The Sources of Industrial Diversity*
On July 4, 1788, Philadelphians commemorated the ratification of the federal Constitution. The jubilant occasion came as a welcome respite from years of war weariness and recession that followed the signing of the Treaty of Paris and, buoyed by the promise of the new government, Quaker City residents turned out in droves. Nearly 17,000 of them, or just about a fourth of the population, deserted counting house and workshop to take part in an unprecedented display of patriotic fervor and national élan. The form of the celebration, a procession of leading citizens and occupational groups, testified to the importance of handicrafts in Philadelphia’s economy. Representatives of the wide variety of trades outfitted in the dress of their vocations—robust German brewers, craft-proud printers, lowly seamen and hand loom weavers—drew colorful floats and bore banners emblazened with mottoes expressing hope in the new nation. “May the federal government revive our trade,” proclaimed the bakers’ flag; “May industry ever be encouraged,” declared the porters’ masthead.1
It was thoroughly appropriate that artisans figured prominently. Tradesmen made up nearly half the work force, even though Philadelphia was still a commercial port vending commodities produced in other locales. No single calling dominated. Carpenters, bricklayers, and other building tradesmen accounted for one-fifth of the artisans, followed by tailors and clothing workers (17 to 19 percent), leather workers (13 to 15 percent), and so on.2
These men found employment, as David Montgomery observes, partly because of the social division of labor enforced by urban living. Unlike rural homesteaders, city dwellers were unable to produce basic necessities, and had to turn to the exchange economy for goods and services. This demand kept artisans busy supplying food, clothing, and housing, as well as books, newspapers, and other commodities that were so much a part of city life. The social structure itself also created a market for locally made products. Philadelphia’s fashion-conscious merchants and professionals, aping their European counterparts, had a flair for expensive clothing and for fine household furnishings. Artisans who were capable of replicating Continental styles did a brisk business.3
The vast majority of such craftsmen were independent producers who owned a set of tools, worked alone or with an apprentice or two, and would hire a journeyman when markets picked up. Home and workshop were one and the same, or at least in close proximity. Masters would set aside a room or floor of their dwellings or set up shop in an adjoining edifice. The ambience of these workshops was casual. Master and helper worked at their own pace, fashioning goods to order or occasionally building up small inventories for sale to browsing shoppers.4 John Fanning Watson, an early chronicler of the Quaker City with vivid memories of his adolescent years, captured the tone and texture of handicraft production. In his youth, he reminisced,
No masters were seen exempted from personal labour in any branch of business—living on the profits derived from many hired journeymen; and no places were sought out at much expense, and display of signs and decorated windows, to allure custom. Then almost every apprentice, when of age, ran his equal chance for his share of business in his neighborhood, by setting up for himself, and, with an apprentice or two, getting into a cheap location, and by dint of application and good work, recommending himself to his neighborhood. Thus, every shoemaker or taylor was a man for himself. . . . In those days, if they did not aspire to much, they were more sure of the end—a decent competency in an old age.5
Other accounts indicate that Watson’s memory was selective. He described only one side of the world of production and ignored a small minority of proprietors who broke out of this traditional mold. More enterprising and ambitious than the neighborhood master remembered by Watson, they are best described as entrepreneurs eager to expand by exploiting wider markets. Concentrated in light consumer goods, they turned out shoes, clothing, furniture, and other commodities in quantity and retailed a portion of their wares to local customers but reserved the bulk for Philadelphia merchants and general store owners in the surrounding countryside. Because they dealt in volume and tied up large sums of capital in raw materials, entrepreneurs were forced to pay more attention to costs and labor costs in particular.6
Such imperatives goaded entrepreneurs into altering habitual trade practice. As a study of apprentice indentures shows, relations between employer and apprentice turned increasingly on marketplace considerations at the expense of tradition. Late eighteenth-century masters gradually refrained from honoring filial obligations to apprentices, whether this meant commemorating promotions to journeyman status with gifts or teaching apprentices to read and write. They offered cash payments in lieu of the customary suit of clothes or set of tools and limited educational responsibilities to teaching the “art and mystery” of their craft.7
The harmony between employer and journeyman also showed signs of strain. Evidence of stress, if not outright conflict, can be gleaned from the groupings of the Federal Procession. Masters and journeymen representing at least two trades marched in separate cadres, and while they mingled in every other craft, the euphoria of the moment did not carry over into workplaces.8 Journeymen printers and cordwainers formed combinations and struck for rate increases in the 1790s, and during the following two decades masters and journeymen in a dozen callings organized distinct trade societies, indication enough that each side recognized peculiar class interests.9
These early incidents of class conflict are instructive. They indicate that contrary to view put forth by John R. Commons and his associates, class antagonism erupted long before employers reached out for national or even regional markets. Philadelphia employers who collided with journeymen over wages were retailers linked to local and metropolitan sales. Yet it is clear that most businesses were still quite small at the turn of the century and class lines remained fluid. The average journeyman could look forward to setting up his own shop, earning a modest income as an independent producer, and perhaps accumulating a sufficient surplus to tide him through his declining years.
Several forces conspired to keep down growth and the scale of enterprise. Capital was dear and quite scarce for entrepreneurs. Bankers and merchants regarded production as too risky to merit much capital, and preferred to invest in the orthodox channels of land and shipping and in the growing areas of marine insurance and transportation.10 Import merchants in need of capital easily outbid entrepreneurs in money markets and deterred industrial growth with their mass importation of foreign manufactures. British-made goods, for example, had a competetive advantage in American markets and such imports daunted the development of many industries, cotton textiles being one example.
