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.
John D. Fairfield
The City Beautiful movement arose in the 1890s in response to the accumulating dirt and disorder in industrial cities, which threatened economic efficiency and social peace. City Beautiful advocates believed that better sanitation, improved circulation of traffic, monumental civic centers, parks, parkways, public spaces, civic art, and the reduction of outdoor advertising would make cities throughout the United States more profitable and harmonious. Engaging architects and planners, businessmen and professionals, and social reformers and journalists, the City Beautiful movement expressed a boosterish desire for landscape beauty and civic grandeur, but also raised aspirations for a more humane and functional city. “Mean streets make mean people,” wrote the movement’s publicist and leading theorist, Charles Mulford Robinson, encapsulating the belief in positive environmentalism that drove the movement. Combining the parks and boulevards of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted with the neoclassical architecture of Daniel H. Burnham’s White City at the Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, the City Beautiful movement also encouraged a view of the metropolis as a delicate organism that could be improved by bold, comprehensive planning. Two organizations, the American Park and Outdoor Art Association (founded in 1897) and the American League for Civic Improvements (founded in 1900), provided the movement with a national presence. But the movement also depended on the work of civic-minded women and men in nearly 2,500 municipal improvement associations scattered across the nation. Reaching its zenith in Burnham’s remaking of Washington, D.C., and his coauthored Plan of Chicago (1909), the movement slowly declined in favor of the “City Efficient” and a more technocratic city-planning profession. Aside from a legacy of still-treasured urban spaces and structures, the City Beautiful movement contributed to a range of urban reforms, from civic education and municipal housekeeping to city planning and regionalism.
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.
Erik Gellman and Margaret Rung
From the late 1920s through the 1930s, countries on every inhabited continent suffered through a dramatic and wrenching economic contraction termed the Great Depression, an economic collapse that has come to represent the nadir of modern economic history. With national unemployment reaching well into double digits for over a decade, productivity levels falling by half, prices severely depressed, and millions of Americans without adequate food, shelter or clothing, the United States experienced some of the Great Depression’s severest consequences. The crisis left deep physical, psychological, political, social, and cultural impressions on the national landscape. It encouraged political reform and reaction, renewed labor activism, spurred migration, unleashed grass-roots movements, inspired cultural experimentation, and challenged family structures and gender roles.
Christopher R. Reed
The unanticipated and massive migration of half a million African Americans between 1916 and 1918 from the racially oppressive South to the welcoming North surprised the nation. Directly resulting from the advent of the First World War, the movement of these able-bodied workers provided essential labor to maintain wartime production that sustained the Allied war effort. One-tenth of the people who surged north headed to and remained in Chicago, where their presence challenged the status quo in the areas of employment, external race relations, internal race arrangements, politics, housing, and recreation. Once in the Windy City, this migrant-influenced labor pool expanded with the addition of resident blacks to form the city’s first African American industrial proletariat. Wages for both men and women increased compared to what they had been earning in the South, and local businesses were ready and willing to accommodate these new consumers. A small black business sector became viable and was able to support two banks, and by the mid-1920s, there were multiple stores along Chicago’s State Street forming a virtual “Black Wall Street.” An extant political submachine within Republic Party ranks also increased its power and influence in repeated electoral contests. Importantly, upon scrutiny, the purported social conflict between the Old Settler element and the newcomers was shown to be overblown and inconsequential to black progress.
Recent revisionist scholarship over the past two decades has served to minimize the first phase of northward movement and has positioned it within the context of a half-century phenomenon under the labels of the “Second Great Migration” and the “Great Black Migration.” No matter what the designation, the voluntary movement of five to six million blacks from what had been their traditional home to the uncertainty of the North and West between the First World War and the Vietnam conflict stands as both a condemnation of regional oppression of the human spirit and aspirations of millions, and a demonstration of group courage in taking on new challenges in new settings. Although Chicago would prove to be “no crystal stair,” it was on many occasions a land of hope and promise for migrants throughout the past century.
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.