United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Transform your teaching with the power of digital pedagogy. This book features: an interactive timeline, live learning feedback, embedded primary source video, automatic grading, and full customizability.

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Our U.S. History textbook extends beyond the page with interactive graphing tools, real-world news clips and articles that relate to current events, and examples that are relevant to millennial audiences.
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Comparison of U.S. History Textbooks

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Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

Pricing

Average price of textbook across most common format

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device

$63.90

Hardcover print text only

$87.99

Per volume

$79.60

Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

In-Book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Pricing

Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

$63.90

Hardcover print text only

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

$87.99

Per volume

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

$79.60

Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

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Chapter 18: The Industrial Revolution and the Growth of Organized Labor, 1870-1900



Chapter Overview

As the memory of the Civil War gave way to memories of Reconstruction and its aftermath, the structure of American life began to change in fundamental ways. Following peace at Appomattox and the passage of the “Reconstruction Amendments,” more than three million slaves became freedmen, recognized, at least by law, as citizens of the United States. Slavery no longer existed as it had before the war. All male citizens, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” could vote, and all Americans theoretically stood equally under the law. Perhaps most importantly, though, the nation had to rebuild. The Civil War killed more than 600,000 individuals and scarred hundreds of thousands more. Twelve years of Reconstruction, flush with racial animosity, social upheaval, and redemption politics, produced little solace for the damage done by just four years of war. The Southern economy was devastated. Slavery, its long-held “saving grace,” was gone; industry, if it existed at all, stood only along the coast; and the “redeemed” governments that came out of the Compromise of 1877 had little interest in working with or modernizing the South in the image of the North.

Change came suddenly, as had the war and its political aftermath. The North, dedicated to reintroducing the South to a new national system of trade and economic and social interaction, moved immediately to expand with the times, forcing the South to keep up or get left behind. It was time for the nation to move forward together under a single vision. While the North had the advantage of victory and several decades of planning that the South did not, the nation as a whole had come under the influence of the same economic system by the 1880s. This was the age of capitalism—the age of profit, industry, and free labor.

Figure 18.1: Diego's map of U.S. in circa 1880​


The principles of production, communal and individual value, and financial well-being took forms that no one in the United States had ever seen before. Looking for work, acceptance, and identity, people flocked to urban areas. Cities became lands of opportunity, the homes of a new social and economic power: money. Labor became an entirely new idea and reality. Men and women now worked in factories rather than fields, workhouses rather than homes. To make profit was to succeed. Wealth became a testament to the hard work and diligence of a virtuous soul. Poverty was an illness, laziness a curse. In the eyes of this new America, it took a proud, respectable character to produce wealth, regardless of starting point or opportunity. The emerging concept of Social Darwinism declared that the weak were meant to fall off, leaving the strong and successful to bring the United States into its divinely ordained future. Value came from work, labor was everything, and the United States became a nation of barons, so wealthy and respected that their names still resonate today.

Chapter Objectives

  • Follow the rise of the “Robber Barons”
  • Investigate the social effects of industrialization and contract labor on the American populace
  • Discuss and understand the formation of labor and trade unions
  • Grasp the realities of the working poor and the conditions under which they worked
  • Explore how the changing society and economy affected ideas and views of race, gender, and class
  • Understand how the new middle class fueled the moral reform movement, and uncover the foundations of their beliefs


Question 18.01

18.01 -Level 5

What separated the North and South in terms of infrastructure following the Civil War and Reconstruction? In your opinion, which region had the best—but not necessarily the easiest—chance at effective and realistic change in the latter half of the 19th century?

Click here to see the answer to Question 18.01.

The "Robber Barons"

During the upheaval of the Civil War, the nation actually got bigger. Kansas entered the union in 1861, followed by West Virginia in 1863 and Nevada in 1864. By the end of the decade, Nebraska joined the union, bringing the total number of states to 37. Naturally, networks of trade and commerce expanded to meet the demands of the new population and tap the fortune of the new lands. The South likewise needed updating. Prior to the war, the slave system had held the South back from the industrial and commercial infrastructure that had spread throughout the North. Where thousands of miles of rail lines lay in the North, just hundreds lay in the South, and only rarely did lines exist beyond connecting the interior with the coast. To make things worse, when the Union Army advanced across the South in 1864, it destroyed the majority of southern railways, limiting the South’s access to production and trade. First patented in 1836, the steam-powered locomotive was commonplace in the North by the end of the 1850s. By the 1870s, it had overtaken the steamboat as the primary mode of transportation in nearly every section of the country. If the South could build rail lines, progressive economists believed, there was no reason it could not become a modernized economy and work with, rather than against, its northern neighbors. 

18.02 Level 4

What were the factors that created the robber barons in the late 19th century, as opposed to any other time period?


Figure 18.2: The Bessemer Process [1]


Several other inventions in the post-war period aided the growth of the railroad and the production of a new American social system. In 1857, Henry Bessemer, an English industrialist, developed the Bessemer process for the production of steel from iron ore. Relatively inexpensive and quick compared to previous methods, the Bessemer process brought steel into the modern industrial age. Instead of iron, which was extremely heavy, required enormous skill to forge, and was prone to rust, steel provided a lighter, stronger, more enduring alternative. The problem was that steel required work, space, and know-how to produce. Before the perfection of the process in the mid-1860s, forging steel was dangerous. Molten iron had to be oxidized to reduce the amount of carbon in the ore to a more neutral ratio, requiring enormous heat. If something went wrong, nothing could survive the flow of red-hot iron.

Because of the complexity and danger of the process, it did not immediately catch on in other parts of the world. By the beginning of the 1870s, the United States still accounted for more than 40 percent of Britain’s steel export—nearly a quarter of the world’s supply. Up to that time, it remained more cost-effective to import the metal than produce it locally. The most important use of steel fell to the railroad industry. Prior to the late 1860s, most railroads in the United States were made of iron, which had to be replaced and repaired constantly due to the stress and weight of rail travel. Steel, however, allowed railroad companies to expand their systems to more remote areas as the relatively new alloy required much less maintenance. As the South began to design and build a rail system of its own after the Civil War, the demand for steel grew to new heights and became an industry all its own in the United States.

Figure 18.3: Andrew Carnegie (left) with friend and financier Theodore Gilman (right) [2]

At the center of that industry, and indeed the American financial world, was a man named Andrew Carnegie. An immigrant like many of his fellow Americans, Carnegie, the son of a weaver, was born in Scotland in 1835. Unlike most of his colleagues at the top of American industry, Carnegie’s youth was one of basic poverty in a nation that was slowly growing in the shadow of the more industrialized England to the south. At the age of 13, his father moved the family to western Pennsylvania, an area that would become the center of the world’s largest steel industry just a few decades later, largely thanks to the Carnegie brand. Although he shunned the term, Carnegie was the quintessential “self-made man.” Indeed, when he went to work for the first time in 1853, he did so as a secretary for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. There, he was one of nearly 15,000 low-level employees valued little by the “higher-ups.” He made $4.00 a week. Yet by the 1880s, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, along with nearly every other railroad in the nation, was beholden to the Carnegie steel empire. 

18.03 - Level 3

What was the advantage of the use of steel compared to iron?

A

It was easier to manufacture.

B

It was more durable.

C

It took less space and time.

D

It was more abundant in nature.

E

None of the above


18.04 - Level 1

The development of what process revolutionized the industrial side of railroads and aided the growth of the American steel industry?

A

The Hindenburg Process

B

Reverse Osmosis

C

Atomic Fission

D

The Bessemer Process


18.05 - Level 2

Click on the region that became the epicenter of America’s steel industry in the late 19th century.


The destruction brought by the Civil War opened the United States to extraordinary growth. Reaching a high point of centralized authority during the war, the federal government loosened its grasp on the nation as a whole in the post-war decades. The goal was internal production over importation. As the former Confederate states reentered the union, they needed a will to work; tariffs did the trick. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant enacted the tariff of 1870, which placed a $28 per ton duty on all imported steel and lowered the income tax rate to just 2.5% on incomes over $2,000 per year. The tariff gave budding industrialists remarkable freedom in both production and revenue. The American steel market became effectively shut off from more integrated, advanced producers in Europe, opening the landscape to a new, extremely aggressive wave of industrialization. Nothing limited the growth of this new industry beyond the limits of the land itself. Demand for steel exploded as the South tried to rebuild and modernize, and Andrew Carnegie was there to meet its needs.

