writer's response to industrialism was so unequivocally hostile. While Walt Whitman (1819–1892) celebrated artisanal labor and the independence it fostered, he was surprisingly untroubled by the factory system and in "Song of the Exposition" (first written in 1871 and later revised in 1876 and 1881) sang its praises:

Mark the spirit of invention everywhere, thy rapid patents, 
Thy continual workshops, foundries, risen or rising,
See, from their chimneys how the tall flame-fires stream.

(P. 349)

The Lowell Offering, a magazine purportedly written wholly "by factory operatives," included in its 1842 edition a "Song of the Spinners" with the lyrics "And now we sing, with gladsome hearts / The theme of the spinner's song / That labor to leisure a zest imparts / unknown to the idle throng." Yet one wonders whether this song genuinely expressed the feelings of the factory operatives: Just a few years earlier, in 1836, striking female mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, had sung a quite different tune.

Oh! Isn't it a pity, such a pretty girl as I 
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
For I'm so fond of liberty,
That I cannot be a slave.

As the industrial manufacturing process increasingly separated skilled from unskilled labor, labor itself was increasingly understood in terms of a sharp distinction between manual and mental activities. To many observers it seemed obvious that some men and women worked with their hands only while others worked with their minds. Because this distinction rested on deeper dualisms in which mind and spirit were favored over body and matter, manual labor was soon represented as being utterly devoid of meaning and unworthy of the respect it had once enjoyed. For example, when Edward Everett (1794–1865), formerly a distinguished professor of literature at Harvard and the editor of the North American Review, discouraged working men from organizing themselves into a political party and urged them to accept a subordinate position in society, he based his argument on a presumed superiority of spirit over matter. It is surely "the reasoning soul" which "makes man superior to the beasts that perish," he said, "so it is this, which, in its moral and intellectual endowments, is the sole foundation for the only distinctions between man and man, which have any real value" (p. 31). Similarly, the political economist Theodore Sedgwick (1811–1859) could bluntly assert that "the more a man labours with his mind, which is mental labour, the higher he is in the scale of labourers; all must agree to that" (p. 272).

Sedgwick's "must" was doubtless aimed at the laborers and labor advocates who at that very moment were trying to reclaim for the factory workers some of the autonomy and social respect they had formerly enjoyed as independent artisans. The tactics of these advocates varied. Some claimed that factory labor was not itself incompatible with mental and spiritual qualities. The literary productions of the Lowell mill girls was implicitly such a claim, and more explicitly so when they titled one of their volumes Mind among the Spindles. More typically, though, attempts to claim rights for factory workers took the more radical step of asserting the value of manual labor in terms of the value of the body, thereby running directly counter to their culture's long-standing belief that the mind and spirit had more intrinsic worth than the body and matter. The Philadelphia shoemaker and labor advocate William Heighton, for example, argued that the "fountain" of a nation's wealth "consists of the marrow and the bones, the blood and muscles of the Industrious classes . . ." (p. 10) and that by contrast, the "Trading class . . . are unproducers; with their own hands they shape no materials, erect no property, create no wealth" (p. 11).

Situated in this debate over the relative worth of manual and mental labor, writers at the time were pulled in two directions. On the one hand, because the presumed mentality and spirituality of their own work was what gave it much of its social value and respect, they were reluctant to call that principle into question. On the other hand, they tended to recoil from the antidemocratic, or inegalitarian, consequences entailed by that principle. Their most characteristic response, therefore, was to collapse the distinction between body and mind and to figure their work as being both mental and corporeal.

This effort found expression in many ways and reached a fever pitch in the late 1830s and 1840s. In 1840 Orestes Brownson published "The Laboring Classes" in The Boston Quarterly Review. In April 1841 Theodore Parker published his essay "Thoughts on Labor" in The Dial, arguing that "Things will never come to their proper level, so long as Thought with the Head and Work with the Hands are considered incompatible" (p. 515). That month also saw the establishment of the Brook Farm community, described by its founder George Ripley as an attempt "to combine manual and mental labor," or to "unite the thinker and worker as far as possible in the same individual" (quoted in Frothingham, p. 307). One visitor to Brook Farm was Horace Greeley, the founding editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Strongly sympathetic to Ripley's project, Greeley was also an investor in a Fourierist community in Red Bank, New Jersey, called the North American Phalanx. With his eye on all these developments, in 1852 Charles Eliot Norton went so far as to suggest that "the distinguishing characteristic of the literature of the present age is the attention it bestows to that portion of society which is generally called 'the lower classes'" (p. 464).

Precisely because the split between manual and mental labor rested on assumed ontological distinctions between body and mind, and matter and spirit, writers who sought to undo that split often did so with no explicit reference to the lower classes, or to the factory system, or to the division of labor. Take, for example, the last words of the long, elaborately wrought first sentence of Walden: "and lived by the labor of my hands only" (p. 3). At first glance one might think that Thoreau is referring here merely to his labor of hoeing beans and chopping wood; but when his words are placed next to Sedgwick's and Heighton's one can see that he is also intervening in the argument between them. His sentence can be read as subtly asserting that the spiritual quest he undertakes by the shores of the pond is perfectly compatible with the manual labor he performed there. Furthermore, he might even be suggesting that his work as a writer is in crucial ways the labor of the "hands" and the body, not just of the mind and spirit. If so, Walden can be read as Thoreau's solitary and idiosyncratic response to the Brook Farm experiment and as an indirect but powerful contribution to a vigorous cultural debate of which Thoreau was well aware. Walden is far from unique in this respect. The tension between a traditional commitment to the spirituality of artistic and literary labor and a new interest in the corporeal aspects of their labor informs the work of many ante-bellum writers. This tension appears also in a number of slave narratives, in which embodiment is understood both as a source of one's oppression and as the foundation of one's community.


Antebellum cultural anxieties about work triggered by industrialism were intensified by two other sources of unease. One was the professionalization of forms of middle-class work that had traditionally been considered vocational, including literature and the ministry. William Charvat and Michael Gilmore, among others, have shown how the emergence of a mass reading audience transformed literature into a commodity and subjected writers to the new and often discomfiting pressures of a literary marketplace. Likewise, the rise of professionalism in this period, along with competition from Evangelical denominations, transformed the traditional New England ministry from a genteel calling into an increasingly competitive struggle for survival. To be a man of letters now was to be a professional and thus a worker.

The separation of men's and women's "spheres" was another cause of anxiety about work—an anxiety that created a booming market for advice manuals and textbooks, especially works that instructed women in how to be wives, mothers, and domestic managers. Catharine Beecher's Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) was perhaps the best known of these. Other works included Lydia Maria Child's The Mother's Book (1831), Maria J. McIntosh's Woman in America: Her Work and Her Reward (1850), and Mrs. A. J. Graves's Woman in America: Being an Examination into the Moral and Intellectual Condition of American Female Society (1847). Even as these books sought to train women to "regulate" their homes with maximum efficiency, they were also disciplining the women themselves, explicitly exhorting them to conform to emerging standards of "true womanhood."

