Aspirations and Anxieties: New England Workers and the Mechanized Factory System, 1815-1850

By David A. Zonderman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Means and Ends: Workers and the Value of Work

The debate over the mechanized factory system in antebellum New England cannot be reduced to simple biographical, chronological, or demographic categories. Workers did not criticize or praise the factories simply on the basis of their age, sex, occupation, location, or any other single factor. Nor were they always likely to paint the factories in stark black-and-white terms -- the debate spread over a broad spectrum of attitudes, ranging from outright condemnation, to profound ambivalence, to enthusiastic support. Workers from similar backgrounds could stand on opposite ends of this spectrum, and a single worker could pass through various emotional stages in the course of years working in the factories. Some workers, struggling to make sense of the changes taking place on the shop floor, could find themselves -- whether they realized it or not -- trying to hold contradictory ideas within their own world view of the factories.

What this dialogue on technological and socioeconomic change does reveal is deeper differences among operatives about the fundamental economic and ethical value of labor itself in a period of flux and uncertainty. Workers were trying to place their experience with factory labor in a broader intellectual context -- they looked back on their own past, examined their present circumstances, and peered ahead into their future in an effort to try to define the significance of the new mode of industrial production. Workers disagreed about the factory system because they differed among themselves as to how they saw previous forms of labor, how they defined the role of work in daily life, and how they saw the future promises or perils of the factory. To put the matter in simple terms: workers were debating not only the factory itself, but the history of work in America, its present value, and its future possibilities.


I

When workers compared industrial labor with their previous work experiences, they often measured the factory against the farm. Some of the earliest male factory

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