Carnegie used connections well. His former boss, J. Edgar Thomson, who served as president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company from 1852 to 1874, had imbued his young apprentice with knowledge of every aspect of the railroad system—what went into timing routes, purchasing and contracting locomotives, and, most importantly, building the rails themselves. When the railroad boom hit in the late 1870s, Carnegie put that knowledge to work. Carnegie had accumulated a vast fortune as a stock trader and lender, buoyed by several good investments designed by his close friend and financier, John Pierpont “J. P.” Morgan, who had already made a fortune by short-selling stocks and manipulating commodities markets. Following a tour of Henry Bessemer’s main steel plant outside Sheffield, England in 1872, Carnegie decided that the time was right for such a plant in the United States. 

Figure 18.4: "Bethlehem Steel Works" by Joseph Pennell, 1881 [3]

The following year, on August 22, 1873, Andrew Carnegie opened his first steel production plant in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a few miles east of Pittsburgh. The plant, called Edgar Thomson Steel Works after Carnegie’s mentor, immediately became the primary source of rail works for the Pennsylvania Railroad. By the end of the decade, it produced steel for nearly every railroad company in the nation. By the beginning of the next century, it would become the flagship of the largest steel manufacturing company in the world: U.S. Steel.

The irony of Carnegie’s success is that it was brought on by the Panic of 1873, a time when nearly all of his colleagues and competitors were forced to sell or give up entirely on their budding empires. Lasting from 1873 to 1879, the Panic stood as one of the longest depressions in American history before the Great Depression of 1929. Its waves reached distant shores, causing decades of economic downturn in England, France, and the recently unified Germany. At its root, the Panic of 1873 was caused by overextended capital. The rapid expansion of railroads and industrial interests in the Northeast, Border States, and West caused banks and individuals to lend millions of dollars in startup funds to rabid entrepreneurs looking for a taste of railroad profits. But the United States could not sustain the pace of growth. By 1873, banks and lenders had overextended themselves, lending money to conmen who ran their ventures into the ground and declared bankruptcy. As a result, demand decreased, capital evaporated, and the investments many Americans had made in a bright, industrial future collapsed with the banks that held their stock. 

Figure 18.5: “The Panic—Run on the Fourth National Bank” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, October 4, 1873 [4]

The Panic, however, also produced a new class of Americans, one seemingly invincible to the pitfalls of an emerging industrial economy. Termed the “Robber Barons” by their detractors, this group weathered the Panic of 1873 and emerged as the only men standing in the rubble. By the end of the 19th century, they controlled the majority of American wealth and had established nothing short of monopolies—euphemistically called “trusts”—over their sections of the industrial landscape. Carnegie, the oldest of the group, stood as the patriarch, and many historians peg him as the original “Baron.” Carnegie refused to abandon his steel project when the Panic hit. Instead, he sold off the majority of his interests in other ventures—mainly stocks that he sold for a nominal loss—and put all of his money into the companies he owned and could control personally. Union Iron Mills and Keystone Bridge Company, his two oldest businesses, continued operating throughout the Panic and even managed to pull small profits. In December 1873, Carnegie told his friend Junius Morgan, fellow “Robber Baron” J. P. Morgan’s father, “we are steadily outgrowing the foolish panic here.” He was right. By the time the Panic subsided in 1879, Carnegie was the only steel magnate left standing, and he had the entire market in front of him.

28.06 Level 4

Consider the connotations of the term "robber baron." What does it say about how Americans felt about this group of business leaders?


The Rise of Big Business and an American Aristocracy

Competition existed, but it was through startups—new companies trying to find their ways in the post-Panic world. Carnegie Steel had existed for a decade, owned its own furnaces and mills, and had the connections to undercut just about any competition the market could produce. By the mid-1880s, Carnegie had quadrupled the size of his holdings and increased his steel production by more than 800%. At the end of the decade, Carnegie was among the wealthiest men in the world and controlled more than 90% of the national steel market. If the railroad expanded anywhere, it did so on Carnegie steel.

The expansion of the railroad and the steel industry in the post-Civil War decades also created massive demand for another relatively new resource: oil. As engines, plants, and processes became more complex, with more moving parts and stronger driving forces, oil was needed both as a base of combustion and as a lubricant. The man most associate with the emergence of the oil industry in the United States is John D. Rockefeller, the son of a travelling salesman. John D. Rockefeller viewed money as the source of freedom itself. Indeed, as one historian recently put it, Rockefeller “was animated from the outset by a fascination for money as a kind of fetish object.” He remembered the first time he saw a banknote and described the experience in almost religious terms. It was, in large part, this veritable obsession with money that produced much of his ambition and his dedication to the craft of profit making.

Like Carnegie, Morgan, and others of their ilk, Rockefeller began his career as a bookkeeper and secretary, slowly saving enough to venture out on his own and making well-placed connections along the way. In 1863, at the age of 24, Rockefeller and his friend Maurice Clark stepped into their first business venture—a 50% share in a new oil refinery in Cleveland, Ohio. Bought for $4,000, the purchase placed Rockefeller in the industry he would come to dominate for the rest of his long life. Their timing was perfect. The Union Army, now under General Ulysses S. Grant, had turned the tide of the war in the South and the demand for oil remained high due to the war effort. Kerosene was also an emerging commodity, as automatic lighting and heating slowly became household standards in the second half of the 19th century. After the war, demand for oil grew alongside that of steel as the North expanded its railroad system and the South fought to keep up. 

Figure 18.6: A young John D. Rockefeller, aged 18, circa 1858, frontispiece from his autobiography, Random Reminiscences of Men and Events [5]​

Two years later, in 1865, after amassing substantial capital from his earlier investment, Rockefeller purchased Clark’s portion of the refinery, joining Samuel Andrews, a chemist, as an official partner in the newly named Rockefeller & Andrews. With that $73,000 purchase, Rockefeller made the first instance of what would become his signature business move. Over the next 40 years, Rockefeller made a name for himself by buying out his competition or sucking them dry by buying out their suppliers. He was hell-bent on becoming the lone name in the oil industry. If a manufacturer needed oil, Rockefeller wanted to supply it.

Rockefeller, like Carnegie, made deals and undercut the system. The post-Civil War years brought increased interest in laissez-faire economic principles, taking regulation out of internal production; thus, men with significant capital, especially those who had weathered the storm of the Panic of 1873, had enormous power and freedom in the market that emerged from the dust. To survive the Panic, Rockefeller followed Carnegie’s lead and consolidated his holdings into a single oil-centric trust. In 1870, he had founded the Standard Oil Company in Cleveland with five other investors. As the largest shareholder (he owned more than a quarter of the total shares), Rockefeller maintained enormous decision-making power while spreading the risk of investment to others. As the Panic of 1873 hit, Standard Oil began buying up its hard-hit competitors. It circulated false rumors of business deals to make competitors nervous and willing to sell. It made backroom deals with suppliers and transportation firms, promising kickbacks and payoffs with each increase in profits. By the middle of 1873, Cleveland’s oil industry, among the largest in the nation, belonged entirely to Standard Oil.

18.07 - Level 1

Match the following "barons" to the most appropriate corporations and/or sources of wealth.

Premise
Response
1

Andrew Carnegie

A

Pennsylvania Railroad Company

2

J.P. Morgan

B

Finance and Lending

3

J. Edgar Thomson

C

U.S. Steel

4

John D. Rockefeller

D

Standard Oil


18.08 - Level 2

Click on the city where Standard Oil was founded.


As the Panic settled, Rockefeller and Standard Oil, much like Carnegie, stood alone. By the end of the 1880s, Standard Oil owned or operated just over 90% of the oil refineries in the nation, holding control of nearly all of America’s oil. This was the era of big business—when a single company or trust could command an entire market for itself, lacking any meaningful competition. Carnegie and Rockefeller were not alone, either. Others, such as Collis Huntington, who owned the majority of railroads in the Northeast and Midwest, and Gustavus Swift, the godfather of Chicago’s violent and famed meat-packing industry, established trusts, holding companies, and outright monopolies on their sections of America’s growing industrial front. This was, more than any other time, the heyday of America’s commercial and industrial aristocracy. For more than a century after their deaths, these men’s families maintained extraordinary influence and wealth in the American financial and political realms. They caused and benefitted from legislation dedicated both to ending their dominance and supporting it. The United States had never truly seen a class of entrepreneurs and businessmen so engrained in local and national politics, so capable of changing, literally, the course of the nation. 

Perhaps most importantly, this class of entrepreneurs grew and expanded together, crossing gender and even racial lines. Madam C. J. Walker, for example, an African American native of northeastern Louisiana, became a manufacturing magnate, making products almost entirely for African American communities as far east as New York City and as west as Denver, Colorado. Specializing in hair care products, Walker employed thousands of African American workers, owned factories and workshops in six states, and amassed a fortune of nearly a million dollars by the turn of the century.

