From 1875 to the turn of the century, America became an industrial power. By 1900, the United States was the world’s foremost industrial nation, a change that was accompanied by similar increases in immigration and population. While most Americans still lived in the country and land devoted to cultivation increased, these were not good times for agricultural workers. Both their economic status and political leverage declined. In the cities, millions of immigrants were joined by an almost equal number of people migrating from rural areas. Industry led by manufacturing enterprises, factories, and railroads provided the jobs while new city dwellers supplied the labor. The Gross Domestic Product, (wealth) grew spectacularly, most of it remaining in the hands of a few.
Cities and towns became safer and more livable with the addition of paved streets, electric lights and basic sanitation measures. The number of Hospitals increased and cities became more alert to the problems of public health bringing improved general health and greater longevity. However, the old health problems of cholera, yellow fever, and influenza were overtaken by cases of tuberculosis (TB), which multiplied in the overcrowded cities. One of every eight deaths during this time was due to tuberculosis.
Fueled by immigration and migration urban growth was breathtaking. In 1870 there were 14 cities with a population greater than a hundred thousand souls. By1910 there were fifty. An estimated 10 million foreign immigrants came to American in the two decades between 1875 and the turn of the century, and another seven million Americans migrated to the cities from the country. Most of the immigrants settled in just a few of the great cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and New York and by 1900 were dominating the urban landscape. Immigration dramatically changed the culture of the cities and neighborhoods and generated a predictable backlash. Anti-Catholic secret societies enjoyed great popularity in the Mid-West and the South. The popularity of the Klu Klux Klan expanded beyond the South and added Catholics and Jews to their hate list.
The major industries of the era: railroads, oil, textiles and steel began merging into what were called “trusts”. The new associations which were essentially vertical and horizontal monopolies designed to control prices, were created by capitalists such as John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. The trusts wielded immense economic and political power. For example, US Steel produced 60% of the nation’s steel and owned 50 thousand acres of timber as well as over a thousand miles of railroad track. In the 1880s, pressure against the trusts began to build and congress passed several acts designed to limit their power; most notable was the Sherman Anti- Trust Act passed in eighteen- ninety. However, the U.S. Supreme Court promptly made a series of rulings that limited anti-trust efforts.
This was capitalism’s zenith. Most political and business leaders subscribed to a philosophy of unfettered capitalism: laissez-faire capitalism, unrestrained by government regulations but supported by government’s legal systems military force. Social Darwinism, a social philosophy that promoted an intolerant attitude towards the less successful, enjoyed great popularity among the upper classes and encouraged their excesses. Many large enterprises employed their own militias, hired Pinkerton agents to police their plants and mills, and created self-contained communities to control their workforce. When those tactics failed to stifle worker resistance, they turned to the government for additional help. Those at the very top of this capitalistic pyramid grew extraordinarily rich. They built elaborate townhouses in the city and opulent summer mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, bought expansive ranches in the west and often traveled on their own private trains. Such was the times that historians have termed the Gilded Age. It was not, however, “gilded” for most people.
Down on the farm, things were not going well. While many rural inhabitants took advantage of the new machines that made planting and harvesting more efficient, the standard of living for most farmers saw little improvement. The price of many farm products dropped and the prices for basic commodities plummeted. Increasing numbers of farmers were pushed off their land either migrating into the city or becoming renters, tenants, hired hands, migrant workers and sharecroppers. By 1900 only 1/3 of all farmers were working their own land. Farmers, feeling exploited by both the high interest charged by the banks and the exorbitant transportation rates fees levied by the railroads, tried to organize. Their efforts were not very successful. Many farm families surrendered and migrated to the cities where they became a significant source of low-wage labor. In the South, cotton production soared, but most of the wealth generated remained in the hands of a few large landowners. Sharecropping became an obvious substitute for slavery; mostly exploiting the illiterate ex-slaves.
While women continued to be frustrated in their campaign for suffrage they benefited from gains in a few areas. By 1900 women were 20% of the American work force. Women workers were dominant in a number of industries such as textiles, the sewing trades, and of course domestic services. They were also prominent in shoe manufacturing and in the tobacco industry. Literacy rates among women increased while land grant state universities and the newly created women’s colleges provided opportunities in higher education. Educated women were not accepted into the professional or business fields; rather they were limited to one of the new female professions such as nursing, teaching, and charity work. Educated women of the late 19th century did not believe they could “have it all”. In a period when more than 90% of all women were married, over 40 % of the era’s educated women never married!
