Gilded Age Workers Endure

In 1876, the North had been free from the political and moral restraint of Southerner leaders for 15 years. This morally-superior North had been very concerned about the welfare of black slaves down South not long before, and who at the same time worked children and young women in unhealthy factories for fourteen hours a day. A decent and moral people need no laws to protect young children from abuse such as this, and yet Sumner, Thad Stevens, Garrison, Greeley, all the various abolitionists previously concerned about the plight of those cared for from cradle to grave, remained silent.


Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865


Gilded Age Workers Endure:

 “Factory Life:  For those lucky enough not to be out of work, factory conditions were far from ideal. Skilled workers, who had earned $4.50 to $5 per day in 1873, in 1876 had their wages reduced to between $1.50 and $2. Nevertheless, the New York times chided workers for not accepting wage reductions necessitated by the 1873 Panic; why should skilled laborers who “earned liberal wages…sullenly refuse to accept any reduction…It seems almost incredible than men should be capable of such blind folly.”

Child Labor: In 1876 Massachusetts passed a child-labor law, but child-labor laws were not enforced and had no effect until years later. Thus in 1876, children worked long, hard days and were often involved in very dangerous work. Harper’s Weekly stated:

“Recent legislation in Massachusetts has introduced new regulations for protecting young children from overwork and neglect in factories and workshops. A law which went into operation last March [1876] forbade, under penalty of from twenty to fifty dollars, the employment in any manufacturing, mechanical, or mercantile establishment of children under ten years of age at all, and of children under fourteen, unless during the preceding year the child has attended school at least ten consecutive weeks.”

John F. Weir, “Forging the Shaft, 1877:

“When a workingman was injured in shop, mine or on the railroad, the claim agent of the employing company would at once present himself with an instrument of agreement for the injured man and his wife, if he had one, to sign,” wrote Terrance Powderly. “By the terms of the instrument the company would be released from all responsibility in consideration of the payment of a few dollars. Let me tell you of one such case out of the hundreds I witnessed. A coal miner, a neighbor of mine, had his back injured through a fall of rock in the darkness of the mine. The claim agent called to see him; he asked for time to consider and sent for me. He had a wife and children, his means were meager. I advised against signing a release, and here is what he said: “I am buying this house from the company. If I don’t sign this release, I can never get a day’s work under that company or any other round here, for if I get well I’ll be blacklisted. When my next payment on the house falls due, or the interest not paid we’ll be thrown out on the street. With no work, no money, no friends, what will my wife and babies do? . . . ”

(America in 1876, The Plight of the Poor, Lally Weymouth, Vintage Books, 1976, page 195)



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