• Notes From The Frontier

In Praise of the Working Man

The famous poet, writer and champion of the common man, Walt Whitman, in 1855 wrote “Poem of the Daily Work of The Workmen and Workwomen of These States.” The poem exalted human toil of the Industrial Revolution. He praised the working man and woman, believed their hard labor had value and that their efforts were building a new nation. He believed in a living wage and deplored greed for wealth, slavery, oppression of the poor, and the widening gap between the classes. Following is a brief excerpt of his poem:


This is the poem of occupations; In the labor of engines and trades, and the labor of fields, I find eternal meanings. Workmen and Workwomen! Offspring of ignorant and poor, boys apprenticed to trades, working on farms, Sailor-men, merchant-men, immigrants, House-building, blacksmithing, glass-blowing, Ship-joining, dock-building, fish-curing, ferrying, The pump, the pile-driver, the great derrick, the brick-kiln, Coal-mines, the lamps in the darkness, echoes songs, Iron-works, the great mills and factories; The slaughter-house of the butcher, the killing-hammer, The hoghook, scalder's tub, gutting, the cutter's cleaver, The men and work of men, on railroads, fish-boats, canals; The daily routine of shop, yard, store, or factory; In them the heft of the heaviest, In them far more than you estimated, In things best known to you, finding the best, Happiness, knowledge, not in another place, but this place; You workwomen and workmen of these States

having your own divine and strong life.

Despite the accolades of poets extoling the virtues of the emerging working class, the cogs of the Industrial Revolution loomed grinding and monstrous over the individual worker and killed and maimed workers at spectacular rates. Factory owners looked at profit margins and saw the laboring masses as simply a cost that must be minimized.


Accidents and disasters were viewed as the necessary cost of doing business. Workers were easily replaced by the influx of immigrants who arrived often starving, destitute and willing to work for low wages. There was no impetus to pay a livable wage or spend money to improve working conditions, nor did any laws or protections for workers exist.

The emerging factories and mills of the 1800s were colossally dangerous. The three most dangerous industries were mining, railroads and steel mills. Official on-the-job fatalities and injuries were not reported until around 1913 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor. But devastating industrial disasters bespoke the peril.

As an example, in 1898, about 9% of steel workers died on-the-job, crushed by cauldrons of molten steel, falling cranes, huge ladles, trains, switching operations, slag pit avalanches, or overcome by noxious fumes, chemicals or fires. Coal mining and the railroad industry comprised about half of worker deaths in 1900, but reporting was still spotty and poorly enforced in industry and agriculture. In 1907 alone, there were 3,242 coal mining accidents. That year also claimed the worst mining disaster in U.S. history in Monongah, West Virginia, killing 362 men. (This did not take into account black lung deaths.) In the 20 years from 1907-1927, there were more than 20 major mine disasters that AVERAGED 161 deaths each.

Factories and mills were also dangerous. The 1850 Hague Street Explosion of a New York hat manufacturer killed 63 and injured 70. The Pemberton Mill collapse of a five-story factory in 1860 in Lawrence, Massachusetts killed 145 and injured 166. An 1878 explosion at the Washburn Mill, the world’s 4th largest flour mill in Minneapolis, killed 15. The 1905 Grover Shoe factory collapse in Brockton, Massachusetts, killed 58 and injured 150.

Construction, too, was unregulated and extremely dangerous. The building of the Brooklyn Bridge from 1869-1883 cost 50 lives. The Chicago tunnel disaster of 1909 killed 60. The building of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in West Virginia that began in 1927 cost between 500 and 3,000 workers’ lives, although the exact number will never be known. The construction builders of New York’s skyscrapers were chronicled in the famous photographs of Lewis Hine. The New York Daily News reported that 14 men were killed during construction of the Empire State Building.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was established in 1884, then transferred to the Bureau of Labor in 1913. In 1913, the Bureau of Labor documented approximately 23,000 industrial deaths among a workforce of 38 million, equivalent to a rate of 61 deaths per 100,000 workers (compared to 3.5 per 100,000 in 2017). The Bureau was created due to the labor movement, but the struggle had been gestating for 20 years, started by leading labor leader William Sylvis after the Civil War. He held that government departments threw their protective arms around businesses fostering wealth, while no department had as its "sole object the care and protection of laborers."

Between 1864 and 1900, more than 100 bills and resolutions relating to a Department of Labor were introduced in Congress. In 1867, the House of Representatives created a committee on labor, marking the first Federal recognition of labor's importance. But powerful business interests repeatedly defeated the creation of a national Department of Labor until it became official in 1913.

The roots of the labor movement in the U.S. however, dated way back to the ideals of the American Revolution that championed social equality, honest labor, and an independent, virtuous citizenship. Industrial capitalism broadened the chasm between rich and the working poor, factory owners and workers, and seemed to devalue labor of the common people.

The earliest recorded strike in U.S. history occurred in 1768 when New York journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction. The 1794 formation of the first union, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) in Philadelphia marked the beginning of trade union organization among American workers. Many other guilds and unions began to spring up. In the 1830s, the Workingmen’s Party launched labor reforms that spanned all of the nineteenth century. The National Labor Union was formed in 1866 and the Knights of Labor in 1869.

The United States has the bloodiest labor history in the world. It spanned more than two centuries of strikes that cost thousands of lives in the struggle for better working conditions, a livable wage, and worker protections and many millions of dollars in business losses. Chief among them were: The Haymarket Strike of 1886 in Chicago where 80,000 workers rallied and 11 died; The Homestead Strike in 1892 in Pennsylvania between Carnegie Steel and the Amalgamated Association of Steel Workers in which 12 died; The 1894 Pullman Strike in Chicago between Pullman Railroad Car Company and The American Railway Union in which 30 died; The Ludlow Massacre in Colorado between Colorado Iron Co. and United Mine Workers of America in 1914 in which up to 200 died; The Battle of Matewan, West Virginia, in 1920 between Stone Mountain Coal Corp. and United Mine Workers in which 10 died.

Lewis Hine, perhaps the greatest photographer of the American working man and woman, celebrated the blood, sweat and tears of the American worker. Even though he himself was frequently threatened with violence or death by factory guards and police, he hoped that his photographs would enlighten the issues of social equality and the honor of hard work. As he famously said: “Photography can light up darkness and expose ignorance.”

PHOTOS: (1) Perhaps the most famous photograph of ironworkers, popularly thought to be taken by famous photographer, Lewis Hine, on the unfinished Empire State Building in 1932. But, in fact, the photographer is unknown and the site is above the construction of Rockefeller Center. (2) One of Lewis Hine’s most iconic photographs of a powerhouse mechanic working on a steam pump in 1920. Hine famously chronicled the common working man and woman of America. (3) Working conditions of steel mill workers was one of the most dangerous jobs in the 19th and 20th centuries. (4) The Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, was one of the largest mass demonstrations and strikes in U.S. history and involved 20,000 workers of 40 nationalities. They were protesting salary cuts and working conditions. Lawrence, Massachusetts, had a long history of labor unrest and one of the worst factory disasters in history, when the five-story Pemberton Mill collapsed in 1860, killing 145 and injuring 166. (5) A meat packing plant at the turn of the century. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book “The Jungle” exposed horrific working conditions and unsanitary practices in U.S. meat packing plants. (6) Railroad work was one of most dangerous industries, after coal mining.


© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER

Posted September 6, 2019

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  • Notes From the Frontier