This week's film clip is from The American Experience: Journey to America. It focuses on the immigrants' experience in the dining hall at Ellis Island. The voices are those of actual immigrants.
Emma Lazarus: The New Colossus (1883)
Cheap iron meant boilers could be developed for steam engines (the first was used to pump water from coal mines). Prior to steam power, textile machinery and other types of mechanical devices had been powered by water-wheels. Water power meant that factories had to be located near swiftly running rivers, which often froze in winter, shutting down production. Steam engines could be located anywhere; so factories, mills and shipping could all be connected.
Steam engines made it possible to eliminate both skilled workers and workers hired for their strength. They made it possible to use women and children as factory labor at half the price of male laborers. The horrifying factory conditions of Victorian England, where small children became deaf from the machine noise and blind from doing piecework by gaslight, where a family could barely make enough to eat with everyone working, where any injury lost you your job because there were plenty of others to take your place, where workers lost limbs and lives to machines during 14 hour work days, were well known to Americans.
It's important to be aware of the technology. Coal was the fuel that boiled water in giant boilers, which created steam, which turned turbines, whose direction could be adapted to work machinery. This is still the basic technology used today, even in nuclear power plants, where nuclear fission boils water to turn turbines to provide energy.
Document: Ad: Winton Six Motor Carriage (1909)
Even today, many foundations and grants bear the names of the Robber Barons, using their wealth in the interest of education (Carnegie-Mellon Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation) or museums (Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, Morgan Museum in New York City). At the time, the philanthropic efforts of these Robber Barons formed a sharp contrast to the conditions of the poor. The foundations financed public libraries, universities and museums, but not food relief or improvement in working conditions.
This did not go unnoticed. Even as late as the 1920s, Upton Sinclair's novel "Flivver" was deeply critical of Henry Ford, popularizer of the automotive assembly line. Throughout the novel, Ford is noted as founding philanthropic enterprises and management reorganization schemes, but frequently at the expense of his workers (especially skilled workers demoted to factory line assemblers).
Andrew Carnegie is particularly fascinating. Not only did he sell out his steel works to J.P. Morgan (the only man in the world who could afford it), but he's known for his philanthropy. His donations of libraries were often parodied in newspaper cartoons. Some comedians claimed that if a poor man came to Carnegie's door for help, he'd be given a library.
Other aspects of the Robber Baron's activities are still pertinent in today's business environment. The industrial giants claimed that the creation of monopolies through vertical and horizontal combination improved the quality and price of goods. One company controlling all aspects or elements of production, it was argued, could produce more efficiently, reducing costs to consumers and ensuring quality. They could also control labor, thus keeping wages and costs down. The creation of trusts for prime products (oil, steel, railroads, sugar, etc.) crushed competitors by using economies of scale to undercut prices. The big conglomerates bought out all competition. By the beginning of the 20th century, the government attempted regulation designed to break up trusts and encourage capitalistic competition.
Within the last twenty years, the courts have tried to break up modern "trusts", like the telephone and energy utilities. Although business competition has increased, many consumers don't feel they're receiving better products or service after deregulation. These complaints seem to play into the original ideas of the Robber Barons, although they undercut basic American beliefs in competition.
The Centennial Exhibition of 1876, celebrating 100 years of the United States, took place in Philadelphia, birthplace of the nation. It was really extraordinary.
Certainly Machinery Hall was the most popular attraction, since it displayed the power equipment. One of the most interesting exhibits was a large steam engine with a switch that women were encouraged to pull. The idea was that brawn was no longer necessary in industry; "even a woman" could operate a huge machine. I consider this a symbol of the entrance of large numbers of women and children into industry. Although women had worked in textile mills and other industries as far back as the early nineteenth century, mass production and the use of mass labor were just emerging.
George Washington's false teeth were also on display. Contrary to popular belief, only the gums were made of wood (which softened when moist); the teeth were ivory.
Alexander Graham Bell was actually still inventing the telephone during the Exhibition; it would have been possible to see him running back and forth across the exhibit hall between two of his prototypes.
The Exposition cost eleven million dollars to stage, and was designed to show the U.S. as a country of progress and power after the shame of the Civil War and disturbances in political stability.