If the experience of John Bedford indicates anything, it is that the locus of the market also impeded growth. Philadelphia’s largest boot and shoe manufacturer around 1800, Bedford hired twenty to twenty-four workmen at home and at his shop, and built up a thriving business on custom and retail trade. His footwear enjoyed a good reputation among upper-class Philadelphians, owing to his accomplished journeymen, who turned out current European styles and added the Continental touch of inscribing the customer’s name on the inside lining of boots and shoes. Bedford’s fortunes took a turn for the worse, however, when, in 1800, local markets contracted and inventories piled up. His capital “tied up in stock” and faced with impending ruin, Bedford was struck with “the idea of going southward” in order “to force a sale” and boarded a vessel bound for Charleston, where he contracted with two customers and made bargains with others in the countryside.11 He returned home prepared to fill orders in excess of $4,000, but was confronted with irate journeymen; they demanded a wage advance and laid down their tools when Bedford invoked the iron law of contractual obligations and stood firm. The strike interrupted production and forced him to default on some orders.12
Bedford’s travail is as revealing to historians as it was frustrating to him. It indicates that local markets were large enough to bear relatively large scale enterprise, but they were easily saturated and insufficiently flexible to sustain growth. Entrepreneurs like Bedford realized as much in seeking southern customers, and the city’s renowned merchant princes joined together with them in an effort to expand commercial outlets. Led by Thomas Pym Cope and Samuel Breck, Philadelphia’s men of commerce grew uneasy over the city’s commercial prospects and competetive position, as Congress debated building a National Road to the south and New Yorkers discussed digging the Erie Canal. Both developments and alarming rumors that New Yorkers were also about to inaugurate packets and thus corner the coastal and European trade, galvanized Philadelphia’s businessmen and boosters, including the journalist and political economist Matthew Carey. They formed an impressive lobby to perfect oceanic transport and develop inland facilities.13
Pooling resources, these promoters invested heavily in transAtlantic and coastal shipping after 1810. By 1821 a group headed by Cope launched the city’s first transatlantic packet line and merchants with interests in the South followed suit in the coastal trade. Packets proved something of a sensation. They were more reliable than regular traders and transients and quickly displaced both carriers, hauling more than half of Philadelphia’s coastal trade by the late 1820s.14 Construction of the Erie Canal set off a panic in commercial circles and stimulated merchants and entrepreneurs to new levels of activity. Determined to keep pace with their New York rivals, they poured surplus capital into canal and navigation companies, and constructed a network of waterways radiating outward from the city. They also turned their attention to the state legislature and mounted a feverish lobbying effort to extract appropriations for a system that would compete with the Erie. This ambitious project became the obsession of the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Internal Improvements, a Philadelphia group that eventually branched out to nearly every county in the Keystone state. Hoping to marshall support for the east-west connection, Philadelphia leaders called a convention at Harrisburg in 1825, but it attracted scores of back-country delegates, each of whom had a pet project and a voice that mattered in the legislature. This merger of urban and rural interests made a powerful impact. Lawmakers incorporated the designs of both groups in planning and funding the state canal system.15
Beginning in the late twenties the state of Pennsylvania commenced what one writer aptly describes as a “building craze,” which left behind nearly 900 miles of canal beds by the 1840s. The heart of the system, the Main Line, connected Philadelphia with Pittsburgh through a series of waterways and a mechanized portage railway that scaled the eastern slope of the Alleghenies. Branch canals linked both cities (and Harrisburg) to their hinterlands.16 The railroad mania occurred during the midst of canal fever. Trunk lines criss-crossed the eastern anthracite fields by the late twenties and they were followed by intrastate lines financed by private interests and public funds. The state-sponsored Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad provided an alternative to the canal route to Harrisburg in 1834, the same year in which the Philadelphia and Trenton had its maiden run. Four years later the last spike was driven into the track of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore; and in the mid-forties workmen began constructing the Pennsylvania Railroad which carried its first freight in 1852.17 By the time it was completed, the state boasted 900 miles of track, virtually all of which had been built in the previous decade.18
The modernization of transportation proved to be one of the most far-reaching innovations of the age. Few Pennsylvanians, whether they lived in congested Philadelphia or in the state’s rural areas, evaded these tentacles of commerce. Both “blacklanders” and yeoman who raised crops for exchange and produced necessities for use were forced into a new relationship to the market. The rural invasion of canals delivered commodities to their front porches, and brought about a price revolution, as water carriers gradually displaced waggoners and other slower and more expensive modes of transport. Costs per ton mile plummeted on canals between 1820 and 1850, and merchants and manufacturers, in passing the saving on to consumers, lured rural homesteaders into commodity markets. Farmers began to consume items traditionally produced at home: or as a keen observer noted in the late 1830s, “Formerly no man thought of going to a tailor for a shirt. Now everybody goes to one even for a handkerchief.”19
The transportation revolution also helped transform the structure of opportunities in the countryside. Farmers were already on the threshold of a crisis by the last third of the eighteenth century, when the best farm land was cleared and settled and minimum-sized holdings were reached. Population pressure was so great in some areas that families shifted to impartible inheritance in order to ensure at least one son a workable farm. Second and third sons, deprived of rights to family holdings, were forced to seek alternatives. Some moved to central and western Pennsylvania or to remoter areas in the Ohio Valley. Others left farming altogether and apprenticed themselves to tradesmen in nearby towns and villages. Still others postponed moving by renting or mortgaging land and turning to tenancy. Tenants continued to have relatively large families and their sons reached maturity by the second decade of the nineteenth century, which placed additional strains on the population-to-land ratio.20
The coming of canals exacerbated the predicament of poor farmers, small tradesmen, and their sons. Land adjacent to inland water routes skyrocketed in value, which induced owners to raise rents beyond the means of lessees and expel tenants, and the influx of urban commodities undermined many independent tradesmen. An unknown number of displaced Pennsylvanians, especially the young, followed in the footsteps of previous migrants and went westward in search of farm land. Others, and perhaps a growing majority, went eastward to the Quaker City in hopes of finding a better life.21