This discourse on domesticity was intimately connected with other kinds of literary production. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) was Catharine Beecher's sister; she assisted Catharine in the composition and revisions of the Treatise, she later wrote her own popular advice columns (later collected as Household Papers and Stories, 1876), and she incorporated her beliefs about the value of domestic labor in her fiction, most notably perhaps in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–1852). Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880) was also an accomplished author of fiction and poetry and an abolitionist best known today for her preface to Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Concerns about the nature and worth of women's domestic work also permeated the popular fiction written by what Nathaniel Hawthorne notoriously called "that damned mob of scribbling women." The Wide, Wide World (1850) by Susan Warner (1819–1885) is just one of many novels that trace the fortunes of a motherless girl who must learn for herself what being a good wife and mother entails. The confluence of literary and domestic labor was no accident. As the historian Mary Kelley has argued, women authors wrote about private, domestic life in part because their choice of this subject legitimated their commitment to the public work of an author, work that was supposed to be the province of men: "The literary domestics could enter man's world because they had not left behind women's work" (p. 287).

Conversely, a number of male writers in the ante-bellum period worried that their own work of authorship was not sufficiently masculine because it was performed within the sanctuary of the home and spared the harsher work environment deemed suitable for men. Several of Emerson's lectures and essays, for example, and some of Hawthorne's and even Melville's fiction, voice insecurity about the gender dimension of literary labor. And Thoreau's claim to have lived by the labor of his "hands only" and Whitman's bold assertion of his identity as a working man, or "one of the roughs," take on new meaning when viewed against the backdrop of this intense cultural investment in work as a crucial determinant of one's femininity or masculinity.

As all of these examples suggest, antebellum anxieties about work crossed class lines and troubled middle-class proprietors and professionals as much as working-class men and women and their spokesper-sons. Antebellum works of literature reveal how complex these anxieties were and how deeply they reached into the values and outlook of the period. Certainly antebellum writers were keenly aware that their interventions in the debates about work and labor were partisan, not neutral; they understood that what was at stake was not just the cultural value of the work being performed by factory hands, bankers, artisans, mothers, and so on, but the worth of the work being performed in their own studies, at their own desks, by their own hands guiding a pen across a sheet of paper.

See alsoBanking, Finance, Panics, and Depressions; Factories; Immigration; Life in the Iron Mills;Lowell Offering


Primary Works

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays andLectures. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Everett, Edward. A Lecture on the Working Men's Party. Boston: Gray and Bowen, 1830.

Frothingham, O. B. George Ripley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1882.

Heighton, William. An Address to the Members of TradeSocieties, and to the Working Classes Generally. Philadelphia, 1827.

Norton, Charles Eliot. "Dwellings and Schools for the Poor." North American Review 74, no. 105 (1852): 464–490.

Parker, Theodore. "Thoughts on Labor." The Dial 1, no. 4 (1841): 497–519.

Sedgwick, Theodore. Public and Private Economy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Other Writings. 1854. Edited by Brooks Atkinson. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

Whitman, Walt. "Song of the Exposition." In Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Secondary Works

Augst, Thomas. The Clerk's Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Bromell, Nicholas K. By the Sweat of the Brow: Literature and Labor in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Charvat, William. The Profession of Authorship in America,1800–1870. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968.

Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780–1835. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977.

Dawley, Alan. Class and Community. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

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

Gilmore, Michael T. American Romanticism and theMarketplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage: LiteraryDomesticity in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Laurie, Bruce. Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.

Maibor, Carolyn R. Labor Pains: Emerson, Hawthorne, andAlcott on Work and the Woman Question. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Rodgers, Daniel T. The Work Ethic in Industrial America,1850–1920. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Ryan, Mary P. The Empire of the Mother: American Writing about Domesticity, 1830–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Nick Bromell

views updated


In the Bible and Apocrypha

The Bible regards labor as human destiny and an aspect of the order of heaven and earth and all therein. According to Genesis 2:5, a condition of the creation of plant life was the presence of a human being to cultivate it; Adam's role was to till and keep the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). Similarly, the visions of the prophets take the continuation of human labor for granted (cf. Isa. 2:4, "… into plowshares… pruning hooks"), the blessedness of the times being manifest in the abundance of produce ("The plower shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes the one who sows seed," Amos 9:13). The curse entailed by Adam's sin was not labor but the sweaty toil required henceforth to wrest bread from a thorny and thistly earth (Gen. 3:17ff.).

Labor was considered so much a part of creation that God Himself is depicted as a worker. He "founded" the earth, and the heavens are his "handi- (or "finger-") work" (Ps. 8:4; 102:26); He is the "fashioner" (yoẓer) of everything (Jer. 10:16); man is clay and God the potter (yoẓer; Isa. 64:7, based on Gen. 2:7). He worked six days at creating the world and rested (so Ex. 20:11; in Gen. 2:2–3 "ceased") on the seventh; wherefore the Israelites must do the same (Ex. 20:8ff.; cf. the lesson of the manna, Ex. 16; cf. *Sabbath). It is not remarkable, therefore, that many of Israel's heroes were workers, or began as such: Moses (Ex. 3:1), Gideon (Judg. 6:11), Saul (i Sam. 11:5), David (17:34), Elisha (i Kings 19:19), and Amos (1:1; 7:14).

The sapiential literature lauds work and condemns sloth and idleness: "One who is slack in his work is brother to him who is a destroyer" (Prov. 18:9). The sluggard is sent to the provident ant for a lesson in industry (6:6ff.; cf. 20:4). Work is better than words (14:23), for "he that tills his ground shall have plenty of bread, but he who pursues vain things shall have plenty of poverty" (28:19; cf. 10:4; 12:24). The efficient, hardworking woman ('eshet ḥayil) no less than her male counterpart ('ish mahir bi-melakhto) is extolled (22:29; 31:10ff.). Contentment is the lot of the honest laborer:

When you eat the fruit of your own labors
You shall be happy and contented (Ps. 128:2);
Sweet is the sleep of the laborer,
Whether he eat little or much (Eccles. 5:11).

Success is not, however, an automatic outcome of work: "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders will have toiled in vain" (Ps. 127:1); hence the customary felicitation with which one greeted workers, "The blessing of the Lord be upon you!" (Ps. 129:8; cf. Judg. 6:12; Ruth 2:4). Ecclesiastes, the late writer, concluded after long brooding and observation that even enjoyment of one's acquisitions was entirely a matter of luck – a gift of God to those who pleased him (for inscrutable reasons; Eccles. 2:18–26; 3:12–13; 5:12–6:2, etc.).

