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Monday, September 7, 2015

Those Good Old Labor Days

Editorial Note: portions of this essay have appeared previously here on Stonekettle Station.



You ever stop to wonder what your life would be like if it was 1915 instead of 2015?

Imagine.

Imagine what it was like to be your great grand parents.

In 1915, the United States was in the middle of the Second Industrial Revolution.  It was a time of wonder and ever advancing technology. It started 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.  A few years before, in 1911, a tall skinny fellow by the name of Eugene Ely landed a Curtiss #2 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 and the effects of which are still being felt to this very day.  If you were moderately wealthy, you could buy a Cadillac with an electric starter. Despite the fact that there were still plenty of horses out there on the roads, the car had become so ubiquitous and affordable that Michigan created the first modern roads when the state started painting white lines down the middle of the more heavily traveled avenues.  Though many factories were still powered by steam, electricity was no longer a novelty.  The first modern public elevator began operation in London, England, and soon became common everywhere – leading directly to the modern city skyline.  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 woolly west was long gone.  The gold rushes, the boom towns and gun fights were long over.  Hell, by 1915 Wyatt Earp was living in Hollywood and working 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.  In 1915, 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 dark and poorly lit – typically illumination was sunlight 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 and all those single pane windows didn’t do much to keep out either the cold or the heat. Those factories 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.  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 of 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 in many places there were laws that prevented you 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 1915, 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.  Most of those farmers, especially in the South, didn’t own their fields. They were 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, 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 1915 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 radium.  As late as 1917, The Rattlesnake King, Clark Stanley, was still making Stanley’s Snake Oil, a worthless mixture of mineral oil, turpentine, and red pepper, and fleecing sick people out of their money and making them yet sicker (hell, as late as the 1960’s TV’s commercials touted the benefits of smoking for sore throats. And, as late as 1970 there were still X-ray foot measuring devices that would give you cancer in use in a handful of shoe stores across America).

In 1915, only a few states mandated that your kids attend school, and then only through elementary.  In the South segregation and Jim Crow Laws were in full force and civil rights were decades away. Lynching was common.  On the other hand, women could actually vote in exactly five states, well, six if you included California which grudgingly acknowledged in November that females might be citizens too despite their unfortunate plumbing. 

In 1915, 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.

In 1915, 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. 

In 1915, if you had ten kids, you might expect six of them to survive to 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 we Americans live a pretty damned good life.  And we live that good life because since 1915 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 effect 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 feed 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, the market doesn’t, or can’t, or won’t, and it’s perfectly happy to go right on killing people for profit.

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 get 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. And that is a Goddamned fact.

These things were put in place because when you leave it up to the factory owners to decide wages and safety and working hours, you get this:

When you leave it solely up to bankers and the factory owners and the industrialists and the politicians, well Sir, then what happens is they end up owning it all and you get the privilege of paying them to eat out of their garbage can.

And for most of history, right up until very recently, that’s exactly how it was.

Fundamentally, government exists to protect the weak from the ruthless, otherwise what damned good is it?

Lately there are a lot of folks who think they want to live in 1915, rather than in 2015.

 

The question you need to ask yourself, on this of all days, is what century do you want to live in?

65 comments:

  1. Wow! Another great article. Wouldn't want to live back then, 21st century for me! Its a nice fantasy for some, but life in the olden days sounds pretty cruel to me.

    Heather

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    1. life in "the olden days" WAS extremely cruel. read some history.

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  2. The American dream isn’t dead, far from it.

    In before someone oh-so-cleverly quotes George Carlin because anyone who doesn't lament that we're all screwed is a blind corporate shill and Ach Du Lieber Augustin all is lost and how dare you not be angry about how terrible things are from a position of privilege.

    You've nailed it again - things aren't that bad, it's just that some people want you to believe they are, and things aren't that bad because we had a labor movement that fought for improvements and a government that enshrined those improvements into law.

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    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acLW1vFO-2Q

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  3. In 1915 my father was two, 14 years later he quit school to pay the mortgage on his parents two flat.He worked, with a hitch going over the Atlantic Beaches of North Africa until Xmas Eve 1963 when he had a stroke.

    Big proponent of unions, printer chapel chair.