Spotlight on Primary Source

Watch this short video, produced by the National Archives, on Madam C. J. Walker and her unlikely rise to wealth.

Figure 18.7: Tin of Madam C. J. Walker’s “Wonderful Hair Grower” [6]​


Question 18.09

18.09 - level 2

What does Madam C. J. Walker’s success tell us about the power of money and financial success in relation to race and gender in Gilded Age America?

Click here to see the answer to Question 18.09.


In the endless quest to consolidate their holdings and earn the most profit possible, financiers, factors, railroad tycoons, and oil magnates banded together to form lone companies that owned and operated the entire process by which a product was made and brought to market. That way, suppliers, transporters, and investors did not need to negotiate with individual services, driving up costs and decreasing profits. For example, as U.S. Steel expanded in the 1880s into the single largest steel company in the world, Andrew Carnegie purchased or otherwise acquired the railroad companies that transported his goods to market. He likewise procured all blast furnaces, iron mining companies, and bridge companies in the area, making sure that he had a hand in all profits derived from government contracts, usage payments, and investments within or around the steel industry. This consolidation of every level of production and transportation is called vertical integration, a process that came to define American big business by the mid-1880s.

Although he certainly dabbled, quite successfully, in vertical integration, John D. Rockefeller perfected the similar process of horizontal integration. Because oil touched almost every aspect of industrialized society, it was impossible to control every level of its production and use. But Rockefeller figured that he could best control the market if he and his Standard Oil cohort completely dominated the original point of oil production. Instead of buying up railroads, locomotives, kerosene lamp manufactories, and other consumer companies, he decided to expand and consolidate at a single level of the process, making it so that if a company wanted refined oil for any purpose, that oil would come from Standard Oil alone. That way, they did not have to spend capital on the creation and marketing of products. The process of horizontal integration did it for them.

The approach the “Robber Barons” took to creating the first truly integrated, industry-wide corporations in American history brought about fundamental changes in the American social and cultural landscapes. Although several economic booms in the antebellum era had produced immense wealth for a small portion of the population, the United States had never seen the wealth and the profit that came from the financial machinations of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan. Their systems opened the United States to a new era in world history, an age built upon the integration of industry into nearly every aspect of American life. J. P. Morgan, for one, started his career in London in the 1850s and had amassed a rather large fortune by the end of the Civil War, buying and selling products needed for the war, most notably muskets. In the freewheeling decades following the war, he stood as a source of wealth for others, providing loans at unregulated interest rates and sometimes even purchasing stakes in the successful businesses that he had financed. When the market did not require it, these men and women did not limit themselves to a single market or practice. They all financed others, bought and sold businesses at will, and constantly found or created new avenues to wealth.

By the turn of the century, the names of families within this class of American aristocrats were as well known and famous as those of presidents and kings. In many ways, these men had more control over American life than any politician could ever dream. They controlled markets, stocks, debts, and even the value of currency itself. They funded and supplied the tools needed to build the Manhattan skyline, to create the urban expanses of Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and even Philadelphia. They became emblems of American industrial might and the opportunities that came with it. In doing so, however, they gave rise to a social system more stratified, imbalanced, and complex than anyone anticipated—and it defined the future of American society. 

Figure 18.8: “Next!” by Udo Keppler, 1904, lampooning horizontal integration and corruption. [7]


Though symbols of American success and industry, the “Barons” likewise stood as representatives of the darker side of capitalism, the side that cared little for or about poverty as long as profits remained consistent. The growing managerial class—located between the “Barons” and the working poor—viewed the mass of urban poor in much the same way as the small-but-powerful group of ultra-wealthy elites. The latter group produced an aura of fear and even confusion for the millions of Americans who worked and wallowed below them on the socio-economic ladder. They came across as members of a monarchist aristocracy, something seemingly foreign to the American social landscape prior to the 1870s and 1880s and a blight the founding generation had feared would emerge from a lack of regulation. In many cases, middling Americans saw abject poverty and extraordinary wealth as different sides of the same coin. Both produced a disconnected vision of society and community and bred notions of greed, hedonism, and crime. The so-called “Robber Barons” at the top presented the greatest example of this hedonism and greed—an unimaginably wealthy elite utterly disconnected from everyone else in the nation. 

18.10 - Level 4

How would the founding generation have described the robber barons of the 1880s?

A

a credit to the nation

B

a blight on the social fabric

C

a example of American originality

D

a role model for Americans and people around the world


18.11 - Level 4

Identify the following examples as “horizontal integration” or “vertical integration.”

Premise
Response
1

A railroad trust buys up factories that produce steel ties for tracks

A

Vertical

2

John Rockefeller acquires all other oil production facilities

B

Horizontal

3

Verizon merges with AT&T and Sprint

C

Horizontal

4

A film studio purchases a number of movie theatres and popcorn machines

D

Vertical


Question 18.12

18.12 - Level 2

Where did the likes of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Madam C. J. Walker stand in the American social hierarchy? How did they affect, or even create, the position and experience of the lower working classes?

Click here to see the answer to Question 18.12.

The Social Side of Labor

With the rise of big business, a new idea of labor took hold in the United States. The likes of Carnegie and Rockefeller became such icons of industry and wealth that the notions of individual social value changed around them and their actions. As they expanded their holdings and produced new sources of wealth for themselves and those around them, men and women across the social spectrum dreamed of following their leads, of making something of themselves. This was the age of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, however. For every tycoon, several neighborhoods wallowed in penury and desperation. Between the two worlds lived a growing middle class of skilled laborers and managers. These were the men looking to move up into the elite. These were the men and women who owned homes, earned salaries, and became the faces of America’s cities. This was the urban class of valued workers, trusted by the higher-ups with the productivity and morale of those below them. More so even than the aristocratic “Barons,” this group stood as the symbol of America in the Gilded Age.

By the 1880s, labor and work had become the centerpiece of American social life. As a holdover of the Protestant work ethic, which deemed good works, a stable home life, and an honest dedication to labor the keys to salvation, labor often defined one’s reputation in the community. To work hard, earn money, and secure a consistent, salaried position was to live morally and purely. Work brought health, many claimed. It brought a good home life, a productive marriage, and a leisurely demeanor outside the home. To spend money was to express virtue and value. The better the home, the cleaner the suit, and the stiffer the posture, the more successful a man became. 

Figure 18.9: Five O’Clock Tea by Mary Cassatt, 1880 [8]

The vision of “success” within this developing American middle class was, importantly, built upon a belief in the individual. To succeed was to earn the appropriate respect from those of a similar status. In this way, the social hierarchy was fluid, at least in the minds of middle class Americans. Their success proved their worth in society. Even if born into success, their collective abilities to maintain the reputations of their families underscored their belonging. Poverty, many believed, was a disease, a syndrome of the lazy and weak-hearted. The illness sapped a man of his independence—the most valuable asset in a society built upon work and respect. A lack of virtue and a weak work ethic brought about a deserved inferiority that even went so far as to call one’s masculinity into question.

Two emerging trends gave life to this understanding of society’s seemingly natural structure. Following the Civil War, wage labor became standard practice across the nation, especially in the industrializing urban centers. Contracts served as the foundation of the wage-based labor system. In theory, contracts granted a remarkable level of freedom to both laborers and their contractors. In like manner, many commentators saw them as “the great equalizer of society.” Contracts served as a localized agreement between two forces—the provider and the earner. On a fundamental level, they protected the rights of each party, allowing for negotiation and guaranteeing work rates, wages, and conditions of work. Perhaps most importantly, they established work as a voluntary action. In the minds of managers and business owners, the worker had the ability and the right to refuse the conditions of any contract he or she read. So if contracted workers complained of dangerous working conditions, excessively long work days, and low wages, they were, in the eyes of their supervisors, acting outside the limits of reason. They had read and agreed to the conditions of their contracts. To reject the conditions of a contract after signing it was to reject the freedom of choice and betray the notion of equality. 

Figure 18.10: Labor Day Parade, New York, Union Square, September 5, 1882, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 6, 1882 [9]

This logic fell strongly in the camp of those offering the contracts rather than those signing them. The consolidation of capital within a relatively small cabal of entrepreneurs, magnates, and tycoons made access to consistent wages and safe working conditions more and more difficult to find as the century came to an end. Desperation made any contract with guaranteed wages look like a godsend to an impoverished father living in the slums of New York City. The system, however, did not appear out of nowhere. A growing number of economic and social commentators in the 1870s and 1880s saw the widening income gap as a natural process. 