Document: A Complete Home: Geo. F. Barber and Co. (1892)
Home life was also affected by technology. By 1890, 24% of U.S. households had running water and 8% had electricity. In big cities, urban engineering was developed to create sewer systems, enabling indoor plumbing and sanitation. A lot of the credit goes to Civil War veteran Julius W. Adams, who not only designedthe first planned sewer system for New York, but wrote a textbook on the subject in 1880. Sewer systems significantly lowered water-borne diseases of all kinds, which were endemic in big cities. Other innovations for the home included toasters, waffle-irons, non-electric vaccuum cleaners, electric irons, even popcorn machines. Many of these were sold as time-savers for housewives, products which would make their lives easier.But these products did not make women's work easier.
Historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan's book More Work For Mother (NY: Basic Books, Inc. 1983) articulated the idea that the domestic technology revolution of the 1880s actually increased work, and she backed it up with historical research. It turns out that new technology not only caused changes in perceptions of housework, but also made housework exclusively a female task. An example was rug-cleaning. Prior to the vacuum cleaner, rugs were dragged outside every few months, usually by a hearty male member of the household. They were beaten with carpet-beaters to get out the dirt, aired, and brought back inside. The vacuum cleaner made it possible to clean the carpet more frequently, which changed the standard of cleanliness. The expectation became that the carpet would be cleaned once a month, or once a week. And with the vacuum cleaner so easy to use, the woman became the only carpet cleaner.
The situation with laundry was similar. Prior to the washing machine, middle-class families sent laundry out to have it done (providing jobs for Chinese families). Lower-class and rural families sometimes made it an occasion, with many family members dragging out the tub or dragging the clothes down to the river. Early washing machines were hardly more than powered tubs which shook the clothes, water and soap. Sometimes they agitated so much they "walked" across the kitchen! Washing machines (even when the dryer consisted of a squeeze-roller wringer mounted on top and a clothesline outside in the sun) increased the expectation that clothes be washed more frequently. Instead of taking your clothes off and airing them for tomorrow, you expected "mom" to do laundry every day.
To a certain extent, the upper and middle class home represented not only status, but also status as an aspect of conspicuous consumption. Ones home showed that ones husband was someone in the business world, that he could afford not only the necessities but more wasteful luxury items. These items, from expensive clothing to appliances to extravagant hobbies like boating or horseback riding, showed society that you had money, even if you weren't in the highest social circles. And sacrifices would be made for this show.
Document: Thorstein Veblen: Conspicuous Consumption (1899)audio
The middle-class "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality and the desire to show off wealth was a hallmark of this period. As you read Thorstein Veblen's analysis of this situation, think to yourself:
One of the most important pieces of furniture in the parlor was the piano. The sheet music industry, known as Tin Pan Alley, made a fortune as middle-class families sang songs, accompanied by someone in the family (usually Mom) at the piano. There were romantic love songs, songs about heading west, silly songs. Sometimes the music originated in music halls and the lyrics were adapted for an upscale audience. Buying the latest published sheet music was the way people knew what the popular songs of the day were.
Stephen Foster was one of the most popular writers of ballads, or love songs, in the mid-19th century. "Beautiful Dreamer", one of the last songs he wrote, was probably the most popular.
Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee.
Sounds of the rude world heard in the day,
Lull'd by the moonlight have all pass'd away.
Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song,
List while I woo thee with soft melody,
Gone are the cares of life's busy throng,
Beautiful dreamer awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea,
Mermaids are chanting the wild lorelie;
Over the streamlet vapors are borne,
Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn.
Beautiful dreamer, beam in my heart,
E'en as the morn on the streamlet and sea;
Then will all clouds of sorrow depart,
Beautiful dreamer awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer awake unto me!
Another popular sentimental ballad, often sung around the piano, was "After the Ball". This song is also one of the many examples of songs that became popular in the music- halls of Europe as well as the U.S. This song was the first to sell over a million copies.
After the Ball
After the ball is over,
After the break of morn,
After the dancers' leaving,
After the stars are gone;
many a heart is aching,
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished,
After the ball.
"Down by the Old Mill Stream", was a popular Tin Pan Alley number.
Document: Down by the Old Mill Stream (1910) audio
AfricanAmerican culture impacted popular music in many ways; the development of blues and ragtime, which led to jazz, are good examples. The next sound clip was written by Scott Joplin in 1902, and is titled "Elite Syncopations". It demonstrates the piano ragtime sound.
