Wikiquote:Transwiki/American History Primary Sources Labor and Working Conditions

Working and Living Conditions

1873 [What will be done] to relieve the necessities of the 10,000 homeless and hungry men and women of our city whose urgent appeals have apparently been disregarded by our public servants? Appeal by labor leaders of New York City during the winter of 1873.

1874 [Never before had] so many of the working classes, skilled and unskilled... been moving from place to place seeking employment that was not to be had. Report of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Labor Statistics.

1877 Labor produces all the wealth of the world.... [The laborer] makes civilization possible. Labor reformer George E. McNeill.

c. 1877 “Work is prayer” and “gospel of work” Phrases representing the importance of thrift, hard work, and individual initiative in life.

c. 1877 Life in a factory is perhaps, with the exception of prison life, the most monotonous life a human being can live. Comment on factory life by a textile worker.


The whole condition of industrial labor has changed in our century. Contrast the state of such labor a century ago with what it is now. Then the handicraftsman worked in his own home, surrounded by his family, upon a task, all the processes of which he had mastered, giving him thus a sense of interest and pride in the work being well and thoroughly done. Now he leaves his home early and returns to it later, working during the day in a huge factory with several hundred other men. The subdivision of labor gives him now only a bit of the whole process to do... whether it be the making of a shoe or of a piano. He cannot be the master of a craft, but only the master of a fragment of the craft. He cannot have the pleasure or pride of the old-time workmen, for he makes nothing...

Steam machinery is slowly taking out of his hands even this fragment of intelligent work, and he is set at feeding and watching the great machine which has been endowed with the brains that once was in the human toiler.

R. Heber Newton.

c. 1901 All the affairs of the village and the conditions of living are regulated entirely by the mill company. Practically speaking, the company owns everything and controls everything, and to a large extent controls everybody in the mill village. From a U.S. Department of Labor report on life in a North Carolina "company town."

c. 1905

The tick of the clock is the boss in his e=anger

The face of the clock has the eye of a foe

The clock — I shudder — Dost hear how it draws me?

It calls me “Machine” and it cries to me “Sew!”

Lower East Side garment worker Morris Rosenfeld

c. 1910 The faces, hands, arms to the elbows of everyone in the room are lack with the color of the cloth on which they are working. Account of workers in a textile sweatshop.

c. 1910 Take all the important decisions out of the hands of workmen. Frederick Winslow Taylor, founder of Scientific Management. Note: workplaces in advanced companies today do the exact opposite.

Industrial Laborers Organize

1866 [Through] cooperation we will become a nation of employers — the employers of our own labor. The wealth of the land will pass into the hands of those who produce it. William Sylvis, founder and president of the National Labor Union (NLU).

1871 From the time of the Chicago fire I became more and more engrossed in the labor struggle and I decided to take an active part in the efforts of the working people to better the conditions under which they worked and lived. Irish immigrant Mary Harris Jones (1830-1930),once called “the most dangerous woman in America,” in The Autobiography of Mother Jones.

1873 Strikes are... as much a disease of the body politic as the measles or indigestion are of our physical organization. Comment of the New York Railroad Gazette on labor conditions following the Panic of 1873.

1877 The overwhelming labor question has dwarfed all other questions into nothing. We have home questions enough to occupy our attention now. An Ohio Republican, on the shifting of attention from Reconstruction to labor unrest.

1886 One of the objects of our Order is the abolition of these distinctions which are maintained by creed or color... My experience... [has] taught me that we have worked so far successfully toward the extinction of these regrettable distinctions. Frank Ferrell, an African American member of the Knights of Labor, at the Knights’ national convention in Richmond, Virginia.

1886 The Knights of Labor have undertaken to test, upon a large scale, the application of compulsion as a means of enforcing their demands. The point to be determined is whether capital or labor shall, in future, determine the terms upon which the invested resources of the nation are to be employed. Henry Clews, “The Folly of Organized Labor,” in North American Review (June 1886)

1886 Investigate the abuses of which our sex is subjected by unscrupulous employers, to agitate the principles which our Order teaches of equal pay for equal work and the abolition of child labor. Demand of 16 women attending the convention of the Knights of Labor.

c. 1886 [A] heterogeneous stew of divergent and discordant customs, languages and institutions [is] impossible to organize. Samuel Gompers, founder and president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), on why he refused to include immigrants in the AFL.

Violent Labor Action


I have told [Police] Captain Schaak, and I stand by it, “if you cannonade us, we shall dynamite you.”

You laugh! Perhaps you think, “you’ll throw no more bombs”; but let me assure you I die happy on the gallows, so confident am I that the hundreds and thousands to whom I have spoken will remember my words;... they will do the bomb throwing!

One of eight defendants in the trial for the violent Haymarket Riot in Chicago (May 3, 1886), in which seven policemen and one civilian were killed.

1894 The struggle... has developed into a contest between the producing classes and the money power of the country. We stand upon the ground that the workmen are entitled to a just proportion of the proceeds of their labor. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist organizer of the American Railway Union (ARU) and of the violent May-July 1894 strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago. 1894 The Debs of fable lighted a fire in the car yards of Chicago. The Debs of fact lighted an idea in the dangerous shadows of the Republic. Editorial in a Unitarian newspaper on Eugene V. Debs

1894 Debs had “the kindest heart that ever beat Betwixt here and the jedgment seat.” Poet James Whicomb Riley, on his friend Eugene V. Debs.