18.13 - Level 4

According to the middle class, contracts stood to protect workers and give them the “freedom of success,” creating an ultimately fluid social order where work defined one’s status

A

True

B

False


18.14 - Level 2

Locate on the map where Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives was photographed.


Charles Darwin’s famous book, On the Origin of Species (1858), changed the western world’s understanding of biological development. Expounding upon his theory of evolution, Darwin maintained that animals most capable of adapting to their environments tended to thrive and produce stronger, more developed young. As a result, species that survived and prospered the most retained traits almost custom-made for their surroundings. Harking a pared-down version of this theory, social scientists and economists conflated nature with the developing American social system. Through a pseudo-science known as Social Darwinism, the idea of “survival of the fittest” came to describe and explain the different social classes. Those with the most wealth were naturally inclined to such success. Their minds, it seemed, fell naturally in line with the capitalist market. Those at the lowest ends of the spectrum—urban poor, factory workers, sharecroppers—simply could not keep up. The middling classes showed promise, but had not yet taken the step up. There was, however, hope for them.

In this way, labor strife became unnatural. According to Social Darwinism, workers who did not eventually rise from the poverty of the factory floor had only themselves to blame. They deserved nothing. Nature had not given them the traits necessary to thrive. Eventually, another better-equipped worker would take their place and prove him/herself worthy of advancement. The weak would, and should, fall to the wayside. It was only natural.

By the 1880s, Social Darwinism had become a pillar of American social discourse, even serving as a justification for some of the discriminatory laws and practices taking root in the “Jim Crow” South (see Chapter 17). Well-placed scientists and scholars, such as Yale University’s William Sumner and English biologist Herbert Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest,” produced dozens of studies that seemed to support the validity of the view. They called for deregulation of industry and labor, claiming that employment practices and wages mirrored those found in nature and that contracts protected all the parties involved. A man should not need help from the government, they claimed. The system of employment and advancement was set up to allow the strong to move up and the weak to be phased out. It was up to the individual to save his or her own reputation by working with resilience and virtue. 

18.15 - Level 3

The term “Social Darwinism,” a misuse of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, referred to what divisive social belief?

A

The belief that animals could evolve into active members of society, creating the modern notion of pet ownership and domestication of livestock

B

The belief that social and financial success evinced an innate strength and ability of an individual to adapt the modernizing world. Conversely, poverty suggested a natural weakness and inability to adapt to the modern world

C

The belief that species evolved in a long process of adaptation to environmental conditions.

D

The belief that the several “races” of mankind were in fact separate species and were create by God at different times


18.16 - Level 3

Sort the following groups by how they would have been “ranked” on the ladder of Social Darwinism, from highest to lowest.

A

Andrew Carnegie

B

A severely disabled person

C

An unskilled factory worker

D

A middle-class merchant


City Life and the "Other Half"

As the 1880s moved forward, American life rallied around the needs and wants of the new professionals. Cities became havens of leisure designed for the comfort and enjoyment of the managers and factory owners who called the urban centers home. Sidewalks, parks, boutique stores, and public art installations became standards of city life for the first time. In 1873, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead, the designers of New York’s famed Central Park, completed Prospect Park in the growing industrial hub of Brooklyn across the East River from New York City. Further south, in 1891, New Orleans christened its own City Park, the largest metropolitan park in the nation. Central boulevards became promenades intended more for strolls and walks than transportation of goods. Even the layouts of cities changed to accommodate these new developments. Instead of encircling the port or central market, as cities expanded with new industries and populations, streets and city blocks started forming around open spaces and public areas, creating somewhat isolated neighborhoods within a single municipal area. In like manner, instead of building out, some cities began to build up. 

Figure 18.11: “City Park, New Orleans,” Detroit Publishing Co., late 1890s [10]​

As a result, the cost of living increased. Real estate speculation, another of the new paths to immense wealth, focused more on the interior of cities than the rural areas that had previously brought such riches, even in the more urban North. Like any aspect of an individual’s public image, housing weighed heavily on reputation, even if it meant paying rates more than 1,000 percent higher than other, less desirable locales. Prices worked as borders between those who “deserved” the amenities and attendant reputations of city life and those who did not. As an employee worked his way up to the level of manager and beyond, he could move physically into an area of town with more clout and social meaning. He could, in other words, add to his public persona.

Figure 18.12: Average wages for particular job types​


The amenities of city life likewise helped keep the professional classes in place. As early as 1832, New York City introduced the nation’s first public transit system, made up of horse-drawn carriages connecting the docks to the interior neighborhoods of today’s Lower East Side. Three years later, New Orleans became the first southern city to install public streetcar lines. By the 1880s, steam and electrical technologies had allowed nearly every urban center in the nation to provide its residents with some form of public transportation. In almost every case, however, carriages, streetcars, and trams carried fares far too high for the average worker, instead focusing on the professionals who needed reliable transportation from the high-rent central neighborhoods to the factories and workhouses outside of town.

The expense and leisure of city life brought with it luxuries that sustained the middle and upper class image in the American social imagination. Indeed, one of the telltale signs of professionalism was cleanliness, both of mind and body. Professionals had clean, soft hands, not the grease-stained, calloused hands of the laborer. They worked with their minds and their words rather than their bodies. The peculiarly urban movement of dandyism grew out of a dedication to prove one’s masculinity and success through flamboyant, well kept, and even effeminate posture and wardrobe beginning in the early 1890s and continuing on until the late 1920s. Professionals wore suits, often custom tailored, to work rather than sullied uniforms of their employees—hence the modern distinction between “white-collared” and “blue-collared” professions. Like most everything else in life, public appearance mattered, not only to prove belonging but also to create an insurmountable distance between the haves and the have-nots. 

Figure 18.13: “The public be jammed!” by William A. Rogers, circa 1905 [11]


18.17 - Level 1

In the late 19th century, a “dandy” referred to a young women who embraced the fashion trends of the day.

A

True

B

False


There was, however, another side of urban life, one ripe with discontent, despair, and even anger. In 1890, Jacob Riis, a Danish-born social reformer and journalist based in New York City, published a book called How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. In the book, Riis maps out the slums of New York City, providing photographic evidence of the tightly packed living quarters, tenement houses, and urban squalor that defined working-class life in the “big city.” Perhaps most importantly, the book made public the conditions in which these men and women worked. Paid an average of 10 cents a day, most of the men in these urban slums worked under extreme heat, packed into sweatshops and factories for shifts that occasionally exceeded 20 hours with little or no stoppage. Women and children, who often worked alongside the men regardless of age, made 70% less than men, yet worked the same hours under the same conditions. Management saw both groups as exceptions to the standards of American domestic life, and as a result, believed that they deserved less than the bread-winning men. Women and children, in the eyes of employers, produced secondary incomes that would only supplement the household income provided by the husband and father. Even working around the clock seven days a week on men’s wages, Riis showed, the majority of workers stuck in tenements would never make enough to afford even the cheapest privately owned apartment in the city. To many of the nearly one million tenement dwellers, the majority of whom were immigrants and African Americans, the future held nothing more than work and hard-fought survival.

The mentality of this group, which existed in some way in every city across the nation, differed sharply from those above them in the social hierarchy. Because of the communal nature of their lives—poverty left little room for personal space—the individual did not matter as much as the family or the group. In most cases, the men worked shifts at the docks, factories, or workhouses while the women either raised the children (if money allowed) or worked their own shifts in the mills, sewing houses, or streets. Granted little else by their employers and middle-class peers, members of the lower classes quickly recognized the value of community in establishing a voice in society at large. They knew that the individual worker had little value to the “higher ups.” Indeed, they were the ones who believed the poor to be innately weak, diseased wastrels. If ever things could change, they would change on the backs of the community as a whole, not the individual. 

Figure 18.14: “Bandit’s Roost,” 59 ½ Mulberry Street, New York, NY. Photograph by Jacob Riis [12]​

Spotlight on Primary Source

The photographs that Jacob Riis published in How the Other Half Lives shocked the nation and exposed the true conditions and experiences of factory boardinghouses and urban tenements. Explore the Preus Museum’s powerful collection of photos by clicking the link. What are your impressions? What stands out most to you in the photographs?

Question 18.18 

18.18 - Level 2

What about Jacob Riis’s 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, shocked American society? What does its publication and success tell us about the social awareness of America’s middle and upper classes?

Click here to see the answer to Question 18.18. 


