A version of this essay appeared on Stonekettle Station several years ago. I was going to write a new post for 2013’s Labor Day, and realized I’d said pretty much everything I have to say on the subject. I’ve cleaned it up, changed a few words, and added some new thoughts. It amuses me when people talk about the good ol’ days. //Jim
You ever stop to wonder what you life would be like if you lived a hundred years ago?
Imagine what it was like to be your great grandparents here in America.
A hundred years ago, the United States was in the middle of the Second Industrial Revolution.
It was a time of wonder and ever advancing technology.
The first Industrial Revolution began in the 1830’s with coal and steam. The Second Industrial Revolution began in the 1860’s and would last right up until the beginning of World War I. It began with steel, the Bessemer process to be specific, a cheap and easy way to mass produce strong and reasonably lightweight metals. Strong lightweight steel was the skeleton of the modern age, the core of everything from the new cars to steamships and oil rigs to utensils and lunchboxes, to the machines that manufactured the future, to the finest handgun ever made – Colt’s model 1911, named for its year of first issue and still in production more than a century later. In 1911 a tall skinny fellow by the name of Eugene Ely landed a Curtiss #2 Naval Pusher on the deck of USS Pennsylvania and took off again – and thus was born naval aviation, a profound moment that would change the very way wars were fought and thus change almost everything else too. Many of the pilots who, a few years later, would fly over the battlefields of WWI carried Colt’s Model 1911. For the first time, you could buy a Cadillac with an electric starter – and despite the fact that there were still plenty of horses out there on the roads, the car had become so ubiquitous, affordable to almost anyone, that Michigan created the first modern roads when the state started painting white lines down the middle of the more heavily traveled avenues. Electricity itself was no longer a novelty. Though many factories were still powered by steam, electricity was becoming increasingly common. The first modern public elevator began operation in London, England, and soon became common everywhere – leading directly to the modern city skyline.
A century ago America was booming. Her factories were churning out new products at a record pace. The western frontier had all but disappeared – oh, there were still a few bandits and cattle rustlers out there, but the wild wooly west was long gone. The gold rushes, the boom towns and gun fights were long over. Hell, Wyatt Earp was living in Los Angeles working as a “trouble-shooter” for the city police department. He’d fought his last armed battle in 1910 and would soon move to Hollywood as a consultant for the new movie industry.
It was certainly a marvelous time.
If you could afford it.
If you lived through it.
See, those churning factories were horrible places.
Most were still powered by a massive central steam engine which drove an enormous flywheel, which in turn powered shafts and belts and pulleys, which finally powered the machines. And though, as noted above, electricity was becoming increasingly common, most of those factories were gloomy dimly lit dungeons illuminated solely by the light coming in through skylights and banks of single pane glazed windows. Often boiling hellholes in the summer and freezing dungeons in the winter – both air conditioning and central heating were still decades away – the buildings were filled with smoke and poisonous fumes from the various manufacturing processes, lead vapor, heavy metals, acids, chlorine, bleaches, all were common. Normal working hours were from dawn to dusk, typically anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours a day, sixty and seventy hours per week for wages that would barely pay the rent and put food on a factory worker’s table.
Child labor was common, especially in the textile industry, though in some states there were supposed to be laws regulating it. The kids toiled right alongside their parents. The children typically worked the same hours as adults, but for a quarter, or less, of the pay. Pictures of the time show children working barefoot among the machines, ragged sleeves flapping near the flying belts and spinning pulleys, squinting in the dim light, eyes tearing from the fumes. Whole families hired out to the factories, the men doing the heavy labor, the women and children doing the more delicate tasks.
Towns sprang up around the mills, often controlled by the factory owners. Company towns, where workers very often became little more than indentured servants. Life in a company town was often better than the alternative on the streets or in places like Hell’s Kitchen or out in the fields of the South. Company towns gave workers a higher standard of living than they would otherwise be able to afford.
But the running joke was that while your soul might belong to God, your ass belonged to the company.
Mill towns and mining towns and factory towns and logging towns were common across America, places where the company owned everything from your house to your job to the church you prayed in to the store you bought your food from. And prices were whatever made the company the most profit, and there was no law regulating what the company could charge or what rules they could impose.
In fact, in many places there were laws that prevented employees from renting or buying outside the company town.
The company might pay you a decent wage for the time, but they got a lot of it back too. Get crosswise of the company and you lost it all. Get injured on the job and could no longer work, and you lost it all. Get sick, and you could lose it all. Get killed, and your family was out on the street. There was no workman’s comp. No insurance. No retirement but what you managed to save – and since you probably owed a significant debt to the company store, your savings were unlikely to go very far.
Of course, you could always take a pass on factory work and return to the land.
In 1911, millions of Americans were farmers. Farming was hard back breaking work (it still is, just in a different way) – so hard that seventy hours a week in a smoke filled factory with a high probability of getting maimed or killed looked pretty good in comparison. The majority of those farmers, especially in the South, didn’t own their fields. They were tenants or, worse, sharecroppers, living in conditions little better than slavery or the serfdom of the Dark Ages. Of the small farmers who did own their own land or rather owed the bank for their own land, more than half lived in abject poverty. In the coming decade, the decade of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, most would lose everything.
Most of America was powered by coal in those days and if there was anything that would make life in a factory town or in the sweltering fields look good – it was working in a West Virginia coal mining town.
It was a race to see what would kill you first, explosion, cave-in, or the black lung. And just like in the fields and factories, children worked alongside their parents – if they had parents, orphanages were also common. And orphan labor was even cheaper than the average child, both in life and in pay. Renting out orphan labor was a good gig, if you could get it.
You could always become a merchant seaman, if you were a man, though life at sea was damned rough.
