Working during the Gilded Age and the power of the Industrial Revolution

America was booming in raw material industries. Workforce was rapidly growing after the Civil War. America was a latecomer to the Industrial Revolution that began in 1860 with factory reproduction to railroad mileage (16.1.1, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). From 1860-1900 population increased as well as industrial and farm output. America bypassed all other industrialized countries by possessing all raw materials such as iron, lead, coal, copper, silver, wood, oil, cotton, and gold (16.1.1, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Cheap labor was also a factor in America being industrialized due to immigration and native-born, moving from rural areas in search of new opportunities. Also women and children entered the paid workforce(16.1.1, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Railroads also helped industries and workers during this time. Before the Civil War, most American manufacturers were privately owned and only sold products a few hundred miles from where they were made(16.1.1, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel) . Once the telegraph and railroads were invented all that changed.

Railroads opened new areas of settlement and speed to deliver goods and services (16.1.2, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Abusive practices of many railroad companies made reformers look for a more regulated industry. Farmers started opposing the high rates charged by railroads in the transportation of their agricultural goods(16.1.1, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel) . This opposition led to laws regulating prices and outlawed unfair business practices (16.1.4, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). The industrial workforce grew as the number of factories grew, expanding from 1.3 million workers in 1860 to 5.1 million workers in 1900 (16.1.4). Many of these workers had low wages, long working hours, dangerous working conditions, and frequent economy downturns (16.3, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel).

New industrial technology changed industrial workers working status. Machines produced more goods in less time than workers and required low-skilled labor to operate. Employees were looked at as replaceable and anyone that complained or couldn’t keep up with the pace were fired and replaced with other unskilled workers (16.3.1, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Industrial technology changed skill trades such as shoe making, garment and textile industries to low-skill factory occupations by the 1860’s (16.3.1, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Most workers averaged about 12 hours a day, six days a week, and estimated wages at $400-500 per year (16.3.2, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). To live a decent life in the late 19th century you would have to make about $600-800 (16.3.2, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Working class families would send their children to work and have women and children perform odd jobs in homes such as sewing buttons on new shirts (16.3.2, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). The instability of the industrial economy brought severe depressions and recessions which made it difficult for economic growth as well as business failures and high unemployment (16.3.2, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). On average 35,000 workers were killed on the job and 500,000 injured every year between 1880 and 1900 (16.3.2, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). This meant working conditions were extremely dangerous due to the monotonous factory working conditions. Most of these injuries were from the negligence of factory owners and the monotony of factory work leading to mistakes and workers falling asleep (16.3.2, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). There were no laws making workplaces less lethal, very few industrialists were willing to pay for safety devices or procedures (16.3.2, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Laws requiring compensation to injured and killed workers were not in effect until the twentieth century (16.3.2, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Children worked as young as 16 and under under the supervision of a manager instead of a parent in dangerous unhealthy working conditions for long hours as well between 1870 and 1900 (16.3.2, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Many states passed laws prohibiting child labor but most states rarely enforced these laws (16.3.2, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel).

The first major effort towards a national labor movement after the Civil War began in 1866 when William Sylvis founded the National Labor Union (16.3.3, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). This was a federation of independent craft unions sought to unite skilled workers nationwide to secure a federal law establishing an 8 hour day and a federal department of labor (16.3.3, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Native-born white men in skilled trades topped 300,000 members by 1869 in the NLU (16.3.3, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). William Sylvis died suddenly in 1869 and weakened the NLU and by the time of the Great Depression of the 1870’s, the National Labor Union was wiped out (16.3.3, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Employers saw unions as a threat. Threat to their profits and freedom to do what they wanted with the employers business (16.3.3, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Employers hired spies to find labor organizers so they could fire them and put them on a blacklist so that other employers in other towns or industries refused to hire them (16.3.3, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnel). Rising frustrations and anger led workers to go on strikes. Between 1881 and 1905, six million American workers demonstrated in nearly 37,000 strikes (16.3.3, Keene, Cornell, O’Donnell).

