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article number 440
article date 04-14-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our First Labor Movements 1820-1840
by Edward Channing

From the 1921 book History of the United States Volume 5.

IN colonial days outside of the distinctly Slave States there were no classes in the producing part of the community. In the Middle States and in New England, ministers, lawyers, doctors, and a few men of means had lived somewhat apart from the rest of the people; but otherwise there had been a marked homogeneity in the population.

Markets were very restricted, but there was a good deal of household manufacturing, commodities being made in limited quantities by the family, the hired help, and indentured servants. These goods were mainly sold in the neighborhood except such as were carried by sea to other colonies or to other parts of the world.

In each town there were a few mechanics who worked for wages and in the seaports there were ship carpenters who built and repaired vessels. In some places, shoes, instead of being made on the farm as a home industry, were manufactured in shops, the employer and his operatives working side by side.

This condition of affairs was true also as to a few other trades, but everywhere the master worked with his men and apprentices, and those of his employees who were not married boarded with him.

Roughly speaking there was no wage system, labor being performed by apprentices and indentured servants and hired help who were compensated on a yearly basis.

With the quickening of business life that followed the establishment of the government under the Constitution, with the widening of markets that was brought about by the breaking down of local financial systems and by the development of transportation, these conditions changed. For one thing, indentured service disappears as an institution in the first quarter of the century except as to apprentices and the number of these constantly and rapidly diminished.*

* Apparently the latest advertisement of the sale of indentured servants was in 1817 in a Philadelphia paper and two months later, these men or some of them were still unsold. In the same year a reward of thirty dollars was offered for the return of a redemptioner. This is the latest date of an advertisement offering a real reward for the return of an indentured servant.

There are countless instances of apprentices who did not serve out their time; they ran away from their masters and worked for other employers, — half-journeymen, they were sometimes called. If the apprentices, after a few years of service, were desirous of leaving their masters, the masters seemed to be equally desirous of getting rid of their apprentices.

The laws of most States held the master responsible for the pecuniary obligations of an apprentice, unless he gave notice that an apprentice was no longer in his employ. This the masters frequently did by advertising in the newspapers.

There was, for example, James Van Valkinburgh, Jr., of Canaan, New York. He offered “one old shoe” and no charges paid for the return of “Annonias Gillet,” an apprentice boy. A Baltimore paper of the same year, 1808, announced a reward of five cents and ten lashes to any one bringing home a runaway apprentice girl named Catharine Fowler.*

* Other instances are as follows: ‘The Western Star’ of June 26, 1797, a Massachusetts paper, offered “Two Pence Reward!” for the return of an indentured apprentice of eighteen; the ‘Aurora’ of January 17, 1800, offered “Six Cents Reward” for the return of an apprentice, and the same paper for May 16, 1800, offered two cents reward for the return of a “young bound white girl,” — most of the advertisements adding “no charges paid.”

*(continued) Contrast these with the reward of $100 offered for the return of a negro boy (‘The Mirror,’ July 14, 1808, a Kentucky paper) and $20 for the return of a dark brown horse and roan mare (Western Star, June 26, 1797).

Probably the servants and apprentices yearned to escape from their bonds and thought they could make more as free workers, although with the low wages then prevailing, one would have supposed they would have been better off in their masters’ families; and the anxiety of the masters to escape the performance of all the obligations of care in sickness and in health of the apprentice system and, instead, to pay wages points in the same direction.

By 1815, in all the States north of Maryland, slavery as an effective producing institution had disappeared. There were slaves in New York and Pennsylvania, but the system of gradual emancipation was rapidly putting an end to the institution in all the old Northern States where it still had a legal existence.

By 1820, it may be said that in the Middle States and in New England the wage system was established.


Wages in those days were low when measured in dollars and cents, the hours of labor were long, and the conditions under which the operatives worked were unsanitary and arduous.

In 1800, eighty cents had been the ordinary daily wage for partly skilled labor in rural New England and a few cents less had been paid in the Middle States. This amount had increased to an even dollar or thereabouts in a decade and by 1830 to one dollar and a half. The ordinary laborer received a few cents less and in 1820 his wage may be set down at an even dollar, with possibly twenty-five cents more on government work.