When federal troops were pulled out of the South in 1878, the civil rights of African Americans began to erode. A series of laws were passed that segregated most aspects of southern life. This systematic separation of the races included virtually all aspects of life and required building separate schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods. The laws that became known as Jim Crow laws were strengthened by acts of terrorism by vigilante groups supported by the local power structures and law enforcement officials. Between 1880 and 1900 there were more than a two thousand lynchings, many became public events staged with the acquiescence of local authorities.
Most African Americans, exhausted and demoralized, did their best to avoid confrontation. Some African-American leaders such as Booker T. Washington preached against resistance and advocated continued separation of the races. Angry appeals and demonstrations led by more militant leaders living in the North were generally ignored. The Supreme Court too supported segregation. The court ruled the civil rights act unconstitutional and, in the case of Plessey vs. Ferguson, endorsed the concept of “separate but equal” despite unquestionable evidence that separate was never equal.
In the 1870s Native Americans and their advocates pressured the federal government to support what they hoped was a kinder Indian policy. The new policy endorsed a strategy of assimilation for Native Americans, moving the tribes onto reservations where they could be educated, acculturated and accepted into the broader society. Native Americans living on the plains resisted the policy, and, in the late 1870s, series of battles erupted in the region, the most famous clash was the defeat of General Custer on the Little Big Horn River. Native American forces stood little chance against the U.S. Army and by 1890 most had been moved onto reservations where they became wards of the state. Children were forcibly separated from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were taught that their native culture and values were inferior. The near-extermination of the Buffalo dealt another serious blow to the culture of the Great Plain tribes, which had featured the animal prominently in their rituals and their economy. The real beneficiaries of the “new kinder Indian policy” were the railroads, settlers, and miners who by 1895 occupied more than half the lands previously inhabited by Native Americans.
THE WAR BETWEEN CAPITAL AND LABOR - THE FIRST PHASE
By 1890 agriculture had been displaced as the dominant work activity. By 1900 there were nearly 20 million wageworkers, and most were employed in a highly organized mill, plant, or factory. Long hours were universal, with the 10-hour day and six-day week the norm. Work was dramatically changing. Skilled workers were under constant threat that their hard won skills would become obsolete through the introduction of new application of technology. In many factories, skilled tasks were broken down into small un-skilled or semi-skilled operations and machines were becoming sophisticated enough to duplicate the work of skilled employees. A number of establishments subscribed to employment philosophies that encouraged managers to hire unskilled immigrants at even lower wages. Roughly a third of semi-skilled or unskilled workers were unable to find employment for a substantial periods during a normal year, and most struggled to make ends meet even during periods of full employment. And the work was dangerous. At a time when there were no safety net programs to care for widows and orphans, more than 30 thousand workers a year died on the job and another 500 thousand were injured because of unsafe working environments. Living conditions in the working class sections of the growing cities were horrible. The average living unit of two rooms was crammed with five or six people, creating neighborhoods that were among the most densely populated in the world. Public sanitation in those districts was poor or non-existent.
Most of the wealth created by the expansion of industry was hoarded by a few. By 1910 the richest 10% of the population owned 90% of the nation’s wealth. Working people took notice. Between 1880 and 1900 there were more than 30 thousand strikes involving 6 million workers, nearly a third of the entire industrial workforce! The period between 1875 and 1900 was the just the first phase of a protracted conflict between working people and capitalists over how much of the wealth created by industrialization would be shared with the laboring classes. The first real skirmish came in the late 1870s and it was followed by major labor conflicts throughout the remainder of the century.
The first major clash between capital and labor occurred in the Pennsylvania mines. The Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, a union that was originally a mutual aid society, struck against the Pennsylvania Railroad, an enterprise that controlled the region’s coal mines, great expanses of timber, steel smelters and, of course, the railroad. After the railroad succeeded in breaking the strike, there was a series of murders. Most victims were mid-level mining officials. The railroad immediately embarked on a publicity campaign, designed to attach the blame for the murders on the union. A Pinkerton Agency spy, employed by the railroad to infiltrate the union, claimed that union leaders were behind the murders. Based solely on the testimony of the Pinkerton agent, a number of union leaders were arrested, tried and than hanged. The incident introduced a script that became a standard and was to be played out over the next thirty years in a variety of industrial settings. First, the owners would cut wages or benefits, then the workers would strike, the strike would precipitate violence either by the union members or by private “guards” hired by the owners. The owners then used the violence as an excuse to demand government intervention. The government would intervene, arrest the union leaders and the strike would be broken.
The strikes and the accompanying violence escalated. In 1877 there were the Great Strikes, a series of railroad strikes that eventually involved nearly every town or city that was a railroad center. Eventually the strikes halted railroad traffic throughout the nation and ended only when the governors of ten states mobilized more than 60 thousand troops. Over a hundred people were killed of whom most were workers shot by the troops. Railroad officials blamed “outside agitators” for the violence, while journalists with a more intimate knowledge of events declared that it was a revolt of workingmen against low wages and high prices.