    All three of his boys made it through college, on made it through Harvard Law.

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    1. Got the year wrong, my mother was two in 1915, my father was six. He did quit school at 15.

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  4. What Abe had to say about Labor...


    I recently had a conversation with a couple who've been fortunate enough in their lives to acquire more than most. Rather than talk about boats, which was my preference, he pushed the conversation into politics, with a pretty aggressive statement. Rather than take the bait, I asked if it was right, fair, just, equitable for people whose income came from investments (capital) to pay less percentage in taxes than those whose income came from their labor. He replied emphatically "yes, because of the risk" while his wife said "we're the job creators". I asked why they felt the 'risk' to capital in investments should be so valued by the tax code over the daily risk by workers, to their physical and emotional health. Their response was that working people didn't have to take jobs that put them at risk, they should've gotten "better" jobs.
    My friends, when you vote for people who cater to the folks who think this way, one result is that those with the most, pay less (percentage of their income) in taxes than those who labor, making the total pot of public money available for infrastructure and public services ever smaller, making everyone's lives more difficult (unless, of course, you're one of the "job creators"). Think about this. Think about how conflict between working people has and continues to be, deliberately encouraged over issues like marriage equality, abortion, "right to work" laws and immigration while in the background, tax codes continue to be rigged in favor of those with the most. Wake up people...

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    1. Really well said, Deputy.

      C540 LCSO Ret

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    2. From what I read, this conversation was with a very disgusting couple. Their risk is that if their capital was lost, they might be required to actually take jobs and do actual work!

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    3. Divide and rule. It's been working for the super-rich for a long time.

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  5. "wild wooly West" should be "woolly." Other than that, nicely written as it is every year.

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    1. Also- "..but by 1915 there were [some few] laws in a handful of states regulating.."

      Excellent, again, as usual, Mr. W. I guess there are some people on this earth that are so ignorant that they are easily duped into working against their own good. And there isn't a thing anyone can say or do to convince them that they aren't seeing the whole picture.

      bd

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  6. This is a fantastic essay, and thank you for sharing it. Coming from a libertarian family, I was raised to believe that social safety nets were governmental tyranny; in the years since, I have been fundamentally challenged on these opinions. It's amazing to see the fallacy of that position summed up so eloquently.

    Happy labor day!

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    1. Good on you for finding your way out of libertarian fantasies!

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  7. These are the good old days, right now. Like you said, we have vaccines and medical equipment undreamt of 100 years ago.
    When we visited Washington's HQ in Valley Forge a guy next to me sighed and said, "Oh, life was so much simpler then. I wish we could live like that now." I asked him if he enjoyed losing his children to smallpox* and polio. He just gaped at me. I asked him f he liked modern dentistry and anesthesia and indoor plumbing, and a couple of other rude questions about electricity and transportation. He wandered away thinking I was an awful spoilsport. My mother was born in the Missouri Ozarks, in 1920. Her relatives lacked all of the above, as well as electricity until about 1959. but the sorriest story I heard was about the time polio took every child above the age of 17 for miles around. around 1915. Entire towns with not a single young child left alive. This alone makes me furious with the anti-vax crowd.

    *If he knew anything about the history of smallpox he'd know that George himself was scarred by the disease, and that Martha took her kids to Philadelphia to have them inoculated against smallpox with cowpox, while the ministers railed that it was defying God to do so.

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  8. Thank you, Jim for yet another spot on excellent essay. The Good Old Days are a load of horsesh*t. I am so happy to be alive now, thank you very much.

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  9. My father was born in 1900, the 6th of 10 kids born on the farm in south central Washington, and amazingly they all lived to adulthood and some into their 80s. Pop was 86 when he died. He had trained as a barber and barbered in his shop in the Roosevelt WA hotel until it burned down sometime in the late 20s or early 30s. He basically worked as a farm worker from then until 1941 when they were able to lease the farm that I grew up on and he worked on it until he retired in 1972. My mother was born in Red Deer Albert in 1908 and the family immigrated back into the states about 1916, they came down in covered wagons and took the train from Montana to Washington where my grandfather and grandmother worked on road crews, she as a cook. I heard many stories about hardships, and growing up on a farm, have worked from sunup to sundown, but we had ot pretty good by the time I was born in 1943.