In 1815, there was printed in “Niles’s Register,” which was published at Baltimore, a rather elaborate series of calculations intended to show that the laborer was much better off in America than he was in England. In this article the daily wage of the laborer in America is given at eighty cents with the qualification that most city laborers received from one dollar and a quarter to one dollar and a half.

The price of wheat was stated at one dollar and a half for a bushel of sixty pounds and beef was priced at six cents a pound. From this and other calculations it appears that from eight to twelve cents a day would purchase food for one adult and one day’s labor would provide food for three days for a family of father, mother, and four children.

Running through the decades, it would not be uninteresting to observe how the “real reward” of bone and muscle in terms of daily food has remained singularly constant, notwithstanding the fluctuations in both wages and commodity prices. The rise in real reward has accompanied the change from mere bone and fibre expenditure to the training of muscle and to the use of the mind.

In other words the increase in the “real reward” of the operative classes has come about by the constant advance in skill and in the utilization of mind and nerve for the operation of machinery, and not from any marked rise in the real reward of any one class in the laboring community.

As to the skilled workman in the olden time: in 1806 it was testified in court that a Philadelphia cordwainer could earn six or seven dollars a week on piece work and a very good and rapid worker as high as ten or even twelve dollars.

As to hours and condition of employment, these were taken directly from the custom of the farm, where men and women, and children too, worked from sun to sun — from Sunrise to sunset. Those engaged on piece work as shoemakers and tailors oftentimes labored for twelve, thirteen, or fourteen hours a day, much of it by the light of a candle, or a whale oil, or lard oil, lamp.

When mills and factories were established and the working man went from his own home or bench to a place in his employer’s shop, or a girl came from the parental farm to a factory in a mill town, the accustomed hours of labor were naturally kept up.

As to the conditions of employment, no one in those days knew anything to speak of about hygiene, or the effects of poor ventilation on the human body and mind. In point of fact a closed and hot room was regarded as rather in the nature of a luxury, in the winter time, at any rate.

In those days, also, very little attention was given to the purity of drinking water, and the minor human ailments, that are now recognized as a breeding ground for germs of serious disorders, were not cared for at all. The light that was provided in factory and shop was scanty and harmful to the working people.

Furthermore many of those employed in mills were children, — as they worked on the farm, why should they not labor in the factory?

In 1801, Josiah Quincy, on the beginning of a trip through southeastern New England, visited Pawtucket and gained admittance to the “cotton works.” All the processes of cleaning, carding, spinning, and winding the cotton fibre were performed by machinery actuated by water wheels and “assisted only by children from four to ten years old, and one superintendent.”

There were more than one hundred children employed in the factory and they were paid from twelve to twenty-five cents a day. Quincy pitied those “little creatures, plying in a contracted room, among flyers and coggs, at an age when nature requires for them air, space, and sports. There was a dull dejection in the countenances of all of them,” — their condition must have resembled that of Robert Collyer as he describes his boyhood in England.

As population became dense in the commercial cities and towns and in the factory villages, working people came together in larger and larger groups.

Associating in shop and boarding house they began to compare notes as to their wages and as to the wages paid in other shops and other trades and in other towns, for, as transportation facilities increased, there was more and more migration of the working people from one town to another in the same State or in separate States.

Moreover, as factories were established it became necessary to import workmen from abroad, especially from England and Scotland, to operate machinery that was sometimes imported or, at all events, was strange to the people of the neighborhood in which the new factory was established, and these people brought ideas as to trade societies that had been worked out in their old homes.

Three trades, — the cord-wainers or shoemakers, the tailors, and the printers — were the first to become conscious of class distinctions for in them first of all the employer left his bench by the side of his workman and sat apart in an office busy with the affairs of money, of buying materials, of selling his goods, of getting payments, of enlarging his market.

As the number of working men increased one of them was appointed to overlook the rest and became a foreman or a forewoman.


A group system of employment in these trades first appeared in Philadelphia and New York and it is in those cities that one finds what appears to be the beginning of the movement of organized labor to secure more wages, shorter hours, and better conditions of working.