The 1880s saw working people turn to a new type of union organization, a national union that attempted to unite all working people: The Knights Of Labor. The Knights tried to organize anyone who worked for wages including women, African-Americans, cowboys, and domestic workers. The Knights believed that only a union that included hundreds of thousands of workers could be successful in conflicts with industrial interests that were becoming ever larger and more powerful. At its peak in 1885, the Knights Of Labor had enrolled 700 thousand members, campaigned for the 8-hour workweek, the abolition of child labor, equal pay for women workers, and worker’s compensation plans for those injured on the job. The influence of the Knights waned after the Haymarket Square incident, but the idea of a large industrial union that united millions of workers in thousands of industries was a strategy that would linger as a goal for many labor leaders.
The Haymarket Square incident is believed by many to be a major event in labor history. In May of 1866, during a strike between Chicago workers and the McCormick farm equipment plant, Pinkerton detectives shot and killed several workers. At a demonstration the next day, held at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, someone threw a homemade bomb that killed several people including seven policemen. Authorities quickly arrested more than 30 persons, some of whom had not even attended the rally. Eventually, after a very questionable trial eight men were found guilty and sentenced to hang. Four of the men were quickly executed. The governor of Illinois found the proceedings so doubtful that he commuted the remaining men’s sentences and the next governor of Illinois declared the trial a miscarriage of justice and granted the men a pardon.
Violence became a familiar feature of many strikes during the remaining years of the century. In the early 1890s there were the mining wars in Idaho and Colorado as well as another national railroad strike led by workers from the Pullman coachworks plant. In the mid-1890s, in the midst of the worst depression the nation had ever experienced, miners struck in Colorado and shoemakers struck in Massachusetts. Capitalists flexed both their legal and extralegal power during this period. In 1885, the U.S. Supreme Court made one of its most curious rulings when it found a union in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In 1887 The Supreme Court of the United States granted corporations “personhood” with the same the rights and privileges held by a person. This extremely important ruling did not give corporations the same responsibilities as individuals awarding corporations a special status in American business affairs.
That same year in Lattimer, Pennsylvania, a sheriff and his deputies shot and killed 19 coal miners who were members of the newly organized United Mine Workers of America (UMW). The deputies were swiftly acquitted of the crime. Violence erupted in steel mills strikes in Homestead Pennsylvania and in yet another Idaho miners strike. In nearly every one of these incidents the original script was followed: first a strike, then the violence followed by government intervention that supported the owners.
And sometimes it was ugly. Owners and managers became adept at exploiting ethnic frictions, pitting one group against the other. Workers became adept at ferreting out spies, intimidating scabs, and sabotage. Where explosives were commonly employed such as in mining regions workers sometimes resorted to using dynamite as a negotiation tactic. Women were usually excluded from male dominated unions, as many members resented what they saw as unfair competition. African-Americans never found a comfortable home in the union movement and most locals would not admit them. One of the worst examples of racism was the violence directed against Chinese workers. Small-scale intimidation and beatings led quickly to lynchings and riots. Feelings against the Chinese were so strong that, in the 1880s, political pressure forced the government to restrict Chinese immigration. Real progress for working people was limited. What advances that workers were able to achieve, was largely the result of political pressure, pressured that resulted from a coalitions formed between urban workers and disgruntled farmers. The movement, the populist movement, developed in the early 1890s, and enjoyed a fair amount of success before it broke apart at end of the century.
REFORM AND CHARITY
Suffrage advocates attempted to gain their rights by linking their movement to the policies and laws directed as enfranchising African-Americans. Suffragists were frustrated when, during reconstruction, their suffrage was not included with reconstruction. The suffrage movement continued to grow after the Civil War but a split into two branches with quite different goals. The American Suffrage Association, a conservative group led by Lucy Stone and centered in Boston, allowed men to join and believed that the quickest road to women’s suffrage was through a state-by-state strategy. The National Suffrage Association (NSA) led by Susan B. Anthony was centered in New York and was more militant. The NSA advocated for a number of broad social reforms in addition to national suffrage. In 1890 after several decades of conflict, the two groups merged and the more united suffrage movement achieved some modest gains. By 1900, four states had granted women the vote and the issue of national suffrage had become more visible.