The urban poor’s dedication to community went deeper than the potential for protest and change, however. It reinforced their sense of belonging in society as a whole. In many ways, the individual was not as important as the community because individuality was what had corrupted the promises of American society in the first place. The race to individual wealth, beginning in the 1830s and 1840s and hitting a peak in the 1870s and 1880s, had created a system in which personal profit required the exploitation of cheap labor. The working poor were not blind. They knew that their plight made others wealthy beyond belief. The low wages and terrible conditions sustained the system. It allowed for the middle and upper classes to exist. Pay rarely, if ever, increased alongside profit. Indeed, the stagnation of wages, when coupled with the increased cost of middle class status and the lack of advancement in nearly every labor-based field, amounted to what many economic historians call wage slavery. Once caught in the system, laborers had nowhere to go. As a result, community was all these men and women had beyond work. They also recognized that when slavery ended, the market had to seek out new forms of labor that provided the highest margins of profit with the smallest possible investment. For those caught in the middle of that search, community was the difference between freedom and enslavement.

18.19 - Level 1

In stark contrast to the middle class, who tended to focus on the strength and success of the individual, the American working class retained a strong dedication to the ________.


The Rise and Fall of Organized Labor

The growing disparity between employees and employers bred a form of political radicalism relatively new to the United States. Popular in sections of industrialized Europe since the 1850s, the economic and political theories of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and other followers of the late Enlightenment school of liberal idealism made their way to the United States after the Civil War. A scathing critique of capitalism and its seeming reliance on exploitation in the name of profit, Marxist theorists posited that workers had the natural right to own their own labor and that true virtue lay in the hands of the producers themselves, not of those who exploited the producers into producing for a corporation or company. In the United States, this idea gave rise to calls for increased government regulation of labor practices and corporate consolidation—the creation of monopolies and trusts by the likes of U.S. Steel and Standard Oil. These actions, coded as wise business moves, theorists claimed, actually caused social and even racial “degeneration” among the working masses. The theorists did not necessarily challenge the idea that impoverished workers exhibited traits antithetical to success in the capitalist system. However, those traits, they argued, were side effects of the exploitative cycle of overwork and low pay that developed out of and thrived under free market capitalism. 

Figure 18.15: One of the most famous anti-industrialist cartoons, “The Protectors of Our Industries” by Bernard Gillam [13]


18.20 - Level 4

Click on the figure which would have most likely called for a laissez-faire approach to economic policy.


Widely considered the first incarnation of socialism in the United States, this idea failed to convince a number of the important groups it claimed to protect. Because socialist ideology took Marxist activism and economic theory fully into the political realm, many laborers thought it relied far too heavily on the actions of the government, which they saw as an equally corruptible force. The only way the exploited masses across the country could achieve legitimate change was to establish a centralized authority of their own that used the power of each individual for the greater good of the whole. Using this logic, the modern labor union was born.

Unions, though publicly dedicated to the collective interests of workers, had difficulty attracting widespread interest at first. Most notably in the late 1860s and early 1870s, strikes stood as the primary union defense against unhealthy conditions and low wages. Although unions were not a product of the post-Civil War era alone, their influence took several decades to catch on. Without consistent, dedicated leadership, most unions represented localized interests, focusing on a single factory, skill, or community. A lack of history translated into a lack of negotiating power. Managers and owners cared little about the complaints of their workers, knowing fully that they had little choice of employment and pay. By the late 1860s, workers stopped complaining and started striking. 

18.21 - Level 3

Why did workers in the United States feel lukewarm at best about socialism?

A

They were suspicious of German theorists like Karl Marx.

B

They did not like the heavy reliance on government implied in socialism.

C

They feared that robber barons were never going to accept a socialist government.

D

They did not like the idea that African-Americans were not going to advance under socialism.


In 1867, members of the Chicago Trades Assembly walked off the job and refused to work until management placed limits on the number of consecutive hours an employee could work. In the years that followed, the practice became standardized. In the face of uninterested management, workers continually took matters into their own hands and refused to work. Although at first the practice worked relatively well, employers rarely caved entirely to union demands, largely because early, localized unions restricted their membership along the lines of race, gender, ethnicity, and even religion. In large cities, such as Chicago, New York, and Cleveland, employers could easily find immigrants and African Americans willing to work for the original hours and at the original pay rates. These two groups, though centerpieces of certain labor forces, often in non-unionized rural areas, scrambled for work in more concentrated urban areas. As a result, they became known as strike breakers or “scabs” for their willingness to replace striking workers at low wages and under terrifying conditions.

Formed in 1869, the Knights of Labor sought to universalize the worker’s plight and stand toe-to-toe with big business, and by the 1880s, it stood as the largest and most influential labor union of the late 19th century. Intended to represent all oppressed and underappreciated laborers, the Knights of Labor combined several more localized unions in an effort to reach as wide a membership as possible. Originally rooted in Philadelphia, the group quickly expanded into almost every urban center in the nation. Following a belief in true equality and a society founded upon the principles of Jeffersonian Republicanism—that virtue and belonging is achieved through individual labor toward a common good—the Knights brought in a extraordinarily diverse membership, ranging from tenant farmers of the Mississippi Delta to small business owners in New York City and stockyard laborers in Chicago. Claiming a membership of around 15,000 in 1880, by the end of the decade, the Knights of Labor represented the interests of over 700,000 members in every state of the union. 

Figure 18.16: “Leaders of the Knights of Labor” by Kurz & Allison, circa 1886 [14]


The rapid growth in membership came from several avenues. Because the organization claimed to represent “the power of the industrial masses” as a whole, the leadership developed strategic actions that aimed at unification rather than division, something they blamed smaller, more selective unions for promoting. They predicated their actions on a utilitarian ethic, seeking to secure “the greatest good to the greatest number” regardless of position, style of work, or financial situation. Their message went beyond politics. Unlike socialists, whom they rejected, the Knights of Labor sought a reorganization of society on a foundation of equality, accepting African Americans and women into their ranks in an effort to create a truly unified front. The value of every individual as a dedicated, meaningful member of society stood at the center of their collective worldview. Among other issues, they demanded a complete restructuring of the contract system, changes to the tax code, including a graduated income tax, and the equal distribution of capital as it applied to labor, which they claimed was the source of all capital in the first place. They kept statistics of work hours and the decrease in production that came from low morale and overwork. They made a science of protest, building their case against employers through both actions and evidence, something previous unions had never done. In this way, the Knights of Labor avoided alienating any single group of producers. 

Spotlight on Primary Source

In 1885, "the alarming development and aggressiveness of great capitalists and corporations" drove a group of workers to band together and put their thoughts and concerns down on paper. The result was the formation of one of the largest and most influential labor unions of the nineteenth century. With the publication of the "Declaration of Principles," the Knights of Labor established the purpose of their organization in no uncertain terms. The document served as the backbone of the union, laying out the principles that guided and moved its members. Though rather short, the Knights' "Declaration" stands as a window to the plight of the urban laborer in the Gilded Age and provides remarkable insight into the problems that attended the rise of industrial capitalism.

Question 18.22

18.22

Based on the ideas expressed in both the text above and the "Declaration of Principles," what do you think the Knights of Labor meant by including the scriptural verse, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"?

Click here to see the answer to Question 18.22. 


The Recession of 1882, which lasted well into 1885, fortified the Knights of Labor, along with a number of other growing labor unions, as legitimate voices for those most heavily affected by the constant shifts of the market economy. As the railroad boom of the late 1870s folded into the 1880s, the demand for new railways fell off, largely due to overproduction. Industries dedicated solely to railroad construction closed their doors as orders stopped coming in, and related industries such as iron, steel, coal, and oil had to scrabble to reduce costs until demand returned. Rather than reducing intake and pay at the top, “Robber Barons” like Andrew Carnegie, William Vanderbilt, and Jay Gould decided to cut costs at the bottom, reducing the number of employees to maintain consistent profit. By 1885, the recession had affected almost a third of the American workforce, who were forced either to find new jobs, receive drastic pay cuts, or increase their hours to make up for lost profits. 

18.23 - Level 1

By 1890, how many names filled the Knights of Labor membership rolls?


The panic and frustration that attended financial uncertainty came to a head in May 1886, just a few months after the economy had stabilized. Although the recession had stopped, many corporations retained the same extended work hours and decreased wages, claiming that the economy itself did not represent the internal finances of businesses involved in the recession. The problem, however, had been brewing for years. Little precedent existed on the limits of the workday. Increasingly dedicated to laissez-faire economic practices, even in the face of repeated recessions and panics, the federal government refused the act on legislation that would standardize the workday across the nation. In some extreme areas, shifts averaged more than 16 hours. Almost everywhere else, standard shifts sat at 12 to 13 hours daily. If management implemented a new shift schedule, the workers at either end of the shift change often worked 24 or even 36 hours to make up the difference.