There may have been a few strikes of shoemakers in colonial days, but the evidence for them is very vague, and it is possible that the printers in one office in Philadelphia “turned out” in the 1780’s, but the evidence for this is even more indistinct.*

* In 1791, the Philadelphia carpenters struck for better conditions of labor; but the accounts of this strike are dim and little is known of the organization.

The Philadelphia cordwainers formed a society in 1794 and “turned out” in 1798 and again in 1799, but the strike of 1805 is the first of which we have ample evidence and this is owing to the fact that in 1806 the leaders in the movement were indicted for criminal conspiracy and the trial in the Mayor’s Court, at which were present the mayor, three aldermen, and the recorder, was fully reported.

It appears that a working man, a journeyman cordwainer, Job Harrison by name, who worked for Mr. Bedford, had been making shoes or dress shoes at nine shillings a pair, side lining them with silk. In 1805, the cordwainers struck to secure larger wages for the making of boots.

Harrison refused to turn out with the rest, partly because he had a sick wife and several children to support and needed all the wages he could get and partly because he could not understand why he, who was satisfied with the price he was getting for the making of shoes, should strike to enable the boot makers to get more for their work.

He was still a member of the Cordwainers’ Society, but he turned “scab” and continued to work. A committee of the working men called on Mr. Bedford and demanded the discharge of Harrison. Upon Bedford’s refusal, the other journeymen, fifteen to twenty in number, walking out, “scabbed” Bedford’s shop, leaving only Harrison and three or four other men at work.

The strikers refused to board at the same house with any of Bedford’s employees, and appointed a “tramping committee” to watch his shop. In an interruption in the court proceedings a person in the room was heard to say that “a scab is a shelter for lice,” whereupon he was fined ten dollars “for this contempt of court in interrupting a witness.”

The strike, or turn out, or stand out was against all the employers in town who had not acceded to the higher wage list for boot making.

The evidence is minute in many particulars, showing that every journeyman who came to Philadelphia was expected to join the society. If he did not, the shop in which he might find work was scabbed until he was discharged or until he joined the society, after paying a fine.

Money was given by the society to needy members out of work.

Scabs were called upon by two or three of the strikers and were evidently frightened, although in 1805, it does not appear that actual violence was used.

Bedford, the employer, testified that the strikers would come by his house and abuse him and that they broke his windows by throwing through them potatoes which had pieces of broken shoemakers’ tacks in them, but violence was not the policy of the society.

He said that he had lost four thousand dollars in business by the strike. Another employer stated that the strike had cost him two thousand dollars in the export business alone.

The lawyers made their addresses on both sides and then Moses Levy, the recorder or judge, made his charge to the jury. He stated the law which he said was “the will of the whole community . . . and the most imperious duty demands our submission to it.”

It was of no importance whether the journeymen or the masters were the prosecutors, whether the defendants were poor, or rich, or their numbers small or great, or whether their motives were to resist the supposed oppression of their masters, or to insist upon extravagant compensation.

The question is whether the defendants are guilty of the offences charged against them. “If they are guilty and were possessed of nine-tenths of the soil of the whole United States, and the patronage of the union, it is the bounden duty of the jury to declare their guilt.”

The indictment charged the defendants with having combined unlawfully to increase the prices usually paid and that they did unlawfully assemble and “corruptly conspire, combine, confederate, and agree together that none of them . . . would work for any master or person whatever, who should employ” any workman who broke any “of the said unlawful rules, orders or bye laws, and that they would by threats and menaces and other injuries” prevent any other workmen from working for such master.

Recorder Levy said that a combination of workmen to raise their wages might be either to benefit themselves or to injure those who do not join their Society. The contemporaneous report made by Thomas Lloyd states that the recorder declared all such combinations to be unlawful.


One of his successors who presided at the trial of the Journeymen Tailors in 1827, stated that Recorder Levy declared that “a combination to resist oppression, not only supposed but real, would be perfectly innocent; where the act to be done, and the means to accomplish [it] are lawful, and the object to be attained meritorious, combination is not conspiracy.”

Levy closed his charge by telling the jurymen that if they could reconcile it with their consciences to find the defendants not guilty, they would do so, otherwise they must bring in a verdict of guilty.