Other reforms spearheaded by women were more successful. Temperance was a widely popular movement of the era. Led by Francis Willard, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), was much more than a campaign against alcohol. Under Willard’s leadership the WCTU took on the role as of “protector of the home”, defending family values against the evils of industrialization and capitalism. The WCTU fought against prostitution, child labor, domestic violence and America’s obsession with money while it also advocated for social services, kindergartens, daycare and public education. The organization’s underlying philosophy held capitalism responsible for many of the evils they struggled to abolish; many of its activities and philosophies were decidedly socialistic.
The Women’s Club Movement was another 19th century movement involved in reform. While most clubs devoted the bulk of their energies in sponsored talks and discussions of current events, club members attacked a wide variety of social problems including juvenile delinquency, mental health and sanitation. Offshoots of the club movement joined with charity workers in conducting surveys or investigations into a variety of problems such as immigration and political corruption.
Charity work was another reform activity that employed the energies of large numbers of middle and upper class women. By 1890 charity work had developed two distinct threads. One, a child of the second great awakening, believed that poverty was an individual sin best addressed through institutions designed to change individual behaviors. This branch of the charity movement stressed efficiency and effective institutional management. The dominant form of this branch of charity work, the Charity Organization Societies, put the responsibility for reform firmly on the shoulders of the poor person. Another influential branch of charity work, The Settlement House Movement, was grounded in the third great awakening and viewed poverty as society’s sin. Adherents to this movement focused on reforming the government, particularly big business, rather than on the individual. Consequently, the second thread, lead by the new Settlement House movement, focused its activities aimed at reforming the system.
It would be a mistake to view the major movements and their many children as completely separate undertakings. The reform movements shared many values and, most important, shared members. It was common for an involved, educated woman of this era to be a member of all the causes and to move smoothly from temperance to club to charity work. For example, one inner-city block in New York City housed a settlement house, a charity organization office, a suffrage organization, an association for good government, the office of the local ward boss, and a church.
Most public and private charity efforts were not based on the reformist ideas of the settlement house movement. Rather, they were based on the twisted philosophy of Social Darwinism and were neither well managed nor efficient. States continued to build institutions for various categories of a growing indigent population. Orphanages were especially popular and joined the older indigent institutions such as the poorhouses and mental asylums.
While there was growing public recognition that poorhouses were not good placements for children, the disabled, and the mentally ill, the need for such institutions was always greater than the resources available. Hovering over all these problems was the all too obvious challenge of the able bodied poor, who were poor because they could not find work or because the work they did find paid so little. Traditional approaches to dealing with the able bodied poor were so bankrupt that for much of the era police stations became a major harbor for homeless people. In some cities police stations were housing nearly 10 percent of the adult population. Established charities failed to respond to the growing challenge of unemployment. Several state and local governments reacted to the crisis by passing even more punitive anti-vagrancy measures in a flawed effort to control the growing numbers of homeless workers. Such policies were feeble attempts to solve the problems by outlawing homelessness and poverty.
Working class Americans shunned the charities and workhouses. Instead, they grew more reliant on the help their own informal systems: the unions, fraternal societies, and ethnic associations. In the late 19th century, a number of informal supports proliferated. Nearly one third of working families had at least one member belonging to a fraternal organization. Small working class insurance associations provided life and injury insurance and unions often provided an array of social services such as hospitals and widow’s pensions. Usually the benefits provided by those groups were small, but provided enough relief to allow the recipient time to get back on his feet. Support provided by neighbors, friends and fellow church members were even more important. Early charity workers and settlement residents were astonished by how much informal assistance an immigrant district provided for their residents under the umbrella of fellowship, friendship, neighborliness and politics.
Ironically, the failure of traditional charity shoved many working people, particularly the immigrant workers, into the arms of the corrupt political machines. By 1890, most cities were being managed by political organizations that were dependent on the votes from the largely immigrant working class. While those organizations such as New York’s Tammany Hall, were unashamedly corrupt, they were also often the only source of available help for working class families. In addition to providing for the unemployed, the political machines were a source of food, coal, and shelter during hard times. As one Boston big city boss put it, “ There has to be someone in every ward that a person can go to for help.” An excerpt from the diary of one such ward boss, George Washington Plunkitt provides us with some understanding of how essential this system was for millions of working families.
Strenuous Life of the Tammany District Leader
As the depression of 1893 wore on, a depression that was one of the most severe in American history, it became obvious to many observers that the old panaceas of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility were no longer able to adequately address the problems that industrialization was creating. Even self-help organizations and neighborhood ties began to break under the pressure of extended hardship. While national political and religious leaders continue to be committed to the same tired set of insufficient solutions, a set of new ideas was becoming popular with the working classes. Anarchism, socialism and syndicalism were ideologies that were becoming attractive to a working class that during hard times was served by a conventional system of charities that viewed them with contempt and offered only moralistic platitudes.
MORNING BELL--WINSLOW HOME