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  10. This essay kicks ass. The truth shall set us free, at least I hope to Zoroaster it will.

    A couple of typos:
    "In 1915, only a few states mandated that your kids attend school, and then only though elementary. "
    should be "through elementary"

    "a direct and measurable affect" (repeated)
    should be "a direct and measurable effect"

    Keep up the great work.

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  11. Thanks, Jim, another brilliant essay. We Americans tend to block out the bad things that we're going on, and focus on the fantasy of how good everything was, a lot of this was due to the tv programs in the 50's; and we forget all the work that was done to improve things. Especially when it comes to unions.

    Happy Labor Day!

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  12. Jim Wright, you Sir, are brilliant! It is always reassuring to know there is someone who can state facts so eloquently. Thank you for sharing your gift and giving liked minds a forum to share and learn from one another.

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  13. Conservative media star 1915: William Jennings Bryan. Conservative media star 2015: Donald Trump.

    From the Cross of Gold to the burning cross in 100 years of devolution.

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  14. Read about the Bisbee Deportation - In 1917 the Phelps Dodge Corp. arranged for the illegal deportation of over 1,000 strikers and supports from a mine in Bisbee, AZ to the middle of the New Mexico desert, where they were dumped. Outside communications were shut down and local passports issued for the non-deportees. Crazy times.

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  15. i LOVE reading your stuff. very rarely do i stumble across anyone who gets the whole picture without it being biased one way or the other. in fact due to the fact that i live in texas i despair sometimes because facts are subservient to fairy tales. thank you for restoring some degree of faith in intelligent life.

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  16. Another great essay! Thank you, Jim. Well written, well organized. Hits all those conservative talking points about how the free market and charity will correct all wrongs, provide the masses with plenty, and ensure all God's children live in harmony. Like we did in 1915.

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  17. Thank you, Jim, as always. Things may not be as good for Americans as they might be, but they're a hell of a lot better than they used to be, and government regulations played a huge part in making them so.

    That Other Jean

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  18. As a pro-union worker I'm often confronted by wife's uncles for my views. It's funny how one looked for a well paying transit driver job with good benefits, but is still anti-union, but anyway.. They both kneel at the alter of St Ronnie, trickle down economics, and get a good laugh at air traffic controllers to this day.
    My Grandfather was born in 1908, and was one of those WV coal miners you mentioned. I never met the man, as he died 10 years before I was born at the age of 40, from Black Lung/Sudden Death Syndrome. I remember the stories my Grandmother told me of how he should have died 10 years earlier than he did, when the mine flash flooded, and the company didn't put a priority on rescue efforts. My Grandfather had been a foreman at a few different mines before, so it was much to their chagrin when he led all his men out of a mine 2 towns further up the seam than where they went in. Matewan happened during their time not too far away, and they also dealt with everything you described in the "mining towns". I got to witness the improved conditions his son (my uncle) worked in, and am very glad my father got us away from that being a job to look forward to. My Grandmother had to live with us, for until just a few years before she died, she had never received $1 compensation. So to me the struggle, although I didn't live it, left a very real impression on me.
    So I guess what I'm trying to say is that maybe like some strange genetic disease that skips a generation, maybe my wife's uncles "rose colored visions of yesteryear" disease has no effect on me. BTW, I'm doing my damnedest to vax my kids, and make sure they don't catch it. 1 generation of such foolishness is more than enough. Great article as always Jim, and thanks for a chance to reply.

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  19. A+, as usual, Jim.

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  20. You sound like you might be feeling the Bern.

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    1. No, not really. And that stupid slogan is unlikely to convince me.

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    2. I don't love that slogan. But the fight over Fast Track for G.W. Bush's TPP was more than enough to convince me to vote for Sanders.
      ~

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  21. I am 1st generation on my dad's side, 3rd on my mom. From Ireland and England. Both families lived in Brooklyn,NY
    My grandma (mom's side) was the youngest of 13 born in 1899. She talked about hard her family worked. They were the firemen and policemen. But I did have an Uncle Willie, who died in his late 30's. He delivered milk and was kicked in the head by his horse.
    She did talk about her uncles how hard it was for them to find work because they were Irish.
    My dad's family were coal miner's in England. My grandfather was educated, so he had an office job when he came over.
    My parents did much better, had a house and car. My dad had a good job although he had no college degree. My parents stressed the importance of education.
    I was the first to get a college degree on either side of the family.
    My husband and I have 3 kids all educated and doing well. I thank all of those in my family before me who worked hard and strove to better themselves.