The flight to the city is largely responsible for the urban population explosion in the antebellum period. Between 1800 and 1850, Philadelphia grew from 81,000 residents to over 408,000, and, as John Modell has shown, rural-urban migration and natural increase far outstripped immigration as the principal generators of growth prior to the 1840s. Immigrants were no more than 10 percent of the population in 1830 and did not arrive in appreciable numbers until the forties. As late as 1840, then, native-born Americans predominated and many of them were rural-urban migrants forced off the land or drawn to the city by the promise of advancement.22
The forging of the transportation network and massive migration from the countryside, in connection with the expansion of credit and imposition of erratic but protective tariffs, solved major problems for urban entrepreneurs. In combination such developments supplied access to regional and distant markets, provided a relatively cheap, if still inadequate, labor pool, and offered more credit. Endowed with these factors of production, entrepreneurs changed Philadelphia from a commercial port with a broad but shallow industrial base to a major center of commodity production, whose industrial output reached $140 million and was second only to New York on the eve of the Civil War.23
Such industrial growth necessarily altered the landscape of Philadelphia. Colonial patterns of land use and spatial relations, which mixed together rich and poor, home and workplace, persisted well into the nineteenth-century, but were beginning to yield to more familiar patterns of segregation and specialization. The gradual industrialization of the core chased some of the rich and well-born to the greener pastures of the western fringe, where they built elegant mansions on tree-lined streets and verdant squares.24 It also pushed working people and the poor into cheaper housing in the newly emerging suburban districts that formed a semicircular ring around the old port. Kensington and the Northern Liberties in the north, and Southwark and Kensington in the south, increasingly became the refuge of native and foreign-born wage earners.25
The core itself, though still highly commercial and residential, assumed a more industrial quality with the passage of time. Following the war of 1812, factories specializing in light consumer goods began to concentrate east of Seventh Street; textile mills, brickyards, and other industries dependent upon water power appeared to the west, along the banks of the Schuylkill.26 During the next four decades, such trends proceeded rather uniformly in the city but unevenly in the suburbs. Farther up the Schuylkill, a few miles from the downtown, was Manayunk, an area that was agricultural in 1820 but which became the heart of the county textile industry by the early thirties. Huge fieldstone mills, with water-powered spinning and weaving machinery, and tenements housing scores of operatives were built there overnight.27 Textile factories and artisan’s shops were found adjacent to weavers’ sheds in Kensington and Moyamensing, but the distinguishing feature of these areas was outwork. In the shadow of the mills were thousands of weavers who turned out cotton cloth on hand frames in tiny red-brick cottages lined up in monotonous rows on grid-like streets. Southwark and the Northern Liberties, older boroughs settled in Colonial times, retained vestiges of their preindustrial character. Small shops offering all manner of goods and commodities abounded as late as 1850, but more advanced forms of production were very much in evidence. Both districts became the home of tradesmen who, separating home and workplace, found employment either in the large workshops that crowded the core or in Southwark’s modern machine foundries.28
From the perspective of this study, however, two changes stand out. The first has to do with the redistribution of wealth that occurred between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the onset of the Civil War. Late Colonial Philadelphia was hardly an egalitarian paradise. A large proportion of the population owned no property, and an underclass of casual laborers, seamen, and tradesmen lived in poverty. Yet the distribution of real property, skewed though it was, looks equitable in comparison to later periods. At the close of the 1790s, the top 10 percent owned about half the wealth, which left a relatively large share for the smaller merchants, petty professionals, and master craftsmen who comprised the middling order.29 The ensuing seventy years witnessed a wholesale redistribution toward the top, so that by 1860 the leading 10 percent owned 90 percent of the wealth while the privileged 1 percent owned a substantial 50 percent.30
A recent analysis of this antebellum elite indicates that few of them claimed humble origins or were self-made men. The typical member bore the venerable surname of Biddle, Ridgeway, or Pennypacker, and could trace his family fortune to the eighteenth century. Like the Colonial elite, moreover, most of these men, or six in ten, engaged in commerce; another 15 percent practiced a profession or were in finance. Manufacturers made up only 5 percent of the upper crust and they alone can be described as self-made.31
The early stages of industrial capitalism, in a word, did not give rise to an upper class with fortunes grounded in production alone. The wealthiest Jacksonian Philadelphians were merchants and financers, just as they had been in Colonial times. The difference was that the Jacksonians sold commodities produced in their own backyard as well as European-made goods. They also boasted more diversified investment portfolios, for such elites lent some surplus capital to manufacturers.
The solidification of this upper class had its counterpart in the mass of men and women dependent exclusively on wage labor for sustenance. The condition of wage earners is still in dispute. Early studies of the standard of living pressed the case that real earnings rose between the 1820s and 1840s, and declined in the 1850s, which brought a net gain of from 10 to 13 percent.32 The absence of adequate data and additional research prohibits resolving this issue one way or another, but a few points deserve attention. Even if one concedes that real earnings rose in these years, the distribution of the increase remains an open question. Artisans in the better trades seem to have been the chief beneficiaries; the majority of skilled and unskilled workers, conversely, probably saw their incomes decline. A budget computed in 1851 by English immigrant John Campbell shows that even the modest rise in real earnings left the typical wage earner without enough resources to support his family at minimal comfort on his earnings alone. Campbell’s budget, which included allowances for food, rent, clothing, and candles but excluded medical care and recreation, came to $10.37 a week, or $518.35 a year, based on fifty weeks, at a time when the average yearly income of male workers in fourteen major industries was only $288.33 Printers and compositors, who were among the best paid of all journeymen, averaged only $370, or about $150 less than the minimum.34
This glaring shortfall caused workers to make adjustments. Most cut back on consumption, limiting their intake of meat and other expensive foodstuffs, conserving fuel costs by scavenging the countryside for wood, and partronizing the many second-hand shops in the city and suburbs. They also relied on multiple incomes, although it is impossible to know how many depended upon the earnings of wives and children or to identify the occupations of all secondary breadwinners. The employment of wives evidently varied according to the availability of work, the occupations and earnings of husbands, and the willingness of husbands to allow wives to work outside the home.35 Wives of textile hands, for example, probably had the highest labor force participation rate (outside the home) for three reasons: male earnings were low, work was readily available, and women’s occupations were seen as women’s work and posed no serious threat to men. Wives of outworkers in the shoe, needle, and weaving trades helped husbands bind shoes, sew slop clothing, and wind yarn.36 Spouses of better paid craftsmen, however, worked inside or outside the home only in hard times. A large proportion of older working-class women probably contributed to the family coffer by taking in boarders. Children were more likely than wives to enter the work force and were found in a spectrum of jobs. Sons had a wider range of choice than daughters and followed every trade and calling from printing to textiles. Daughters were typically restricted to the needle trades, textiles, and domestic service.37
