Although the percentage of Americans employed in manufacturing never rose above 10 percent of the laboring population in the mid-nineteenth century, industrial enterprises in the Northeast transformed the nation’s economy. In the 1830s and 1840s, factories grew considerably in size, and some investors, especially in textiles, constructed factory towns. Textile mills now relied heavily on the labor of girls and young women recruited from rural areas, while urban workshops hired varied groups of workers, including children, young women and men, and older adults. As industry expanded, however, working men’s access to highly skilled jobs declined. The panic of 1837 exacerbated this trend and also increased tensions within the working class, especially among workers from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Factory Towns and Women Workers
In the late 1820s, investors and manufacturers joined forces to create factory towns in the New England countryside, the most famous of which was constructed in Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River. Funded by the Boston Associates, a group of investors from eastern Massachusetts, the Lowell mills were based on an earlier experiment in nearby Waltham. In the Waltham system, every step of the production process was mechanized. The factories were far larger than earlier ones and were built as part of a planned community that included boardinghouses, government offices, and churches. Agents for the Waltham system traveled throughout New England to recruit the daughters of farm families as workers. They assured parents that their daughters would be watched over by managers and foremen as well as by landladies. The young women were required to attend church and observe curfews, and their labor was regulated by clocks and bells to ensure discipline and productivity.
Textile towns allowed young women to contribute to family finances while living in a well-ordered environment. Farm families needed more cash because of the growing market economy, and daughters could save money for the clothes and linens required for married life. Factory jobs also provided an alternative to marriage as young New England men moved west and left a surplus of women behind. The boardinghouses provided a relatively safe, all-female environment for the young workers, and sisters and neighbors often lived together. Despite constant regulation and supervision, many rural women viewed factory work as an adventure. They could send money home and still set aside a bit for themselves, and they could attend lectures and concerts, meet new people, and acquire a wider view of the world.
Initially, factory towns offered many benefits to young women and their families, but by the 1830s working conditions began to deteriorate. Factory owners cut wages, lengthened hours, and sped up machines, forcing women to produce more cloth in less time for lower pay. Many boardinghouses became overcrowded, and company officials regulated both rents and expenses, so higher prices for lodging did not necessarily mean better food or furnishings. Factory workers launched numerous strikes in the 1830s against longer hours, wage cuts, and speedups in factory production. The solidarity required to sustain these strikes was forged in boardinghouses and at church socials as well as on the factory floor.
Despite the mill workers’ solidarity, it was not easy to overcome the economic power wielded by manufacturers. Working women’s efforts at collective action were generally short-lived, lasting only as long as the strike itself. Then employees returned to their jobs until the next crisis hit. And as competition increasingly cut into profits, owners resisted mill workers’ demands more vehemently. When the panic of 1837 intensified fears ofjob loss, women’s organizing activities were doomed until the economy recovered.
Deskilling and the Response of Working Men
While the construction of factory towns expanded economic opportunities for young women, the gradual decline of time-honored crafts narrowed the prospects for working men. As craft workshops increased in size, they hired fewer skilled workers and more men who learned only a single aspect of production—cutting barrel staves or attaching soles to shoes. Like mill operatives, these workers performed distinct tasks, many of which were mechanized over the course of the nineteenth century. The final product was less distinctive than an item crafted by a skilled artisan, but it was also less expensive and available in mass quantities.
The shift from craft work to factory work threatened to undermine working men’s skills, pay, and labor conditions. Soon masters hired foremen to regulate the workforce and installed bells and clocks to regulate the workday. Artisans were offended by the new regime, which treated them as wage-earning dependents rather than as independent craftsmen. As the process of deskilling transformed shoemaking, printing, bookbinding, tailoring, and other trades, laboring men fought to maintain their status.
Some workers formed mutual aid societies to provide assistance in times of illness, injury, or unemployment. Others participated in religious revivals or joined fraternal orders, such as the Masons and the Red Men, to find the camaraderie they once enjoyed at work. The expansion of voting rights in the 1820s offered another avenue for action. The first workingmen’s political party was founded in Philadelphia in 1827, and soon white farmers, mechanics, and workingmen started joining forces throughout the North to advocate for principles of liberty and equality. Self-educated artisans like Thomas Skidmore of New York City argued for the redistribution of property and the abolition of inheritance to equalize wealth in the nation. However, most workingmen’s parties focused on more practical proposals: government distribution of free land in the West, the abolition of compulsory militia service and imprisonment for debt, public funding for education, and the regulation of banks and corporations. Although the success of these parties at the polls was modest, by the 1830s Democrats and Whigs adopted many of their proposals.
Workingmen, like workingwomen, also formed unions to demand better wages and working conditions. In the 1820s and 1830s, skilled journeymen held mass meetings to protest employers’ efforts to extend the workday from ten to eleven hours, merge smaller workshops into larger factories, and cut wages. In New York City in 1834, labor activists formed a citywide federation, the General Trades Union, which provided support for striking workers. The National Trades Union was established later that year, with delegates representing more than twenty-five thousand workers across the North. These organizations aided skilled workers but refused admission to women and unskilled men.
Broad labor organizations proved difficult to sustain because of differences in skill and ethnicity as well as in age and marital status among members. Even workingmen’s parties, which recruited men across occupations and ages, refused to recruit laborers who could not vote—women, new immigrants, and most blacks. With the onset of the panic of 1837, the common plight of workers became clearer. But the economic crisis made unified action nearly impossible as individuals sought to hold on to what little they had by any means available.