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    1. I'm second-generation American on both sides. On my mother's side, the whole family got off the boat in NYC in 1904 and went right north into mill work in New England; children through adults working dawn to dusk just to put food on the table. It was every bit as dangerous and grim and soul-crushing as Jim depicts.

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  22. It's Workers' Compensation, not Workman's Compensation. Other than that, spot on!

    I never knew my grandfather--my father's father---because he was a coal miner in Scranton, Pennsylvania. One day the foreman told him to go to the mine face and see why the explosive didn't go off. They didn't want to wait the one day they should have; send the Polish immigrant to check. It blew when he was there. My father was 15 at the time, and suddenly became the sole wage earner for his family of four half siblings and step mother. Yes, his step family; his own mother died when he was only six months old in the influenza epidemic of 1918.

    So at age 15, Dad dropped out of school and did whatever job he could find, including scavenging coal dropped along railroad tracks to sell or to heat the house. Shoeshine boy, day laborer, you name it, he did it, as long as it didn't involve going down a mine. The job where he had to carry 100-pound bales of shingles ruined his back for life.

    He was saved from that by the CCC---he signed up as soon as he could, left home at 17 but sent all his earned money back, and never went back to Scranton.

    Yup, the good old days. My dad died at the age of 64.

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  23. The best of times for this country may yet to be, but the worst of times is in the past, well maybe. We have created many great things in this country most of them for the good and some not so much, the Atomic Bomb comes to mind here. The reality of today is we are starting to turn against the very things that got us to this point and unions are one of them. If it were not for unions we would still be working 16 hour days with no possibility for retirement. Unions help create safer working conditions, 40 hour work week, weekends off, pensions, better pay and an end to child labor. Unions created the middle class. In 1915 there were two classes in this country, the wealthy and the poor. Even if you had a job, like the essay pointed out, you were still dirt poor. Flash forward to today and what is it that politicians are trying to demonize and destroy, unions. They are trying to convince us that unions are destroying this country when in fact it is them that's destroying what union labor has worked so hard to create, the middle class. We are reverting back to a two class society, the wealthy and the working/non-working poor. The wealthy want to control everything and they are doing so by demonizing or just plain destroy what ever get's in the way. The EPA brings us safe water to drink, clean air to breath and controls over industrial waste, they want it gone, or at least weakened to the point of uselessness. The FDA is supposed to help insure we have safe food and drugs that will not cause us harm. The FDA of today has become an arm of big pharma and big agriculture. We can thank our politicians for that. To answer your question, I'd much rather live in 2015 than 1915, but I fear that in many ways we are reverting back to 2015.

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  24. I grew up in a UAW household, but discovered the Wobbly songbook decades later.
    Funny how the same messages still apply:

    "Long-haired preachers come out every night
    Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
    But when asked about something to eat
    They will answer in voices so sweet

    You will eat, bye and bye
    In that glorious land above the sky
    Work and pray, live on hay
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die
    (That’s a lie)."

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  25. "Fundamentally, government exists to protect the weak from the ruthless".

    When people complain that the government is taking away our freedom, I point out that is why government was invented, and then list a few of the ways government prevents the ruthless (foreign and domestic) from preying on the rest of us.

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  26. I vehemently applaud you, once more, with feeling. Thank you.

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  27. Thank you for reminding us that the "good old days" were really horrible in so many ways. I always enjoy your essays. Please keep writing.

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  28. Along with the Lewis Hine photo I put on FB (child laborers) I wrote this: "As a country, as a society, we moved forward from this for awhile. We progressed. In many ways.
    No longer.
    Now we offshore most of our labor to countries that use these practices and pretend we don't know.
    Now we demean and disparage organized labor. I read yesterday that the last UNION coal mine in KY closed down.
    This is not progression folks. In the 2012 election one of the candidates called child labor laws "stupid".
    Wake up, America! You are losing your way."
    Yes. We have progressed mightily in 100 years. But the pendulum wishes to swing the other way and there are many that need to wake up to that fact.

