Gilded Age: Mass Migration, Curtesy of Industrialization, Economic Growth

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In the late nineteenth century, the United States was experiencing unprecedented economic growth, curtesy of industrialization. This led to a mass migration of labour, as Americans moved towards heavy industry in search of work. By 1900, there was an estimated 13 million nonagricultural workers in the United States. This economic shift, however, was not a smooth transition. Industrial labourers suffered heavily from unsafe work conditions, stagnant wages, and dictatorial corporations. In addition, a complacent and naive US governemnt consistently failed to enact laws protecting workers, which created many tensions between the working-class and the establishment. In response to this class struggle, many workers began forming unions to combat perceived injustices. All around, the Gilded Age was a precarious time for the working-class. In the late nineteenth century, the American labouring classes, specifically ethnic minorities, women, and children, experienced a high level of distress within the workplace. Distress can be defined as feelings of extreme suffering, worry, or anxiety.

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Ethnic minorities had always been outcasts of the American labour force, however, in the rapid industrialization and uncertainty of the Gilded Age, this anti-American sentiment was exacerbated. Amongst the labouring classes, Chinese foreign workers, Catholic immigrants, and African Americans experienced disproportionate “distress” than their white Protestant American counterparts. Between 1850 and 1870, an estimated 100,000 Chinese migrated to the United States. This is a relatively insignificant number, as in that 20-year period more than 12 million foreigners enter the United Staes. The Chinese, however, became the focal point of a particularly vicious smear campaign by the press. Journalists, politicians, and cartoonists represented the Chinese as “docile pets and nefarious invaders; potential citizens and unassimilable aliens; effeminate, queue-wearing eunuchs and threateningly masculine, minotaur-like lotharios.” Chinese workers were also barred from applying for US citizenship, which effectively made them second class citizens as they lacked basic civil and economic rights. In addition, many state governments passed laws baring Chinese workers from owning land and testifying in court against whites. They even had to race-specific taxes. Moreover, the working conditions were deplorable. Despite not being legally slaves, Chinese workers often had huge debts to immigration brokers, which essentially bound workers to companies for years at a time. There had even been allegations of corporal punishment as a way to discipline workers. In 1867, for instance, a Chinese railroad strike objected the “the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment.” To top it all off, Chinese railroad workers were paid about 33 percent less than their white counterparts, despite also having to pay for their own tools, food, and lodging, all of which were supplied at white workers at no charge.

In the late nineteenth century, the United States had a large and rapidly growing immigrant community. By 1900, first and second generation immigrants made up 15.3 and 23.4 percent of the American population respectively. Most of these immigrant communities were predominantly Catholic, with the largest groups being of Irish, Polish, Bohemian, and Italian descent. These Southern and Eastern European immigrants were largely unskilled, spoke no English, and were willing to work for lower wages. The Catholic immigrants also came at a time of rapid technological advancement, which diminished the value of skilled labour. As a result, many native-born skilled workers were replaced by unskilled Catholic immigrants. Consequently, the press began promoting the idea that Catholic immigrants were to blame for stagnant wages and unemployment. In the words of an native-born American, the immigrant workers didn’t know ‘the difference between light work and heavy work, or between good wages and bad wages… these people can live where I think decent men would die; they can live on almost any kind of food, food that other men would not touch.’ After the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, many local Bohemian immigrants were perceived as bomb-throwing anarchists and socialist sympathizers that were advocating for the fall of America. According to the press, Bohemians were a threat to national security, despite their contributions to the local economy. This anti-bohemian sentiment was later expanded to all Catholics, which made it increasingly harder to find work. As a result, many families were forced to rely on supplemental income by their children in order to maintain their standard of living. The ethnic and economic differences between the native and immigrant workers made it impossible for unity and cooperation against company misconduct. Thus, companies were able to exploit this division and defeat unionizing efforts and strikes relatively easily.