The Panic of 1837 in the North
The panic of 1837 began in the South, but it hit northern cotton merchants hard (see chapter 10). Textile factories drastically cut production, metal foundries that supplied their machinery were wiped out, workers lost their jobs, and merchants and investors went broke. Those who kept their jobs saw their wages cut in half. As with the panic of 1819, hunger plagued urban residents while crops rotted in the Midwest because farmers could not afford to harvest them. In Rochester, the Posts were among hundreds who lost their homes to foreclosure. Petty crime, prostitution, and violence also rose as men and women struggled to make ends meet.
In Lowell and other textile towns, hours increased and wages fell. Just as important, the process of deskilling intensified. Factory owners considered mechanization one way to improve their economic situation. In the 1830s and 1840s, the sewing machine was invented and improved. When it came into widespread use in the 1850s, factories began to mass- produce inexpensive clothing, employing women who worked for low wages. Mechanical reapers, steam boilers, and the steam press transformed other occupations as manufacturers invested more of their resources in machines. At the same time, the rising tide of immigrants provided a ready supply of relatively cheap labor. Artisans tried to maintain their traditional skills and status, but in many trades they were fighting a losing battle.
Hat Manufacturing, 1850 This 1850 lithograph advertises Charles Oakford's hat factory in Philadelphia. Like many industries, hat making became increasingly mechanized in the 1840s. Here Oakford talks with a client in the center of the room, across from his steam- powered lathe, while workers stand at stations shaping and stacking hats. A boy packs the merchandise into a box ready for shipping. © Philadelphia history Museum at the Atwater Kent/The Bridgeman Art Library
By the early 1840s, when the panic subsided, new technologies did spur new jobs. Factories demanded more workers to handle new machines that ran at a faster pace. The ease of harvesting wheat inspired changes in flour milling that required engineers to design machines and mechanics to build and repair them. The steam press allowed publication of more newspapers and magazines, creating positions for editors, publishers, printers, engravers, reporters, and sales agents. Advertising became an occupation unto itself.
Following the panic, new labor organizations also emerged to address workers’ changing circumstances. Many of these unions were made up of a particular trade or ethnic group, and almost all continued to address primarily the needs of skilled male workers. Textile operatives remained the one important group of organized female workers. In the 1840s, workingwomen joined with workingmen in New England to fight for a ten-hour day. Slowly, however, farmers’ daughters abandoned the fight and left the mills as Irish immigrants flooded the labor market and agreed to accept lower pay and longer hours.
For most women in need, charitable organizations offered more support than unions did. Organizations like Philadelphia’s Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances provided a critical safety net for many poor families since public monies for such purposes were limited. Although nearly every town and city provided some form of public assistance in this period, municipalities never had sufficient resources to meet the needs of growing populations, much less the extraordinary demands posed by hard times. Despite financial constraints, towns and cities continued to expand almshouses and workhouses, offer some financial assistance, and provide land and supplemental funds for private benevolent ventures like orphan asylums.
Rising Class and Cultural Tensions
By the 1840s, leaders of both public and private charitable endeavors linked relief to the moral character of those in need and generally measured that character by the standards of affluent Protestants. Upper-class Americans had long debated whether the poor would learn habits of industry and thrift if they were simply given aid without working for it. Concern over the “idle poor”—those who were physically able to work but did not—intensified as more and more immigrants joined the ranks of the needy. The debate was deeply gendered. Women and children were considered the worthiest recipients of aid, and middle- and upper-class women the appropriate dispensers of charity. Successful men, meanwhile, often linked poverty to weakness and considered giving pennies to a beggar an unmanly act that indulged the worst traits of the poor. They focused on building workhouses or expanding almshouses, though preferably at little expense to city residents.
The panic of 1837 convinced some benevolent leaders that public workhouses and almshouses offered the best hope for helping the poor. Alternatively, charitable societies sought to improve the environment in an effort to change the conditions that produced poverty. In the 1840s and 1850s, they built orphan asylums, schools, hospitals, and homes for working women to provide vulnerable residents with housing, education, domestic skills, and advice.
The “undeserving” poor faced grimmer choices. They received public assistance only through the workhouse or the local jail. Rowdy men who gambled away what little they earned, prostitutes who tempted respectable men into vice, and immigrants who preferred idle poverty to virtuous labor figured in newspaper articles, investigative reports, and novels. In fictional portrayals, naive girls were often the victims of immoral men or unfortunate circumstance. One of the first mass-produced books in the United States, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) was set in Puritan New England but addressed contemporary concerns about the seduction of innocents. It illustrated the social ostracism and poverty suffered by a woman who bore a child out of wedlock.
Other fictional tales placed the blame for fallen women on foreigners, especially Catholics. Such works drew vivid portraits of young nuns ravished by priests and then thrown out pregnant and penniless. These stories attracted tens of thousands of readers in the United States and heightened anti-Catholic sentiment, which periodically boiled over into attacks on Catholic homes, schools, churches, and convents.
Economic competition further intensified conflicts between immigrants and nativeborn Americans. By the 1840s, Americans who opposed immigration took the name nativists and launched public campaigns against foreigners, especially Irish Catholics. In May 1844, nativists clashed with Irishmen in Philadelphia after shots were fired from a firehouse. A dozen nativists and one Irishmen were killed the first day. The next night, nativists looted and burned Irish businesses and Catholic churches.
Most native-born workers distanced themselves from immigrants, but others believed that class solidarity was crucial to overcoming the power wielded by employers. Nevertheless, only highly skilled immigrants were likely to gain entrance to labor organizations. Although immigrants with sufficient resources to open businesses or establish themselves in professions might gain middle-class status, only pious immigrants from Protestant backgrounds were likely to be truly accepted into middle-class society.
REVIEW & RELATE
• How and why did American manufacturing change over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century?
• How did Northerners respond to the hard times that followed the panic of 1837? How did responses to the crisis vary by class, ethnicity, and religion?