The defendants were convicted and fined eight dollars apiece and costs of the suit.

In the following years there were labor contests in New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere and these brought about prosecutions which usually turned upon the question of conspiracy.

In 1842, in the case of the Commonwealth against Hunt and Others, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of Massachusetts ruled that it was a criminal offence for two or more persons to confederate to do that which is unlawful or criminal.

This rule, he said, was in equal force in England and in Massachusetts; but it depended upon the local law of each country to determine whether the purposes sought to be accomplished by the combination or the means used by the confederates were unlawful or criminal in the respective countries.

He defined a conspiracy as concerted action to accomplish some criminal purpose or by the use of criminal and unlawful means to accomplish something that was not in itself criminal. He went on to say that the inducing all those engaged in the same occupation to become members, an association is not unlawful unless the avowed object of the association is criminal.

Even the purpose of an association that had a tendency to impoverish another person might not be criminal and unlawful; but, on the other hand, might be “highly meritorious and public spirited. The legality of such an association will therefore depend upon the means to be used for its accomplishment.”

In this case as in many others, Chief Justice Shaw furnished the precedent that was followed, not only by the courts in Massachusetts, but in other States as well.

From 1805 to 1820 there were labor contests in different parts of the country but the times were against agitation for higher wages or improved conditions.

Beginning with 1820 and more particularly after 1825, a new chapter opened. The regeneration of the second United States Bank following the transfer of the control from Langdon Cheves to Nicholas Biddle marked a new era of prosperity and growth which was reflected in great activity in building roads and canals and in general business.

All this created a demand for labor and gave laboring men their chance to coerce their employers. At first the great point at issue was the shortening of the old hours of labor, from sun to sun, to ten hours a day.

The march of democracy had placed the franchise in many States within the reach of considerable numbers of working men and in other States where the property qualification had been merely nominal, as in Pennsylvania, arrangements had been made to make political action easier.

The working men argued that they should have more time for educational purposes, that they should have leisure to study and to consult about political matters which they could not do at the end of a thirteen-hour day.

Of course in winter in many trades, where work was performed out of doors, working men had ample leisure in the long evenings to study and to contemplate; but with the cheapening of artificial illumination, with the introduction of gas into Philadelphia and New York and with the more common use of whale oil as an illuminant everywhere, the hours of indoor labor had become more constant throughout the year.


As long as the hours of labor had been short in the winter months and indeed in the early spring and late autumn it had seemed not unreasonable to even up matters by utilizing to the full measure the long hours of daylight of the other five or six months of the year; but, now, when labor was prolonged throughout the year, it seemed reasonable to recover the average yearly time by reducing the length of the work day as a whole.

In June, 1827, several hundred Philadelphia journeymen carpenters “struck out” or “stood out” for the ten-hour day. The movement spread to other trades and to other cities, but was not widely successful at that time, and, indeed, it was not until the oncoming of the War for Southern Independence that ten hours became the standard of a day’s labor in the mechanic trades throughout the country.

The ten-hour movement appealed more strongly to working men as a whole than the earlier contest for wages. The mere fact that all working men — except agricultural laborers and other distinctly unskilled outdoor laborers — were now fighting for some one thing undoubtedly had a good deal to do with the extended character of this movement.

At all events all kinds of trades established organizations and, as all were struggling for the same end, the different trade organizations naturally came together to concert measures of coercion.

This led to the entrance of labor into the political field, to the establishment of working men’s parties in Pennsylvania and New York, and elsewhere. For several years the Working Men placed candidates in the field; but they were no match for the professional politicians and succeeded only as they were able to combine with one or another of the political parties.

In New York, the leaders of Tammany Hall promptly adopted the cause of the “workies.” But after a period of moderate success, the labor movement divorced itself from politics.

These were years of reformations. New York City seems to have vied with Brook Farm in the presence of radicalism.*

* At a labor convention held in Lowell, Massachusetts, March, 1845, Mr. Ryckman of Brook Farm introduced the following resolution which was most enthusiastically received and secured him an election to the presidency of the New England workingmen’s Association: — “Resolved, that this Convention recommend to the N. E. Association to organize as promptly as possible, a permanent Industrial Revolutionary Government to direct the legal political action of the workingmen so as to destroy the hostile relations that at present prevail between capital and labor, and to secure to all the citizens without exception the full and complete development of their faculties.” ‘American Industrial Society,’ viii, 104.