The Torah is solicitous of the wage earner. An employer must pay his day laborer "on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt" (Deut. 24:15; cf. Lev. 19:13; on the length of the workday, from sunrise to sunset, cf. Ps. 104:23). This ruling applies equally to Israelite and foreign laborers (Deut. 24:14). Violations of this injunction are denounced by prophets (Jer. 22:13; Mal. 3:5). The laws concerning debts and debtors and the Jubilee had as their object the protection of laborers and farmers.

The Israelites did not take kindly to the conscription of labor for service to their kings (see *Corvée). Samuel warned them of its hardships (i Sam. 8:11–12) – perhaps on the basis of Canaanite royal practice – and under Solomon its rigors were such (i Kings 5:27–28) that they led to the rebellion and secession of the North (i Kings 12). (By royal privilege a citizen or family might be exempt (ḥofshi) from such service; i Sam. 17:25.) A glimpse of life among such conscripts is afforded by a letter dating to the seventh century b.c.e. recovered from a fortress near Yavneh recording the complaint of a laborer against his superior for seizing his cloak (Pritchard, Texts3, 568).

For the most part, the literature that has been preserved from the Second Temple period expresses this plebeian outlook. "Hate not laborious work or husbandry," urges Ben Sira, "for it was ordained by God" (7:15). Issachar is the ideal figure of a God-fearing, chaste, industrious farmer in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Injunctions to treat hired labor kindly and not keep back their pay appear in Tobit 4:14; Ben Sira 7:20; 34:22. Horror of a beggar's life is expressed in Ben Sira 40:28ff.

A new note (anticipated in an Egyptian "Satire on the Trades" a millennium earlier (Pritchard, Texts, 43ff.)) is sounded in Ben Sira 38:24–34. Here the superiority of the learned scribe over the laborer and artisan is forcefully stated. The latter are, admittedly, necessary, but their horizons are bounded strictly by the requirements of their craft.

Without them a city cannot be inhabited,
And wherever they dwell they hunger not.
But they shall not be inquired of for public council.
And in the assembly they enjoy no precedence.
On the seat of the judge they do not sit,
And law and justice they understand not.
They do not expound the instruction of wisdom,
Nor understand the proverbs of the wise.
They understand the work of the world,
And their thought is on the practice of their craft (38:32–34).

A learned patrician speaks here, heralding a clash in values that would shortly ripen into sectarian conflict (see *Pharisees, *Sadducees).

[Moshe Greenberg]

In the Talmud

Out of the many references to labor in the talmudic literature a clear picture emerges of the rabbinic attitude to labor. The need for having an occupation was raised to the level of a positive biblical commandment. The first half of Exodus 20:9, "six days shalt thou labor," was regarded as a separate injunction and not merely as an introduction to the prohibition of work on the Sabbath. Rabbi (Judah ha-Nasi) said, "These words constitute a separate commandment. In the same way as Israel was commanded concerning the Sabbath, so were they commanded concerning work" (Mekh. SbY to 20:9; cf. arn1 11:44 and Gen. R. 16:8). The virtue of work is continually extolled: "Man should love toil and not hate it." Adam did not partake of anything until he had worked, as it is said, "to dress it and to keep it"; the *Shekhinah descended upon the children of Israel only after they had worked, as it is said, "and they shall make Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst" (arn1 loc. cit.).

Two reasons were given for the duty of being gainfully employed. One was the need for economic independence. No work was degrading if it achieved this: "Make thy Sabbath as a weekday (in respect to forgoing the added special meal) rather than be dependent on others" (Shab. 118a); "Flay a carcass in the street and earn a wage, and say not, 'I am a great man and degrading work is not for me'" (bb 110a); and "He who enjoys the work of his hands is greater than the man who fears heaven" (Ber. 8a). When R. Judah went to the bet midrash he would carry a pitcher on his shoulder, declaring, "Great is labor for it honors the person who does it" (Ned. 49b). "Great is work. Even the high priest, if he were to enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement other than during the *Avodah, is liable to death; yet for labor in it even those ritually unclean or blemished were permitted to enter" (Mekh. SbY to 20:9).

No less important, however, was the consideration of the social evil of idleness, irrespective of economic needs: "Idleness leads to unchastity" or "to degeneration" (Ket. 5:5) and "no man dies except from idleness" (arnibid.). "If a man has no work to perform, what shall he do? If he has a neglected courtyard or field let him go and work in it" (ibid). "He who does not teach his son a trade is as though he taught him to be a robber" (Kid. 29a). "Whosoever has a craft is like a vineyard surrounded with a protective hedge" (Tosef., Kid. 1:11). The therapeutic value of work is also stressed (Git. 67b). Nevertheless, one should, as far as possible, be selective in choosing one's occupation. There were "clean and easy trades" such as perfume-making and needlework, and there were mean occupations such as "ass drivers, wagoners, shepherds, and shopkeepers," the trade of butchery being regarded as of an especially mean character. People were enjoined to choose the former and avoid the latter. Similarly, trades which brought men into undesirable contact with women, such as jewelers, carders of wool, barbers, launderers, and bath attendants, should be avoided (Kid. 82a–b).

The dignity of labor was stressed: "Those engaged in work are not required to stand before a scholar while they are engaged in their tasks" (Kid. 33a), and it was emphasized that laborers also are "the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (bm 7:1).

Nevertheless, this view of the supreme importance of labor per se is diminished by the consideration that the highest ideal is to be free from all worldly occupation in order to be able to devote oneself entirely to spiritual pursuits, to the study of Torah, or generally, "in order to serve one's Maker." According to this view, labor is a punishment inflicted upon man: "Simeon b. Eleazar said, 'Hast thou ever seen a wild animal or bird practicing a craft? Yet they find their sustenance without trouble, though they were created only to serve me. But I was created to serve my Maker; how much more so should I receive my sustenance without trouble? But I have wrought evil and so forfeited my right'" (Kid. 4:14). This view is emphasized by Simeon b. Yoḥai: "If a man has to plow in the plowing season, sow in the sowing season, reap… thresh… and winnow, what will become of the Torah? But when Israel fulfills the will of the Omnipresent their work is done for them by others and when they do not fulfill the will of the Omnipresent not only have they to carry out their work themselves, but they have to do the work of others" (Ber. 35b; cf. arn1 11:44). Its highest expression is in the statement of Nehorai: "I would ignore all the crafts in the world and teach my son only Torah," since unlike manual toil it guards him both in old age and sickness and in the world to come (Kid. 4:14).

