The Industrial Revolution was dawning in the United States. At Lowell, Massachusetts, the construction of a big cotton mill began in 1821. It was the first of several that would be built there in the next 10 years. The machinery to spin and weave cotton into cloth would be driven by water power. All that the factory owners needed was a dependable supply of labor to tend the machines.
As most jobs in cotton factories required neither great strength nor special skills, the owners thought women could do the work as well as or better than men. In addition, they were more compliant. The New England region was home to many young, single farm girls who might be recruited. But would stern New England farmers allow their daughters to work in factories? The great majority of them would not. They believed that sooner or later factory workers would be exploited and would sink into hopeless poverty. Economic “laws” would force them to work harder and harder for less and less pay.
How, then, were the factory owners able to recruit farm girls as laborers? They did it by building decent houses in which the girls could live. These houses were supervised by older women who made sure that the girls lived by strict moral standards. The girls were encouraged to go to church, to read, to write and to attend lectures. They saved part of their earnings to help their families at home or to use when they got married.
The young factory workers did not earn high wages; the average pay was about $3.50 a week. But in those times, a half-dozen eggs cost five cents and a whole chicken cost 15 cents. The hours worked in the factories were long. Generally, the girls worked 11 to 13 hours a day, six days a week. But most people in the 1830s worked from dawn until dusk, and farm girls were used to getting up early and working until bedtime at nine o’clock.
The factory owners at Lowell believed that machines would bring progress as well as profit.
Workers and capitalists would both benefit from the wealth created by mass production. For a while, the factory system at Lowell worked very well. The population of the town grew from 200 in 1820 to 30,000 in 1845. But conditions in Lowell’s factories had already started to change. Faced with growing competition, factory owners began to decrease wages in order to lower the cost-and the price-of finished products.
They increased the number of machines that each girl had to operate. In addition, they began to overcrowd the houses in which the girls lived. Sometimes eight girls had to share one room.
In 1836, 1,500 factory girls went on strike to protest wage cuts. (The girls called their action a “turn out.”) But it was useless. Desperately poor immigrants were beginning to arrive in the United States from Europe. To earn a living, they were willing to accept low wages and poor working conditions. Before long, immigrant women replaced the “Yankee” (American) farm girls.
To many people, it was apparent that justice for wage earners would not come easily. Labor in America faced a long, uphill struggle to win fair treatment. In that struggle, more and more workers would turn to labor unions to help their cause. They would endure violence, cruelty and bitter defeats. But eventually they would achieve a standard of living unknown to workers at any other time in history.
In colonial America, most manufacturing was done by hand in the home. Some was done in workshops attached to the home. As towns grew into cities, the demand for manufactured goods increased. Some workshop owners began hiring helpers to increase production. Relations between the employer and helper were generally harmonious. They worked side by side, had the same interests and held similar political views.
The factory system that began around 1800 brought great changes. The employer no longer worked beside his employees. He became an executive and a merchant who rarely saw his workers. He was concerned less with their welfare than with the cost of their labor. Many workers were angry about the changes brought by the factory system. In the past, they had taken great pride in their handicraft skills; now machines did practically all the work, and they were reduced to the status of common laborers. In bad times they could lose their jobs. Then they might be replaced by workers who would accept lower wages. To skilled craft workers, the Industrial Revolution meant degradation rather than progress.
As the factory system grew, many workers began to form labor unions to protect their interests. The first union to hold regular meetings and collect dues was organized by Philadelphia shoemakers in 1792. Soon after, carpenters and leather workers in Boston and printers in New York also organized unions. Labor’s tactics in those early times were simple. Members of a union would agree on the wages they thought were fair. They pledged to stop working for employers who would not pay that amount. They also sought to compel employers to hire only union members.
Employers found the courts to be an effective weapon to protect their interests. In 1806, eight Philadelphia shoemakers were brought to trial after leading an unsuccessful strike. The court ruled that any organizing of workers to raise wages was an illegal act. Unions were “conspiracies” against employers and the community. In later cases, courts ruled that almost any action taken by unions to increase wages might be criminal. These decisions destroyed the effectiveness of the nation’s early labor unions.
Not until 1842 was the way opened again for workers to organize. That year several union shoemakers in Boston were brought to trial. They were charged with refusing to work with non-union shoemakers. A municipal court judge found the men guilty of conspiracy. But an appeal to a higher court resulted in a victory for labor unions generally. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled that it was not unlawful for workers to engage peacefully in union activity. It was their right to organize, he said. Shaw’s decision was widely accepted. For many years following this decision, unions did not have to fear conspiracy charges.
In the next two decades, unions campaigned for a 10-hour working day and against child labor. A number of state legislatures responded favorably. In 1851, for example, New Jersey passed a law calling for a 10-hour working day in all factories. It also forbade the employment of children under 10 years old.
Meanwhile trade unions were joining together in cities to form federations. A number of skilled trades organized national unions to try to improve their wages and working conditions. The effort to increase wages brought about hundreds of strikes during the 1850s. None was as extensive, however, as a strike of New England shoemakers in 1860. The strike started in Lynn, Massachusetts, when factory workers were refused a three-dollar increase in their weekly pay. It soon spread to Maine and New Hampshire. Altogether, about 20,000 workers took part in the strike. It ended in a victory for the shoemakers. Similar victories were soon won by other trade unions. These successes led to big increases in union membership. Yet most American workers were generally better off than workers in Europe and had more hope of improving their lives. For this reason, the majority did not join labor unions.