Since Reconstruction, there had been two directions, often conflicting, to integrate former slaves into mainstream America. The central division was between a focus on economics and a focus on political power and representation.
Reconstruction had been a time when promised for economic status were made, but often broken. With the abandonment of the South by the federal government in 1877, and the resurgence of the KKK, political power seemed stalled.
Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington was a black leader who focused on education, in particular what we would today call vocational education, to create opportunity for AfricanAmericans. In 1881 he founded the Tuskegee Institute, a teachers' college in Alabama where teachers were trained to school students in rural communities. He was an outstanding fund-raiser for schools, and raised money from wealthy whites and powerful political figures. You should be aware that his program, although innovative for the time and much lauded by middle-class liberals, was also much criticized. Washington's intent was to help educate people ina way that would be useful to society, and that blacks would gain political power only by proving themselves as reliable working citizens. By focusing on economic and vocational improvement, Booker T. was postponing and, in some ways, opposing higher education for blacks. By the time we read about the Progressives, W.E.B. DuBois will emerge in opposition to Washington's program, saying that it undermined total equality for AfricanAmericans.
Not surprisingly, politically there were many efforts to prevent AfricanAmericans from advancing too much. In 1890, the state of Louisiana passed a law requiring separate areas for blacks and whites on railroads. It came to the Supreme Court as Plessy v Ferguson in 1896. The first Supreme Court Case to test the law was based on rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, in particular "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Court decided that separation of races did not violate this, because it did not imply inferiority or superiority of either race to separate them. This decision legitimized the separation of races in many other areas, including public libraries, public bathrooms, and public schools. The decision was not overturned until 1954 with Brown v Board of Educaiton.
Document: Plessy v Ferguson (1896)
Prior to the Civil War, organized groups of workers were relatively rare, though there had been labor strikes at textile mills during the 1830s. Other groups tended to be regional, organizing to bargain for better pay or working conditions with a single company or in one small area. Unions got larger as they campaigned for common goals, such as resistance to work being done by machines or by unskilled labor in trades where skilled labor had been the tradition (such as shoe making and clothing production). By 1890 the biggest union, the Knights of Labor, had almost 700,000 members. Robber barons (such as railroad tycoon Jay Gould) began responding to strikes with strikebreakers (non-union workers) and committing violent acts against strikers in the name of protecting their property. Such conflicts could escalate, and when it did the public tended to side against workers committing violent acts, even when hired hands committed them against the strikers for pay.
One fear was that radical political elements could be using unions to destroy capitalism. Keep in mind that the 1880s may have been over 30 years after Marx and Engels' The Communist Manifesto, supporting workers' revolution, but it was almost 40 years before the Russian Revolution based on those principles. In 1886, a strike in Haymarket Square in Chicago turned ugly when someone threw a dynamite bomb at police trying to disperse strikers. The response was to try eight anarchists for murder. Anarchists were radicals who believed in voluntary government, that people should not have to consent to government if it deprived them of total freedom. Their philosophy of the common ownership of property made them the natural enemies of capitalist robber barons and natural allies of the labor movement, though they were unable to control the unions. The Haymarket strike had begun on May 1 because that had been declared the day for forcing the eight-hour day to become standard for workers. The strike had turned nasty on May 3, when strikebreakers tried to cross the picket line, and police fired into the crowd trying to stop them. The bomb-throwing occurred on May 4.
To this day, May 1 (May Day) is Labor Day around the world. Only in the U.S. is it celebrated in September, because of memories of Haymarket.
The Pullman Strike occurred in 1894 as a result of reduced wages for railroad workers and 16-hour workdays at the Pullman Palace Car Company, a response to the financial panic of 1893. The American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, supported the workers by launching a boycott against Pullman, causing 125,000 workers to walk off the job. When a compromise could not be reached, U.S. Marshals and 12,000 Army troops sent by President Cleveland broke the strike. In partial recompense, Congress made Labor Day (in September, not May) a national holiday, but the damage had been done to unions. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, intended to be used to prevent major companies from stifling competition, was a potent weapon against unions. It declared illegal "every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce". Until 1933, the government used it to defeat unions and make their strikes illegal.
The text by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.
The voice audio by Lisa M. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
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