The compromise between these two extreme views is found in the ideal which was followed by most of the rabbis, in the combination of study with a worldly occupation. It is stated by Ishmael in explicit contradiction to the above-mentioned view of Simeon b. Yoḥai, and the maxim of Rabban Gamaliel in Avot (2:2) is "excellent is the study of the Torah combined with a worldly occupation for the toil involved in both makes sin to be forgotten. All study of the Torah without work is futile and is the cause of sin." This ideal is especially advocated by *Meir, who, however, in addition to his many maxims extolling the value of manual labor urges that one should diminish one's worldly occupation as far as possible in order to be free for the study of the Torah (Avot 4:10). "The former generations made study their main concern and their work subsidiary to it, and they prospered in both; the later generations did the opposite and prospered in neither" (Ber. 35b).

Laborers and Employers

As mentioned, the dignity of labor and concern for the rights of laborers is emphasized. The biblical injunction to pay the laborer in time (Lev. 19:13) is expanded to the effect that "he who withholds an employee's wages is as though he had taken his life" (bm 112a), and in disputes between employees and workers the rights of the latter were given preference over those of the former (bm 77a). Especially significant is the rule laid down that the laborer has the right to withdraw his labor at any time, as an expression of his freedom from servitude to his fellowman (bk 116b; bm 10a). The extent to which the employer was liable for the laborer's food (bm 7:1) and the prerequisites to which the laborer was entitled are carefully laid down (bk 119a–b).

A constant anxiety is nevertheless expressed at the tendency toward idleness and the exploitation of their employers on the part of laborers. "The laborers are sluggish," stated by Tarfon metaphorically about the service of God (Avot 2:15), seems to reflect actual conditions. "A laborer usually works faithfully for the first two or three hours of the day only, after which he becomes lazy" (Gen. R. 70:20). "He who has been left a large fortune by his father and wishes to squander it, let him hire workers and not work together with them" (bm 29b). The law that a laborer could recite the *Shema while on a tree or on the scaffolding of a building (Ber. 2:4) or curtail the Grace After Meals (Ber. 46a) was designed not in the laborer's interests but in that of his employer's time. For reciting the *Amidah, however, which is prayer proper, they had to descend to the ground. It was regarded as praiseworthy to follow a hereditary trade (Ar. 16b).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

Later Rabbinic Writings and Modern Trends

Manual labor and social justice were often stressed in rabbinic writings. Labor was considered a blessing in itself, and it was held that the Bible required the state to concern itself with its citizens during unemployment, old age, and illness. These benefits were to be granted as a matter of legal right and in a manner which was not offensive to the recipients' sense of dignity (Simon Federbush, The Jewish Concept of Labor (1956), 50–51; Z. Warhaftig (ed.), Osef Piskei Din Rabbaniyyim, 45). The workers' right to organize into unions was upheld by the rabbis, and it was viewed as an extension of the dictum that "townspeople may inflict penalties for breach of their regulations" (bb 8b; Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook cited in Katriel Tchorsh, Keter Efrayim (1967), 160–171; cf. Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe: Ḥoshen Mishpat, 108–9). The workers' right to strike was justified (Shillem Warhaftig, bibl., 982, 984; Iggerot Moshe, 110–111), although one opinion would not permit work-stoppages in the disputes of workers engaged in providing health services, electricity, and education (Keter Efrayim, 171). Another viewpoint was that all strikes were only permitted if the employers refused the workers' request to arbitrate their differences (Raphael Katzenellenbogen, Ha-Ma'yan (Tishrei 1965), 9–14).

Labor Ideology in Europe

In modern times, from the *Haskalah period in the 19th century, the alienation of the Jews in the galut from manual labor, particularly from agricultural production, was increasingly regarded as the root of evil in the "Jewish problem," while "Jewish parasitism" became a key word in modern antisemitism. The famous Yiddish term "luftmenshen," i.e., people who willy-nilly make a living from all kinds of petty, superfluous, mediating occupations, instead of useful work, emerged in the peculiar atmosphere of the Russian *Pale of Settlement, which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a kind of huge "reservation" consisting of a network of towns and townlets in which masses of Jews were compelled to live "on air." The reaction in Jewish society to this condition took many social and political forms, including the mass emigration from Russia to the West (see below) and the yearning for a "return to the soil," particularly in Ereẓ Israel. There were also attempts at "productivization" in Russia itself, as, e.g., in the Jewish agricultural settlements in southern Russia, the fostering of *crafts and artisanship among Jewish youth, etc. Most of these trends were linked to elaborate ideologies, which, according to their originator's basic concepts, were either religious (as, e.g., Shemuel Ḥayyim *Landau, the founder of Ha-Po'el ha-Mizrachi, and his followers), or socialist (see *Socialism, Jewish; *Bund), or Zionist and Zionist-Socialist (*Bilu; Naḥman *Syrkin; Ber *Borochov). In the early stages of the pioneering movement in Ereẓ Israel, the ideology of labor was elevated to a basic philosophy of the reborn Jew rooted in the soil of his homeland (A.D. *Gordon; Second *Aliyah; *Israel, State of, Labor). This philosophy was largely instrumental in reversing in the Land of Israel the social structure of the "nonproductive" Jewish population in the European Diaspora. The ideology of productivization was also the motive force of endeavors of Jewish settlement on the land in *Argentina, *Brazil, and, in the 1930s, in Soviet *Birobidzhan.

In the United States

The mass East European emigration which began during the 1880s and continued through the 1920s brought great numbers of Jewish workers to the United States. Continuing their European socialist orientation, many of them became active in the American labor movement which began to develop during this period. They organized the United Garment Workers of America (1891); the women afterwards left this union and formed the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (1900); and the majority of the male clothing workers later parted with the original group and formed the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (1914). In 1888 several small Jewish labor organizations formed the United Hebrew Trades as their central body. This group later comprised a majority of the Jewish workers in the United States (see *Socialism, Jewish). The most prominent early Jewish trade unionist was Samuel *Gompers who helped establish the American Federation of Labor in 1886, and served as its president for 38 years. Rabbis early became active in labor mediation in the United States, serving on both general and Jewish mediation boards. The kehillah, the official community of New York Jewry (1908–22), formed a "committee on conciliation." Its members included Moses *Margolies and Philip *Klein of New York's Ohab Zedek Congregation. Among this committee's activities were the prevention of a threatened strike of poultry shoḥetim in 1909, and the arbitration of complaints of Sabbath-observing cloakmakers against their union (Arthur Goren, New York Jews and the Quest for Community, 1970, 198–9, 301). Morris *Adler of Detroit served as the chairman of the Public Review Board of the United Auto Workers (1957–66). The rapid deproletarization of American Jews in the second and particularly the third generation can be regarded as a corollary of both the technological revolution of Western civilization from the middle of the 20th century as well as of the general trend to the professions characteristic of Jewish society in all Diaspora countries, while a Jewish farming population and proletariat continued to exist almost solely in Israel.

