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.
On January 5, 2014—the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty—the New York Times asked a panel of opinion leaders a simple question: “Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?” While the answers varied, all the invited debaters accepted the martial premise of the question—that a war on poverty had been fought and that eliminating poverty was, without a doubt, a “fight,” or a “battle.”
Yet the debate over the manner—martial or not—by which the federal government and public policy has dealt with the issue of poverty in the United States is still very much an open-ended one.
The evolution and development of the postwar American welfare state is a story not only of a number of “wars,” or individual political initiatives, against poverty, but also about the growth of institutions within and outside government that seek to address, alleviate, and eliminate poverty and its concomitant social ills. It is a complex and at times messy story, interwoven with the wider historical trajectory of this period: civil rights, the rise and fall of a “Cold War consensus,” the emergence of a counterculture, the Vietnam War, the credibility gap, the rise of conservatism, the end of “welfare,” and the emergence of compassionate conservatism. Mirroring the broader organization of the American political system, with a relatively weak center of power and delegated authority and decision-making in fifty states, the welfare model has developed and grown over decades. Policies viewed in one era as unmitigated failures have instead over time evolved and become part of the fabric of the welfare state.
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.
Long regarded as a violent outburst significant mainly for California history, the 1871 Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre raises themes central to America’s Civil War Reconstruction era between 1865 and 1877, namely, the resort to threats and violence to preserve traditionally conceived social and political authority and power. Although the Los Angeles events occurred far from the American South, the Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre paralleled the anti-black violence that rose in the South during Reconstruction. Although the immediate causes of the violence in the post–Civil War South and California were far different, they shared one key characteristic: they employed racial disciplining to preserve traditional social orders that old elites saw as threatened by changing times and circumstances.
Daryl Joji Maeda
The Asian American Movement was a social movement for racial justice, most active during the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, which brought together people of various Asian ancestries in the United States who protested against racism and U.S. neo-imperialism, demanded changes in institutions such as colleges and universities, organized workers, and sought to provide social services such as housing, food, and healthcare to poor people. As one of its signal achievements, the Movement created the category “Asian American,” (coined by historian and activist Yuji Ichioka), which encompasses the multiple Asian ethnic groups who have migrated to the United States. Its founding principle of coalitional politics emphasizes solidarity among Asians of all ethnicities, multiracial solidarity among Asian Americans as well as with African, Latino, and Native Americans in the United States, and transnational solidarity with peoples around the globe impacted by U.S. militarism.
The movement participated in solidarity work with other Third World peoples in the United States, including the Third World Liberation Front strikes at San Francisco State College and University of California, Berkeley. The Movement fought for housing rights for poor people in the urban cores of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, and Philadelphia; it created arts collectives, published newspapers and magazines, and protested vigorously against the Vietnam War. It also extended to Honolulu, where activists sought to preserve land rights in rural Hawai’i. It contributed to the larger radical movement for power and justice that critiqued capitalism and neo-imperialism, which flourished during the 1960s and 1970s.
Shelley Sang-Hee Lee
Although the 1992 Los Angeles riots have been described as a “race riot” sparked by the acquittals of a group of mostly white police officers charged with excessively beating black motorist Rodney King, the widespread targeting and destruction of Asian-owned (mainly Korean) property in and around South Central Los Angeles stands out as one of the most striking aspects of the uprising. For all the commentary generated about the state of black-white relations, African American youths, and the decline of America’s inner cities, the riots also gave many Americans their first awareness of the presence of a Korean immigrant population in Southern California, a large number of Korean shop owners, and the existence of what was commonly framed as the “black-Korean conflict.” For Korean Americans, and Asian Americans more generally, the Los Angeles riots represented a shattered “American dream” and brought focus to their tenuous hold on economic mobility and social inclusion in a society fraught by racial and ethnic tension. The riots furthermore marked a turning point that placed Asian immigrants and Asian Americans at the center of new conversations about social relations in a multiracial America, the place of new immigrants, and the responsibilities of relatively privileged minorities toward the less privileged.
Company towns can be defined as communities dominated by a single company, typically focused on one industry. Beyond that very basic definition, company towns varied in their essentials. Some were purpose-built by companies, often in remote areas convenient to needed natural resources. There, workers were often required to live in company-owned housing as a condition of employment. Others began as small towns with privately owned housing, usually expanding alongside a growing hometown corporation. Residences were shoddy in some company towns. In others, company-built housing may have been excellent, with indoor plumbing and central heating, and located close to such amenities as schools, libraries, perhaps even theaters.
Company towns played a key role in US economic and social development. Such places can be found across the globe, but America’s vast expanse of undeveloped land, generous stock of natural resources, tradition of social experimentation, and laissez-faire attitude toward business provided singular opportunities for the emergence of such towns, large and small, in many regions of the United States. Historians have identified as many as 2,500 such places.
A tour of company towns can serve as a survey of the country’s industrial development, from the first large-scale planned industrial community—the textile town of Lowell, Massachusetts—to Appalachian mining villages, Western lumber towns, and steelmaking principalities such as the mammoth development at Gary, Indiana. More recent office-park and high-tech industrial-park complexes probably do not qualify as company towns, although they have some similar attributes. Nor do such planned towns as Disney Corporation’s Celebration, Florida, qualify, despite close ties to a single corporation, because its residents do not necessarily work for Disney.
Company towns have generally tended toward one of two models. First, and perhaps most familiar, are total institutions—communities where one business exerts a Big Brother–ish grip over the population, controlling or even taking the place of government, collecting rent on company-owned housing, dictating buying habits (possibly at the company store), and even directing where people worship and how they may spend their leisure time. A second form consists of model towns—planned, ideal communities backed by companies that promised to share their bounty with workers and families. Several such places were carefully put together by experienced architects and urban planners. Such model company towns were marked by a paternalistic, watchful attitude toward the citizenry on the part of the company overlords.
Cindy R. Lobel
Over the course of the 19th century, American cities developed from small seaports and trading posts to large metropolises. Not surprisingly, foodways and other areas of daily life changed accordingly. In 1800, the dietary habits of urban Americans were similar to those of the colonial period. Food provisioning was very local. Farmers, hunters, fishermen, and dairymen from a few miles away brought food by rowboats and ferryboats and by horse carts to centralized public markets within established cities. Dietary options were seasonal as well as regional. Few public dining options existed outside of taverns, which offered lodging as well as food. Most Americans, even in urban areas, ate their meals at home, which in many cases were attached to their workshops, countinghouses, and offices.
These patterns changed significantly over the course of the19th century, thanks largely to demographic changes and technological developments. By the turn of the 20th century, urban Americans relied on a food-supply system that was highly centralized and in the throes of industrialization. Cities developed complex restaurant sectors, and majority immigrant populations dramatically shaped and reshaped cosmopolitan food cultures. Furthermore, with growing populations, lax regulation, and corrupt political practices in many cities, issues arose periodically concerning the safety of the food supply. In sum, the roots of today’s urban food systems were laid down over the course of the 19th century.
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.
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.