The second salient change of this period has to do with the nature of work. The small craftsman of Watson’s youth, who served local customers on casual work schedules, was gradually eclipsed by the entrepreneur in many trades. Evidence of modernity, barely perceptible in Watson’s boyhood, was everywhere apparent by mid-century. Large multistoried industrial structures that occupied entire city blocks in the downtown and bunched along waterways competed with church steeples for domination of the city skyline. Oliver Evans’ Mars Foundry, Philadelphia’s largest business in 1815 and the envy of every aspiring entrepreneur, seemed modest by mid-century standards. Whereas Evans employed some thirty-five workmen during the War of 1812, thirty-five years later, over ninety firms hired in excess of one hundred workers each, and slightly more than 40 percent of the labor force worked in establishments with over fifty employees each. (See Table 1.)38
The rise of large units of production geared to mass markets announced the beginning of the end of artisanship and artisanal practice. The lax pace of work, the skill and autonomy of journeyman and master, and other handicraft characteristics eroded under the drive for economy and productivity carried on by highly competetive entrepreneurs. Most tradesmen felt the impact of early entrepreneurship. But while they shared common experiences on the shop floor, the fact remains that the new order did not bear down evenly on all of them, partly because industrial change was spectacularly uneven, and partly because newer methods of production did not completely displace older ones. Preindustrial and transitional forms, such as small shops and outwork, showed striking resiliency in some trades. Thousands of hand loom weavers, shoemakers, tailors, other tradesmen, and women worked in shabby cottages in the suburban districts, while textile operatives and metallurgical workers toiled in large factories, and operated some of the most modern equipment in the world. Moreover, as the coexistence of hand loom weaving cottages and textile mills suggests, there were important variations within trades as well as between them.
Percentage of Workforce by Size of Firm, 1850
Source: United States Census Office, Census of the United States, Industrial Schedule, Philadelphia County, 1850 (microfilm, MSS, National Archives, Washington, D.C.). The proportion of workers and employers in shops with fewer than six employees is underestimated because census marshalls recorded firms doing business in excess of $500, and thus ignored myriads of small producers in the old crafts.
A comprehensive view of the unfolding of early industrialism thus requires a conceptual frame of reference that takes account of uneven development and sorts out work environments. A helpful model posits the coexistence of five discrete but overlapping work settings—factories, manufactories, sweatshops, artisan shops, and outwork—distinguished by scale and mechanization as the first order of differentiation and market orientation as the second.
Factories. Factories refer to workplaces equipped with steam engines, water wheels, or both. The sine qua non of industrialization in the minds of most historians and economists, factories have received more than their share of attention from scholars probing industrial capitalism in England and New England. Philadelphia, however, was not similar to New England. Her factories employed less than a third of the labor force at mid-century and were limited to a few industries, the most important being textiles and heavy industry. Most artisans worked in nonmechanized settings. (See Tables 2 and 3.)
The importance of factories in these industries is easily explained. Offspring of the industrial revolution, heavy industry, and, to some extent, textiles, had no real tradition of craft organization. The absence of craft traditions, coupled with the rapid development of machine technology and the inherent need for large scale enterprise, at least in metallurgy, account for the shape of this production. Heavy industry thus short-circuited the customary path of development, in which manufacture moves from home and small shop to factory; iron, steel, and heavy equipment were produced in large, mechanized workplaces from the beginning. Cloth manufacture varied slightly, owing to the mixed history of the steps involved in making cottons and woolens, and to the demographic peculiarities of Philadelphia. Spinning and carding flourished in the countryside but not in the city, and both procedures, along with dying and printing, were centralized when factories proliferated in the late 1820s.39 Weaving, on the other hand, had a long history as a cottage industry in the country and city, and, at first, early factory owners were content to farm out loom work to outworkers or to contract with merchants who hired frame tenders. Many owners eventually purchased or rented looms and brought weaving under the same roof with other operations. Yet the number of hand loom weavers still increased, earning Philadelphia a reputation as a haven for this old-fashioned craft. Thousands of impoverished Irish frame tenders, making at least a stand against industrialism, lived cheek by jowl in Moyamensing and Kensington, and this abundant source of cheap labor kept industry alive.40
Percentage of Firms Using Steam or Water Power, and Percentage of Workers in Mechanized Firms, 1850
Source: United States Census Office, Census of the United States, Industrial Schedule, Philadelphia County, 1850 (microfilm, MSS, National Archives, Washington, D.C.).
Philadelphia’s early textile manufacturers are anonymous. None achieved the status of the heralded Boston Associates, and thus failed to raise the interest of contemporary biographers, hagiographers, and industrial promoters. We know them only through scattered bits of evidence, but such sources provide some helpful observations. Most textile manufacturers were not former merchants and financiers. Local merchants invested in New England mills and supplied capital for regional ventures, but as a rule, Philadelphia’s textile bosses were men of humble origins. Former journeymen and small businessmen, they ran comparatively modest businesses, and few of them accumulated competencies. At Manayunk, Philadelphia’s answer to Lowell, only two of over thirty owners had any real property in 1850, and most were such marginal producers that they rented space and machinery.41 The majority of them remained small, and many succumbed to the erratic economy. Failure was so common at Manayunk that thirty-four individuals operated twenty separate businesses between the early twenties and mid-forties.42
Distribution of Workers by Work Environments, 1850
*About half to three-fourths of those in manufactories and factories were actually outworkers.
† About half of those listed in manufactories and factories were actually outworkers.
Source: United States Census Office. Census of the United States, Industrial Schedule, Philadelphia County, 1850 (microfilm, MSS, National Archives, Washington, D.C.).
