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

By Herbert Applebaum | Go to book overview

11
LABORERS AND MANUAL WORKERS
IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

This chapter deals with laborers and manual workers who did not fit into the categories of farmers, factory workers, or artisans. Many were wage workers and others were independent, like gold miners. There were also cowboys, hardrock miners, canal builders, and men who laid track for railroads and had nothing to offer for their wages other than their physical strength and determination.

Common laborers were highly exploited, worked for low wages, and were socially fragmented. As a result their work culture reflected alienation and insecurity. Their struggles in the workplace were often uncoordinated efforts to secure and maintain their employment. Powerlessness and dislocation for the most part dominated their lifestyles. But they were also carefree and adventurous. Mark Twain's description of riverboat laborers captures the character of the men who performed the hard labor on canals and railroads, in mines, on docks loading ships, and in the mountains seeking beaver pelts:

[River-boat commerce] gave employment to hordes of rough and hardy men, rude, uneducated, brave, suffering terrific hardships with sailor-like stoicism; heavy drinkers, coarse frolickers . . . heavy fighters, reckless fellows, every one, elephantinely jolly, foul-witted, profane; prodigal of their money, bankrupt at the end of the trip, fond of barbaric finery, prodigious braggarts; yet in the main, honest, trustworthy, faithful to promises and duty, and often picturesquely magnanimous. ( Twain, 1982:238)


CANAL DIGGERS

Men who dug canals during the 1820s and 1830s, were among the unskilled, roughneck outcasts. Canal diggers were young, male, mostly Irish immigrants searching for security in a new land, bartering their working power for subsistence

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