The American Work Ethic and the Changing Work Force: An Historical Perspective

By Herbert Applebaum | Go to book overview

7
THE AMERICAN WORK ETHIC
IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

OVERVIEW

The territory of the United States mushroomed in size between 1800 and 1860. From a nation squeezed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian Mountains, it swept like a gale across the plains of the Midwest, over the Rocky Mountains, and reached the Pacific Ocean. By 1860, there were miners and ranchers in California, farmers in Oregon, railroad builders in the Rockies, town boosters in Nebraska and Kansas, and cattle drovers in Texas. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the acquisition of Florida in 1819, the establishment of Oregon in 1836, and the taking of land from Mexico in 1846 extended the territory of the United States to make it a continental power. Settling the West and the Far West was the result of hard work by pioneers willing to give up their way of life in the East. They struggled against harsh conditions on tough prairie land, forbidding mountainous terrain, and the hostility of Native Americans. Still, they succeeded in making the prairie, the mountains, and the Far West a treasure house of resources and new states, where the energies of a youthful, vital population could find new opportunities.

Nineteenth-century America was a society of mixed values and social transition. It was the century when the traditional values of craft and the new values of industrial factory work coexisted and struggled for supremacy. It was the century that started out with the agricultural population predominant and ended with the wage worker predominant. It was the century when the leisurely work styles of the artisan gave way to the pressured, time-oriented styles of the industrial worker.

Americans were optimists in the nineteenth century, believing in irresistible progress based on human achievements in science, technology, and knowledge. Americans also embraced the theory of evolution. Thinkers and academics preached that evolutionary forces were creating higher forms of life from lower ones in the natural world, and more organized social structures from less organized

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