[Baruch Yaron]


in the bible: S. Kalischer, in: Festschrift Hermann Cohens (1912), 579ff.; J. Husslein, Bible and Labor (1924); H.L. Ginsberg, in: vtSupplement, 3 (1955), 138ff.; I. Mendelsohn, in: basor, 143 (1956), 17ff.; L. Finkelstein, The Pharisees, 1 (1962), 219ff.; S. Talmon, in: basor, 176 (1964), 29ff. later rabbinic writings: Shillem Warhaftig, Dinei Avodah ba-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1969), 2 vols.; N. Shemen, Baziung zu Arbet un Arbeter (1963), 2 vols. add. bibliography: M. Powell (ed.), Labor in the Ancient Near East (1987).

views updated


Labor commonly refers to the work people do in the employ of others. In its history, labor in Russia has taken a wide variety of forms, from slavery to labor freely exchanged for wages, and the full gamut of possibilities between those extremes. The fates of both peasants and workers have been tightly bound together through most of Russian history.

from kiev through peter i

While slavery was common through the reign of Peter I, perhaps accounting for 10 percent of the population around 1600, it was never the dominant factor in the economy. In Kievan Rus, labor was generally free in both the vibrant cities and the countryside. Although information is scarce, manufacturing throughout the Kievan and Muscovite periods seems to have been generally on a small-scale, artisanal basis; for a variety of reasons a European-style guild system never developed. The free-hire basis of labor only began to become seriously restricted with the centralization of the Muscovite state. The slow but steady imposition of serfdom on peasants was matched by a similar reduction in the urban population's mobility. Both peasants and city dwellers were permanently tied to their locations by the Law Code of 1649. Constraints on movement became even more severe when Peter I instituted the poll tax as a communal obligation, firmly binding all nonnobles to their communal organization, whether rural or urban.

Before 1700, urban manufacture was artisanal, carried out in very small enterprises, which makes it difficult to speak of an urban working class. Large-scale manufacturing began in the countryside, close to natural resources, either on noble-owned land, with nobles utilizing their own peasants, or on land granted by the government for specifically industrial purposes. In the latter case, although labor was hired at times, the work force was more usually peasants who had been assigned either temporarily or permanently to that particular enterprise. The binding of the entire population to specific locations after 1649 made freely hirable labor difficult to find. This problem was exacerbated after Peter the Great began large-scale industrialization, most notably in the Urals metallurgical complex.

from peter to the great reforms

During the course of the 1700s, however, the role of hired labor became more important, as the increasing importance of money in the economy made industrial labor an attractive option for both cash-starved serf owners and peasant households. This was true especially in northern Russia, where the soil was less fertile, the growing season shorter, and agriculture less viable. These regions would also experience a new kind of industrial growth, as peasant entrepreneurs, under the protection of financially interested owners, slowly exploited local craft traditions and began to build industries using hired labor. The two Sheremetev-owned villages of Ivanovo and Pavlovo are examples of this trend, becoming major textile and metalworking centers, respectively.

The first decades of the nineteenth century witnessed an increased acceleration in the factory and mining workforce, from 224,882 in 1804 to 860,000 in 1860. Although less than 10 percent of workers in 1770 were hired as opposed to assigned, by 1860 well over half were hired. Not all of this labor was free, however, since it included hiring contracts forced upon peasants by serf owners or even village communes. In addition, hired labor was concentrated in the greatest growth industry of the period, textiles, especially in the central provinces of Moscow and Vladimir. Forced labor still comprised the great majority of the metallurgical and mining work forces on the eve of the Great Reforms.

peasant or proletarian?

Although peasants remained tied to their commune as a result of the emancipation of the serfs, this hindered the labor market as little as serfdom had. By 1900, 1.9 million Russians worked in factories and mines; by 1917, 3.6 million did so. In addition, the total number of those earning any kind of wage, either full or part time, increased from 4 million to 20 million between 1860 and 1917. The bulk of this increase in the factory and mining work force came from the peasantry. For a century, historians have debated whether the Russian industrial worker was more a peasant or a proletarian, an argument rendered more acute by the coming to power in 1917 of a regime claiming to rule in the name of the proletariat. This argument has never been satisfactorily resolved. Most industrial peasants remained juridical peasants, with financial obligations to the village commune. More than that, they usually identified themselves as peasants. A few historians have claimed that with an unceasing influx of peasants into the work force, the Russian working class was simply the part of the peasantry who worked in factories, and some see the Bolshevik Revolution as the successful manipulation by intellectuals of naïve peasant-workers. Others, on the other hand, have carefully traced the development of a hereditary work force, as the children of migrants themselves went to work in the factories, lost their ties to the countryside, and came to identify themselves not as peasants, but as workers. The archetype of this is the iconic St. Petersburg skilled metalworker, a second or third-generation worker, literate, born and raised in the city, with a sophisticated understanding of political matters and consciously supporting a socialist path in the recasting of Russian society. The truth is certainly somewhere between these poles, but there is no consensus on where. Certainly through the 1930s most of the industrial workforce consisted of first-generation workers. However, on the eve of the revolution, possibly a third of workers were hereditary.

What it meant to be a hereditary worker is not clear. Many workers grew up in the countryside, worked in a factory for several years, then returned to the village to take over the family plot. Their children grew up in the village, might themselves die in the village, would work in factories for a decade or so, and could thus be considered both peasants and hereditary workers. In addition, well over half of Russia's factory workers labored in mills located in the countryside. Thus, although they worked in a factory, they were still in and of the village.

labor in revolutionary russia

Regardless of whether they were peasant or proletarian, there was a continually increasing quantity of factory workers, who constituted growing proportions of the two rapidly expanding capitals, St. Petersburg and Moscow, where workers would play a political role beyond their numerical weight in the general population. Throughout the imperial period, working conditions were horrible, with seventy-hour work-weeks and little concern for worker health.

Although strikes remained illegal through most of the imperial period, they are recorded as early as the 1600s. However, the size of the industrial sector was not large enough to produce strikes of major concern to the state until the 1880s, with larger strike waves occurring in the mid-1890s and

the first years of the twentieth century. Socialist activists began large-scale efforts to organize the industrial labor force in the 1890s, and many historians have seen the steady fall in violence and increase in political demands during strikes as the result of politically motivated organizers. Whether workers were more led by the political parties, or rather utilized the parties' organizational capabilities for their own ends, remains a debatable issue.