In the late 1860s and into the 1870s, labor reformers began to call for a uniform eight-hour workday. By the 1880s, the campaign became a centerpiece of the union cause. By the time the Recession of 1882 ended and shifts continued to push the limits of reason, the Knights of Labor had gained enough support to act. On May 1, 1886, “May Day,” the Knights organized the largest labor protest the nation had ever seen. That day, more than 80,000 laborers in Chicago alone dropped their tools and left. Designed as a mass walkout rather than a rally, the protest at first proved remarkably successful. Chicago’s bustling industrial sector all but shut down. The workers had made their point—without them, no money came in. They had taken ownership of their labor and proven to their employers that they, too, had value in society.

In a society beset by change, however, tempers often ran high. After three days of protest, a group of protesters assembled in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. There, they combined with several dozen anarchists, who began condemning not just the capitalist system, but also the principle of government itself. Fueled by leaflets calling for armed rebellion, the group became an angry mob hell-bent on tearing the entire system to shreds that very day. As police moved in, the crowd became violent. Fighting broke out between the protestors and the advancing police until a bomb exploded within the police ranks, killing eight and injuring dozens more. The Haymarket Riot, as it came to be known, brought swift reprisal against both labor unions and anarchist groups across the country. In Chicago, police arrested eight anarchists attached to the disaster and executed four for murder and inciting riot. In other cities, anarchists groups went into hiding as any public action inevitably brought about charges of disorder and the incitement of violence.

Figure 18.17: “Attention workingmen!” flier for the rally that became the Haymarket Riot. [15]


Although the Knights of Labor actually increased its membership in the wake of Haymarket, its tone and reputation were irreparably changed after the events of May 4, 1886. Immigrant workers, especially those of Germanic descent, became the face of violent anarchism in the public mind. The Knights of Labor, along with other large and influential labor unions, became attached to stories of atrocities and disestablishment politics extremely unpopular in most circles, often without evidence or truth. Infighting also weakened the union cause. In the end, what made the Knights of Labor so powerful also led to its eventual collapse. Because the Knights claimed to represent all exploited workers, running the gamut between farmers and boutique owners, their universal approach could not withstand the test of time. 


18.24 - Level 2

Locate on the map where the Haymarket Riots took place.


18.25 - Level 1

Which immigrant group was most closely connected with radical politics (like anarchism and socialism) in late 19th century America?

A

Germans

B

Russians

C

Japanese

D

Italians


18.26 - Level 2

Which of the following events ultimately caused the decline of the Knights of Labor?

A

Panic of 1873

B

Haymarket Riot

C

Passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act

D

Outbreak of the World War I


The May Day walkout of 1886 placed the Knights firmly in the camp of factory workers, who almost solely benefitted from the eight-hour workday. The use of strikes and walkouts disillusioned small business owners, clerks, and small-scale employers, who actually suffered from such protests. As a result, as the Knights of Labor moved into the 1890s, membership decreased with the rise of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and a resurgence of smaller, more locally oriented unions dedicated to specific causes and populations. Indeed, many unions successfully restored the practice of limiting membership to white men only, ignoring the plights of women, children, and African Americans. By 1892, the Knights of Labor claimed just 100,000 members, down from nearly 700,000 just a few years earlier. Three years later, membership stood at a mere 17,000 factory workers in New York City and Chicago. The Knights of Labor was no longer an influential voice for workers’ rights and instead continued on for decades as a fossil of its former self.

Figure 18.18: Timeline of labor strikes from 1880 to 1895​


In its place stepped the formidable AFL, founded in 1886 as a counter to the Knights of Labor, which sought not only more localized interests, but also a more political approach. Samuel Gompers, the group’s president for nearly 30 years, challenged the Knights’ “direct action” approach, lambasting strikes and confrontations as both useless and damaging to the workers’ cause. Refusal to work led to reprisal and replacement, as unions did not hold enough sway in society or politics to stop the hiring of “scabs”—replacement workers who were willing to work for low pay and long hours. Gompers sought to professionalize basic, unskilled labor by negotiating with corporations and the government for higher wages, regulated hours, and safe working environments. To Gompers and the AFL, capitalism could become “benevolent” in time, reducing the threat of class conflict and distrust between employer and employee. Capitalism itself was not necessarily the problem, they claimed. Rather, the conflict that had developed through contentious labor practices and the refusal of both sides to negotiate even a modest peace had corrupted the system beyond use. Goodwill had to take hold for both unions and the corporations they sought to change. Each side needed to recognize the value of the other.

The belief in the “better side” of capitalism put the AFL at odds with Terence Powderly and what remained the Knights of Labor, who called for an increase of governmental regulation. Steeped in socialist thought and dedicated to the fundamental value of what he called the “producing class” of workers, Powderly vehemently opposed the May Day walkout at Haymarket and saw striking as a failed experiment. Ever interested in politics, he saw virtue in the regulatory arm of government, especially in the realm of business and finance. If corporations were allowed to expand unchecked, so too could government. The latter, Powderly believed, represented the interests of all people and served as the only vessel through which actual change could be achieved. Strikes did nothing if replacements existed. Negotiation did nothing if honest will did not exist in upper management. As representatives of the people themselves, who, Powderly naïvely claimed, maintained a “collective voice at the ballot,” the government contained the virtue and authority best suited for social and economic change. Unfortunately for Powderly and the Knights of Labor, few shared such an idealistic vision of government. 

Question 18.27

18.27 - Level 5

How did the visions of Samuel Gompers and Terence Powderly differ? Which one do you think held the most potential for success?

Click here to see the answer to Question 18.27.

Although raised on a similar socialist base, Gompers and his supporters within the AFL believed that the government only corrupted the possibility of rational negotiation. When President Benjamin Harrison signed the Sherman Antitrust Act into law in 1890, the AFL and many other major labor unions did not support it as congressional Republicans had hoped. Designed to restrict “anti-competitive” consolidations, purchases, and mergers by corporations, especially in the forms of trusts and monopolies, the Act looked to provide a more fluid, competitive market within which prices would remain consistent with market forces, wages, and demand. In theory, the Act likewise exempted labor unions from the notion of “anti-competitive” actions, allowing them more freedom to function within the industrial system.

As Gompers and other labor leaders noted, however, corporate consolidation actually aided the union cause and served as a natural force within capitalist systems, especially if those systems became infused with a standard “benevolent character.” Negotiation, in other words, became much more realistic when a single party (a large trust or corporation) controlled the market itself. With unlimited competition, companies would constantly try to undercut each other, leading to consistently reduced wages, longer hours, and decreased willingness to negotiate with unions. Consolidation helped labor, many union leaders argued. Negotiation and regulation were not necessarily where the government belonged. The AFL, for example, touted this message until the First World War brought unprecedented change to the global economic system. 

Figure 18.19: Samuel Gompers [16]​


18.28 - Level 2

Which of the following terms refers to workers used to break labor disputes?

A

Robber Barons

B

Scabs

C

Picketers

D

Suffragists

E

None of the above


Moral Reform and the Limits of Change

The plight of the nation’s poor brought dozens of well-wishers to the public soapbox looking to make their causes known. The decades following Reconstruction continued the trend of producing movements dedicated to rescuing the American public from its countless moral vices that had begun in the decades before the Civil War. Chief among these movements, and one of the few to survive the war intact, was that of temperance, an organized crusade to rid the nation of alcohol and drunkenness. The Civil War had interrupted a decades-old revival of Protestantism across the entire United States. Long established in the Border South and the east coast, by the 1870s well-meaning and highly idealistic reform movements rooted in evangelical Protestantism found havens in the urban centers of the North .

Temperance became a totem of this trend as early as the 1830s. For decades, moral reformers of the antebellum era used the corruptive forces of alcohol to explain any number of social problems in the United States, not the least of which were interracial sex, economic instability, and the growth of urban slums. The temperance movement became so engrained in certain circles in the antebellum years that temperance literature—novels written as cautionary tales about the ill effects of alcohol abuse—were among the highest selling works in the country. Indeed, Walt Whitman, the patriarch of American Romantic poetry and lifelong celebrant of the American national spirit, made his literary debut in 1842 when he published the half-hearted temperance novel Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate.

Figure 18.20: “Mother Hull’s WCTU Hospital,” Kearney, Nebraska, circa 1886 [17]

By the 1870s, the temperance movement had consolidated into a relatively united front led primarily by middle-class women and pious men in the urban centers of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. Founded in 1874, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) led the charge in the late 19th century and brought the temperance movement into the fold as one of the major voices for moral reform in the nation. Based in Cleveland, Ohio, the WCTU had offices and leadership groups in more than a dozen states and boasted a membership of more than 130,000 by 1890. Under the guidance of Frances Willard, a New York native who grew up in Ohio, the organization diversified its interests, becoming active voices for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and a form of political socialism that it termed “Christian socialism,” based on the belief that the biblical teachings of Jesus mirrored those of modern-day socialism and could be used as a model for creating an ideal society. 

