CHAPTER XIV. THE RISE OF THE WAGE EARNER
The greater use of machinery during the progress of the war has already been alluded to, but some of its results demand further mention. Most evident was the huge increase in the volume and value of the products of the factories. The labor of a single worker increased in effectiveness many times; in other words, the labor cost of a unit of production greatly diminished with the improvement of mechanical devices. The labor cost of making nails by hand in 1813 was seventy fold the cost of making them by machinery in 1899; loading ore by hand was seventy-three times as expensive in 1891 as machine loading was in 1896. Increased production encouraged greater consumption, enhanced competition for markets, and opened the world to the products of American labor. Moreover, the introduction of machinery emphasized the importance of capital. When iron was rolled by hand, when cloth was produced by the use of the spinning wheel and hand-loom, when fields were tilled by inexpensive plow and hoe, relatively small amounts of capital were needed by the man who started in to work. Mechanical inventions revolutionized the situation. A costly power-loom enabled its owner to eliminate handworking competitors. If a workman could raise sufficient money or credit to purchase a supply of machines he could "set up in business," employ a number of "hands" and merely direct or manage the enterprise. Under such a system the employer must make enough profit to pay interest on his investment and to repair and replace his equipment. His attention was fixed on these elements of his industrial problem and the well-being of the laborer sank to a lower plane of importance. If the employer found the labor supply plentiful he had the upper hand in setting the wage-scale; the unorganized employee was almost completely at his mercy, because the employer could find another workman more easily than the workman could find another job. Meanwhile the workman knew the increased product which he was turning out, and became discontented because he did not see a corresponding increase in his remuneration.
From about 1830, when the rapid development of the use of mechanical appliances began, to the late eighties and early nineties when the new regime was meeting its sternest conflicts in the trust problem and the militant labor unions, the army of the wage earner was growing faster than the population. Between 1870 and 1890, for example, the population increased 63 per cent., while the number of laborers engaged in manufacturing increased nearly 130 per cent. By the latter year, 6,099,058 persons, about a tenth of the total population, were employed in transportation, mining and manufacturing.
It was noticeable, also, that the wage earners tended to concentrate. The laborers engaged in manufacturing were to be found, for the most part, in the Northeast, and especially in such leading industrial cities as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Furthermore, the development of the factory system and the consolidation of many small companies into a few great ones tended to localize the labor problem still further - in a relatively small number of plants. The concentration of industry in great factories where large numbers of workers labored side by side ended the paternal care which the old-time employer had expended upon his employees. With the introduction of machinery, the danger of accidents due to the ignorance or carelessness of fellow workmen increased. The use of mechanical appliances also gave opportunity for the employment of women and children, and thus raised the question whether any restrictions ought to be placed upon the employment of these classes of people. The construction of factories, their ventilation, sanitary appliances, and safe-guards for health and comfort became subjects of importance.
With the example of consolidation before them that was presented by the railroads and the corporations, it was inevitable that the wage earners should organize for their protection and advancement. Labor organizations of wage earners have existed in the United States since 1827, and between that time and 1840 came a considerable awakening among the laboring classes which was part of a general humanitarian movement throughout the country. Robert Owen, an English industrial idealist, had visited this country about 1825 and provided the initiative for a short-lived communistic settlement at New Harmony, Indiana. Similar enterprises were established at other points; the most famous of these was that at Brook Farm in Massachusetts, which enlisted the interest and support of many of the literary people of New England. The expanding humanitarian and idealistic movement was cut short by the Civil War, but the development of industrialism went on uninfluenced by the spirit of social progress which might have permeated it. After reconstruction was over, a new generation had to become impressed with the evils which needed correction and to set itself to the task which civil strife had thrust aside.