The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century

By Kim Voss | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2 Skilled and Less-Skilled Work, 1830-1880

The artisans are almost to a man red-hot politicians. They are sufficiently educated and thoughtful to have a sense of their importance in the state. . . . The unskilled labourers are a different class of people. As yet they are as unpolitical as footmen . . . they appear to have no political opinions whatever; or, if they do possess any, they rather lead towards the maintenance of "things as they are," than towards the ascendancy of the working people.

-- Henry Mayhew, 1849

We have seen that craftless workers remained at the margins of the labor movements of the 1830s. Who were these workers and what kind of work did they do? What changed--either about the organization of work or the character of the industrial labor force--that made it possible in the closing decades of the nineteenth century for these workers finally to be actively recruited into the labor movement?

English, French, and American less-skilled workers in the 1830s all did work that was distinguished in several ways from craft work. They received poorer wages, toiled at tasks that could be learned in shorter amounts of time, endured less healthy working conditions, and had little hope of ever gaining a competence. A substantial proportion also worked in locations that were far removed from the large cities where the movements of the 1830s were formed. Even those who labored in urban areas lived in distinct social worlds. This, and the fact that many were women and children, meant that skilled artisans found few similarities between their situation and that of the new, less-skilled proletariat created by the early industrial revolution.

When examining the American industrial economy of the 1830s,

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