Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality.
Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture.
The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability.
Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.
Judy Yung and Erika Lee
The Angel Island Immigration Station (1910–1940), located in San Francisco Bay, was one of twenty-four ports of entry established by the U.S. government to process and detain immigrants entering and leaving the country. Although popularly called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Angel Island station was in fact quite different from its counterpart in New York. Ellis Island was built in 1892 to welcome European immigrants and to enforce immigration laws that restricted but did not exclude European immigrants. In contrast, as the primary gateway for Chinese and other Asian immigrants, the Angel Island station was built in 1910 to better enforce discriminatory immigration policies that targeted Asians for exclusion. Chinese immigrants, in particular, were subjected to longer physical exams, interrogations, and detentions than any other immigrant group. Out of frustration, anger, and despair, many of them wrote and carved Chinese poems into the barrack walls. In 1940, a fire destroyed the administration building, and the immigration station was moved back to San Francisco. In 1963, the abandoned site became part of the state park system, and the remaining buildings were slated for demolition. Thanks to the collective efforts of Asian American activists and descendents of former detainees, the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and the immigration site, including the Chinese poetry on the barrack walls, was preserved and transformed into a museum of Pacific immigration for visitors.
Gentrification is one of the most controversial issues in American cities today. But it also remains one of the least understood. Few agree on how to define it or whether it is boon or curse for cities. Gentrification has changed over time and has a history dating back to the early 20th century. Historically, gentrification has had a smaller demographic impact on American cities than suburbanization or immigration. But since the late 1970s, gentrification has dramatically reshaped cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. Furthermore, districts such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Georgetown in Washington DC have had an outsized influence on the political, cultural, and architectural history of cities. Gentrification thus must be examined alongside suburbanization as one of the major historical trends shaping the 20th-century American metropolis.
Mass transit has been part of the urban scene in the United States since the early 19th century. Regular steam ferry service began in New York City in the early 1810s and horse-drawn omnibuses plied city streets starting in the late 1820s. Expanding networks of horse railways emerged by the mid-19th century. The electric streetcar became the dominant mass transit vehicle a half century later. During this era, mass transit had a significant impact on American urban development. Mass transit’s importance in the lives of most Americans started to decline with the growth of automobile ownership in the 1920s, except for a temporary rise in transit ridership during World War II. In the 1960s, congressional subsidies began to reinvigorate mass transit and heavy-rail systems opened in several cities, followed by light rail systems in several others in the next decades. Today concerns about environmental sustainability and urban revitalization have stimulated renewed interest in the benefits of mass transit.
By serving travelers and commerce, roads and streets unite people and foster economic growth. But as they develop, roads and streets also disrupt old patterns, upset balances of power, and isolate some as they serve others. The consequent disagreements leave historical records documenting social struggles that might otherwise be overlooked. For long-distance travel in America before the middle of the 20th century, roads were generally poor alternatives, resorted to when superior means of travel, such as river and coastal vessels, canal boats, or railroads were unavailable. Most roads were unpaved, unmarked, and vulnerable to the effects of weather. Before the railroads, for travelers willing to pay the toll, rare turnpikes and plank roads could be much better. Even in towns, unpaved streets were common until the late 19th century, and persisted into the 20th. In the late 19th century, rapid urban growth, rural free delivery of the mails, and finally the proliferation of electric railways and bicycling contributed to growing pressure for better roads and streets. After 1910, the spread of the automobile accelerated the trend, but only with great controversy, especially in cities. Partly in response to the controversy, advocates of the automobile organized to promote state and county motor highways funded substantially by gasoline taxes; such roads were intended primarily for motor vehicles. In the 1950s, massive federal funds accelerated the trend; by then, motor vehicles were the primary transportation mode for both long and short distances. The consequences have been controversial, and alternatives have been attracting growing interest.
