[This lecture looks at factors related to the workplace and wages. A later lecture will examine living conditions and other aspects of the lives of urban, working-class dwellers.]


  1. Introduction: Concentrated Economic Power.

Wealth (and lots of it) was held by very few at the top of American society. This concentrated economic power seemed undemocratic and problematic to many Americans. Social class divisions were exacerbated, which seemed to violate what many thought were American principles of equality. Many Americans were worried about social class warfare and realized that the U.S. was not exempt from the conflicts that plagued many European countries.


  1. Loss of Status as a Worker

With the introduction of mechanization and the assembly line in a factory setting, the system of production was increasingly subdivided into smaller tasks. These tasks demanded less skilled workers. We call this process de-skilling.  More and more workers in our industrial economy were semi-skilled or unskilled.


This factory system was more efficient and increased productivity and profit for the owners (and some would argue, ultimately, for the wealth of the nation) -- but there were victims.  Workers became like the machines they used. Many workers felt they lost control over their work process, and felt dislocated and alienated from their work.  Many critics began asking if factory work was at odds with human nature.


  1. Low Wages

In pre-industrial times, most workers were fairly to highly skilled and were paid by the quality of the product. In industrial times, most workers were less skilled and were paid by the hour or by the piece.


Clearly, employers wanted to cut costs to maximize profits, and a key way was to cut labor’s wages:

A.      Iron Law of Wages: many employers cited this “law” as justification for paying low wages. This economic principle held that workers should be paid according to supply and demand. It meant that business could keep wages low as long as there were workers who would accept low wages. Because there was a surplus of labor for most of this period, it kept wages low. The employer said: if you don’t like the pay or the work, then quit, and I’ll replace you with the next person in line.


B.       Women and Child Labor: another way that employers could pay workers less.  Many working-class families lived hand-to-mouth and needed all the supplemental income they could get, which often meant having all members of the family, including women and children, work for wages.  Employers embraced women and children workers because they felt they could justify paying them less than adult men (even if the women/children were doing the same work as an adult man).  This was due to the prevailing cultural conception of women and youth as inferior to adult men.


Working-class men sometimes viewed women and child workers as a threat and



Most child labor was dangerous and unhealthy. By 1900, nearly 1 in 5 children aged 10-15 was employed. (This figure accounts for all children of all social classes. Surely the ratio for working class families was much higher.)


C.       Hand to Mouth: Working-class families often found it hard to make ends meet. Overall, wages in the era did increase (although it did depend on the industry) – but the Cost of Living also increased. 


The average annual wages for a family of 4 in 1890 were $380.  Yet in that same year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the subsistence income for a family of 4 was $530. 


In general, workers were not sharing in the new wealth being created by industrial capitalism.


  1. Long Hours.  It depended on the industry, but work weeks could be 10, 12, or 14 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week.  Some industries, such as the steel industry, had shifts that were 24 hours on, 24 hours off. 


Many critics thought that the long hours and relentless pace were exploiting the workers.  (This was one of the first working conditions to improve after labor unions became active.)


  1. Unsafe Working Conditions.  There was little attention to safety measures. There were abundant industrial accidents (death, loss of limbs, etc.)  The work also took its toll on workers’ bodies through long-term chronic conditions such as lung diseases and muscular deformities.


  1. No Government Safety Net – in this period, there was no workers’ compensation for workplace accidents, no unemployment insurance, no social security.  This period saw unstable employment and periodic depressions resulting in widespread layoffs, but there was no government help.


  1. Epilogue:  Labor unions and Progressive reformers set out to try to address these problems caused by industrial capitalism.