The most successful of the lot was Austrian-born Joseph Ripka, and even he failed to avoid the whim of the volatile market. Ripka started out as a weaver, presumably a journeyman, and accumulated enough capital and knowledge of the “management of the loom” to strike out on his own. Migrating to Lyon in 1814, he opened a cotton and silk mill, but the political chaos of Restoration France drove him to the brink of ruin and also from the Old World to the New—and then to Philadelphia, where he promptly reentered the textile business. He opened a small hand loom weaving firm in Kensington in 1817, and four years later added another mill and a warehouse to his holdings. The mid-twenties was a pivotal time for him. He took over a power loom factory on the Pennypack, constructed a weaving and spinning mill at Manayunk, and garnered the capital from these to expand sharply in the coming years. At the beginning of the forties the sixty-year-old immigrant owned a minor textile empire that embraced a string of warehouses and at least eight mills, and was numbered among the wealthiest Philadelphians. But success eluded him. The panic of 1857 left him with large inventories, few customers, and many debtors whose defaults mounted and drove him to ruin. A casualty of hard times, Ripka died a poor man in 1862.43
Ripka’s mills and those of his competitors were the most advanced businesses in the region. Powered by steam engines or water wheels and equipped with batteries of machines, these monuments of rising industrialism were the equivalents of early automobile assembly plants. Production rhythms were maddeningly syncopated, fluctuating between periods of intense activity and slack times. Owners would operate part time or cut employment rolls when chronic overproduction glutted markets, and would shut down entirely when steam engines malfunctioned, waterways froze or dried up, or canal companies dredged silted trenches.44 But in prosperous times no work environment demanded as much discipline or exhausting physical labor as did textile factories. (This distinguished textile operatives from metallurgical workers who were located in factories. The work life of first-generation machinists, iron puddlers, rollers, and kindred wage earners was qualitatively different from that of the operatives. They were highly skilled factory workers who commanded exceptionally high wages and exercised control over the conditions and instruments of production. Metal tradesmen were numerically significant in antebellum Philadelphia, but deficient data on their early experiences precludes incorporating them into the following analysis.)45
Operatives put in one of the longest workdays of all wage earners. They toiled up to fourteen hours daily at the end of the twenties, and in 1835, when craftsmen throughout the city struck successfully for a ten-hour day, textile hands had to settle for a compromise of eleven hours. The eleven-hour standard held throughout the depression of 1837; owners, however, reimposed longer hours following recovery in the middle of the forties. Textile employees had come full circle and worked a thirteen-hour day once again.46
The shop experience of millhands differed from artisans in other ways as well. Unlike the great majority of wage earners who worked by hand or with the aid of simple tools, they operated power-driven machines and adjusted to a work pace over which they had no control. And while all artisans worked harder and more intensively as time wore on, mill workers faced the most gruelling regime of all. In 1833, for example, a mule spinner estimated that a competent practitioner turned out about 4,000 hanks of a standard thread a week.47 Fifteen years later a popular manufacturers’ manual recommended a weekly output of twice that rate.48 Supervision was strict and overbearing. Operatives toiled under the direction of overseers and room bosses who detected the slightest “falling off” and, did not shy away from exercising their authority to discipline the guilty.49 Owners specified what constituted laxity, posting written rules and regulations that one of their number described as “chiefly indispensible for . . . good management.”50 Ripka levied fines for “neglect of work,” carelessness, mistreatment of machinery, and poor performance or work “badly done.” He encouraged promptness by docking “every hand coming to work a quarter of an hour after the mill started” a quarter of a day[’s wage.]”51 Small wonder that Manayunk operatives considered textile manufacture a “clock-work system.”52
The tight surveillance on the shop floor occasionally spilled over into housing. The leading firms imitated Rhode Island manufacturers and boarded families in company-owned tenements. These dull, gray buildings, built from the same material as the mills, were governed by principles similar to production itself. Tenants were carefully screened, barred from “sinful” behavior, and subjected to a curfew.53
Workers bound to the authoritarianism of textile manufacturers were among the most impoverished of all wage earners. Owners initially lured them into the mills with relatively good wages, but having attracted a sufficient corps of workers after the early thirties, drove down the rates. Average yearly earnings varied with the job; male mule spinners commanded two to three times the scale of women power weavers. But males still earned pitifully low wages. In 1850 they averaged slightly more than $210 a year, which placed them near the bottom of the occupational pyramid.54
Manufactories. Early nineteenth-century Americans used the term manufactory interchangeably with factory to refer to any large industrial establishment. In this context, however, manufactory identifies plants with more than twenty-five workers (whether employed inside or outside the premises) but without power sources. Or, phrased another way, manufactories are nonmechanized factories. These establishments grew at the expense of small shops and outwork and by mid-century absorbed one-third to one-half of the printers, saddlers and harnessmakers, shoemakers, tailors, cabinetmakers, and, if one wishes to include nonproduction craftsmen, building tradesmen as well. (See Table 3.) That firms in this stage of development grew large without mechanizing is shown in Tables 1 and 2. The first table discloses that one-half to three-fourths of the craftsmen concentrated in shops with more than twenty-five fellow workers; the second demonstrates that mechanization hardly made a dent in these pursuits. Printers and publishers headed the rank order, and only 15 percent of them used steam engines or water wheels, which is another way of observing that by 1850 it was quite common to find upward of fifty craftsmen in a single plant working exclusively by hand.