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  29. So true, in my family, certainly. Thank you for giving them voice.

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  30. I really would like to hear a response from Rand Paul and other libertarians after reading this article. I'm proud to work in a union shop as did my father. The decent pay and benefits allowed me and my family to live a comfortable life. All workers deserve a decent life. Love your writing Jim. I really look forward to each of your posts. Keep up the good work.

    Rob from Philly

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  31. Hobbes had a good summary of the lives of the workers of his day. "Nasty, brutish and short"

    Progress has been made, but those that only think to the end of the quarter, are doing their best to turn things back

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  32. I'm sorry but the picture of the two mill boys tending the spinners was, in my opinion, posed. The boys' clothes are much too tidy; the items are clean, they fit, they're not ragged, and that moppet in the oversized hat is just squeeee.

    This photo wasn't posed: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/hn07.htm
    Breaker boys. They worked at the hard-coal mines to break up the coal and sort it by size, picking out sharp chunks of slate rock and other impurities. Normal workday - 14 to 16 hours. It was a bad life, and didn't last long for many of them.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaker_boy

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  33. Off topic, but did you catch the latest about Trump and his military experience.

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    1. I did. I posted something about on my Facebook page this morning.

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  34. My Dad was born in 1916. His grandfather was an Illinois coal miner, working 60 a week for three dollars a day. My Dad, aunt, and his mother lived with Great Grandpa, and the family was considered well-off. In 1922, Great Grandpa and his co-workers participated in the Herrin Massacre. He died in a mine cave-in two years later. My Dad had to quit school at age 8 to work to support the family. By age ten, he was riding the rails selling Cloverine salve.

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  35. To everyone who thinks they want to "live back then" I have only one word - "dentist."

    Peace
    Chris in S. Jersey

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  36. You're dead right Jim. I vividly remember my grandma telling me how 6 of 8 of my grandfather's siblings died in one winter when their father moved them to the city, Ashland, KY, to work in the steel mills. It was in the 1910s and whooping cough took them all.

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  37. My grandfather left a farm in New Hampshire for service in WWI. When he got to California, he never went back.

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  38. This truly captures the importance of both Labor Day and the struggle of people for liberty and rule of law.

    As a native (albeit relocated) West Virginian, I grew up seeing firsthand the effects, generations later, of the company-imposed serfdom. There are high-school kids in my hometown that have never seen our state capital, even though it's an hour away. The state economy is in shambles, and the people are hell-bent on voting away what gains they've made for another chance to die in - or from - those damn mines.

    I appreciate your recognition of the dangers those miners faced. Not sure if you're familiar with the episode, but in 1921 those miners and their families took a stand a Blair Mountain. Following bouts of lawlessness on the part of the striking miners, an armistice was reached with the condition that the miners return home. That's when the county sheriff, funded by the mine owners and backed by a private army, started killing as many unionizers and sympathizers as he could find. The miners were even bombed by private aircraft.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Blair_Mountain#Battle

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  39. All the vote-seekers on the right keep promising to "Take America Back." Good description of their proposed destination.

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  40. The thing is, whenever anyone says that they want to live in 1915 (or 1955, or 1810, or whenever they see as the Epitome of Real Civilization), what they mean is, "I want to be rich and privileged in that time." Which was great if you were, but almost nobody was.

    I read once that the test of a civilization is whether you'd want to live in it -- truly, inescapably, no-backsies -- *if you couldn't know in advance what role you'd play*.

    If you didn't KNOW whether you'd be a 1915 robber baron or a 1915 black sharecropper, or a 1915 factory girl-turned-abused-wife, or a 1915 child in the mines.

    If you didn't KNOW whether you'd be an 1810 Jane Austen society lady, or an 1810 impressed sailor lad, or an 1810 black Jamaican slave.

    I don't much like the society we're in right now, in that respect... I've landed a lot of accidental privilege in it as it is, and I'm doing all right; but a lot of people aren't. Would I honestly choose today's America if I couldn't know whether I'd be me, or a rich white Christian male, or a young black man in St. Louis or New York, or a kid growing up in the foster system? Well, depends on what the options are. I have to concede I haven't seen too much better yet (although I'd substantially prefer much of today's northern Europe), but I still hope we can do a lot better.

