Workers in the Industrial Age

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Editors: Sonia G. Benson , Jennifer York Stock , and Carol Brennan
Date: 2006
Development of the Industrial U.S. Reference Library
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 16
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1160L

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Workers in the Industrial Age

During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the majority of Americans became wage earners, people who worked for someone other than themselves. This was a first in U.S. history, as self-employed farmers had previously made up the majority of the population. Unlike farmers, industrial workers labored under the complete control of their employer. Though their grueling efforts led to great profits for the manufacturing companies, this rarely resulted in pay increases or lighter loads for the workers. In fact, keeping workers' wages as low as possible and their production high were key to the profitability of the industries. Workers were extremely vulnerable to their employers' demands because the nineteenth-century workplace was not regulated by the government. Many laborers were forced to work long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Benefits, such as health insurance or retirement plans, were almost unheard of, and the wages of many industrial workers were so low that they were forced to live in poverty. The prosperity of the golden age of industrialism did not extend to a large portion of its workers.

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A young girl operates a spinning machine.

A young girl operates a spinning machine. (© Bettman/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)

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The workforce hierarchy

Industry created a tremendous demand for labor. In 1865 there were around 1.3 million people working in manufacturing companies. By 1900 that number had increased to 4.5 million and ten years later it was estimated at about 8 million. Many workers migrated to the industrial towns from the farm-lands of the nation, but even more were emigrating from other countries in Europe and Asia.

Industrial work varied in aspects such as the sizes of the factories or mills and the types of work that laborers performed. However, there were often many similarities. For instance, machines tended by human operators did most of the work. Processes were divided so that each worker performed only one small part of the whole and therefore required little training. Professional managers supervised the work. In most large manufacturing companies, the owners were investors who were not present at the work sites. A board of directors was appointed to determine company policy and hire the management.

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Words to Know

compulsory attendance:
Mandatory obligation to go to school.
labor union:
An organization of workers formed to protect and further their mutual interests by bargaining as a group with their employers over wages, working conditions, and benefits.
An economic doctrine that opposes government regulation of commerce and industry beyond the minimum necessary.
mass production:
The manufacture of goods in quantity by using machines and standardized designs and parts.
A factory in which workers work long hours in poor conditions for very low wages.
Urban dwellings rented by impoverished families that barely meet or fail to meet the minimum standards of safety, sanitation, and comfort.
Air circulation or access to fresh air.

Not all workers were treated alike. Skilled craftsmen—the machine builders, carpenters, glassblowers, and others—made significantly more money than their unskilled counterparts, and many lived in relative comfort. Skilled laborers were Page 120  |  Top of Articlegenerally white males of English, Scottish, Irish, German, or Scandinavian descent—the first wave of immigrants from western Europe called "old immigrants." Eventually, the principles of mass production (manufacturing goods in quantity by using machines and standardized designs and parts) transformed the jobs of many of the skilled craftsmen, replacing them with more repetitive, unskilled tasks.

Unskilled labor was performed by those willing to take the lowest wages: women, children, and the "new immigrants" from southern and eastern Europe and Asia. "New immigrants" were those who had come from Italy, Greece, Poland, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans, and Russia in the 1890s. While the pay rate for skilled labor was usually enough to live on, the rate for unskilled labor was often well under the poverty level. Men earned 75 percent more than women and 250 percent more than children for doing the same work.

Factory conditions

People who were new to industrial labor found the discipline of factory work to be very different from other types of work. The job was often monotonous because laborers performed one task over and over. It was also strictly regulated. The average workweek was about sixty hours, at ten hours a day and six days a week, but some worked far longer hours. For men and women from agricultural backgrounds these new conditions proved to be a challenge because farm work tended to be more flexible and offered a variety of tasks. Factory work was also foreign to skilled artisans, who had once handcrafted goods according to their own schedules.

Factory jobs were unsteady. Company profits rose and fell with the market. In bad times manufacturers tended to lay off (suspend or dismiss employees, usually due to lack of work) a significant portion of their unskilled labor. People barely making enough to scrape by suddenly found themselves without work. Families went hungry as they searched for a means of survival. It was common to see groups of homeless people traveling from town to town looking for work or handouts.

