The Rise of Wage Labor

During the Gilded Age, millions of Americans saw their work lives transform: no longer would it be so common for the working man or woman to survive based on what he or she produced; rather, that worker would receive payment—from an employer or a contractor—for the time worked. That change allowed for the possibility during the Gilded Age for the older generation to reflect on their younger years, before the Civil War, and how they had sold most of what they had grown or made (and how they had then needed a wide variety of skills to not only grow or make those goods but to bring those goods to market and actually sell them). During the Gilded Age, that same generation could have been working the last years of their working lives reporting to a factory for work; work that likely had a significant element of danger and that may have required them to use a fraction of the skills that had served as their saving grace during their younger years. For the generations of Americans that have come after the Gilded Age, the system of wage labor has been no oddity. It became a substantial part of the modern way of life and not only in America. What would have struck and should strike subsequent generations, however, were the mechanics of the American economy in which wage labor was born and how the wage labor system in its rawest form did not extend even some of the most basic protections to workers.

In the years following the Civil War, the country’s regions had different approaches for how to implement a free labor system. In the South, with credit being difficult to obtain and resistance to a transition to an unfamiliar system being engrained in the people and their laws, the South “never fully gave up attempts to create new systems of coerced labor.”[i] Those attempts included (but certainly were not limited to) promulgating “black codes and later to prison and convict labor.”[ii] Compounding the South’s issues was that investors had lost all of their money put into Confederate war bonds and capital not being as easy to come by as in the northern states—which had remained in the Union during the war and therefore had national banks with liquidity.[iii] Although the South had a sizable railroad system, the North’s dwarfed it, and industry leaders began to build out the industry. Industrializing the South would be a long process, however, given the tradition of agriculture in those states. In fact, the number of farms in the South would increase going into the 1870s; while throughout the Gilded Age American farms were growing in size, in the South, they were shrinking as farmers took their chances on “tenancy and sharecropping.”[iv]

In smaller cities outside the South, change was also underway. Small businesses were competing with each other, which Republicans—then the dominant political party (with Ulysses S. Grant in the White House) and espousing the virtues of a free labor system—saw as proof of success for their policies. Business entities and the complications that accompany them were flourishing: sole proprietorships were transforming into partnerships or unincorporated companies with shareholders; even publicly traded corporations were forming—although they remained rare.[v] Outside some cities, such as Pittsburgh, were coal mines, and in those coal mines Republicans found proof that free labor benefited not just companies but workers. One journalist, James Parton, wrote that the miner had his own “room” in the mine in which he was the boss: he “begins work when he likes, works as fast as he likes, or as slow, and goes home when he likes. . . . If he fancies to get rich, he can.”[vi]

New York City in the 1870s.

Factories were springing up, and they presented workers with a different environment; although there had been shops, those shops were intimate: workers knew each other and their employer. In factories, workers were more numerous and may not have known or interacted with their bosses. From 1860 to 1870, the number of factories in the Northeast and Midwest doubled, and in New York City, by 1873, there were 130,000 manufacturing workers.[vii] Some liberals hypothesized that economic law dictated that “a business establishment must now be immense or nothing. It must absorb or be absorbed. It must either be a great, resistless maelstrom of business, drawing countless wrecks into its vortex, or it must be itself a wreck, and contribute its quote to the all-engulfing prosperity of a rival.”[viii] Those liberals assumed that, in every industry, the large corporations would swallow their tiny competitors, but in this age, it did not occur: for example, a thriving textile industry in Philadelphia coexisted with a much larger, more capitalized industry in Lowell, Massachusetts.[ix] Although the largest firms had succeeded in “replacing skilled labor with capital in the form of machines run by less-skilled workers,” the geographic reach of those firms was still limited enough to permit competitors in the same industry.[x]

With these changes came the ubiquity of wage labor: by 1870, wageworkers “outnumbered the self-employed” (excluding farmers).[xi] The Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics and Labor deemed wage labor “a system more widely diffused than any form of religion, or of government, or indeed, of any language.”[xii] Although many marveled at the prospect of a worker negotiating a contract with his employer and specifying what work was to be done, for what period of time, and for what wage, others balked at the supposed freedom afforded to the worker and compared it to the same contract between master and slave: an anonymous writer in the American Review wrote,

What I agree to do in order to escape from starvation, or to save my wife and children from starvation, or ignorance of my ability to do anything else, I agree to do under compulsion, just as much as if I agreed to do it with a pistol at my head; and the terms I make under such circumstances are not by any means the measure of my rights, even ‘under the laws of trade.’[xiii]

Wageworkers, because of their numbers, were a constituency that could not be ignored: their efforts to introduce legislation requiring an eight-hour workday were initially fruitful in “Connecticut, California, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri,” Illinois, and for federal government workers.[xiv] However, even with those laws in place, change was slow. Many of the laws lacked enforcement mechanisms, and employers simply ignored the mandate.[xv] Unions were in their nascent stage, but already, progressives were calling for each worker to have “eight hours for sleep, eight hours for work, and eight hours for his soul.”[xvi] Even with the marginal success on the issue of an eight-hour workday, the momentum supporting the issue showed that Americans viewed themselves as “republican citizens” whose “independence should not vanish when they entered the workplace.”[xvii] That momentum would only build as wage labor became more pervasive, workers became more organized, and the American economy continued to grow. However, even during these early years of wage labor—despite the Republicans’ rhetoric that their policies were generating widespread prosperity—many average workers were beginning to see that the system was not distributing wealth equally, and those workers were becoming more resentful of the system and its architects.

Cincinnati’s Fountain Square in the 1870s.

[i] See Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 220.

[ii] Id.

[iii] See id.

[iv] See id. at 227.

[v] Id. at 232.

[vi] Id. (quoting James Parton, “Pittsburg” [sic], Atlantic Monthly 21 (1868), 17-36).

[vii] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 235.

[viii] Id. at 236 (quoting Sketches of Men of Progress, ed. James Parton: New York and Hartford Pub. Co., 1870, 75-76).

[ix] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 236 (citing Philip Scranton, “Conceptualizing Pennsylvania’s Industrializations, 1850-1950,” Pennsylvania History 61, no. 1 (1994), 72-73).

[x] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 237.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id. at 237-38 (quoting Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy [Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996], 189-90).

[xiv] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 240.

[xv] See id.

[xvi] Id. at 242 (quoting David A. Zonderman, Uneasy Allies: Working for Labor Reform in Nineteenth-Century Boston [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011], 11-18, 95).

[xvii] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and The Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 243.

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