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Interior boiler room, sugar factory

[Detail] Interior boiler room, sugar factory

Lesson Overview

Think about your work environment…are you allowed to rest periodically? Do you earn a decent wage? Can you voice your concerns without losing your job? There was a time when workers in the United States did not have basic rights such as a minimum wage or time for a break.

Work with primary source documents from American Memory to study the working conditions of U.S. laborers at the turn of the century. Answer the question, "Was there a need for organized labor unions?"


Students will:

  • analyze and discuss the significance of primary source documents;
  • describe the working conditions in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century that gave rise to the labor union movement;
  • understand the justification for organized labor unions; and
  • present their justification by using the primary source documents from American Memory to defend their arguments.


Time Required

Three classes

Recommended Grade Level

  • 9-12
  • 6-8


  • Science, Technology & Business
  • City & Regional History


  • Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900
  • Progressive Era to New Era, 1900-1929


Nancy Woodward and Trish Shoemaker, American Memory Fellows 2000