Owners of manufactories derived from two sources. There was the “insider” or former artisan who was “brought up to the trade” and would become the revered Jacksonian entrepreneur and expectant capitalist. Then there was the “outsider” who entered manufacture by way of commerce. Insiders dominated most trades, but it was not unusual for a representative of each group to become partners, insiders providing the expertise in production, outsiders supplying the capital. The pattern in shoe and clothing manufacture diverged somewhat. Evidence gathered from other locales indicates that the pioneer manufacturers were outsiders operating through the putting-out system and then through central shops. Some of them transformed such shops into factories by mid-century, but most withdrew from production in the late 1830s, leaving the trade to the insiders.55 Such may have been Philadelphia’s mobility pattern. Of the city’s forty largest shoe manufacturers in 1850, thirty-two (and possibly as many as thirty-six) rose within the trade from the ranks of masters and journeymen. The remainder were merchants who put together partnerships with insiders instead of going it alone.56
Whatever their background or calling, craft entrepreneurs ran their businesses in similar ways and, in some respects, in concert with textile manufacturers. Confronted with the dual need to increase output and tighten work discipline, they hired more workers and manipulated piece rates. Shoe manufacturers were singularly aggressive in the area of wages. Between the late 1820s and early 1830s, they slashed the standard on fancy boots by 150 percent and cheap work by a third. The reduction of cheap work forced journeymen to “turn out triple the quantity . . . to obtain a living,” and to extend their workdays.57 The general strike of 1835 brought a ten-hour day, but frequent wage cuts in the following decade erased its fruits for many journeymen. A mechanic writing in the late forties protested that “every pursuit of labor has, within ten or fifteen years, been shorn of from one-third to one-half of its former gains; or where the rates remain nominally the same, instability of employment and superseding expedients has [sic] produced the same effects; though perhaps in a majority of cases, an actual reduction in rates is the active cause.”58 During the 1840s, journeymen shoemakers and tailors were putting in up to sixteen hours a day in the busy season.59
The resemblance between factories and manufactories extended to managerial practice. As in factories, the scale of operations in manufactories induced the delegation of authority to overseers and foremen, who by the 1830s and 1840s constituted a thin but growing stratum of middle-level managers. The specific responsibilities of foremen are obscure. It is unknown if they enforced rules and regulations like textile overseers, but one can infer that they ruled over a broad jurisdiction. They probably hired and fired and, clearly, supervised the labor process, substituting their standards of workmanship for those of the workers. A clothing manufacturer parlayed his managerial arrangement into a sales ploy. His advertisements in the local press wooed customers with the assurance that employees made up the garments “on the premises under the more immediate, personal, careful, rigid supervision than is customary.”60
Here the similarities between manufactories and factories diminished. The prodigious technological advances that eased the transition to factory production in textiles were unavailable, prohibitively expensive, or both, for entrepreneurs in the crafts. Deprived of machines, aspiring manufacturers turned to the division of labor, and in varying degrees broke down skills into specialized tasks. Judging from the rush of protest on the part of shoemakers and tailors, it appears that their employers led the way in dividing up the work. Indeed, no single group of large manufacturers assaulted skills as quickly or as thoroughly.61 By the late 1830s, shoe bosses effectively detached cutting the leather from lasting and bottoming, and carved up the remaining procedures into menial occupations. At the other end of the spectrum were book and newspaper publishers. They simply separated operating the press from setting the type, and, like shoe and clothing manufacturers, stationed workers in rooms or departments dedicated to specific jobs.62
The debasing of skill and other features attendant upon the modernization of the crafts have long been matters of record and bear no repeating here.63 It is appropriate, however, to draw attention to several points that historians have slighted or ignored. First, the division of labor did not uniformly reduce craft work to semiskilled jobs, as is commonly believed. Instead, it created a new hierarchy of occupations whose components required some training and considerable expertise, modest amounts of both, or very little of either. At the top were such jobs as leather and garment cutting, shoe lasting, typesetting, and others that were not mastered without years of experience; at the bottom were shoe binding, cloth stitching, and other menial tasks that could be picked up in a matter of weeks. The former continued to be dominated by men, and the latter were assigned to youths, “half-trained” men, and women. Second, though most craftsmen worked in manufactories by the 1840s, those whose bosses installed power-driven equipment were not necessarily converted into machine operatives. The few manufacturers of light consumer goods who did deploy steam engines harnessed power to a few tasks, so that mixes of hand and machine work existed in the same firm. To take but one example, publishers who exchanged screw devices for power-driven presses, and recruited young men and women to run them, left setting the type to skilled males who worked by hand.64 Third, specialized workers employed in manufactories experienced a more exacting work regimen, but were somewhat more autonomous than textile operatives. Since they worked by hand or with the aid of hand tools and rented independently owned homes (or at least homes not owned by their employers), they had more latitude and social space in which to act out their lives.
Finally, the evolution of handicraft production was such that some entrepreneurs reshaped the nature of work outside the walls of their own establishments. Shoe and clothing manufactories, for example, originated as small shops where the cloth and leather were cut and footwear and garments were packaged and prepared for shipment. Outworkers performed the intermediary steps in their homes, which left the bulk of the labor force outside capital’s immediate supervision. This awkward arrangement was the source of inefficiency and loss, and was an incentive for the herding of labor under one roof. But the typical shoe and clothing manufacturer never did shed his dependence on outworkers and “sweaters.” It was he, in fact, who fostered the sweating system and resurrected the putting-out system.
Sweatshops. It is virtually impossible to distinguish garrets or sweatshops from neighborhood or artisan shops. Both were small and unmechanized, usually hiring under twenty-five workers, but evidence suggests that sweatshops were the larger of the two. These businesses will thus be treated as firms with six to twenty-five employees.65
Sweatshops emerged in three ways. Merchants would buy in volume from small producers; they would advance capital or raw material to producers and demand shipment of finished goods by fixed deadlines; or, as implied above, merchants and manufacturers would contract with producers to perform limited tasks.66 The first and third types were common in footwear and apparel; the second enmeshed many trades. Proprietors selling directly to merchants, or the first type, usually owned raw materials and produced the entire commodity in the shop, as did the second type. The third and second were supplied with raw materials and were responsible for a few tasks in a larger production process.
Most “sweaters” were former journeymen who took advantage of the low capital costs and easy access to employer status. Staying in business, however, was no mean accomplishment, because of the traditional fragility of small enterprise and the unique market position of “sweaters.” Forced to meet rigid production schedules and hounded by competitors, they were pressed to speed up production and trim costs at every turn. They hired cheap labor, scrupulously directed production, and, in order to hold down costs, even toiled alongside journeymen. The tempo itself was wildly irregular. The production season necessitated long and wearying toil with the men rushing to fill orders; dull times brought long periods of unemployment in which bosses and journeymen alike eked out an existence doing repair work.67
It is difficult to gauge the proportion of sweatshop workers in the various trades during this period. An educated guess would place one-half of the shoemakers and tailors in garrets in the 1830s, and about a third of them there twenty years later. Slightly higher percentages of furniture workers and traditional metal tradesmen worked in such shops in both periods.
