The first three units have the thematic focuses of the organization of work and the owners and organizers of work.
Unit 1 Rural and Pre-industrial Work
In the first unit we want to give students an understanding of work as shaped by the conditions of survival in a subsistence economy during the Colonial period of American history. Our students live in a setting that is urban and highly industrialized, where work is exchanged for money, and where money is then used to purchase items needed for survival and pleasure. The focus of this unit is on the ways that life and work in Colonial America differed radically from what we experience now.
First we want to emphasize the rural nature of Colonial society. Most people lived on farms because the most basic condition for survival in the wilderness was the production of food. Because we live in New England we will look primarily at small family farms and villages. We will also examine briefly the differences in the development of agricultural work in New England and the Southeastern seaboard due to their contrasting geographies and climates.
Second, we will look at the necessity of relative economic self-sufficiency for families in a society which had only the rudiments of group organization of work. After asking students to define the basic necessities of life we will show that those which were consumed, as in the case of food, clothing and shelter, and those that were used for production, such as tools, were usually produced by the consumer or made by hand. There were people who specialized in producing products used by other people, i.e., skilled craftsmen and artisans, and these people traded their products for food and other necessities. One major emphasis will be that most people worked for themselves and owned the fruits of their labor. Thus they either provided most of their own necessities or could trade for them directly.
We will touch on the situation of people who came to this country as servants, the conditions of their work and what became of them. We will contrast the myth of land and freedom for all comers and the economic reality for this group, which represented the beginnings of a working, landless poor, with very few possibilities for economic and political well-being.
The main activity of this first unit will be a trip to Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts, an outdoor history museum. There students will have a chance to see an early New England village, a farm, and to participate in several work activities which were common to that period. Classwork relating to the trip will include an introduction to rural town life using a slide show produced by the museum, and the use of one or two teaching packets available through the museum to help students think about work within the home, work outside the home, and the social and economic status of different groups in Colonial society (property owners, artisans, farm helpers, indentured servants, and slaves). The museum also has available for rent a film, “Working in Rural New England.” This is an ideal follow-up to the trip or even a possible substitute for the trip. The activities and materials available through Old Sturbridge Village will also serve as an introduction to Unit 2 of this course.
The Beginnings of the Factory System
Unit 2 is about the beginnings of the factory system and its impact on the organization of work in America. During the 19th century manufacturing came to be one of the dominant features of the U.S. economic systems, particularly in the Northeast. By 1920 the majority of Americans lived in towns or cities so they could work in factories. New Haven is one such city and many of our students will eventually seek work in its factories or serve those who work in factories. We would like them to understand how the factory system came about and how it functions.
Factories were an important economic innovation because by putting more than one producer in a building and by dividing work into limited and specialized tasks, they could produce goods much more quickly than small handcraft shops. Whereas in the past an individual had made one product from start to finish, now people were hired to work on a particular aspect of the final product.
Until the War of 1812 most American wealth was invested in trading. When this trading ceased during the war, wealthy merchants looked for other ways to invest their economic resources. Since the war had temporarily halted the importation of British manufactured goods into the U.S., it was logical for wealthy merchants and traders to begin to invest their capital in the domestic manufacture of goods for consumption within the country. The raw materials and water power to run machines were plentiful here; the information needed to construct machines, especially for the manufacture of textiles, had been available since Samuel Slater smuggled from England the plan for a power loom in 1789. And with the War of 1812, political circumstance produced the capital and incentive for investment in manufacturing.
Eli Whitney’s concept of making and using interchangeable parts in the manufacturing of guns was one concrete and significant development in the beginnings of the system of mass production in the U.S. In 1812, because of the war, Whitney received a contract from the government for 10,000 muskets; these were produced in his factory here in New Haven. By inventing a way of using machines for cutting, grinding, hammering, and polishing identical parts of guns, Whitney was able to reduce the need for skilled craftsmen. Workers were now needed to make the machines for making guns and to run the machines, but they were no longer needed to make each gun individually according to an individual pattern.
By working on only one machine or on one part of a gun, workers also became more removed from the final product of their labor. They did not design this product nor did they control the production process from start to finish.
At least as significant as interchangeable parts in the development of manufacturing and its effect on working history was the rise of the wage system of labor. Before the factory system became important in this country there had been workers—farm hands, servants, and some day laborers—who received wages for their work, but most white males who came to this country had owned some land and a shelter, grown their food, and directly owned or controlled most of the tasks and tools necessary for survival. Even the artisan who specialized in making one product usually owned the product he made and traded or bartered it directly for the other necessities of life.
The coming of the factory system ushered in a major departure from this way of life because for the first time large numbers of people came to work in one place, used tools, and produced a product which was owned by another person. They had only their skills and labor to sell, and in return for this labor, which took almost all of their waking hours, they received wages with which they had to purchase all the necessities of life. They were thus removed not only from the direct products of their labor but also from almost all other means of self-sufficiency.
We see striking early examples of the wage system of labor when we look at the young women who came in from New England farms to work in the first textile mills, one of which was owned by Samuel Slater. Not only did they work in a factory producing thread owned and sold by other people, they also lived in dormitories owned by the factory, where they received strict supervision in almost every aspect of life.