Rising population and greater levels of demand created big business, and as a side effect the working conditions became less than ideal. There were many who were unable to accept these conditions. These workers who saw very little in compensation finally had a group they could look to who had their interests at heart. They could finally bargain for rights, such as more pay and better working conditions. It must have truly felt hopeless before this, as there was no way to voice any concerns, as no one was concerned. The First labor unions had unrealistic goals, attempting to stop the shift towards technology, which as we see, ultimately failed. The big one to finally make real headway,  The American Federation of Labor, truly sought change, in both improving wages and working conditions of its members. We still see the effects of these unions today. They paved the ways for the development of many laws, covering minimum wage standards, living wage standards, maximum hours worked, and of course, removing children from the work force, with an emphasis on greater education.The amount of hope this created for the common man, the once-upon-a-time peasant, must have been the greatest achievement they could hope for. Whether its fighting for better working conditions or workers compensation for injuries sustained at or because of the job, or better wages, the principles that they stood for are still incredibly relevant even in our age.


Works Cited:

Keene, Jennifer D., Cornell, Saul., O’Donnell, Edward T., et al. Vissions of America: A History of the United States. 3rd ed., vol.2, Pearson, 2017 2013, 2010


6 thoughts on “Working during the Gilded Age and the power of the Industrial Revolution

  1. I find it ironic how we had all this cheap labor and almost everything the U.S had was manufactured here, but now almost everything is imported from overseas. There seems to be a trend with companies and corporations abusing their power, a trend we still see to this day. I find it terrifying to think of being that young working in a factory, especially knowing that with those new communication technologies families probably heard of the horror stories and still had to return to work in order to survive.

  2. It’s honestly not only touching but kind of terrifying just how terrible conditions had been for people during the early industrial era. To have conditions where people so young are in dangerous factories with little to no safety precautions and forced to work for wages so low they couldn’t even live on them and for the situation to be so inescapable. It’s also important to take these lessons and apply them to today and look at how they relate to our modern lives. For example we should acknowledge that these conditions have not gone away but moved to other countries such as China where the exact same treatments are put onto a people whose labor is cheap and abundant due to a large population, where children are put in inhumane conditions, and where profits are raked from he workers. It’s also important to see what kind of conditions create and are created as a result of unregulated big business and industrialization. Large populations, the treatment of workers as cheap replaceable low skilled machines, and employers being allowed to crush any opposition like unions without any form of repercussion for their actions.

  3. This was a very unfortunate time, full of exploit and abuse of workers. I found it unsettling to read about how so many workers had to work long days for such little amount of pay to make enough just so they could eat. Those who didn’t make enough were even forced to send children to work. I could not image that today, sending your own child to work just to keep a roof over your family’s head. In my opinion, no matter how insignificant the job may seem, it would not be possible to accomplish without workers. It’s unfair that many of them didn’t get the smallest amount of respect that they deserved. It’s unfair that the working conditions were so poor that 35,000 people died. It’s especially unfair that employers were okay with these things and had no remorse. I’m glad that we have established laws and regulations for workers today, I just hope we never have to face anything like this in the future.

    1. I believe women are still treated unfairly in the workforce to this day. Women make less than men even now in 2018. Women have always been treated poorly and men praised for their jobs. It is truly sad to me that to this day a lot of these conditions in our society are still practically the same. I am shocked that children were working during this industrial era as young as 7 years old. I have a step son who is 7 and could not imagine sending him to work. It had to be a rough time in the late 1800s and I am grateful our generation has not had to endure those hardships.

  4. I find it very saddening that workers during this time were in such a bad position in their workplace that they even needed to bargain to get better working conditions. Looking back at history, with all of the new resources in America it is hard to believe that the conditions were that bad for workers. However, with the boom of industrialization and machinery, if workers were not compliant with these conditions they could easily be replaced, possibly taking away all income for a family.

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