Outwork. In antebellum Philadelphia, the putting-out system was restricted to shoemaking, tailoring, weaving, and a few marginal industries. For these trades, it is impossible to compute the ratio of such outworkers to shopmen with any precision. One can only assume that the share of male tailors and shoemakers declined as production gravitated to manufactories during the thirties and forties. By mid-century outworkers probably numbered in the neighborhood of a fifth of both trades. Hand loom weaving, on the other hand, obstinately persevered as a cottage industry despite the spread of the power loom and of textile mills. The number of frame tenders working at home or in small sheds grew from about 4,500 in the late twenties to nearly 6,000 by the fifties, when they accounted for more than half of the weavers in the county.68
Outworkers were the lowliest of all artisans. They stood on the fringes of the sweated trades or practiced occupations that were so easily learned that there was no apprenticeship or formal training. Hand loom weaving was passed on through a kind of on-the-job training and was probably learned in a matter of months. Shoe binding and stitching ready-made clothing, two mainstays of outwork, required even less time. Outworkers inevitably earned low wages, far lower than shop workers, and if hand loom weavers are a reliable guide, only slightly better than unskilled laborers.69 They were a casual labor force employed by either merchants or manufacturers, depending on the trade and period of time. Boss hand loom weavers, for example, were usually merchant capitalists who maintained warehouses and controlled large stocks of raw materials but did not own the machinery. They simply gave out yarn to weavers who worked at home on their own frames. Some of them, it is true, flirted with modernization by renting small shops, purchasing looms, and centralizing the weavers, but most clung to old ways and continued to employ cottagers well into the 1850s.70 Boss shoemakers and tailors, on the other hand, were increasingly likely to be manufacturers who employed shopmen as well as outworkers.
Whatever their trade, outworkers lived in a world of their own. A contemporary Philadelphian observed that hand loom weavers (and by extension outworkers in general) “have no practical concern with the ten-hour system, or the factory system, or even the solar system. They work at such hours as they choose in their own homes, and their industry is mainly regulated by the state of the larder.”71 This derisive view was only partly correct. Cottagers were in the thick of the general strike for a ten-hour day in 1835, and none completely dodged industrial discipline. Even their employers resorted to negative incentives and penalties for turning in faulty work or failing to return cloth to warehouses by prescribed deadlines.72 These practices notwithstanding, cottagers still exercised far more control over their work than any other journeymen. Toiling at home far from the watchful eye of boss and overseer, they worked pretty much at their own pace.
Artisan or Neighborhood Shops. Small shops that employed fewer than six workers and were neither garrets nor sweatshops fared unevenly after 1800. They were nearly eclisped in some trades, and persisted as the prevailing form in others. As late as 1850, one-half to three-fourths of the traditional metal tradesmen (coppersmiths and tinsmiths), blacksmiths, butchers, and bakers, among others, and about one-fifth of the shoemakers and furniture makers worked in these shops. (See Table 3.) It should be emphasized, however, that while such establishments hired a declining share of the labor force (only 12.8 percent by 1850), they comprised the vast majority of the employers, or just about 60 percent in 1850. (See Table 4.)
Owners closely resembled the small craftsmen of Federalist Philadelphia. A combination of worker, foreman, and merchant in one, they set their hands to manual labor, directed the work of those in their employ, and marketed their own wares and services directly to consumers. Such artisans either supplied Philadelphians of all classes with food, tobacco, household utensils, and other commodities, or fashioned fine goods for the city’s upper crust, whose taste for custom work persisted in spite, and perhaps because, of the advent of mass production. Journeymen were among the most skilled and accomplished in the city. Working by hand, they made the entire product from beginning to end and, except in baking where a punishing routine was endemic, enjoyed relatively relaxed work schedules. They also earned the best wages, and along with garret workers, had a comparatively easy entrée to ownership. He who accumulated $500 to $1000 could open his own shop. Thus, class lines were still fluid, and social relations between master and journeymen comparatively harmonious at this level of production.73
No analysis of antebellum wage earners would be complete without some recognition of the unskilled. Such laborers fall outside the categories outlined above, for most of them were involved in commerce and construction rather than manufacturing. They were found on the docks, in the streets, and at construction sites, among other nonindustrial settings, doing the arduous tasks of loading and unloading barges and riggers, and transporting materials in and around the city.
Distribution of Firms by Size Category, 1850
Source: United States Census Office, Census of the United States, Industrial Schedule, Philadelphia County, 1850 (microfilm, MSS, National Archives, Washington, D.C.).
The term unskilled is essentially generic. It subsumes an array of jobs whose common denominator is the absence of skills, such as “laborer,” “hod carrier,” “stevedore,” “carter,” “draymen,” and so on. Taken together, these categories accounted for about 16 percent of the labor force in 1850.74 The working conditions of the unskilled varied widely, but may be grouped into two categories. The smaller of these, which might be described as “individual” or “entrepreneurial,” encompasses workers with either the capital to purchase a horse and cart or the ingenuity to construct human-powered vehicles. They toiled alone or as individuals, carting refuse and raw materials for municipalities and businessmen. The larger group, or “collective,” consisted of coal heavers, stevedores, and others who owned no equipment and usually worked in teams or groups under their own direction.
Worker and Workplace: Who Worked Where?
A major theme of the new labor history is that working-class culture and consciousness do not simply happen or develop in a vacuum. Instead, culture and consciousness are made and remade by the interplay of living and working conditions and what individuals bring to communities and workshops from prior experiences. A complex process in itself, it is confounded in antebellum Philadelphia not only by the disparate environments of workers but also by their varied backgrounds. We know from other studies, for example, that native-born and foreign-born workers unacquainted with urban ways and industrial exigencies brought with them into urban labor markets expectations and assumptions of a different order from those artisans familiar with insurgent politics. The cultural baggage of each group shaped behavior inside and outside the workplace, and was itself metamorphosed under the impact of changing conditions on the job and in the community.75 Given the central importance of work in this formulation and the range of industrial environments in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia, the link between worker and workplace must be established. The difficulty of this task should not be underestimated. Since no single source provides the necessary information, the mosaic must be pieced together from scattered bits of evidence and at times from inference.