    My dreams are simple. I want a society I can look at and think, "Well, sure, some of those lives would be preferable to others, but none of them are actually all that bad."

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  41. "When you leave it solely up to bankers and the factory owners and the industrialists and the politicians, well Sir, then what happens is they end up owning it all and you get the privilege of paying them to eat out of their garbage can. "

    Which is where we're at today.

    https://vimeo.com/71074210

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  42. I always come away a bit changed after reading your essays. Your ability to stand back far enough to get the long view and yet close enough to write with such clarity of feeling is uncanny. I am so very grateful for plumbing, medical advancement, information technology, and your writing. Thanks again, for making sense of it all.

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  43. The conditions described in this description are the reason why, when I hear right-wingers complaining about the "tyrannical government," and assorted variations on coups de etat, my answer is, "You're right---and we should move the government out of lower Manhattan, back to Washington DC where it's supposed to be."

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  44. For all who want to return to 1915, they should first discovery how their ancestors were living during that period. Majority were probably leading difficult and poor lives.

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    1. @ ^ Pamela Lee :Yep. No "probably " about it though!

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  45. Just stop writing then. There's no need for another blogger to try to fold, staple, or mutilate anything--history, political opinion, cracker barrel philosophy, or hubristic, commonplace tough-guy military experience--into a blog. Thanks for your service and all that, but too many fine people have been there and done that--for the past 50+ years to no one's benefit, and to many people's long-lasting detriment.

    I don't doubt that you meant well. Now peace be with you.

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    1. You didn't like what America used to be, huh? Neither do I.

      I also don't want that sort of grinding poverty, and that total disregard by the few wealthy, to recur. I'm afraid that pointing and huffing at someone who describes it is not an effective method of preventing its recurrence.

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  46. A fine essay as always Jim - and I'll not quibble with it's logic.

    But as a counterpoint it remains true that IF you were sufficiently wealthy and privileged during the Edwardian era (between roughly 1900 and 1910) it was an extraordinary time to be alive. Especially if you had the inclination and means to travel.

    Transport had developed to the point where it was reasonably safe and practical to travel anywhere in the world, while yet the cultures, cities and landscapes remained for the most part still untouched by the modern world, still unique and endlessly fascinating.

    Yes our era offers many benefits, mostly because we all enjoy the fruits of 20 or so energy slaves to maintain our lifestyles, but there was a line I heard many years ago which expresses what we lost as well; "That the Boeing 747 revolutionised travel in that it made all places equally accessible, yet at the same time it tended to make them all equally the same."

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  47. Beautiful, Jim. I take photos of headstones for Find-a-Grave. I am curious about local history and was fortunate enough to find a public health professional who provided a link to documentation that tabulated and verified epidemics in the northeast, and a month by month, year by year, causes of death by age, sex, and malady. Children died in droves from diarrhea, local epidemics of horrors like diphtheria,and women died between the ages of 35 an45, probably because childbearing was a very bad idea at that point. We live really, really well today.

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  48. Apologies for being off topic--breaking. You FB post on Jeb stating the Pope should not talk about climate because he is not a scientist just left me screaming. Being a scientist is not so much about a fucking piece of paper that bears the letters BS, MS, or Ph.D., it is about how you look at the world. The first scientists were actually philosophers. Everybody who has a high school diploma had more science training than they did, but that does not make them a scientist either. The goal of scientist educators is scientific literacy for everyone, scientist and non scientist alike. Anyone who has reasonable reading skills can read the publications of people who get paid to discover nature's secrets and these people can be reasonably conversant without that piece of paper. Who is Jeb Bush to say the Pope should not be talking about climate change? No body, that's right, no body at all.

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  49. A chant from the demonstrations of the 60's. Paraphrased of course.
    " Hey hey NRA, how many kids did you kill today?"

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  50. My paternal Grandfather was born to Swiss immigrants up in NE Ohio, dairy country. He didn't speak English until he started school. When he was 10 his father, my Great-Grandfather Johann died. Stepfather threw out all the kids but the youngest girl.

