America at Work
The period from 1894 to 1915 was a period of change, unrest, and economic uncertainty for the workers of the United States. Industrialism was growing largely unchecked in the United States after the Civil War, creating new jobs and new problems simultaneously. Immigration was continuing in unprecedented numbers, especially from eastern and southern Europe, forever altering the makeup of the workforce. A depression had begun in 1893 (following two others in the previous twenty years), forcing some plants to close and many workers into the ranks of the unemployed. Disputes between labor and management were rife. But from these tumultuous years grew many of the initiatives that have continued today, including the increased presence of women in the workforce, workers' benefits, the prevalence of white-collar and retail jobs, and the need for reasonable work hours, vacations, and safe working conditions.
In the 1890s, cities grew as more Americans took urban industrial work. As one of the leading industrial powers of the period, the United States had a variety of enterprises, including the manufacture of iron, steel, crude oil, and textiles. This trend marked a shift from a more agrarian way of life to that of labor for wages. Immigrants would generally arrive in the cities and take up factory work there to make a living. Working-class and immigrant families often needed to have many family members, including women and children, work in factories to survive.
The working conditions in factories were often harsh. Hours were long, typically ten to twelve hours a day. Working conditions were frequently unsafe and led to deadly accidents. Tasks tended to be divided for efficiency's sake which led to repetitive and monotonous work for employees.
Workers fought their often demeaning work conditions by uniting together into collective groups and unions. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), for example, was created in 1886 for skilled craftsmen under the leadership of Samuel Gompers. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), formed in 1905, also included unskilled workers in its ranks. In this period of labor unrest, many members in these groups were politically radical, supporting anarchism, communism, and socialism as tools of change. Groups such as these would organize strikes and boycotts in order to get management to acquiesce to their demands. In their early years, however, these labor groups were rarely successful, as the capitalists often resorted to government support to enforce their policies on laborers. The Pullman Strike was one such instance where the government squelched a railway workers' strike by attaching mail cars to all the trains and then invoking the law that made it illegal to impede the movement of mail.
Instances such as this caused many to see the excesses of American business and the need for reform. In what was known as the Progressive Era, roughly from 1900 to World War I, reformers sought to improve the lot of the underprivileged of America by rectifying perceived wrongs. President Theodore Roosevelt supported regulation of big business and sometimes supported workers' rights against the interests of industry. During Woodrow Wilson's presidency, Progressive principles were furthered when statutes were passed for an eight-hour workday for railroad workers, workers' compensation, and regulation of child labor.
In response to criticisms aimed at industry, some companies instituted "welfare capitalism," giving employees special benefits to secure loyalty and to prevent the creation of unions. Some of the benefits included subsidized housing, libraries, and employee social clubs. The Westinghouse Works used such initiatives, which ultimately failed as a whole when unionism became more powerful in the United States. Films of Westinghouse made in 1904 are included in this collection.
This period also saw the rapid growth of white-collar jobs as industrial capitalism led to the need for more administrative and clerical workers. Such workers began to be classified with managers in the census as opposed to being classified with skilled craftsmen and unskilled labor. The white-collar workers were further distinguished by earning salaries instead of wages by the hour or piece of work. White-collar jobs required at least a high-school education and certain conventions of deportment and dress that the blue-collar jobs did not. A social stratification began to emerge that made white-collar jobs seem more prestigious to many than blue-collar ones. Children of immigrants would aspire to such jobs to increase their social standing in a society that was often prejudiced against newcomers.
Although industry was the primary force of this period, many people still maintained farms across the country. Farming was likely to be subject to periods of financial instability since profits relied on the unpredictability of crops and the marketplace. Still, the number of farms increased in the West, especially in the Great Plains area, and many formed cooperatives to sell their produce and to buy goods. In the South, small farmers were even more economically insecure since the Civil War had left the region largely in debt. Many, especially African Americans, were sharecroppers who had to give part of what they produced to the owner of the land.
In the West, cities sprang up around the massive cattle trade. The economy there was largely focused on grain farming, cattle ranching, lumber, and the mining of metal and coal.
This era also saw the development of department stores and retail jobs in urban areas. Industrial capitalism had succeeded in producing more goods for the consumer to buy, which led to the increased need for sales people. Retail jobs were seen by many as more respectable than factory work, especially for women, who were finding increasing opportunities in this venue.
One development of this period was the increase of women working outside their homes. Still, society dictated limited choices for them. The most frequent occupations that were considered respectable for women at the time included factory work, frequently in the garment or textile industries, teaching, nursing, domestic service, work in department stores, or clerical work in offices. Women were paid less than men, even for doing the same jobs, because men were perceived as the family breadwinners and women were thought to be better suited to domesticity (even though many women worked outside the home throughout their lives). There was a perceived hierarchy to jobs that women could obtain which mirrored the stratification occurring with men's jobs. Factory jobs were considered superior to domestic service since a woman had more control over her free time in such jobs than as a live-in servant. Jobs in department stores were thought to be a cut above factory jobs and occasionally offered women management or buying opportunities. Clerical work was a field readily open to women, and more prestigious than some jobs because of the education and deportment associated with it.
African Americans were also generally limited in their work opportunities. In the South, most were sharecroppers, agricultural wage laborers, or small landowners Others worked in industrial jobs, mining, and forestry. In cities, many performed unskilled labor tasks such as loading freight. African-American women frequently worked as domestic servants and laundresses. Additionally there were skilled African Americans who worked as blacksmiths and carpenters or railway workers. In Northern cities, African Americans generally held a better economic position than did their Southern peers. Still, their options were limited, also, as the majority performed labor or service work. Common occupations for men were janitors, servants, and waiters. Women were housekeepers, servants, laundresses, and waitresses.
The films in this collection show a wide variety of jobs from the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, including industrial jobs, cattle breeding in the West, and public service jobs such as the police and fire fighters. A series of films taken of the U.S. Postal Office's operations in 1903 is a special highlight of the collection. Most of the postal films were taken in Washington, D.C., quite possibly at the Washington City Post Office (first occupied in 1898 and still standing today, known as the Old Post Office Pavilion). The motion pictures of rural free delivery service (instituted in 1896) were filmed in adjacent areas of Maryland.
[Sources for essay: see Selected Bibliography.]
NOTE: Film titles used in this presentation are the original production titles, which may include archaic or incorrect spellings.
Topics for Work
Industrial and manufacturing work *
* For more information on the Westinghouse Works, go to Inside an American Factory: Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904.