In January 1938, Benny Goodman took command of Carnegie Hall on a blustery New York City evening and for two hours his band tore through the history of jazz in a performance that came to define the entire Swing Era. Goodman played Carnegie Hall at the top of his jazz game leading his crack band—including Gene Krupa on drums and Harry James on trumpet—through new, original arrangements by Fletcher Henderson. Compounding the historic nature of the highly publicized jazz concert, Goodman welcomed onto the stage members of Duke Ellington’s band to join in on what would be the first major jazz performance by an integrated band. With its sprit of inclusion as well as its emphasis on the historical contours of the first decades of jazz, Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert represented the apex of jazz music’s acceptance as the most popular form of American musical expression. In addition, Goodman’s concert coincided with the resurgence of the record industry, hit hard by the Great Depression. By the late 1930s, millions of Americans purchased swing records and tuned into jazz radio programs, including Goodman’s own show, which averaged two million listeners during that period.
And yet, only forty years separated this major popular triumph and the very origins of jazz music. Between 1900 and 1945, American musical culture changed dramatically; new sounds via new technologies came to define the national experience. At the same time, there were massive demographic shifts as black southerners moved to the Midwest and North, and urban culture eclipsed rural life as the norm. America in 1900 was mainly a rural and disconnected nation, defined by regional identities where cultural forms were transmitted through live performances. By the end of World War II, however, a definable national musical culture had emerged, as radio came to link Americans across time and space. Regional cultures blurred as a national culture emerged via radio transmissions, motion picture releases, and phonograph records. The turbulent decade of the 1920s sat at the center of this musical and cultural transformation as American life underwent dramatic changes in the first decades of the 20th century.
Housing in America has long stood as a symbol of the nation’s political values and a measure of its economic health. In the 18th century, a farmhouse represented Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of independent property owners; in the mid-20th century, the suburban house was seen as an emblem of an expanding middle class. Alongside those well-known symbols were a host of other housing forms—tenements, slave quarters, row houses, French apartments, loft condos, and public housing towers—that revealed much about American social order and the material conditions of life for many people.
Since the 19th century, housing markets have been fundamental forces driving the nation’s economy and a major focus of government policies. Home construction has provided jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. Land speculation, housing development, and the home mortgage industry have generated billions of dollars in investment capital, while ups and downs in housing markets have been considered signals of major changes in the economy. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the federal government has buttressed the home construction industry and offered economic incentives for home buyers, giving the United States the highest home ownership rate in the world. The housing market crash of 2008 slashed property values and sparked a rapid increase in home foreclosures, especially in places like Southern California and the suburbs of the Northeast, where housing prices had ballooned over the previous two decades. The real estate crisis led to government efforts to prop up the mortgage banking industry and to assist struggling homeowners. The crisis led, as well, to a drop in rates of home ownership, an increase in rental housing, and a growth in homelessness.
Home ownership remains a goal for many Americans and an ideal long associated with the American dream. The owner-occupied home—whether single-family or multifamily dwelling—is typically the largest investment made by an American family. Through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, housing designs varied from region to region. In the mid-20th century, mass production techniques and national building codes tended to standardize design, especially in new suburban housing. In the 18th century, the family home was a site of waged and unwaged work; it was the center of a farm, plantation, or craftsman’s workshop. Two and a half centuries later, a house was a consumer good: its size, location, and decor marked the family’s status and wealth.
Wendy L. Wall
The New Deal generally refers to a set of domestic policies implemented by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Propelled by that economic cataclysm, Roosevelt and his New Dealers pushed through legislation that regulated the banking and securities industries, provided relief for the unemployed, aided farmers, electrified rural areas, promoted conservation, built national infrastructure, regulated wages and hours, and bolstered the power of unions. The Tennessee Valley Authority prevented floods and brought electricity and economic progress to seven states in one of the most impoverished parts of the nation. The Works Progress Administration offered jobs to millions of unemployed Americans and launched an unprecedented federal venture into the arena of culture. By providing social insurance to the elderly and unemployed, the Social Security Act laid the foundation for the U.S. welfare state.
The benefits of the New Deal were not equitably distributed. Many New Deal programs—farm subsidies, work relief projects, social insurance, and labor protection programs—discriminated against racial minorities and women, while profiting white men disproportionately. Nevertheless, women achieved symbolic breakthroughs, and African Americans benefited more from Roosevelt’s policies than they had from any past administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. The New Deal did not end the Depression—only World War II did that—but it did spur economic recovery. It also helped to make American capitalism less volatile by extending federal regulation into new areas of the economy.