    Charley got a job on a neighbor's farm, and lived in the garden shed. When he was 13, he and the other kids on the farm were gathering nuts in the wood-patch. He climbed a hickory tree to shake nuts down. I don't know if you ever tried to pick meat from hickory nuts, you need a stout hatpin, and the pickin's are slim.

    The branch he was bouncing on, shaking down the nuts, broke, and he fell 30 feet. He broke his right thigh, and the country doctor didn't do a great job setting it. Later, a better doctor re-broke that big bone to reset it. Gangrene set in, and they took his right leg off at his hip.

    He lost his garden shed, since he couldn't work on a farm, and so he went to a county orphanage. They taught him how to hand-set type, one letter at a time, which was how everything was done then. He became a printer.

    For whatever reason, he wandered down to West Virginia, and took jobs at little weekly newspapers. Then in 1911 he went out west to New Mexico for a while, and then went back to WV, where eventually he borrowed $100 each from 22 friends. I have the note, with some names in pencil, others just a mark and a witness's signature. He used the $2,200 to buy one of those little weekly newspapers, and paid all those friends back.

    By the time I came along, born to his youngest son and a coal miner's daughter, he owned 3 newspapers and a small hotel. I still have the marble that was the hotel's front desk. I too was in the Navy, not as a career, just because I thought it was a better idea than being drafted into a combat job in Viet Nam.

    I went to college on the GI Bill, and with a lot of support from my wife, and my parents.

    I'm in favour of Social Security, health insurance, pensions, union contracts, honest bankers as opposed to gamblers using other people's money. My Grandfather had a unique idea for keeping the unions out of his businesses - pay more than union scale, treat the workers like family. That worked like a charm, and his employees called him Mister Charley and mostly would have done anything they could to help out.

    I started working at the family business at 14. When Dr. Salk's polio vaccine hit the market, they gave everyone who worked there and all their families the series of shots,. right there in the office. When Dr. Sabin's oral vaccine came out, we all got that too. And every other kind of vaccine you could get.

    Mister Charley, Grandad, knew about hard work, cold winter, not enough food. If you are gathering hickory nuts in the woods around the farm, you don't have enough food to feel confident about making it through the winter.

    But I remember him living next door to us, on a hill top on the edge of town. He called his house Hickory Bench because there were dozens of huge hickory trees. He was a well-to-do businessman, but he gathered those hickory nuts around his big brick house in the fall. He would crack them with a little hammer and a tiny anvil made from a railroad rail, and then pick meat from the nuts with a big pin. Then Grandmother would make a hickory nut cake, and we would eat it with cream poured over it.

    I wouldn't want to even visit 1915.

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  51. I posted the following on facebook upon sharing your essay announcement/link a year ago; for some reason, I never posted here; also, for some reason, facebook's "OnThisDay" nagger (which usually seems rather interesting to me, reviewing what I've posted before), didn't mention this around Labor Day this year. So I'm belatedly commenting now.

    "You ever stop to wonder what your life would be like if it was 1915 instead of 2015?"

    I, me, myself personally? I probably would NOT be alive, at all.

    "Imagine what it was like to be your great grand parents."

    I'd guess that maybe half the "audience" might need another "great."

    I'm further assuming that my great-grandfather was likely born around the mid-to-late 1870's (since my grandfather was born in the first few years of the 20th century). Read on if you want.

    People with diabetes generally died of ketoacidocis (DKA) in their early teens, before the discovery and extraction of insulin in the early/mid 1920's.

    Plus, I was born premature at 24 weeks back in 1966; current prognosis & chances for survival are only 55%. Odds are, I probably wouldn't have survived long enough for a diabetes diagnosis.

    So, obviously, I agree Jim!
    Damn straight things are better than those "good old days" !

    Sorry, not particularly relevant to Labor Day, but this is what passed through my mind when you asked about 100 years ago.

    As an unemployed computer-programmer, living in an "At-will Employment" [termination] state, I don't have much to reflect upon regarding "labor," (my own "lack" of it notwithstanding), except that in spite of all the improvements over the past 100 years, perhaps the next century might get us a bit closer to the Star Trek "utopia."

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