Another ethnic minority that experienced heightened levels of distressed in the Gilded Age were African Americans. Despite the abolishment of slavery in 1865, many people of colour still experienced discrimination in the South and migrated towards the industrializing North in search of work. Northern society, however, was itself prejudicial and even here African Americans were expected to adopt subordinate roles in the workplace. In Iowa, for instance, African Americans were barred from certain trades and industrial employment. African American workers were forced to occupy the bottom of the occupational ladder. African Americas, despite being fluent English speakers and of Protestant faith, were even considered inferior to the aforementioned Catholic immigrants. The Catholic immigrants were disliked by native-born Americans, but they were still considered “conditionally” white, a fact which elevated them above African Americans. In fact, many European immigrants began displacing African Americans from their work. In the industrial town of Cedar Rapids, for instance, Bohemian immigrants replaced many black men who were previously employed as cooks, barbers, waiters, and doormen. Moreover, African American workers also had to deal with antagonistic white unions that wanted to restrict black employment. For example, the Galveston Screwmen’s Benevolent Associations refused to accept African Americans into its union and denied equal employment with black workers. So strong was the animosity between white and black workers that in 1885, when a steamship company began utilizing cheaper black labour, the Knights of Labor organized a city-wide protest of 2,000 whites. In other instances, white unions refused to cooperate and strike alongside black workers. For example, in 1887, at the Black Diamond Steel Works, the Knights of Labor, alongside a local white union organized and executed a strike without even consulting their African American co-workers. Thus, it quickly become apparent that ethnic minorities, of all backgrounds, were deeply disadvantaged in the late nineteenth century. Racist laws, hiring practices, and unions were all factors that created a high level of distress amongst Chinese, Catholic, and African American workers.

Women were another labouring class that struggled in the workplace during the Gilded Age. By 1900, twenty percent of the American labour force was comprised of women, which was approximately five million workers. Hence, by the late nineteenth century, women could be found in virtually every industry, and women’s income had become an important part of working-class households. Domestic service was one occupation dominated by women, as it was estimated that one-third of all female workers were employed in the industry. These jobs were predominantly occupied by women of colour and female immigrants. A further 15 percent of employed women worked at factories. Other sectors include farming, clerical work, and manufacturing. However, as women became more involved in the workforce, they began experiencing the harsh working conditions of the time. Women that worked in soap-factories and handled caustic soda would often end their shifts with raw and bleeding fingers. Those that worked in the cotton, feather, and fur-making industries were subject to bronchial and lung problems from the dust that such materials omit. In button and pin manufacturies, fingers could get jammed or caught in the machine. Workers from match-factories could except their jaw eaten away from necrosis, while women working with fish and saltpetre would get blisters in their hands and fingers. Virtually in every occupation, there was a significant chance of bodily harm for the female workers.

Despite the increased involvement of women in the workforce, the gender wage gap remained in place. In 1890, a governemnt report determined that in midwestern cities, men had an annual salary between $560 and $630, while female salaries averaged around $200 and $330. In 1900, the average weekly wage for a male worker was $10.55, while for women it was $5.64. The 1898 Cedar Rapids strike perfectly exemplifies the problems facing female workers in the Gilded Age. In 1898, one-fifth of the workforce in Cedar Rapids were women. Around 20 percent of women worked in the laundry, retail, restaurant, and clerical industries. The remaining female workers of Cedar Rapids was employed as domestic servants or at local factories. For instance, one-third of the American Cereal Company were women. More importantly, the wrapping department was entirely comprised of female workers. Known as wrappers, these women would work in backless stools from seven in the morning to nine at night with a single thirty-minute break. It was also common for women to be paid less or outright fired during the “slow” season of the industry. Wrappers had their pay routinely docked by the company management in an attempt to save money. For instance, workers were charged one cent for every wrapper they tore and 25 cents for being off on a Saturday afternoon. Training periods, which could last a few days, were also unpaid. Sick leave was not permitted unless the employee was completely unable to work. Leaving early was impossible as management had a policy of locking hats and coats in a room, until lunchtime and quitting time. Wrappers were even required to work on Labor Day.

Even the aforementioned gender wage gap affected the local women. Between 1890 and 1910, female workers in Cedar Rapids earned $2 to $5 a week, with an annual income of $100 to $250. The strike itself was motivated by a change in the wrapping procedure, which increased the workload of the female labourers by 50 percent. This was an issue as their wage was based on a piece-rate system, in which a certain amount of wrapped boxes was worth a set amount of money. Thus, the wrapping process became more difficult, while their wages remained stagnant. In October 1898, 100 female workers met with the manager of the American Cereal Company in Cedar Rapids and demanded better working conditions and increased wages. In fact, the strike was orchestrated and conducted exclusively by women, despite lacking the support of their union. This is significant because, of the 16,000 strikes conducted by unions between 1895 and 1905, only 83 were women-led. Furthermore, from those 83, only 35 were successful in meeting their demands. Therefore, the Cedar Rapids strike perfectly demonstrates the precarious working conditions experienced by women, but also how they were able to combat such horrendous working conditions thought unionization and wildcat strikes.

