Working Conditions During the 1800s

After the initial boom of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing and technological advancements provided factory jobs to millions of Americans.

These factory conditions were extremely dangerous due to a lack of workers’ rights and safety regulations.

Learn how factory conditions affected workers in the 1800s and how the rise of labor unions influenced policy.

The Rise of Industry in the 1800s

After the First Industrial Revolution in the US and UK in the late 1700s, industrial advancement boomed with the introduction of new technologies and manufacturing processes. This led to rapid urbanization and a massive influx of factory jobs.

The Second Industrial Revolution took place in the 1860s, when further technological advancements boosted industrialization and manufacturing. In addition to the growth of steam, water, and coal power of the late 1700s, the Second Industrial Revolution came about as a result of the introduction of:

  • Railways
  • Electrical grids
  • Assembly lines

These allowed for more efficient manufacturing practices widespread distribution of goods as a result of nationwide railway systems. However, this increase in manufacturing production did not lead to improvements in working conditions. As with the First Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s, factory conditions were remarkably poor and posed major risks to factory workers.

Read more: Working Conditions During the Industrial Revolution

Working Conditions in Factories

Factory conditions were significantly poor in the 1800s due to a lack of regulations and enforceable policy. In many instances, the rise of electrical grids, railways, and assembly lines worsened factory conditions. Workers handled dangerous electrical equipment, fast-paced assembly lines, and endured heavy coal pollution, often without substantial instruction or safety precautions. These furthered the dangerous working conditions that arose in the 1700s.

As with the working conditions in the 1700s, there was a severe lack of:

  • Child labor laws
  • Minimum wage
  • Factory ventilation
  • Rest breaks

These factors led to hazardous conditions for workers, millions of whom were children. In the 1800s, employees worked 12-16 hour shifts per day with minimal breaks or rest days. Factories lacked proper ventilation, which resulted in heavy, long-term exposure to toxic chemicals and air pollution from the many chemical and metal processing plants.

Exhaustion worsened worker safety, as people operated heavy machinery and complicated processes with very little sleep. This led to people falling asleep on the job and facing severe injuries and even death. Children were not exempt from these expectations, and also had to work long hours in dangerous conditions. Many developed disabilities and physical deformities that they carried into adulthood.

The introduction of electrical grids led to increased dangers in factory conditions. Electricity was a novel commodity, and lacked the safety precautions and guidelines of today’s technology. This led to many workers suffering severe burns and even fatal electrocution in extreme, but common, instances. The majority of factories at the time did not provide compensation to workers who suffered injuries on the job, leading to many workers losing their jobs and facing lifelong unemployment and subsequent poverty.

Industries faced frequent strikes and riots in response to their conditions, but there were no policies enacted at the time to protect workers’ right to strike, which led to factories firing the strikers and hiring new workers to take their place.

The frequent strikes eventually led to the British Parliament passing the Factory Acts in 1833. This led to regulations including:

  • Children under the age of 9 could not work
  • Children were required to have a minimum of two hours of schooling per day
  • Children 9-13 years of age could not work more than nine hours per day
  • Children 13-18 could not work more than 12 hours per day.
  • Factory inspections to ensure enforcement

This act helped significantly reduce child labor in the United Kingdom. While it had no bearing on labor laws in the United States and focused heavily on child labor, it slowly began to set a standard for American workers of all ages. Perhaps most significantly, this act introduced the concept of inspectors who enforced regulations and ensured policies were being followed.

In the late 1800s, poor factory conditions led to a rise in strikes, riots, and most significantly, labor unions, who demanded an improvement in working conditions.

The Introduction of Labor Unions

The first trade union in the United States began in 1794 with the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers. While the spread of their influence was slow, this union set a precedent for workers’ rights and helped spread ideology relating to fair compensation and shortened workdays throughout the country. Slowly, many others began to follow suit, leading to increased strikes throughout industries. Many of these strikes focused on equal pay for women and minorities. In 1867, 2,000 Chinese workers who labored on the transcontinental railroad system demanded pay equal to their white coworkers. Others included women and Black workers who walked out of jobs to demand fair wages and safer conditions.

However, many of these strikes failed, as employers retaliated by cutting off food supplies and replacing strikers with new employees. By the mid-1800s, many labor unions existed but lacked negotiating power due to little recognition and minimal membership. This heavily influenced their ability to use collective bargaining to advocate for better rights.

It wasn’t until 1881 that the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was formed, which later became the Amerian Federation of Labor in 1886. Members of this organization called for nationwide requirements for:

  • Child labor laws and compulsory education
  • Legal recognition of unions
  • Establishment of an 8-hour workday
  • Factory and mining ventilation and inspections

They were not immediately successful due to their initial minimal negotiating power and lack of substantive membership. However, it began to yield significant results in the 1900s.


Read more: Working Conditions in the 1900s

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