Paying the Price: Workers, Contracts, and Wage Labor
The mechanized factory system in antebellum New England was more than a collection of machines, buildings, people, and rules. This system was also shaped by the fundamental need to hire labor and pay wages. Workers often found themselves in an unfamiliar network of labor markets, contracts, and wage rates. They quickly learned that contracts were more than pieces of paper, and wages were more than dollars and cents. Contracts were often instruments of social control, and wages lay at the heart of what it meant to be a factory worker. Thus, when workers examined how they were recruited into the industrial labor force and how they were paid once they were in the factories, crucial issues about economic independence and social identity often came to the fore. Some workers saw contracts and wage labor as their entrée into the emerging commercial cash-based economy as autonomous actors. Others saw contracts and wage labor as one of the most dangerous threats to whatever was left of the freedom and independence of the worker.
The basic requirements of recruiting a factory work force, both written and unwritten, shaped the lives of operatives, sometimes even before they entered the workplace. The process of recruiting factory workers was a combination of informal networks and official structures that framed the competing demands of employees and owners for control of the labor market.
Many factories had to recruit workers from a wide geographic area. Small rural manufactories, in particular, may have had trouble recruiting local workers to meet their modest needs because of their isolation and uncertain reputations. In the years preceding 1830, for example, only one-quarter of all the worker households at the Slater Company mills in Webster, Massachusetts, were from the local area. The majority of workers came from communities scattered throughout southern New England. The larger factories had greater personnel needs, which also often outstripped the local supply of workers. But because the reputations of the large fac