Independent labor unions have never played a large role in Russia, in part because they were illegal until 1905. The state attempted to organize some unions before 1905 to counteract the influence of the socialists. This backfired in January 1905, when one of these officially sanctioned worker organizations led protests that were repressed by the state in the massacre known as Bloody Sunday. During the subsequent year of revolution, workers played a visible role. Their participation in a general strike in the fall led directly to the October Manifesto. In 1917, industrial workers, especially in Petrograd, help set the tone for the revolution. This was especially apparent in their support of the soviets as an institution and, eventually for the Bolsheviks, who not only advocated soviet power, but also spoke out for the workers' favorite parochial concern: worker control of the factories.

the soviet period and beyond

During the Civil War, however, working class influence weakened significantly. The regime banned strikes, and natural worker leaders were co-opted into the party and state bureaucracies and the military. Furthermore, economic collapse caused most workers with peasant ties to flee the starving cities. General strikes in Moscow and Petrograd in early 1921 helped usher in the New Economic Policy (NEP), although the NEP would produce its own labor discontent. Workers resented that prewar technical elites retained supervisory roles and the state's attempts to increase worker productivity. There was chronic underemployment and peasant competition for jobs.

This discontent provided much popular support for the radical measures of the First Five-Year Plan, which in turn brought millions more peasants into new factories. The chaos of the early 1930s led to the imposition of very strict labor laws, removing strikes as a viable weapon for labor until the late 1980s. The stabilization of the planned economy produced the first unmistakably hereditary working class in Russian history, as migration from the countryside slowed significantly and educational policies restricted social mobility. This was also a very docile period in labor relations, with very few strikes or viable protests. One major wave of labor discontent did occur from 1962 to 1964, which helped bring down Nikita Khrushchev when he tried to attack the status quo with price hikes and demands for increased productivity. Workers were guaranteed a job, were rarely fired, and were seldom threatened with demands for greater productivity, while being granted a lifestyle that could be considered comfortable by historical standards. As a popular epigram expressed it, "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." This situation changed in the Mikhail Gorbachev era. The massive dislocations that accompanied the shift from a planned to free market economy at first produced massive strikes, followed by sullen quiescence, as those who still had jobs did not feel secure enough to strike. Labor discontent in the 1990s manifested itself primarily in a steady sizable vote for the Communist Party. Political and economic stability in the early twenty-first century led to normalization of labor markets and more consistent payment of wages than after the shock therapy of the early 1990s.

See also: five-year plans; new economic policy; peasantry; serfdom; slavery


Chase, William J. (1987). Workers, Society, and the Soviet State: Labor and Life in Moscow, 19181929. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Ekonomakis, Evel G. (1998). From Peasant to Petersburger. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Filtzer, Donald. (1992). Soviet Workers and De-Stalinization: The Consolidation of the Modern System of Soviet Production Relations, 19531964. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Haimson, Leopold. (19641965). "The Problem of Social Stability in Urban Russia, 19051914." Slavic Review 23:619642, 24:122.

Johnson, Robert Eugene. (1979). Peasant and Proletarian: The Working Class of Moscow in the Late Nineteenth Century. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kuromiya, Hiroaki. (1988). Stalin's Industrial Revolution: Politics and Workers, 19281932. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McDaniel, Tim. (1988). Autocracy, Capitalism, and Revolution in Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zelnik, Reginald E. (1968). "The Peasant and the Factory." In The Peasant in Nineteenth-Century Russia, ed. Wayne S. Vucinich. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Zelnik, Reginald E. (1971). Labor and Society in Tsarist Russia. The Factory Workers of St. Petersburg, 18551870. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

David Pretty

views updated



Keen Observation. In 1657 one traveler in the New World wrote, The lland is divided into three sorts of men; Masters, Servants, and slaves. The slaves and their posterity, being subject to their Masters for ever, are kept and preservd with greater care then the servants, who are theirs but for five years, according to the law of the Hand.

Indentured Labor. An indenture contract obligated an immigrant to an agreed term of labor, usually for a period of four to seven years, in return for payment for passage across the Atlantic. Indentured servants received shelter, food, clothing, and a Sunday free of hard labor. Upon completion of the contract, bound servants typically received a suit of clothing or dress with some additional assets. An asset might have been land in seventeenth-century Chesapeake or South Carolina. Often the freedom dues were distinguished by gender. A man would receive a horse, a gun, or tools, and a woman would receive a cow or spinning wheel. The high mortality rate in the Chesapeake meant that approximately 40 percent of the indentured servants died before they could reap the final benefits of their contract. Rural Pennsylvania farmers and Chesapeake planters relied the most on indentured labor to plant and harvest their crops. Three-quarters of the English migrants to the Chesapeake arrived as bound labor. It is estimated that one-half to two-thirds of the Europeans who traveled to British America were committed to some form of labor contract for their transatlantic passage. As many as fifty thousand convicts served out sentences of seven to fourteen years as indentured servants. Those servants who did not work on farms worked for bakers, blacksmiths, bricklayers, butchers, chairmakers, coopers, masons, plasterers, potters, tailors, weavers, or wheelwrights. In the seventeenth century indentured servants could capitalize on economic opportunities and advance in an upwardly mobile society. But the road to that success was not easy. Abusive conditions and harsh punishments plagued the lives of many servants. Contracts could be sold, obligating the servant to a different master for the rest of the term. A master could extend the contract if a servant ran away or became pregnant. By the eighteenth century opportunities for social and economic advancement decreased. As the urgency to escape England declined, so too did the willingness of people to commit

themselves to long contracts. Pennsylvania farmers turned to day laborers, and Chesapeake planters shifted to African slaves.

Ready to Work. Redemptioners were similar to indentured servants in that they agreed to work for a specific period in return for transatlantic passage. The difference was that they arranged a contract once they arrived in the British colonies rather than agreeing to terms for labor in England or Europe before beginning the trip. These bound laborers could not leave the ships until they found a colonist willing to pay for their voyage in return for labor. Whereas the indentured servants tended to be unmarried men and women from England, redemptioners were usually families from Germany. In some cases an entire family would commit to a labor contract. In other cases parents would obligate a child or children to a contract that would pay for the familys passage. These terms also were for from four to seven years.

Wage Labor. Wage laborers comprised the smallest group of workers in British America. In the seventeenth century they tended to be young men and women who were not yet married. Some wage laborers were former indentured servants who had completed a contract but were not yet self-sufficient. They were rare in the countryside because wages were high and land was cheap, so it did not take long to convert wages to land. Also, rural farmers tended to rely on family labor rather than pay wages to day laborers. As land became more scarce in the eighteenth century, the number of wage laborers in rural America increased. Such free, hired laborers were more common in urban centers, where the demand was higher and where more money was required to establish oneself.