Without government regulation of business in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were no building codes or fire inspections. There was no limit on the number of Page 121  |  Top of Articlehours a person could be required to work. Child labor laws were nonexistent. More industrial accidents occurred in the United States than in any other industrial country. Employers were not under any obligation to compensate a family if a worker was hurt or killed on the job, and most companies did not offer help. By 1900 industrial accidents killed thirty-five thousand workers each year and disabled five hundred thousand others. Occasionally the general public became concerned with industrial accidents, especially when scores of workers were killed in a single widely reported incident, such as coal mine disasters or the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911, but the staggering number of deaths that occurred on a regular basis often escaped public notice (see section entitled "The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire" in this chapter).

Industrial workers received little support from their employers, the government, or other agencies. Arrangements for the care of orphaned, neglected, or delinquent children were inadequate or nonexistent. The death or desertion of the family wage earner, usually the male head of household, spelled tragedy for mothers without insurance, widows' benefits, or government support. Bereaved mothers who had to work outside the home were often forced to leave a child as young as eight or nine to care for even younger children.

Child labor

The number of children employed in factories rose steadily over the last three decades of the nineteenth century. By 1900 roughly 1.7 million children under the age of sixteen worked in factories; less than half that many children had been employed thirty years before. Large numbers of children labored in textile mills, mines, glass factories, and canneries. Factory managers preferred to hire children because they worked for the lowest wages. Other urban youths worked as newsboys, messengers, bootblacks, and peddlers. In rural settings they were likely to work on farms.

Many young lives were lost in industrial labor. Working children were often exposed to toxic substances. Some were poisoned when their bodies absorbed dyes in textile mills or phosphorus used in making matches. Others inhaled varnish used in furniture manufacturing or fumes from rubber making. Many suffered from lung diseases like bronchitis and Page 122  |  Top of Article
Some child laborers worked in canneries.

Some child laborers worked in canneries. (© Horact Bristol/Corbis.)
tuberculosis due to poor ventilation, or air circulation. Some children were shipped from state to state, following seasonal work in agriculture or canning. In southern cotton mills, children who operated looms (cloth-weaving devices) throughout the night had cold water thrown in their faces to keep them awake. Long working hours for children also meant that accidents were more likely to occur. Even in the best of conditions, working children were denied their right to an education. If they made it to adulthood, they had little alternative but to continue working in unskilled industrial work.

Child labor reform

During the period of the Industrial Revolution known as the Gilded Age (the era of industrialization from the early 1860s to the turn of the century in which a few wealthy individuals gained tremendous power and influence; see Chapter 5) the United States practiced a laissez-faire approach to the economy, following an economic doctrine that opposes government regulation of commerce and industry beyond the minimum necessary. Page 123  |  Top of ArticleBecause child labor became increasingly important to the industries that were advancing the wealth of the nation, people tended to ignore the suffering of working children. Some even went so far as to say it was good for these children, as it taught them their lot in life as part of the working class at an early age.

The earliest protests were voiced by workers' associations that opposed child labor because it kept wages low and compromised job security for adults. But others felt children should be defended and protected for their own sake. In 1842 the Massachusetts legislature passed a law that limited children under twelve to working no more than ten hours a day. Many other states passed legislation that restricted child labor, but the laws were difficult to enforce (with employers frequently hiding their child workers during inspections) and some state inspection agencies were lax about enforcing them. The number of children in the workplace continued to expand.

In 1893 reformers Florence Kelley (1859–1932) and Jane Addams (1860–1935) were instrumental in the passage of the Illinois Factory Act regulating hours and the minimum age for working children. Kelley also helped to establish free medical examination centers for some child laborers and recommended legislation related to controlling dangerous machinery in the workplace. The Illinois Supreme Court, however, adhering to laissez-faire policies and listening to the powerful Illinois business advocates, declared the Factory Act unconstitutional. Illinois did not pass an effective child labor law until 1903.

Interest in improving the legislation that affected children and the enforcement of these laws resulted in the formation in 1904 of the National Child Labor Committee. This committee investigated conditions in a number of states. In the end it was not effective because each state feared that adopting restrictive child-labor legislation could give other states a competitive advantage in recruiting industry. In 1907 a federal law against child labor was introduced to Congress, but it was defeated. In 1910 there were still an estimated two million children employed in industry.