*(continued) Eli Moore, the labor Representative in Congress from New York, speaking in the House on April 29, 1836, declared that the laboring classes were “friends of freedom, in favor of equality of political franchise . . . and opposed to monopolies of all kinds. . . The history of the aristocracy, through all ages of the world, was a continued series of rapine, plunder, villany, and perfidy, without a single ray of honor, virtue, or patriotism.” See the ‘Congressional Globe,’ under date.

*(continued) Seth Luther, an itinerant labor agitator who lectured in the New England mill towns in 1832, declared that “while music floats from quivering strings through perfumed and adorned apartments . . . of the rich; the nerves of the poor woman and child, in the cotton mill, are quivering with almost dying agony, from excessive labor to support this splendor.”

Among the New York reformers was Thomas Skidmore, who had an idea that every citizen should enjoy in society, the rights that belonged to him in a state of nature, although possibly in order to create any society some portion of man’s natural rights had to be abandoned. He argued for true equality among men and advocated the taking away of all property from individuals and its pro-rata division among all adults.

Another radical New York reformer was George Henry Evans, who, like so many of the would-be re-modellers of the American social organization, was an immigrant from England. He had somewhat definite ideas as to the best mode to parcel out property among the people.

The prominence of these reformers, combined with the machinations of the Tammany Hall politicians, killed the political labor movement in New York, as it gave the more conservative elements in the community the chance to stigmatize the Working Men’s Party as contaminated by association with the irreligious and the levellers and with those of anarchical disposition.

The financial measures of 1830 and the next few years brought on a period of terrific speculation. Everything went up in price — houses, lands, food, and clothing — and the working men felt that they, too, must get more money for the only commodity they had to sell, the labor of their hands and bodies.

For a time the ten-hour movement gave way to demands for increased wages. In this era of “prosperity,” as it was called, trades unions, or labor societies, were organized and reorganized by the tens and twenties. No less than one hundred and fifty trade societies appeared in the four cities of New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston, in the four years from 1833 to 1837; and in 1834, at the beginning of the movement, there were twenty-five thousand trade unionists in those cities.*

*They were distajbuted as follows:
New York and Brooklyn - 11,500
Philadelphia - 6,000
Boston - 4,000
Baltimore - 3,500
TOTAL - 25,000

In the same years in the country as a whole there were one hundred and sixty-eight strikes. Of these one hundred and three were for higher wages and twenty-six for a ten-hour day.

All kinds of trades struck, the carpenters, bricklayers, masons, plasterers, and painters — those engaged in the building trades — to the number of thirty-four times; the shoemakers or cordwainers twenty-four times, and the rest scattered among all kinds of employment, tailors, hatters, bakers, sailors, rope makers, printers, mechanics, and so on.


Among the unions of especial interest were those of the seamstresses, female factory hands, female book binders, shoe binders, and umbrella makers. These had unions of their own or formed branches of a union, but where there were only a few women employed in some one trade in one locality, both men and women joined in one union.

Another interesting item is that the factory operatives had begun to strike, the carpet weavers at Thompsonville, Connecticut, for higher wages, the cotton factory hands at Paterson, New Jersey, for an eleven-hour day, and the operatives at Lowell, Massachusetts, against a reduction in wages.

A few of these strikes were against the use of apprentices, and one, that of the Boston printers, was against the employment of girls.

The last of these strikes was in November, 1837.

Then financial panic and hardness of the times resulting in lack of employment, put an end to all sorts of striking and also caused the disruption and disintegration of the trades unions.

Among all these strikes, the one that took place at Philadelphia in the summer of 1835 is particularly interesting. Seventeen trades took part in this movement, the house builders and shoemakers being joined by the leather dressers, plumbers, carters, saddlers, cigar makers, printers, and bakers.

The movement was almost entirely for the ten-hour day, or for higher wages in connection with the ten-hour day. The bakers did not ask for a ten-hour day but demanded the discontinuance of baking on Sundays.