For these workers wage labor was likely a lifelong condition. In 1762 a laborer would have needed fifty pounds a year for food, rent, fuel, and clothing for his family. That amount did not cover the additional expenses of soap, candles, taxes, or medical expenses. Even if he worked six days a week all year, which was unlikely due to seasonal demands and business cycles, a wage laborer could hope to bring home an annual wage of only sixty pounds. With the additional wages of a wife, who probably earned half of what he did, the wage earner faced an endless reality of bare subsistence. Injury or pregnancy could doom the family to dependence on the community.

Slaves. By 1750 slaves lived in all thirteen colonies, but their numbers were greatest in the Southern colonies where substantial staple exports required a large labor force. Slaves first arrived in Virginia in 1619 when a Dutch trader exchanged twenty slaves for provisions. Because slaves were wore expensive than indentured servants and bound labor was readily abundant, Chesapeake planters preferred short-term contracts with English servants. The transition to enslaved labor occurred in the Chesapeake at the beginning of the eighteenth century for a variety of reasons. Africans were less affected by the virulent diseases that killed whites. Living longer and better able to withstand the climate, Africans became a more profitable investment for white planters. The fact that the purchase price could mean a lifetime of servitude without the required freedom dues further influenced planters to develop a labor system based on enslaved labor. As the prices of the two groups of workers converged, planters recognized the profitability of shifting to enslaved labor. In 1670 a slave cost three times as much as an indentured servant. Twenty years later slaves were less than twice as expensive and were purchased for a lifetime rather than seven years. By 1660 the decreased availability of indentured servants increased the demand for enslaved Africans. By 1690 slaves outnumbered indentured servants in the Chesapeake. Slaves accompanied the first Barbadian settlers to South Carolina in 1670. The West Indians promoted the benefits of enslaved labor for the production of staple crops. Once rice was determined to be a profitable staple crop, the demand for enslaved Africans increased dramatically. By 1703 a majority of the labor force in South Carolina consisted of slaves. Enslaved blacks and Indians made up 47 percent of the entire population of South Carolina. Slaves in the Southern colonies typically worked in the fields although some worked as domestics or artisans. Subsistence agriculture in Northern colonies depended on family labor, so the need for large-scale enslaved labor never developed. Slaves in the Northern colonies more frequently worked as domestic servants and craft workers and less often on farms.

Frenchmen and Spaniards. West and north of British America, French and Spanish laborers pursued other endeavors. Because of their need to protect their empire and their intention to spread Catholicism, Spaniards split into two groups: military and religious. Ranging through the southwest to the western coast of North America, soldiers and officers built forts while priests and monks spread theology. Their interaction with the native inhabitants included organizing them into labor forces and imposing Catholicism. The French, who explored the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, were as intent on spreading Catholicism but less preoccupied with military security. Jesuit missionaries traveled the same routes as coureurs de bois who found prosperity in fur trapping. French interaction with native inhabitants was based on commercial interests. Missionaries offered Catholicism as a complement to traditional religions rather than a replacement.


From 1703 to 1727 Mrs. Elizabeth Buretel, a French Huguenot widow from Charleston, South Carolina, lent money to 110 South Carolina settlers for the purchase of land and slaves. Because there were no banks, people who needed to borrow money turned to neighbors in the community who had capital to invest. Mrs. Buretel was inclined to lend money to other French immigrants in the South Carolina Low Country. Most of the bonds had terms of one year. Like other investors Mrs. Buretel let people leave their loans out longer if they agreed to pay her annual interest. Almost two-thirds of the bonds she held in 1727 were older than five years. It appears that she developed a strategy to ensure a form of annuities over a twenty-year period. Her investments increased in number over the years, which suggests her growing confidence and ability as a capital investor. Elizabeth Buretel was not the only woman to participate in the capital market of South Carolina, but it seems she was the most active female investor at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In a society where women had limited options to earn money, investments were a welcome source of income.

Source: Nancy Woloch, Women and the American Experience, second edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994).


David Galenson, White Servitude in Colonial American: An Economic Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981);

Carol Groneman and Mary Beth Norton, eds., To Toil the Livelong Day: Americas Women at Work, 17801980 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987);

Stephen Innes, ed., Work and Labor in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988);

Alice Kessler-Harris, Women Have Always Worked: A Historical Overview (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1981);

Sung Bok Kim, Landlord and Tenant in Colonial New York: Manorial Society, 16641775 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978);

Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 16191877 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1995).

views updated



Economic Regulation. English society was heavily regulated by law. While the colonies created much simpler legal systems than had existed in the mother country, they brought with them expansive English notions about what could and should be regulated by law, such as prices and labor. In early America price-gouging was punishable by the courts; if a jury decided that an artisans prices or workmanship had violated local community standards, fines or punishment could follow.

Guild System. In similar fashion laborers found themselves regulated by social expectations. Skilled laborers in Europe had long maintained monopolistic control over admittance to their trades through a system of guilds. This system came under legal fire by the early 1700s from people advocating freer trade. English law generally frowned upon efforts of either workers or masters to combine to artificially raise or lower prices, and this was true in the colonies as well. Craft guilds developed in places like Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and New York. Carpenters guilds in Philadelphia published price scales. The Moravian communities in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina combined craftsmen into what amounted to a general guild, though in the Brotherly Agreement of 1754 they stated that they joined not for wage gain but for spiritual reasons. Craft guilds attempted to maintain the exclusive right to practice their trades by defining precisely the individual trades and prohibiting working in more than one area. Such efforts, however, met with only limited success.

Licensed Workers. Some trades were licensed and regulated by local authorities in the public interest. Dutch and then English New York limited the numbers of porters working in weigh houses and beer houses. Coopers (barrel makers), butchers, and bakers likewise had to be licensed by the colonial government. New York bakers went on strike in the 1600s and also in 1741 over high wheat prices; the latter strike resulted in indictments but no convictions.

Bound Servants. If skilled workers in Northern colonies were successful for a time in combining with one another, bound servants were not. The most common form of servitude initially was indentured servitude, by which one person contracted to serve another for a specified period of years. The indenture was usually made in return for food, shelter, and transportation to America. Most laborers in the Chesapeake area in the 1600s were white indentured servants. In 1670, 43 percent of Virginias House of Burgesses were former indentured servants. Masters began preferring slaves to indentured servants in the late 1600s, by which time slaves were seen as a better investment and easier to control. Yet indentured servitude lasted throughout the colonial era. Insurrections of indentured servants in Maryland and Virginia in the 1650s and 1670s resulted in statutes restricting their movements as well as their ability to meet in groups. Although legally and socially of a higher level than slaves, indentured servants nonetheless were seen as potentially dangerous should they band together. This attitude reflected English and American prejudices against poor, unskilled workers.