18.29 - Level 2

What was one of the primary avenues by which the mainstream temperance movement publicized its views in the 19th century?

A

Riotous protest

B

Novels and literature

C

Colonization schemes

D

Armed conflict


The principle behind the WCTU and other similar moralist organizations was to bring about a purity of character in the United States and extend a helping hand to the growing number of exploited, underpaid, and desolate laborers, both in urban and rural areas. On a fundamental level, the moralists saw the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, most notably opium, as both the cause and result of poverty and social unrest. Where in the years immediately following the Civil War many reformers focused on what they called the “deserving poor,” such as widows, orphans, and wounded veterans, the WCTU and other moral reformers of the 1880s and 1890s recognized poverty as an epidemic affecting every section of the working class. Of course, these new wave reformers, driven by a devotion to Christ’s teachings of kindness and salvation for others, clearly acknowledged a difference between the causes of a worker’s plight and those of a widow or an orphan. But they did not necessarily differentiate between the groups’ universal need for aid, and felt a moral imperative to treat all “discordant and demoralized souls” as deserving of help.

For many moral reformers of the late 19th century, such as Willard and Jane Addams, a Chicago-based suffragist and advocate of immigrant rights, the impetus toward such altruistic work was their almost universally middle-class backgrounds combined with a sincere belief in religion as an equalizing social force. There were, however, exceptions to this rule. Carrie Nation, a six-foot-tall, robust woman from central Kentucky, saw the middle-class morality of the WCTU as offensive, preferring the tactic of raiding taverns and drinking halls with hatchets in a bizarre string of “hatchetations” aimed at literally destroying the means by which alcohol corrupted the working class. These largely symbolic raids stood as protests both against alcohol and the political and sexual oppression of women in general, and served to liberate women and workers from the hands of vice and social restriction. She and her followers likewise refused to wear corsets and other “sexualized” clothing. 

Figure 18.21: “Woman’s Holy War,” Currier & Ives, circa 1874 [18]


18.30 - Level 4

Which prominent figure from the temperance movement is most likely being portrayed here?

question description
A

Carrie Nation

B

Jane Addams

C

Frances Willard

D

Walt Whitman


The more mainstream groups did not go so far. Indeed, they often celebrated their middle-class standing. As members of a morally enlightened class, men and women like Bellamy and Willard believed they had the tools and wherewithal to halt the “degenerative” effects of poverty through moral guidance and benevolent aid. This would, in turn, initiate an unstoppable wave of “regeneration” across the entire American population, bringing clarity of mind and soul to degenerate workers and empathetic awareness to employers. Once this regenerative seed had sprouted, society as a whole would begin to level without revolt, upheaval, or unrest.

Some reformers, most notably Henry George and Edward Bellamy, developed a new style of writing that bridged nationalistic fervor with nostalgic Utopianism. In novels, poems, and essays, reformist writers used an idyllic image of the past to illustrate how capitalism and excessive wealth had corrupted the basic tenets of American society. Capital and labor, they argued, had become disconnected by greed on one side and despair on the other. In extreme cases, some authors proposed the creation of new communities, often in the West, that would live beyond the grasp of the capitalist system, inventing their own systems of exchange, value, and labor.

These middle-class “radicals,” as they came to be known, sought peaceful transitions and tried to distance themselves from more confrontational elements, such as the Knights of Labor and even the more moderate AFL. Partly in line with the latter, most middle-class moralists used their social standing to lobby employers and managers into easing the burdens of workers. They wrote well-crafted, personal letters to congressmen and company owners, kindly reminding them of the purifying qualities of Christian character and the charity it extolled. They tried to create a new image of American society, often through personal examples of their own benevolence, or writing and speeches that celebrated the so-called “exceptional” nature of the United States and the legacy of its founding generation. They harped on fundamental equality, something that they claimed grew from a contented populace and it a universal voice. As a result, then, politics, if it was to exist at all, needed to involve every demographic and level of society—skilled and unskilled laborers, women as well as men. The history of the United States required the “liberation of all people,” but modern society had failed to keep up with the past. 


18.31 - Level 1

Match the following people with the most appropriate organization, practice, or movement.

Premise
Response
1

Carrie Nation

A

Utopianism

2

Frances Willard

B

American Federation of Labor

3

Samuel Gompers

C

Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

4

Edward Bellamy

D

Hatchetations


This widespread middle-class benevolence had limits, especially when it came to religion and race. Although the WCTU opened its rolls to members of all colors and creeds, many other benevolent organizations placed sharp restrictions on their memberships. Catholics, many of whom had come to the United States from Ireland, France, and Germany following the Civil War, found themselves without an advocate in the middle class. For decades, they consistently represented threats of tyranny and monarchism to the proud and historically rooted Protestants of America’s middle class. The increasing awareness of homosexuality, especially within the urban centers, received pronounced discomfort and isolation from middle class reformers, who saw the community as unnatural and depraved, even dangerous to the basic standards of American decency. Along with African Americans, homosexuals met endless claims of scientific and biological difference, placing them outside the bounds of those “deserving” of aid, even in the eyes of the most egalitarian reformers. If a group did not fit the standards of humanity, how could they possibly deserve the same treatment as those who did? Mental illness, the root of homosexuality’s rise according to many pseudo-scientists and detractors, was beyond the pail of benevolence. It required much more than kindness to cure.

Spotlight on Primary Source



Click here to see the works of Walt Whitman.

“...Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly
love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana
solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.”


Though a time of benevolent reform, the final decades of the 19th century also brought a renewed sense of nativism—a general fear and distrust of anyone or anything that seemed “un-American” or foreign—across every level of American society. Because a great many benevolent movements built their claims on foundations of nationalism and the “regeneration” of American society to the levels of its exceptional and divinely inspired past, the religious, racial, and ethnic roots of that past became the only acceptable models for belonging and social protection. An influx of immigrant labor, as seen in the previous chapter, introduced new languages, faiths, and colors to the American cultural landscape. Especially in the West, where thousands of Chinese immigrants struggled for work in California, Nevada, and Utah, American labor interests mobilized not only against low wages and long hours but also the threat of competition from immigrants and “foreign agents.” Only in exceptionally rare cases could Chinese immigrants find a place on the rolls of a union. Even then, they rarely had a voice. 

Figure 18.22: “Richards & Pringle’s Famous Georgia Minstrels,” 1903 [19]


The same can be said of African Americans. Although accepted into far more unions and benevolent organizations than European and Asian immigrants, African Americans’ interests fell largely under the guise of white benevolence, rarely providing an honest platform for advancement or initiative. The same pseudo-science that coined homosexuality a mental illness and supported the rise of Social Darwinism revived discussions of a biological difference between whites and blacks. In like manner, African Americans became the subjects of new forms of entertainment predicated upon the belief that only whites could attain the true social middle-class status. Minstrel shows and vaudeville acts lampooned the notion of a black middle class, presenting white men with blackface, large fake teeth, and ill-fitting suits singing and dancing like buffoons to express the absurdity of black men attempting to be civilized. Extremely popular in cities across the country, minstrelsy and vaudeville productions played on widespread American notions of racial uniformity and the implied understanding that freedom and civilization, in the end, aligned only with whiteness. 

Question 18.32

18.32 - Level 4

What place did race and sexuality have in the developing sense of American belonging in the late 19th century? What were the standards of belief? Were there exceptions?

Click here to see the answer to Question 18.32.

18.33 - Level 4

Sort the following groups by the degree of their inclusion in 19th century social reform movements, from highest to lowest.

A

First-generation Catholic immigrants

B

Homosexuals

C

Black Protestants

D

White Protestants


Conclusion

The last three decades of the 19th century brought extraordinary change to a nation still recovering from the Civil War. As the dust of war settled, a new class of entrepreneurs, “Barons,” and capitalists appeared, learning to command vast fortunes and construct a system built for their financial benefit. Suddenly, it seemed, free workers no longer owned their own labor; the companies for which they worked did. Depressions and panics became regular experiences, popping up once or twice every decade. Banks rose and fell with currency values and wages. But the wealthy remained wealthy. Indeed, they eventually came to define the word itself, redefining what it meant to be successful, moral, and proud in America. Hated by those below them, the “Robber Barons” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries remain symbols of what uncontrolled wealth can do to a society desperately in need of stability. Unfortunately, stability was something only few could afford.