This time the “workies” had the sympathy of the professional classes, — lawyers, physicians, and politicians joining them in their meetings. The politicians were so much impressed with the power of the workers that they provided that city employees should work only from six to six in the summer, allowing one hour for breakfast and one for dinner.

There was no particular disorder at Philadelphia, but in some other places there was more intimidation and physical coercion than had been the case in previous years.

The employers, too, were better organized and in some places and in some trades made use of the black list.

The strike of the weavers at Thompsonville in Connecticut, in 1833, had one or two features out of the ordinary run. The carpet mills at that place had been recently started, operatives had been imported from Britain to work the new machinery and the owners of the mill had established a schedule of wages that, according to their own account, proved to be more than was paid for similar work in other establishments.

When they tried to rectify this matter, the workmen struck, refusing even to finish the carpets that were in the looms. The leading operatives then wrote to friends in other places and to the keeper of the Blue Bonnet Tavern at New York, which seems to have been the rallying point of British operatives in this country.

These letters simply stated that the operatives at Thompsonville had turned out and asked their correspondents to use all their influence to keep others from coming to Thompsonville until the strikers’ object had been attained, and also to give them support in their undertaking.

Certainly influence was used to keep men from going to Thompsonville and those that did get there were urged by the strikers not to work at the mill. The operatives in other factories also sent money to the strikers.

The most interesting case of these years — 1833 to 1837 — was that of the Geneva shoemakers, for the ruling of the Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court in that case was the precedent followed by the New York courts for some years.

The trouble at Geneva originated in the attempt of the bootmakers and shoemakers to compel one of the employers to discharge a workman who was willing to labor for less than the price demanded by the society. The leaders of the society were thereupon indicted for a conspiracy in obstructing the business of boot and shoemaking to the injury of the trade of New York. A clause defining conspiracy as combining to commit an act injurious to public morals or trade had been included in a recent codification of the laws of New York.

The case was carried from the lower court to the State Supreme Court where the Chief Justice laid down the law as required by the clause in the Code of 1829. If, he declared, the working people of Geneva demand so high wages that Geneva-made boots and shoes cannot be sold in competition with those made elsewhere, it was an act injurious to trade.

Moreover, while one man might refuse to work for any particular wage, he had no right to say that others should not work for that amount of money and if one man did not possess such a right a number of men could not possess it.

This case was decided in 1835. In that year also the tailors of the City of New York, having already formed a society, increased the rate of wages demanded for its members and in 1836 the masters also formed a society. The journeyman society had compelled an increase in prices given for its work; but the organized masters, when the dull season came on, reduced the wages and the employees struck.

The evidence in this case is quite as voluminous as was that of the Philadelphia cordwainers, thirty years before. There was now blacklisting, picketing, and coercion.

The leaders of the striking tailors were indicted for conspiracy. The jury found them guilty and the judge, after a week’s intermission, sentenced them to pay heavy fines or go to jail.

In his charge and again in sentencing the convicted journeymen, the judge declared that the law governing the case was an act of the State legislature which not only had reenacted the provision of the Common Law but had added to it a provision that an act must be performed by one or more members of the combination to bring the combination within the scope of the law.

Every individual was master of his own act, the judge said, but he could not encroach upon the rights of others. He might work or not as he pleased, but he “shall not enter into a confederacy with a view of controlling others, and take measures to carry it into effect.”


The Panic of 1837, in relation to the amount of business of the country, was the severest that we have ever experienced, especially as one wave of depression followed another for eight or ten years. Masters and working men were both affected.

In such circumstances the struggle became one for existence, rather than for higher profits and greater wages. There was great misery in many parts of the country and this aroused the attention of the humanitarians and social panaceists. The decade beginning with 1840 was replete with plans for the making over of society to secure justice for all. Association, cooperation, agrarianism followed one another and merged into each other.

Horace Greeley led in the attempt to reconstruct society, giving space in his paper, the ‘New-York Tribune,’ lending money to what seemed to be promising ventures, and using his personal influence for their establishment. The story of the attempt to transplant Fourierism and Icarianism from the Old World to the New is briefly told in another chapter.