In 1908 the National Child Labor Committee hired Lewis Hine (1874–1940), a teacher, to research child labor. Hine traveled around the country photographing children at work. When his pictures were published, the American public was horrified to see young boys and girls laboring in harsh Page 124  |  Top of Articleconditions in the factories and mines. Public outcry resulted in the establishment in 1912 of the Children's Bureau, an agency of the Department of Commerce and Labor. Its mandate was to investigate matters involving the welfare of children, including child labor. The Children's Bureau was led by social

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Public Education

Children who worked in the mills had little chance of a future outside industrial labor. Without a mandatory educational system in the country, there seemed little hope for breaking the cycle of poverty. Reformer Horace Mann (1796–1859), who was appointed secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837, championed the idea of a state-supervised and -supported public school system. He urged that each school offer the same curriculum and conduct classes over a continuous ten-month term. He also argued for carefully designed school buildings and state schools to train professional teachers. He sought to extend educational opportunities to farm families and the children of poor laborers in the growing manufacturing towns. One of Mann's more controversial proposals was mandatory full-time schooling for all children up to the age of sixteen.

In the Northeast the public was largely in favor of public schools and provided the necessary funding. Many farming families in the Midwest depended on their children's labor and preferred voluntary intermittent schooling that could coincide with agricultural work. Nevertheless, free public education was established in Indiana in 1852, Ohio in 1854, and Illinois in 1855, and other states soon followed. From 1861 to 1865 the Union (the North) and the Confederacy (the South) fought a civil war, in part over the issue of slavery, which the South favored and the North opposed. The South lost the war and all slaves were set free. While the war had a mostly positive effect on the economy of the North, stimulating manufacture of army supplies, the Southern economy declined. Crops and railroads had been destroyed during the war and major cities were in ruins. In the devastated post-Civil War South, public schools were established, but the funds to operate them were lacking. Only one pupil out of ten who enrolled in school reached the fifth grade and only one in seventy reached the eighth grade. In the late 1890s the economy improved, but the South still entered the twentieth century with public school systems far inferior to those in the rest of the United States.

Children in the workforce usually did not have the opportunity to attend school, and generally there was no tradition of education in their family background. In order to get children into the public school system, Massachusetts put a compulsory-attendance law (mandatory obligation to go to school) into effect in 1852. Over the next thirty years, sixteen more states enacted similar laws, but most were not well enforced, if enforced at all. By 1918 all states had compulsory-attendance laws.

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reformer Julia C. Lathrop (1858–1932), the first woman to head a federal agency. Progress remained slow, however. Effective federal legislation against child labor was not passed until 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Women workers

By 1920 women composed 23.6 percent of the labor force, and 8.3 million women over the age of fifteen worked outside the home. Women had been working in industry since the first textile factories opened early in the nineteenth century (see Chapter 4). Factory jobs had lured young women in earlier times with promises of independence and education, but by the 1850s few women had any illusions about working conditions in factories. Women who desperately needed money to feed themselves and their families, however, often had little choice but to accept the unsafe and exhausting work.

Women were attractive to employers because they could be paid less for doing the same jobs as men. In fact, women's wages were so far below men's that most women did not earn enough to live on. Some women were paid as little as $5 or $6 per week, while a man received more than $9 per week. Most female laborers performed unskilled or semi-skilled machine work, but some were employed in industries that demanded heavy labor. Some women, for instance, worked on railroads, while others were machinists. Male workers often tried to discourage females from working in mills and factories, fearing that because women would work for lower wages, it might bring down the general wage.

Employers who hired women thinking they were less likely to protest poor working conditions than men were sadly mistaken. Women voiced their complaints, particularly about long working hours, in many arenas. They were often not accepted by their male co-workers, however, which made their protests ineffective. Efforts to improve working conditions for women were consistently undermined by society's uncertain attitude about combining the roles of wife and mother with those of worker and professional. The Women's Bureau, a new federal agency approved by Congress in June 1920, was charged with reporting the conditions of women in industry and promoting the welfare of working women. The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) also fought to improve Page 126  |  Top of Articlewomen's labor conditions. Both the Women's Bureau and WTUL fought for shorter workdays, and by the early 1920s all but five states upheld the ten-hour day/fifty-hour weekwork schedule.

Immigrant labor

Between 1830 and 1880 about nine million people entered the United States, mainly coming from Ireland and Germany, but also from Great Britain and Scandinavia. Then, during the late 1880s, increasing numbers of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe began arriving. The new immigrants were overwhelmingly non-Protestant and few spoke English. Between 1880 and 1914 about twenty-five million people entered the United States.

