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

By David A. Zonderman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Rules,Schools,and Prisons: Workers and Factory Regulations

Antebellum factory regulations were the means by which manufacturers tried to reconcile their progressive ideas about new technology and increased productivity with their conservative ideas about social hierarchy and order. Owners were trying to promote industrial work habits while controlling any social excesses among the new industrial workers -- thereby creating change and trying to control its repercussions at the same time. Factory rules were used to mold the industrial labor force into an efficient unit of production that would follow the traditional guidelines of deference, obedience, and virtue, as well as the modern requirements of punctuality, precision, and sobriety. Workers were told to follow a set of work rules and moral standards that would both prepare them to succeed in the new industrial order and still keep them in a subservient and docile position as hired labor.

As for the workers themselves, some of them readily accepted these regulations and became dutiful disciples of their factory masters. They agreed that these regulations were for their own good and would teach them valuable lessons for future success. They found that by cooperating with management in creating a regulated work force, they often received favors and flexibility from their supervisors as rewards for their proper behavior. The workers who were willing to follow the rules sometimes found that the regulations were actually enforced with a generous and magnanimous spirit. These workers did not feel manipulated by the system of rules and regulations; they felt they were incorporating good work habits into their own personalities. Other workers remained skeptical of these rules, and still saw the virtual monopoly of power and authority that lay behind the promulgation and enforcement of corporate labor policies. These operatives saw factory regulations as more threads in the web of corporate control, another step towards management's goal of total domination of the factory system -- a goal some of the workers struggled to resist.

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