The chore can be lightened somewhat by distinguishing the 1820s and 1830s from the 1840s. Prior to the cataclysmic panic of 1837, most manual workers were native-born Americans who were evenly divided between small shops and outwork, on the one hand, and factories, manufactories, and sweat shops, on the other. They were found in all descriptions of skilled and unskilled labor, but there was an important difference between the urban born and bred, who had served regular apprenticeships, and the recently-arrived rural-urban migrant, who entered the city without craft knowledge. Male and female migrants fulfilled the same role in Philadelphia as the Irish in Boston and New England farm women in Lowell. Being a pool of cheap and untrained labor, they paved the way for the mass production of cloth and light consumer goods, and supplied the muscle of the army of unskilled labor. Some of the men worked as casual laborers and staffed the sweatshops, and members of both sexes drifted into factories and manufactories or worked at home under the putting-out system. Urban-born artisans and those reared in the city were the seasoned workers who cornered custom and retail work, and who concentrated in artisan shops, or at least worked there as long as employment was available. The frequent lulls in trade forced them to double as outworkers and perhaps seek occasional employment from garret bosses and large manufacturers.
Other custom workers simply lost the freedom to choose their place of employment. The continued consolidation of production into larger units drove scores of small employers out of business and left masters and journeymen without work and with little alternative but to file into sweatshops and manufactories. Few took kindly to this. A group of cordwainers faced with this prospect complained that manufacturers “have embarked on our business, and realized large fortunes, by reducing wages, making large quantities of work, and selling at reduced prices, while those of us who have served time to the trade, and have been anxious to foster its interests, have had to abandon the business or enter the system of manufacturing.”76
Immigrants comprised about 10 percent of the work force in this period. The Irish, the great majority of the foreign-born, were former peasants and crofters or artisans who had learned the basics of hand loom weaving, shoemaking, tailoring, and other skills in their native land or in the west of England. The first group, clearly the majority, concentrated in casual labor and in unskilled work of all types. Some of them moved into the semiskilled ends of the declining crafts and into weaving, but they and their skilled countrymen did not necessarily find their way into factories and manufactories. Displaying an aversion to modern work disciplines, they preferred outwork in Philadelphia just as they had in the Old World. English immigrants, having emigrated in the early stages of the industrial revolution, came to Philadelphia as craftsmen and skilled textile workers. Many of them were recruited by textile bosses in need of skilled workers, and most spread themselves across the occupational spectrum and across most work settings as well.
The decade and a half following the panic witnessed the continued massing of workers into factories and manufactories and the concommitant, if variable, decline of garrets, artisan shops, and the putting-out system. The protracted depression expedited this process, and no one realized this more than small businessmen. A former garret boss who lost his shop in hard times counted two thousand fellow owners who were “reduced . . . to journeymen . . . working for large [manu]factories.”77 Such a winnowing out of small producers decreased the number of traditional settings, as well as the garrets, without completely destroying either or both in many trades. In 1850, select groups of craftsmen still earned their living working for small proprietors.
The continuity in industrial development contrasts sharply with the striking shift in the composition of the labor force during the forties. Two waves of immigrants from western Europe at the beginning and end of the decade inflated the proportion of foreign-born Philadelphians from 10 to nearly 40 percent of the male labor force. Two-thirds of these newcomers were Irish peasants in flight from the horrors of the Great Famine. About four in ten of them worked as hod carriers, carters, stevedores, draymen, and casual laborers. Another 40 percent can be identified as skilled workers, but most of them were involved in hand loom weaving and in bastardized segments of the sweated trades. Germans accounted for another 20 percent of the foreign-born, but they hardly fit the stereotype of the unskilled immigrant. Having come from small towns with artisan economies, they were the most skilled immigrants ever to enter America, and used this background to good advantage in Philadelphia. Fully two-thirds of them assumed skilled jobs, and while shoemaking, tailoring, furniture making, and butchering had special appeal, they worked at every craft. The occupational profile of the native-born whites, who fell from about 90 to less than sixty percent of the male manual labor force during the decade, closely mirrored that of the Germans. The difference lay in their distribution among the trades. They were largely displaced by women and immigrants in the semiskilled jobs of the declining crafts and by Irish immigrants in casual labor during the forties. At the close of the decade native whites were dominant only in the more prestigious crafts of printing, carpentry, and the like and in the better jobs within the sweated trades, such as leather and garment cutting and shoe lasting.78
The combination of this demographic shift and ongoing industrial change redistributed Philadelphia’s wage earners within work settings. Most workers of all national origins and backgrounds were found in the modern (factories) and the modernizing (manufactories and sweatshops) workplaces as the forties drew to a close. The only exceptions to this were large numbers of Irish males, small but substantial groups of native white and German males who staffed the small shops, and women of all nationalities who continued to work under the putting-out system.
Seen from this perspective, industrializing Philadelphia is a fascinating blend of the old, the new, and the transitional.79 Such uneven development, though noteworthy in its own right, also had an important influence on class relations, the social basis of politics, the configuration of political coalitions, and other matters that are explored below. For the moment we turn our attention to uneven development as a component in the forging of working-class culture. Specifically, we shall examine how the interaction of the backgrounds and work experiences of Philadelphia’s wage earners produced three discrete subcultures in the years preceding the panic of 1837.
*Material on work environments has been adapted from an article I wrote with Prof. Mark Schmitz entitled “Manufacture and Productivity: The Making of an Industrial Base, 1850–1880,” in Towards an Interdisciplinary History of the City: Work, Space, Family and Group Experience in Nineteenth-century Philadelphia, ed. Theodore Hershberg (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).