Most left their countries of origin because they were poor and hoped to better their lives. They arrived in American cities with dreams of economic security and better living conditions for their children. Italians, who numbered almost five million between 1880 and 1930, were the largest group of new immigrants. Jews from Poland, Russia, and Romania constituted the second largest group. Large numbers of Slavs—such as Ukrainians, Poles, Croatians, Czechs, and Serbs—as well as Greeks and Portuguese also arrived.

The vast majority of the new immigrants settled in the big industrial cities and usually had to take the least desirable jobs available. Workers were frequently introduced to employers by relatives or friends from their homelands, and as a result certain ethnic groups dominated specific industries. For instance, Slavs worked in steel factories, meatpacking, and other heavy industries. Greeks opened small businesses selling fruit, flowers, ice cream, and food. Italians worked construction. Mexicans worked at agricultural jobs in the West. Many Jews settled in New York City, where large numbers of them entered the growing garment industry.

Many first-generation immigrants had very difficult lives in their new country. They lived in crowded, unsanitary tenements (urban dwellings for the poor), sometimes sleeping four or five people to a room. To help pay the rent, many families took in boarders, which made their apartments still more cramped. Many men and women, old and young, worked at home making paper flowers, wrapping cigars, or Page 127  |  Top of Articlesewing garments, laboring long hours in a crowded living space. Children worked alongside parents or grandparents at these jobs.


The term sweatshop is defined as a factory in which workers work long hours in poor conditions for very low wages. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the ready-made garment industries in New York City and Chicago operated mainly through sweatshops. Many were located in the employers' tenement apartments, which were packed with foot-operated sewing machines. Impoverished immigrant women and children, mainly Jewish and Italian, worked in the sweatshops for extremely low pay. Working long hours in poorly ventilated rooms, these women often fell victim to epidemics of smallpox and typhoid that swept through their crowded neighborhoods. Sweatshops became notorious for spreading these diseases to consumers on the garments they purchased.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a large sweatshop in New York City. Located in the top three stories of a ten-story building near Washington Square in Greenwich Village, the company had become highly successful making tailored blouses for the growing population of female clerical workers. Triangle employed one thousand workers, mostly recent Italian and Russian Jewish immigrants between sixteen and twenty-three years of age, with some girls even younger. They worked long hours for pennies a day, jammed elbow-to-elbow and back-to-back at rows of tables.

Like many makeshift factories of the time, Triangle was a firetrap. Scraps of the highly flammable fabric were scattered on the floor. Cutting machines were fueled by gasoline. Smoking was prohibited, but workers commonly ignored the rule while supervisors looked the other way. Water barrels with buckets for putting out fires were not filled regularly. There was one rotting fire hose, attached to a rusted valve. In general, conditions were ideal for a fire to break out and spread at any time. Escape in case of fire was difficult or impossible. The only interior exit from the Page 128  |  Top of Article
Firefighters try to put out the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Firefighters try to put out the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. (© Underwood and Underwood/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.)
workroom was down a hall so narrow that people had to walk single file. There were four elevators, but usually only one was functional. The stairway was as narrow as the hall. Of the two doors leading from the building, one was permanently locked from the outside by management in order to minimize the workers' breaks and to ensure no one stole lace or cloth from the factory. The other opened inward.

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, the offices below the factory were closed for the weekend. About half of the Triangle workforce, or five hundred people, were in the factory. No one knows how it started, but a fire broke out. The flames spread far too quickly to be stopped by the meager water supply in the barrels, and the fire hose did not work. In the stampede to get down the narrow passages and stairways to the doors, people were trampled. Some tried to break through the locked door. Others surged to the other door only to be crushed as they tried to pull it inward. As people crowded into the elevators, others tried to ride down on the tops of the cars, hanging onto the cables. Soon there were so many bodies in the shafts that the one functioning elevator could no longer be used. Those trapped in the workroom threw themselves out of the windows and fell to their deaths. Others tried to use the fire escape. Already too flimsy to hold much weight, it soon melted in the heat and twisted into wreckage.

When it was over, the death toll was 146: 133 women and 13 men. Many others were severely hurt. The company owners were indicted on charges of criminal negligence but were acquitted eight months later in a jury trial and only had to pay a small fine. They later received $65,000 in insurance payments for property damage.

