The Lives of Workers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The masses of immigrants landing in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often moved beyond their initial port of entry, New York City, to inhabit other parts of the country. However, New York was, without a doubt, ground zero in the experiment of populating the nation with waves of European arrivals. Another great experiment going on at the time–the reason why most of the immigrants came–was the large-scale industrialization of the nation’s major cities. Never before had so many people lived and worked in such close proximity and under such harrowing conditions. Long hours, poor working conditions, unsafe practices, unsanitary living quarters, and child labor were commonplace.

The masses of immigrants landing in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often moved beyond their initial port of entry, New York City, to inhabit other parts of the country. However, New York was, without a doubt, ground zero in the experiment of populating the nation with waves of European arrivals. Another great experiment going on at the time–the reason why most of the immigrants came–was the large-scale industrialization of the nation’s major cities. Never before had so many people lived and worked in such close proximity and under such harrowing conditions. Long hours, poor working conditions, unsafe practices, unsanitary living quarters, and child labor were commonplace.

In this section, we look at the conditions workers endured at work and at home. There are three accounts of child labor and the home and work environments; indeed, home and work were often indistinguishable, since small items for sale, such as artificial flowers, would be manufactured at home under the strict direction of a parent, guardian, or self-proclaimed entrepreneur. Thus, we present documents from two well-known figures, Jacob Riis (author of How the Other Half Lives) and Jane Addams (social worker and proponent of “settlement houses”), that take child labor as their main subject. Complementing these is a comprehensive report by an activist and philanthropist, Mary Van Kleeck.

We also look at conditions that adult workers faced in the factories. One account, by a young Jewish girl from Poland named Sadie Frowne, provides a glimpse into the world of an immigrant garment worker laboring in the sweatshops by day and trying to have fun and find a marriage partner by night. The piece is short, lively, entertaining, and informative at the same time. Another account, written by the noted writer and activist Upton Sinclair and taken from his famous novel The Jungle, supplies insight into the grim meatpacking industry in Chicago at the dawn of the twentieth century. Sinclair’s descriptions were so effective that they led to reforms in that industry.

We end the section with a document examining fire hazards in New York City factories. Prepared in response to the devastating 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers, the problems identified in the report could be found in many other urban centers at the time.

Categories: History Content