A different but parallel structure grew at the same time in other mills where whole families, including children, worked in the mill. These families often lived in tenements owned by the factory and were obliged to buy their food and clothing in a factory store.
In the early period of manufacturing, when there was a shortage of labor and when skilled workers were in demand, factory work provided relatively high wages and often seemed preferable to the difficult and lonely life of subsistence farming. New technology, changing economic conditions, and an influx of immigrants however would change the conditions of factory work and the wage system. It was in the early years of the l9th century that the stage for rapid industrialization was set.
In addition to using the materials and resources of Old Sturbridge Village as an introduction to this unit, we will study Winslow Homer’s painting,
which is at the Yale Art Gallery. We also expect to visit the Eli Whitney Museum, now in construction in New Haven on the original site of Whitney’s factory. This is a living example of an early factory and will allow us to look at the first use of interchangeable parts in the manufacture of guns.
At the time of the Civil War, fifty years after Eli Whitney started his factory, most people in the United States still lived on farms. Although manufacturing had steadily expanded, the period from about 1860 until 1920 saw an extraordinary growth in the extraction and refinement of raw materials to be used in industrial development, in transportation, especially railroads, and most importantly, in all types of manufacturing. In 1864 the U.S. was fourth in the world in its output of manufactured goods. By 1900 it had become the foremost manufacturing nation in the world.
Unit 3 is about this period of mass industrialization. We will acquaint students with two aspects of this period: first, the changes in the nature of industrial work, and second, the consolidation of economic power and wealth. We will also point out that just as the War of 1812 sparked the initial development of manufacturing in the U.S., so it was the Civil War that created the need for transportation, weaponry, and many other products which touched off the period of mass industrialization.
Leo Huberman aptly characterizes the major change in industrial work after Lincoln’s time when he says in his book,
We The People
, “In his (Lincoln’s) day the worker was all important, with the tool as an addition to him; today the machine is all important, with the worker as an addition to it.” (p. 186) By 1860 the technology introduced by the invention of interchangeable parts and by machines such as the power loom (at the turn of the century) had been greatly refined. Steam power and the development of machine tools, tools that made other machines, had made possible the use of power-driven machinery and greatly increased automation. Electricity would also soon become a major source of power. Over time in many industries the nature of work and its organization were profoundly changed. Work which had been done by hand and organized by skilled workers within an industry was now done by machines more quickly, resulting in enormous increases in production. As this changed occurred, workers lost the control that they had previously exercised over the production process.
It was in the interest of the owners of factories to produce products as cheaply as possible and to sell them for as high a price as possible. The difference between the cost of production and the selling price constituted the manufacturer’s profits, money which owners could then reinvest to increase their wealth. In addition to increasing production through the use of improved technology one other obvious way to increase profits was to lower the cost of production by keeping wages down. For the workers, however, this was clearly unsatisfactory, since they totally depended on their wages to buy the goods and services necessary for survival.
The developments led inevitably to a vast difference in the economic power and resources between the owning class and the working class and meant that the interests of these two classes moved further and further apart and became increasingly antagonistic.
In the steel industry, for example, until 1892 skilled workers as a group had contracted with owners to make steel on a sliding wage scale. The greater the market price of steel, the higher their wages. This meant that these workers shared in the profits and had a personal stake in the success of the business. Worker motivation was not a problem. Skilled workers often hired unskilled workers and paid them out of their own wages. After the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 which broke the union that had bargained for these skilled workers, mechanization was introduced on a massive level in the industry; skilled and unskilled workers were replaced by a category of semi-skilled workers who ran the machines; the sliding wage scale was abolished so that workers no longer shared in profits, and most of the “mental skills” needed to organize the work and the workers were taken over by management, men who were hired and well-paid to represent the interests of the owners.
The period of mass industrialization saw the ascendancy to great economic power of a relatively small group of capitalists, men who owned and controlled machines and money. These were men who realized that control of the production process and use of technology and automation were only two ways of lowering costs and increasing profits. Andrew Carnegie, who owned the Homestead Steel Mill, understood that if he could own or control every business involved in the production and marketing of his steel, from the mines where iron was brought out of the ground to the ships on which it was sent abroad, he would not have to absorb in his costs the profits made by those who supplied raw materials, transported them, or marketed the finished product. Furthermore, if his costs of production could be reduced through ownership of the total process, he could then sell for lower prices and buy out or bankrupt competing steel manufacturers. He did so with great success. Similar stories can be told about John D. Rockefeller in oil, J.P. Morgan, who bought Carnegie’s steel company in 1900 for $492,000,000, and others.
These men made vast fortunes not only because they were brilliant financiers and entrepreneurs, but because they saw the people who worked for them as no more than one part of the cost of production. In the second part of our course we will look more closely at this group of people, the workers, and how they organized to fight back.
The major activities of this unit will be: 1) a visit to a modern, automated factory, possibly Olin-Winchester, so that students can compare the early process of gun-making with the processes used today, 2) a short history, using slides and charts, of one of the great industrial capitalists, probably Andrew Carnegie, and 3) a movie on the period of mass industrialization.