Children were another labouring class that experienced heightened levels of distress in the late nineteenth century. By 1900, more than 25,000 boys sixteen years old or younger were employed in mines and quarries around the United States. Strictly speaking, the law prohibited the employment of children under fourteen years of age, yet that law was often outright ignored by industrialists. In 1905, an investigation determined that in a borough of 7,000 people, over 150 underage boys were illegally employed. Again, in a 1902 strike in Pittston, hundreds of boys wearing their work attire were seen marching alongside other protesting workers, confirming their employment at that factory. Child workers were often overworked and received wage incomparable to those of adults. In sweatshops and food canning facilities, men had an annual income of $550, women $270, and children $120. Despite making significantly less than their adult counterparts, the income children provided was very helpful to their struggling families. In a family where the husband was in his forties, children on average contributed 24.5 percent of the total income. If the husband was in his sixties, children would provide up to 36.5 percent. Children played a vital role as earners in the late nineteenth century economy of the working-class family. This basic statistic explains why many families decided to send their children to work, despite the dangerous working conditions.

In 1860, the Pemberton Mill collapsed and buried six hundred workers within the rubble. Many of the trapped workers were children, with one in five workers being younger than fifteen year old. Eighty-nine were discovered dead once the rubble had been cleared. In 1874, the fifth and sixth floors of the Granite Textile Mill caught fire, trapping many young workers within. Nineteen people were killed, nine of them being twelve years old or younger. In 1896, at the Chicago Fireworks Company, a fourteen-year-old boy was killed and a fourteen years old girl was injured while in the process of rolling and pasting firecrackers. Children in the tobacco industry suffered from nicotine poising, while in sweatshops young workers developed pelvic disorders and spinal deformations. In bakeries, children experienced airless and confined work environments, which made them vulnerable to typhoid, smallpox, and tuberculosis. Work in the mines and quarries of the industrializing United States proved to be particularly harsh. In 1900, in the state of Pennsylvania there were thousands of children serving as “breaker boys”. Breaker boys were usually around 10 years old and were tasked with the arduous task of picking out pieces of coal slate as it passed by to the washers. Many of these young workers quickly became deformed as they would have to maintain a cramped position for hours while examing the coal. It was a common occurrence for young children in the coal mines to look bent-back, as if they were men of old age. In addition, the hard surface of the coal made cuts, blisters, and broken fingers a common occurrence amongst the children. The cloud and dusty workplace also made asthma and miners’ consumption inevitable.

What was even more concerning was that many children were prevented from attending school, in order to work. In areas with heavy industry, school attendance was lower, as children were sent to work, rather than being sent to school. Interestingly, “A male child between eleven and thirteen years old had a 41 percent probability of being in school if he were the son of a textile worker, but a 76 percent probability if he were a son in a nontextile industrial family.” This perfectly exemplifies how the proximity of heavy industry determined wheater a child attended school. By 1900, the number of children of school-going age was 331,000, yet, only about two-thirds of them attended school. The rest, approximately 115,000, either stayed home or went to work. Therefore, it becomes apparent that a large number of children were deprived of education so they can conduct monotonous, dangerous, and mindless work in factories. These children were essentially condemned to a lifetime of “machine trending”, as the lack of education prevented them from advancing economically. A perfect anecdote that exemplifies the disparity of the situation is that of Owen Jones, a twelve-year-old breaker boy that worked at a coal mine in Pennsylvania. When asked if he knew God, the boy simply said “God? No, I don’t. He must work in some other mine.” These child workers were unaware of the outside work, they were only familiar with their own factory or mine. The unsafe working conditions, the horrible wages, and the lack of education are all factors that contributed and made children experience particularly high levels of distress in the workplace, condemning many of them to a lifetime of industrial work and an early grave.

The Gilded Age is personified by a heightened level of distress amongst the labouring classes, namely ethnic minorities, women, and children. Those three groups were the ones most affected by worsening safety standards and stagnant wages. Ethnic minorities, namely Chinese foreign workers, Catholic immigrants, and African Americans were expected to adopt subordinate roles in the workplace. The native-born Americans attempted to further oppress these minorities by barring them from certain occupations, needlessly taxing them, and enacting laws restricting their rights. Women, being a relatively new phenomenon in the workplace, were treated as second class citizens by the industrialists, who believed they could abuse this new source of labour with relatively little pushback by female workers. Women, however, were able to organize and fight for better work standards, despite lacking support from male-dominated unions. Finally, children were often abused in the workplace and put to work in dangerous and unhealthy occupations. These child workers were often trying to economically contribute to their family’s well being, however, in the process, many of them were deprived of education. Overall, the late nineteenth century can be characterized by horrible working conditions, as well as stagrant wages which created much economic hardship in the industrializing United States.       

29 April 2022

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