By D. PIDGEON.
The United States of America are, collectively, of such vast extent, and, singly, so individualized in character, that to speak of their labor conditions as a whole would be as impossible, in an hour's address, as to describe their physical geography or geology in a similar space of time. I shall, therefore, confine what I have to say this evening on the subject of labor and wages in America to a consideration of the industrial condition of certain Eastern States, which, being essentially manufacturing districts, offer the best instances for comparison with the labor conditions of our own country. That this field is of adequate extent and of typical character may be inferred from the fact that the three States composing it, viz.. New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, contain together nearly one-half of the whole manufacturing population of America, while Connecticut and Massachusetts are the very cradle of American manufacture, and the home of the typical Yankee artisan. In addition, the State of Massachusetts is distinguished by possessing a Bureau of Statistics of Labor, whose sole business is to ventilate industrial questions, and to collect such facts as will afford the statesman a sound basis for industrial legislation.
We shall find ourselves, in the sequel, indebted for spine of our chief conclusions to this excellent public institution.
If we ask ourselves, at the outset of the inquiry, "Who and what are the operatives of manufacturing America?" the answer involves a distinction which cannot be too strongly insisted upon, or too carefully kept in mind. These people consist, first, of native-born, and, secondly, of alien workers. The United States census, reckoning every child born in the country as an American, even if both his parents be foreigners, I would make it appear that only six and a half millions out of its fifty millions are of alien birth, but, for our purpose, these figures are misleading. There is a vast difference, in many important respects, between "Americans" derived from a stock long settled in the States and "Americans" with two or even with one alien parent. In the former case, the hereditary sense of social equality, the teaching of the common school, and the influence of democratic institutions, produce a certain type of character which I distinguish by the epithet "American" because it is of truly national origin.
In the latter case, the so-called "American" may really be a German, an Irishman, an Englishman, or a Swede, but the qualities which I would distinguish by the word "American" have not yet been developed in him, although they will probably be exhibited by his later descendants.
Setting the census figures aside, therefore, we find, from the Registration Reports of Massachusetts, that fifty-four out of every hundred persons who die within the limits of this State are of foreign parentage. Now bearing in mind that Massachusetts is essentially a Yankee State, where comparatively few European emigrants settle, it seems probable that, going back several generations, the numbers, even of Massachusetts men, who may be truly called "Americans" would dwindle considerably. These men, however, the children of equality, of the common school, and of democratic institutions, may be considered as leaven, leavening the lump of European emigration, and shaping, so far as they can, the character of the American; people that is yet to be.
Native American labor is best described by reference to a recent past, when it filled all the factories of the United States, and challenged, by its high tone, the admiration of Europe. At the beginning of this century, public opinion in America was most unfriendly to the establishment of manufactories, so great were the complaints of these made in Europe as seats of vice and disease. Thus, when Humphreysville, the first industrial village in America, was built, in 1804, by the Hon. David Humphreys, who wished to see the colony independent of the mother country for her supplies of manufactured goods, parents refused to place their children in his factories until legislation had first made the mill-owner responsible both for the education and morality of his operatives. Similarly, when the cotton mills of Lowell, and the silk mills of Hartford, began to rise, between 1832 and 1840, the American people held the capitalist responsible for the moral, mental, and physical health of the people whom he employed, with the result that all England wondered at the stories of factory operatives, and their so-called "refinements," which were given to this country by writers like Harriett Martineau and Charles Dickens.
Lowell, between the years 1832 and 1850, was, perhaps, the most remarkable manufacturing town in the world. Help, in the new cotton mills, was in great demand, and what were then thought very high wages were freely offered, so that, in spite of the national prejudice against factory labor, operatives began to flow from many quarters into the mills. These people were, for the most part, the daughters of farmers, storekeepers, and mechanics; of Puritan antecedents, and religious training. In the mill they were treated kindly, and, although their hours were long, they were not overworked. A feeling of real, but respectful, equality existed between them and their employers, and the best hands were often guests at the houses of the mill owners or ministers of religion. They lived in great boarding-houses, kept by women selected for their high character, and it is of these industrial families, and of their refined life, that observers like Dickens, Lyell, and Miss Martineau spoke with enthusiasm. The last writer has made us acquainted, in her "Mind among the Spindles," with the height to which intellectual life once rose in Lowell mills, before the wave of Irish emigration, following on the potato famine, swept native American labor away from the spindles.
The morality of the early mill-girls, again, was practically stainless, and, strict as the rules of conduct were in the factories, these were really dead letters, so high was the standard of behavior set and sustained by the mill-hands themselves.