On the brighter side, though, the era also brought about new notions of collective value and the process by which the disenfranchised could again find a voice. From rural African Americans to impoverished immigrants and wageworkers in urban centers, laborers across the country banded together to take back ownership of their individual production. Unions and labor organizations implemented new tactics for challenging the status quo predicated upon low wages and long hours. By the end of the 19th century, new movements were afoot that would eventually end child labor, establish a workless weekend, and limit the number of hours factory workers could work in a single day. The union movement, though rather unstable and fast-moving in the beginning, gave rise to political and social movements that would sweep the nation. 

Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Class Discussion 18.01

Class Discussion 18.01 - Level 2

What was “Social Darwinism?” How did it help define the stratification of society in the late 19th century?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 18.01.

Class Discussion 18.02

Class Discussion 18.02 - Level 2

How did vertical and horizontal integration change the face of American industry? Where did it lead?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 18.02.

Class Discussion 18.03

Class Discussion 18.03 - Level 2

What was the general perception of the elite—the so-called “Robber Barons”—in the eyes of average Americans?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 18.03.

Class Discussion 18.04

Class Discussion 18.04 - Level 4

How did the working class see and understand society? How did that differ from the vision of the middle class?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 18.04.

Class Discussion 18.05

Class Discussion 18.05 - Level 2

In what ways did cities mold to the growing middle class? How did it reinforce the social structure?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 18.05.



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Suggested Additional Material

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton. 1992.

Fink, Leon. Workingmen’s Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1985.

Foster, Gaines M. Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2002.

Lears, Jackson. Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920. New York: HarperCollins. 2009.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era. New York: W. W. Norton. 1987.

Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Penguin Classics. 1997.

Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang. 1982.

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. New York: W. W. Norton. 2011.

Wiebe, Robert H. The Search for Order, 1877-1920. New York: Hill and Wang. 1966. 


Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 18.01

The North was in the process of industrializing when the Civil War broke out. As a result, infrastructure in the North outpaced that in the South by a wide margin. It seems likely, then, that the North stood to benefit most from the further expansion of industrialization after the war. However, severely damaged during the war, the Southern infrastructure could only get better through rebuilding effort at war’s end.

Click here to return to Question 18.01.


Answer to Question 18.09

Madam C. J. Walker is an interesting character. Born to a mixed-race family in the South, she eventually became one of the wealthiest African Americans in the nation. Her story throws aside a number of racialized views of wealth in the late 19th century. Of course, race played a major role in defining the social dynamics of the United States, both then and now, but Madam C. J. Walker shows that at a certain level of wealth, race simply gave way to profit. She became a millionaire, or very nearly a millionaire, by selling hair care products specifically for female African American markets. She broke now many barriers, most notably those of gender and race. But she likewise built barriers, as was common among the extremely wealthy, between herself and those below her.   

Click here to return to Question 18.09.


Answer to Question 18.12

The moguls and successful industrialists of the late 19th century stood atop the social hierarchy. That social system did not come out of nowhere. Indeed, social hierarchies had existed since the very first days of North American colonization. However, the implementation of contract work and industrial production further entrenched the notion that the company rather than the individual worker actually owned the labor and the product of that labor. This made more stark the social gulf between the employer class and the working class. 

Click here to return to Question 18.12.


Answer to Question 18.18

The publication of How the Other Half Lives shocked the American public because it exposed the plight of the urban poor and highlighted the fact that companies clearly did not provide functional living wages for their factory men and women. Riis’s images depicted men, women, and children living in abject poverty and squalor, even as every member of the family sometimes worked 12-hour or longer shifts per day. Relatively set in their ways, and certainly comfortable in their lifestyles, the middle class took noted interest in these families’ plights. The book also exposed at least a portion of the upper class American outlook. It showed that they did not seem to care much about the accommodations and everyday lives of their employees as long they produced profitable goods. Appearing at the apex of the pre-20th century labor movement, How the Other Half Lives put a face on the labor movement more than any previous publication. 

Click here to return to Question 18.18.

Answer to Question 18.22

The verse, which comes from Genesis 3:19, touches on the very principle of the union cause—the notion that laborers ought to own and control their own labor. It places the meaning of both the organization and its "Principles" in the hands, literally, of the workers themselves, calling for them to band together to challenge the authority and control of a system that has usurped the products of their collective labor. Only by reclaiming the "sweat of thy face" could the laborers and their families "eat bread" and survive in a world dedicated more to personal profit and investment than to the good of the community as a whole.  

Click here to return to Question 18.22. 

Answer to Question 18.27

The two men differed most sharply on the role government should play in the workings of the labor movement. While Gompers saw negotiation between workers and employers as the primary route by which change would come, Powderly saw capitalism as too corrupt to produce any meaningful change, even with direct negotiation. As a result, Powderly looked to the government as an equalizing force. Through governmental regulation, employers would be forced to give ground to the workers, even if it hurt the profits of the company at the top. Gompers, on the other hand, believed in the “better side” of capitalism and possibility that capitalism and labor could work hand-in-hand if both sides approached a problem with honesty and dedication.

Click here to return to Question 18.27.


Answer to Question 18.32

Race and gender largely defined social belonging. African Americans, as a general whole, could not stand equally in society as white men. Although a number of exceptions existed, race served as a largely impermeable barrier between those within the social system and those without. In similar fashion, though, gender likewise defined what it meant to be a true “American.” Unlike men, women in general could not vote and were expected to maintain the domestic sphere of society. It was an aberration if a middle-class woman had a job. To maintain the respect attached to middle-class status, a woman could not appear wanting in any way and needed to appear sympathetic to those who did.  

Click here to return to Question 18.32.


Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 18.01

“Social Darwinism” was a belief molded from the pages of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1858). Social Darwinists believed that the most successful members of society exhibited innate characteristics that suited the modern world. Success, then, became something naturally ordained and poverty and failure stood as weakness, delusion, or even illness. The idea came in the wake of increased study of society at the academic level. Scholars tried to establish order in the mess that was a growing, modernizing, industrializing society. Scholars and thinkers tried to justify and explain the massive gap between the elite and impoverished. Social Darwinism came to the fore of that effort.

Click here to return to Class Discussion 18.01.


Answer to Class Discussion 18.02

Vertical and horizontal integration brought vast swaths of industry under a single company and mind. Men like Carnegie and Rockefeller, those who had the money to expand and scoop up competitors, built corporations that literally controlled every aspect of a commodity’s production, transit, and distribution. This gave way to a remarkable network of industry that only a few moguls controlled. By the turn of the century, entire industries, such as steel and oil, rested in the hands of a few ultra-wealthy men. This led to anti-trust laws and trust busting lawsuits. 

Click here to return to Class Discussion 18.02.


Answer to Class Discussion 18.03

Average Americans, especially those who worked for wages with their hands, saw the “Robber Barons” as just that—an American aristocracy of thieves and embezzlers who had little regard for their laborers and the people they employed. Though active in philanthropy, the Barons’ reputation as profit-hungry hoarders led to many laborers banding together to find a voice in a society they often felt had left them behind.

Click here to return to Class Discussion 18.03.


Answer to Class Discussion 18.04

The working class, in contrast to the middle and upper classes, saw society as a community. Their strength and sense of identity came from the collective efforts of neighbors, colleagues, and family members. The individual, more than anything else, stood out as a threat. Society, they believed, benefitted from a united front rather than individual ambition. The middle class saw society as a group of individuals. Social and financial success derived from individual effort and intellect. A united front, to them, threatened the value of individual success and personal pride.

Click here to return to Class Discussion 18.04.


Answer to Class Discussion 18.05

As the professional, middle class became a definitive fixture of late 19th century society, cities became spaces for public life. Parks, promenades, boutiques, and boulevards played host to middle-class lifestyles, allowing proud professionals to be seen in public life and flaunt the wares of their financial success. Public transit became a fixture in large cities, allowing the middle class to commute to and from work with little problem or delay. These spaces and services, however, did not cater to, and often even avoided, lower class people and areas, widening the distance between the working and professional classes.

Click here to return to Class Discussion 18.05.


Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of Wellcome Images under CC BY 4.0.

[2] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain. 

[3] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[4] Image courtesy of the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[5] Image courtesy of the Project Gutenberg archives in the Public Domain. 

[6] Image courtesy of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis in the Public Domain.

[7] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain. 

[8] Image courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in the Public Domain. 

[9] Image courtesy of the USC Department of History in the Public Domain.

[10] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[11] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain. 

[12] Image courtesy of Preus Museum in the Public Domain.

[13] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[14] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain. 

[15] Image courtesy of Chicago Historical Society in the Public Domain. 

[16] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[17] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[18] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[19] Image courtesy of the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.