Although the New Deal most often refers to policies and programs put in place between 1933 and 1938, some scholars have used the term more expansively to encompass later domestic legislation or U.S. actions abroad that seemed animated by the same values and impulses—above all, a desire to make individuals more secure and a belief in institutional solutions to long-standing problems. In order to pass his legislative agenda, Roosevelt drew many Catholic and Jewish immigrants, industrial workers, and African Americans into the Democratic Party. Together with white Southerners, these groups formed what became known as the “New Deal coalition.” This unlikely political alliance endured long after Roosevelt’s death, supporting the Democratic Party and a “liberal” agenda for nearly half a century. When the coalition finally cracked in 1980, historians looked back on this extended epoch as reflecting a “New Deal order.”
Maureen A. Flanagan
The decades from the 1890s into the 1920s produced reform movements in the United States that resulted in significant changes to the country’s social, political, cultural, and economic institutions. The impulse for reform emanated from a pervasive sense that the country’s democratic promise was failing. Political corruption seemed endemic at all levels of government. An unregulated capitalist industrial economy exploited workers and threatened to create a serious class divide, especially as the legal system protected the rights of business over labor. Mass urbanization was shifting the country from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one characterized by poverty, disease, crime, and cultural clash. Rapid technological advancements brought new, and often frightening, changes into daily life that left many people feeling that they had little control over their lives. Movements for socialism, woman suffrage, and rights for African Americans, immigrants, and workers belied the rhetoric of the United States as a just and equal democratic society for all its members.
Responding to the challenges presented by these problems, and fearful that without substantial change the country might experience class upheaval, groups of Americans proposed undertaking significant reforms. Underlying all proposed reforms was a desire to bring more justice and equality into a society that seemed increasingly to lack these ideals. Yet there was no agreement among these groups about the exact threat that confronted the nation, the means to resolve problems, or how to implement reforms. Despite this lack of agreement, all so-called Progressive reformers were modernizers. They sought to make the country’s democratic promise a reality by confronting its flaws and seeking solutions. All Progressivisms were seeking a via media, a middle way between relying on older ideas of 19th-century liberal capitalism and the more radical proposals to reform society through either social democracy or socialism. Despite differences among Progressives, the types of Progressivisms put forth, and the successes and failures of Progressivism, this reform era raised into national discourse debates over the nature and meaning of democracy, how and for whom a democratic society should work, and what it meant to be a forward-looking society. It also led to the implementation of an activist state.
Ann Durkin Keating
Since the beginning of the 19th century, outlying areas of American cities have been home to a variety of settlements and enterprises with close links to urban centers. Beginning in the early 19th century, the increasing scale of business and industrial enterprises separated workplaces from residences. This allowed some urban dwellers to live at a distance from their place of employment and commute to work. Others lived in the shadow of factories located at some distance from the city center. Still others provided food or raw materials for urban residents and businesses. The availability of employment led to further suburban growth. Changing intracity transportation, including railroads, interurbans, streetcars, and cable cars, enabled people and businesses to locate beyond the limits of a walking city.
By the late 19th century, metropolitan areas across the United States included outlying farm centers, industrial towns, residential rail (or streetcar) suburbs, and recreational/institutional centers. With suburbs generally located along rail or ferry lines into the early 20th century, the physical development of metropolitan areas often resembled a hub and spokes. However, across metropolitan regions, suburbs had a great range of function and diversity of populations. With the advent of automobile commutation and the growing use of trucks to haul freight, suburban development took place between railroad lines, filling in the earlier hub-and-spokes patterns into a more deliberate built-up area.
Although suburban settlements were integrally connected to their neighbors and within a metropolitan economy and society, independent suburban governments emerged to serve these outlying settlements and keep them separate. Developers often took the lead in providing differential services (and regulations). Suburban governments emerged as hybrid forms, serving relatively homogeneous populations by providing only some urban functions. Well before 1945, suburbs were home to a wide range of work and residents.