Here it need only be said that American working men, whether native born or foreigners, who had been in the country for several years, did not take kindly to any of these experiments in socialism or communism. What they wanted was more wages for a given amount of labor. What these people offered them was no wages and living under social conditions that did not in the least appeal to them.

It is easy to see why all the schemes of association failed: some men will work as hard without supervision as they will under direction, but these soon become masters; other men will do as little work as possible for “a living wage.” Moreover, the early community experiments were not done on a sufficiently large scale for one thing and came into direct competition with more effectively managed private business enterprises for another.

Exactly the same thing happened as to cooperation. This was of two general types, productive cooperation and distributive cooperation.

It would seem, at first glance at any rate, that one hundred workmen joining together and subscribing from their savings or borrowing from Horace Greeley or some other friend of labor, enough money to purchase or hire a factory and procure the necessary materials could utilize their skill and knowledge so advantageously as to be able to undersell a competing work carried on in the usual way with comparatively large overhead expenses.

In other words the elimination of the employer with the consequent elimination of the profit required by him would enable the working men’s factory to pay good wages and live.

On trial, however, it proved to be quite otherwise, for what is every man’s business is no man’s business and where the combining and overseeing faculty is absent, things are not done that should be done, or in the way they should be done, or at the time that they should be done.

In distributive cooperation, there seemed to be much greater hope. The idea was that numbers of persons should each subscribe a small amount of money which should be used to procure a few goods that would be sold to members for the actual cost of purchase plus their share of the actual cost of distribution and, possibly, plus a moderate amount that might be used for enlarging the business.

The plan seemed to offer great possibilities and one could point any doubter to the famous Rochdale system that had been worked out in England. Undoubtedly cooperative buying and selling had and has great advantages for the consumer; but these advantages are often overestimated and are more often very difficult to secure.

These attempts, with the exception of a very few that were either peculiarly fortunate or were much more efficiently managed than the rest, and also always excepting a few of the community settlements, all came to early and untimely ends.

One of the points that attracts attention in the distributive cooperative organizations of the 1840’s was the difficulty that was experienced in apportioning the increased price that should be charged for store management.

In one plan, it was provided that the person in charge should add to each article sold, the exact amount of time consumed by him in the distribution of that particular purchase, — quite forgetful of the possibility that the amount of time consumed in the marketing of a yard of tape might well have been longer than that required in the disposal of a pair of back-strap boots.


A variant of the cooperative community plan was devised by Josiah Warren, who had been a foremost follower of Robert Owen, but had relapsed into excessive individualism.

He devised a scheme by which every one would be spurred on to labor, but there would be no money and no wages. In his plan there would be no laws or regulations, no one would have any power over another, and all intercourse between human beings would be voluntary.

In the transaction of business, everything would be done upon “the principle of an Equal Exchange estimated by the time employed on the service.” This was to be done by ascertaining the average amount of time required to produce various staple articles. These estimates when completed were to be hung up where every one could see them.

Any man or woman producing any commodity and bringing it to the common store would be given a “Labour Note” for the number of hours required to produce the commodity. This note could be exchanged at the store or “magazine” for any goods requiring the same amount of time to produce.

This plan was tried more or less completely in several places, but seems never to have produced satisfactory results.

The founders of some of the first factory towns, recognizing that the establishment of spinning and weaving machinery actuated by water-power would deprive the women of the farms of their chance to labor at the distaff and the hand loom, sought to make the life in the new mill town attractive to the operatives that would be drawn to them from the countryside.

At Waltham, and later at Lowell, wages were offered that attracted young women and the life was so guarded that the young women and their parents had every confidence in their change from the farm house to the factory village.*

* The superiority of the Lowell labor system is adverted to in the evidence given in the ‘Report on Manufactures’ presented to Parliament in 1833, p. 121, where an English banker stated that the founders of the American factory system thought that great care must be taken of the young women who worked in their mills in order that such employment might be considered more respectable than ordinary housework.

Boarding houses were established near the mills which were kept by respectable women, who were generally widows with children, and they were subsidized by the mill corporations to the extent of twenty-five cents per week for each man and half as much for each woman operative.