You could move west and become a logger, though you’d probably live longer in the mines of West Virginia.
You could still be a cowboy, or a cop, or carpenter none which paid worth a good Goddamn and had the added benefit of a short lifespan.
Since people got sick and injured a lot, and most couldn’t afford even rudimentary medical care, many turned to patent medicines. The pharmaceutical industry was only loosely regulated, but by 1913 there were some few laws in a handful of states regulating the more outrageous claims for the various elixirs. The big medicine shows were gone, but there were still plenty of drug store shelves stocked with hundreds of varieties of patent medicines. Some were mostly benign – like Coca-Cola – and some were downright toxic – like Radithor, made from water and radioactive radium. As late as 1917, The Rattlesnake King, Clark Stanley, was still making Stanley’s Snake Oil (and now you know where that phrase came from), a poisonous mixture of mineral oil, turpentine, and red pepper. Stanley fleeced sick people out of their money by making them yet sicker and there wasn’t much the government could do to prevent it.
Hell, as late as the 1960’s TV commercials touted the benefits of smoking for sore throats. And, as late as 1970 there were still devices in use in a handful of shoe stores across America that used massively powerful unshielded X-ray beams to measure your foot but could also give you a terminal dose of ionizing radiation in the process.
In 1913, only a few states mandated that your kids attend school, and then only though elementary grades, the factory owners weren’t interested in an educated workforce.
In the South segregation and Jim Crow Laws were in full force and civil rights were decades away. By the first part of the last century, lynching wasn’t exactly common, but it wasn’t exactly uncommon either. On the other hand, women could actually vote in six states.
Maybe three out of ten Americans could ever expect to own a home, most would pay a landlord their whole lives. Few had any rights in those relationships either, you paid the owner and you lived with what you got or you got thrown out. Period.
A lot of Americans were hungry. More than fifty percent of seniors lived in poverty, but then the average lifespan was only about fifty-five, maybe sixty if you hadn’t been breathing coal dust or lead vapor all you life. Few of those seniors had pensions, most lived on the charity of their families – if they were lucky enough to have families. Sanatoriums were a common place for the aged and infirm to spend their brief final years.
If you had ten kids, you might expect six of them to survive to early adulthood. If you were lucky. Polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, pneumonia, whooping cough, hard labor in the mines and factories and fields, lack of social safety nets, lack of proper nutrition, lead paint, food poisoning, poverty, orphaned by parents killed by the same, would probably claim at least four of those kids. Likely more.
People from that generation always wax nostalgic for The Good Old Days – and then they immediately proceed to tell you why life was so much harder and more miserable back then.
The simple truth of the matter is nowadays, even in this time of economic downturn, we Americans live a pretty damned good life.
And we live that good life because we’ve put systems and laws and regulations in place to improve life for all of us.
Programs like Social Security and Medicare have a direct and measurable effect on how long we live, and how well. Regulations governing working conditions and workplace safety have a direct and measurable affect on the probability that we’ll survive to retirement. Laws that prevent the rich from owning a whole town, or abusing workers, or turning them into indentured servants, or hiring children at pauper’s wages to maintain the machines in their bare feet, have directly benefitted all but the most greedy few.
The American dream isn’t dead, far from it.
I’ve been to countries where dreams have died, America is far, far, far removed those hellish places.
It is a measure of just how far we’ve come, and just how big an impact that those laws, regulations, and social safety programs have had that those who directly benefit from those very same laws, regulations, and programs can complain with full bellies just how terrible they have it.
Things like Social Security, Medicare, Workman’s Compensation Insurance, The Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance, child labor laws, federal minimum wage, occupational health and safety standards, the Environmental Protection Agency, The Centers for Disease Control, The departments of Education and Health, Labor Unions and workers’ rights, and yes, even Welfare, all of these things were created for a reason. For a good reason. For a compelling reason.
These things were created because when you leave it up to the church and charity to fed the hungry and clothe the poor and heal the sick, a hell of a lot of people go hungry and cold and ill. It is really just that brutally simple.
These things were created because when you leave it up to charity and family to take care of old people, a hell of a lot of old people end up stacked like cordwood in institutions. The moldering remnants of such places are all around us.
These things were created because when you leave it up to people to save for their retirement or a rainy day or for accident and infirmity, a hell of a lot of them don’t, or can’t, or won’t.
These things were put in place because when you leave it solely up to the market to weed out poor products and fake medicine and unsafe machines, they don’t, or can’t, or emphatically won’t.
These things were put in place because when you leave it up to industrialists and share holders to treat their workers with dignity and respect and to pay them a living wage for their hard work, you end up with indentured servitude.
These things were put in place because when you leave it up to devoutly righteous people who go to church every Sunday to decide what is right and proper and moral, you end up with lynchings and segregation and Jim Crow. You end up with minorities as less than second class citizens. And that is a Goddamned fact.
These things were put in place because when you leave it up to the benevolence of industrialists to decide fair pay scales and safety and working hours, you get child labor at a pauper’s wages. When you leave it solely up to bankers and the factory owners and the CEOs, well Sir, then what happens is they end up owning it all and you get to pay them for the privilege of eating out of their garbage can.
And right up until very recently that’s exactly how it was.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m as big of capitalist as any American, I believe in the free market and I’m opposed to regulation for the sake of regulation and government interference in business for the sake of interference, but fundamentally government exists to protect the weak from the ruthless, otherwise what damned good is it?
The question you need to ask yourself, on this of all days, is what century do you want to live in?
Happy Labor Day folks.
Caveat: One thing to note, no matter how our future goes from the this point forward, good or bad, sooner or later, we’ll be calling the present the good old days.
I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t maybe try a little harder to make this time, right now, worthy of that distinction.