Year(s) Colony Cause
Source: Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 301-302.
1654-1655R.I.Political factionalism
1663-1750R.I.Boundary dispute
1663-1750Conn.Boundary dispute
1663-1750Mass.Boundary dispute
1682Va.Tobacco cutters
1699-1700N.J.Land claims
1703S.C.Political factionalism
1703-1710N.Y.Religious differences
1704Pa.Young gentry
1710Mass.Food prices
1711N.Y.Religious differences
1711N.Y.Naval press gangs
1713Mass.Food prices
1718N.Y.-Conn.Boundary dispute
1718N.C.Seizure of official records
1719-1764N.Y.-N.J.Boundary dispute
1719R.I.Customs duties
1721-1737Pa.-Md.Boundary dispute
1724Conn.Court seizure of a ship
1734N.H.Production of ship masts
1737Mass.Market prices
1738Pa.Construction of fish dams
1745-1754N.J.Land claims
1747Mass.Naval press gangs
1751-1757N.Y.Rent prices
1751-1757N.Y.-Mass.Boundary dispute
1754N.H.Surveyors of woods


Richard B. Morris, Government and Labor in Early America (New York: Harper & Row, 1946).

views updated

labour Birth is a remarkable and explosive event that occurs usually between 35 and 39 weeks after conception (37–41 after the mother's last menstrual period). It is typified by painful contractions of the uterus (womb), progressive dilation of the cervix (the lowermost part of the uterus), and descent of the presenting part of the baby through the mother's birth canal (uterus and vagina). There are three stages of labour. The first lasts until full dilation of the cervix, the second until birth of the baby, and the third ends with delivery of the placenta.

The processes that initiate normal physiological labour in humans are poorly understood. The sheep has provided the most useful experimental animal model for the study of the fetus and has provided many important insights into human pregnancy. In the sheep, labour is initiated by the fetus, which starts the process by producing a surge of corticosteroid hormones from its adrenal glands. This results in a change in the balance of steroid sex hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) in the ewe which, in turn, encourages the production of prostaglandins in the membranes attached to the placenta. Prostaglandins (so called because they were first discovered in prostate glands in men) stimulate contractions of the uterus, thus initiating labour. It is an attractive concept that the baby should orchestrate the timing of labour and birth when it has reached sufficient maturity to be ready for life outside the uterus. The process is not, however, so clear-cut in humans, although prostaglandins do seem to be important. In many women, changes take place over days or weeks before labour proper starts, including some opening of the cervix and increasing Braxton Hicks contractions (non-painful, non-regular ‘hardening’ of the uterus), which are named after the nineteenth-century London obstetrician who first described them.

The first sign of labour is usually that uterine contractions become increasingly painful or frequent, although labour may sometimes start with rupture of the placental membranes and release of the amniotic fluid that surrounds the baby throughout pregnancy. In later labour, the contractions occur every two or three minutes. With each contraction, the blood supply to the placenta is cut off, stopping the supply of oxygen to the baby. Well-grown babies have more than sufficient reserves to deal with this potential stress, but poorly-grown babies with low metabolic reserves may become rapidly and seriously distressed. It is, therefore, important to monitor the heart rate of the baby during labour to check for distress. This may be done by listening through the fetal stethoscope (named after the French obstetrician, Adolphe Pinard), or by electronic methods — although the simplest and oldest method was to place the ear directly on the abdomen.

As the contractions pull against the cervix, already softened by the effect of prostaglandins, it dilates. Once it is completely open, the presenting part of the baby is propelled downwards by the contractions, deeper into the mother's pelvis. In 96% of babies at term (after 37 weeks), the presenting part is the head; in 3% it is the rump (breech). As the head reaches the funnel-shaped muscles of her pelvic floor, the mother feels an urge to push, and her efforts add to the impact of the contractions. The head rotates and emerges through the lower end of the vagina, to be followed by the rest of the baby.

Sometimes it proves necessary to deliver the baby by Caesarean section during labour, notably because of signs of distress in the baby or a failure to make progress — either because the baby's head is too large for the mother's pelvis, or because the uterine contractions prove inadequate. When such problems occur during the second stage of labour, birth can be hastened by application of obstetric forceps or the vacuum extractor. Forceps were first constructed and used by the Chamberlens, a Huguenot family who fled to England during the sixteenth century. By discreet use of the instruments under sheets they kept their secret hidden for decades. The first practical vacuum extractor was made by the nineteenth-century Scottish obstetrician, James Young Simpson; further refinements occurred during the twentieth century.

Simpson's other contribution to the care of women in labour was of still greater significance. At a famous dinner party in Edinburgh in 1847 he proved to himself (and to his accommodating guests) the pain-relieving power of chloroform. His advocacy of chloroform as an analgesic during labour met vigorous opposition, backed by citation of the Bible, for God had reportedly said to Eve, after she ate the forbidden fruit:
I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth. In pain you shall bring forth children (Genesis 2: 16).Public opinion in Britain was changed by Queen Victoria's use of chloroform during one of her many labours; the acceptance of pain-relieving measures as legitimate was thereby ensured. Labour is a painful experience for most women and options that are available nowadays include opiate drugs, inhalation of nitrous oxide gas, transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS), and epidural anaesthesia. A hot bath helps with many types of pain and has become popular during labour; indeed some women now like to give birth in water. However, access to any such facilities is denied to very many women world-wide, many of whom do not have the availability of even very basic clinical care. The consequences are dramatically and tragically illustrated in the developing world where, in rural areas far from clinical facilities, women may labour for days. In these communities, adolescent girls are especially at risk of obstructed labour because the pelvis is both incompletely grown and also often stunted because of chronic undernutrition. Prolonged obstructed labour typically results in death of the baby, and often in death of the mother from infection or, if she survives, in vesico–vaginal fistula — a channel between bladder and vagina that causes chronic incontinence of urine, social ostracism, and great misery. The ability to transform the lives of these young women by successful surgery has been demonstrated by the famous fistula hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. However, prevention is, as always, better than cure, and the ‘partogram’, a graphical representation of the progress of labour developed by Professor Hugh Philpott in Zimbabwe, gives early warning of obstructed labour and is now widely used throughout the world. Women who have had babies previously suffer a different consequence of neglected obstructed labour: rupture of the uterus, with severe internal haemorrhage and high risk of death.

The challenge for obstetricians and midwives providing care for women in labour in more affluent settings is to ensure safety for mother and baby whilst avoiding meddlesome and unnecessary clinical interventions and allowing the women free choice of possible options which would include, for example, her favoured position at birth, or delivery at home. High rates of Caesarean section, induction of labour, and continuous electronic fetal heart monitoring suggest, to some, that the balance is not yet right.

Jim Neilson

See also birth; development and growth: infancy; pregnancy.