The board and lodging charged the workers was $1.75 per week for a man and fifty cents less for a girl. At Lowell in 1848, the men operatives averaged $6.05 a week, the women $3.45. The agent of the Lawrence Manufacturing Company estimated that after paying for board and clothing, the latter costing fifty-two dollars a year, the male operative would have a weekly profit of $3.30, and the woman of $1.52.

The hours of labor at Lowell and in the other manufacturing towns were long. The operatives reported for duty at five in the morning and worked until seven at night with time off for breakfast and for dinner.

In the early days the work was not intense. The children who took the full bobbins off the frames and replaced them with empty ones worked only about fifteen minutes in every hour. They occupied the rest of the time in study or play and sometimes went home and helped their mothers in these intervals.

The speed of the machinery was slow, although it was faster than in England and the number of machines tended by any one operative was not large.

Certain it is that notwithstanding the long hours, the Lowell factory girls of the thirties and the forties had time, strength, and inclination for intellectual improvement. Books were abundant and girls came to Lowell and worked in the mills because there they also had opportunity to read.


In 1840 an “Improvement Circle” was organized and, later in the same year the publication of a magazine — “The Lowell Offering” — was begun. The articles were written by the women operatives, although a man’s name was given as editor for the first couple of years so as not to arouse the hostility of the public.

“The Offering” was issued for five years or so and we have Charles Dickens’s authority for the statement that it would “compare advantageously with a great many English annuals.” Of its contributors Lucy Larcom, alone, attained more than local fame. Lowell, indeed, in these early days seems to have been a species of money-making Brook Farm.*

* The Hopedale experiment differed from either of these; it had elements of community life that never existed at Lowell; and lacked entirely the literary stimulus of Lowell and Brook Farm. It was a religious, social, and economic experiment. It was ultra-idealistic. J. H. Benton calls these Hopedale dwellers “religious visionaries” who “claimed all the benefits of citizenship, while they refused to perform any of its duties.” See “Argument” of J. H. Benton, Jun. in Draper Corporations against the People of Milford, 3.

About 1850 a new chapter opened in the history of Lowell and of other New England manufacturing enterprises, as it did in many of those in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The founders of these manufacturing establishments were no longer living or had withdrawn from active business.

Instead of being in the hands of a few men of established fortune, the mills were now owned by numerous stockholders and were managed solely for purposes of gain. The first type of operative also no longer entered their gates.

Lowell had been an educational force in fitting women for clerical work; now the farmers’ girls stayed at home or went directly to the counting-rooms of the cities and their places in the mills were taken by immigrants.

The looms were speeded up, more machines were allotted to each operative, wages were reduced, and so also were the hours of labor. The work became harder and more intense as the decades went by, labor agitators at length obtained a hearing there, and Lowell ceased to be unlike other centres of manufacturing industry.

By 1850, business had picked up again; the trade societies that had gone out of existence or those that had led a lingering life were resuscitated or reorganized and a new contest between labor and capital began. By this time the railroads had influenced production and distribution, both of which were carried on in larger units by men possessed of greater means or banded together in corporations with considerable capital.

The earlier unions had been usually temporary societies, largely governed by idealism as the desire for greater educational opportunities, or the shortening of the hours of labor for hygienic reasons.

The new unions were devoted purely and simply to the task of getting higher wages and they were much more effectively organized and fell under the direction of abler men who made the management of the union their sole occupation.

Then the unions in several cities combined to form a central representative body and in some cases the separate trades unions throughout the country became more or less closely combined into national organizations.

Strikes again became the order of the day; but while there was vigor displayed, there were no new methods employed.

Then came the Panic of 1857 and before it had run its course, the firing on Fort Sumter brought to the front new problems and new conditions.

In the sixty years since 1800, labor had won many distinct triumphs; it had secured the ten-hour day and the right of organization with the power to compel attention to its behests, and it had secured a constantly rising rate of wages.

How far this increase in compensation corresponded to the ever improving conditions of American life is quite another question and may well be reserved for later volumes.

It may also be a question for debate as to whether it is correct to say that the right of organization was admitted, but it certainly is correct to assert that it was viewed with much greater tolerance by the law-makers and by those whose business it was to enforce the laws than it had been in the earlier time.

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