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Though work-related deaths and accidents were commonplace, to date none had been so large and so appalling to the American public. Outrage fueled legislation on factory safety. The New York state legislature appointed investigative commissions to examine factories statewide, and thirty laws in New York City were enacted to enforce fire prevention measures. Significant labor reform for garment workers took longer to achieve.

At a memorial service held at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, Rose Schneiderman (1882–1972), an influential member of the WTUL and later its president, gave a scathing speech, calling on the crowd of workers, public officials, and interested citizens of all classes to join a working-class movement for reform. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers marched in tribute to those killed in the Triangle fire.

Coal mining

There were many other industrial jobs besides those in the factories or workshops. One such example was coal mining. As canals and railroads reached into Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio, substantial supplies of coal became available to the nation's expanding mills, forges, factories, and railways. The coal mines supplied American manufacturers and railroads with inexpensive fuel for steam power, and with plentiful supplies of domestic iron. Coal supplies were essential to famous industrialist Andrew Carnegie's (1835–1919) steel mills and later to electric power plants.

Miners dug deep into the earth to extract coal. By the 1860s some anthracite (hard) coal mines in northeastern Pennsylvania reached down as far as 1,500 feet. The miners worked in narrow shafts and tunnels supported by heavy wood beams. They performed physically exhausting labor with sledgehammers and pickaxes in damp, cramped, and airless spaces. They inhaled coal dust all day and many came down with a deadly lung disease called black lung. Many children were employed in the mines. Boys, some as young as nine or ten, were hired to separate rock from coal. Nicknamed "breaker boys," they crouched for ten- to fifteen-hour shifts picking slate from coal chutes, breathing clouds of coal dust. Many boys were required to transport Page 130  |  Top of Article
Breaker boys separating rock from coal.

Breaker boys separating rock from coal. (© Corbis.)
coal on their backs, leading to spinal problems and even paralysis. Accidents such as crushed hands and cut fingers were common. All too often boys were pulled into machinery and mangled to death.

Coal mining was unsafe as well as unhealthy. Deep in the mines, rocks fell and tunnels caved in. Because the mines reached so far underground, water accumulated in them and had to be pumped out. There was always a risk of flooding. Lack of air in the mines was also a problem. Early miners built furnaces in the depths of the mines to cause drafts that would ventilate them. Unfortunately, the furnaces could ignite terrible, deadly fires. In order to keep costs down, coal mine owners often sacrificed the safety of their workers. Tens of thousands of men and boys had died in mine accidents by the turn of the century.

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Avondale mining disaster

In 1869 sparks from the ventilating furnace of the Avondale coal mine in Pennsylvania started a fire within the mine. The fire spread to the shaft that served as the only exit from the mine. The fire soon roared aboveground, alerting the miners' families of trouble. They realized in horror that the men working below were trapped. The townspeople poured water into the mine for several hours before sending down rescuers, but it was apparent that there was no hope. At about 6:30 that evening, deep in the mine a room was discovered in which sixty-seven of the miners had gathered to try to escape the fire. They had died there together. Others who had perished were found throughout the mine. In all, 108 men and boys had suffocated. Had there been a second exit from the mines, it is possible that many would have survived. Though the Avondale mining disaster was the worst up to that point, many similar disasters would occur before the century ended.

Questioning laissez-faire policies

By the turn of the twentieth century, many workers, reformers, and much of the American public believed the government was too closely adhering to its laissez-faire policies. Men, women, and children were dying or trapped in miserable lives as large, impersonal companies tended to profits and productivity. The public would voice their dissatisfaction in many arenas in the first quarter of the twentieth century. First, though, the industrial workers would confront their oppressors through organized labor unions, or an association of employees that bargain with employers over the terms and conditions of employment.

For More Information


Cashman, Sean Dennis. America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York and London: New York University Press, 1984.

Cordery, Stacy A. "Women in Industrializing America." In The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America. Edited by Charles W. Calhoun. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1996.

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Smith, Page. The Rise of Industrial America: A People's History of the Post-Reconstruction Era. Vol. 6. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Summers, Mark Wahlgren. The Gilded Age, or, the Hazard of New Functions. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997.

Web Sites

"Child Labor in America, 1908–1912. Photographs of Lewis W. Hine." The History Place. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

"The Triangle Factory Fire." The Kheel Center, Catherwood Library, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3442000019