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Labor Conditions During the Second Industrial Revolution

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  • 0:05 Work in the Gilded Age
  • 1:53 Hours and Wages in the Factory
  • 3:32 Conditions at Work
  • 6:31 Conditions Gradually Improve
  • 8:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In the period between the Civil War and World War I, the American economy - supported by industry rather than agriculture - boomed. But, not everything glittered in the Gilded Age. Learn about the difficult, dangerous conditions of work during the Second Industrial Revolution.

Work in the Gilded Age

An item that is gilded might look like beautiful, solid gold, but it's concealing something less impressive beneath the surface. Writer Mark Twain once aptly labeled the late 1800s in the United States as the 'Gilded Age.' It was a period of extremes; tycoons like J. P. Morgan (who built the world's first billion-dollar company) enjoyed vast fortunes and fabulous mansions while the bulk of their employees earned pennies a day and lived in squalor.

In the mid-1800s, most Americans still earned their living on farms. By 1900, the American economy revolved around factories. The factory per se wasn't new to the Second Industrial Revolution (lasting roughly from the end of the Civil War through the beginning of World War I), but innovations in technology, materials and management had transformed industry from small operations in which the owner was also the manager of a few dozen employees into massive enterprises through which hundreds - or even thousands - of nameless workers passed, supervised by layers of uncaring bureaucracy.

While the earliest textile factories might have been filled with skilled weavers operating power looms, manufacturing in the Second Industrial Revolution was done increasingly by the machines themselves, with unskilled workers simply pulling a lever or turning a valve. Injured, ill or dissatisfied workers were easily replaced by any of the thousands of immigrants pouring through Ellis Island and other ports every day. Federal regulations as we know them today, including maximum hours, minimum wages, child labor and safety precautions, were nonexistent.

Hours and Wages in the Factory

In 1880, five million Americans were industrial employees (especially immigrants, women and children, who could be paid less than American men for the same work). Wages varied, but the average male, non-farm employee in the year 1900 made about $483 a year, or $1.55 per day. Let's be fair and adjust this figure for inflation. Averaging six days a week, ten hours a day (although 40% worked more than that) without a single paid holiday all year, an American man brought in a little more than $13,000 a year in today's dollars. Male immigrants earned less, women might get half that rate, and children were lucky to get a third.

A young girl who worked in a cotton mill
girl working in cotton mill

According to the photographer Lewis Hine, the girl in the picture above (who wouldn't reveal her age) earned just 48 cents a day after working in the cotton mill for a year. The littlest ones in the photo below weren't actually paid for their work. But, according to the baby girl's mother, she was a 'real help' in the oyster-canning factory, where she stood by her family's side from 3:30 in the morning until 5:00 in the evening.

This young child likely worked beside her family in an oyster-canning factory.
family of workers in an oyster-canning factory

The family in the picture below worked from home, sewing men's pants and earning up to 3 cents per pair.

This family sewed pants for 3 cents per pair.
family that worked during second industrial revolution

Don't be tempted to think that life in the countryside must have been better. Agricultural laborers faced similar circumstances, whether on their own land, as tenant farmers or as seasonal employees.

Conditions at Work

The hours were long, the pay was bad and the work was incredibly dangerous. Records vary, but there were as many as 35,000 workers killed and another million injured on the job in 1900. (In 2011, there were 4,600 work-related fatalities). Unlike today, employers then rarely faced liability for industrial accidents. There were few safety regulations, and fast-spinning machines without guards easily pulled in dresses, fingers, arms and legs. There were no disability pensions, and insurance was rare.

One of the worst industrial accidents in American history took place in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of what is today the Brown Building on the campus of New York University. On March 25, 1911, a bin full of fabric scraps on the 8th floor caught fire - likely from a cigarette butt tossed by a manager. Terrified employees (mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women) tried to find a way out of the inferno. Within 18 minutes, 146 people were dead - half of them teenage girls, two of them just 14.

Everything about the factory made it a death trap. There were a few buckets of water, but not nearly enough to put out a fire. Most of the factory's doors were locked to prevent employees from sneaking out for unauthorized breaks and to minimize theft. Almost all of the remaining unlocked doors opened inward, and in the panic, the employees were crushed against the doors, making it impossible to open them. The wood floors were coated in oil spilled from the sewing machines, and the chairs at which the girls sat were nearly back-to-back in long rows.

A brave elevator operator made four trips to rescue workers before the elevator broke down. As many as 36 women left waiting jumped to their deaths into the elevator shaft. New York had a fire department at that time, but their ladders only reached to the 7th floor. A few workers on the 10th floor (including the owners) used the single fire escape to climb to the roof. But, when those outdoor stairs buckled from heat and the weight of so many people, up to 58 more employees jumped to their deaths on the sidewalk below, their dresses and hair on fire, while thousands of horrified New Yorkers looked on. More people succumbed to the smoke and flames inside.

In response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the city and state of New York passed regulations that would prevent similar tragedies in the future, such as requiring outward-swinging doors that remain unlocked during business hours. Ultimately, these reforms started a movement that led to the creation of a federal department for occupational safety.

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