The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920 Summary

Daniel T. Rodgers

The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920

Daniel T. Rodgers, a member of the history department of the University of Wisconsin, is interested in the intersection of ideas and social reality during the formative years of modern America. Recently historians have begun to document the stresses and strains in society as an urban-industrial matrix replaced traditional small town-rural life. The standard view that the transition from premodern to modern society was relatively smooth, reflecting a natural, progressive process, has come under attack in recent years. Historians such as Herbert Gutman, James Gilbert, David F. Noble, David Montgomery, and Melvin Dubofsky, to name only a few, have been exploring two aspects of the development of the technological/corporate state: the resistance of many, particularly recent immigrants and other minority groups, to modernization, and the extraordinary efforts of others, such as corporate leaders and technicians, to promote monopoly capitalism.

Rodgers, however, is concerned with the conflict of ideas and values, not with classes or ethnic groups per se. By the middle of the nineteenth century there existed in the Northern States a well-formed work ethic, composed of a belief in usefulness, fear of idleness, dream of success, and faith in work as a creative act. Work would lead to independence, wealth, and status. These ideas came down from the Protestant bourgeoisie, permeating much of society, but not all. Such thinking came in for careful scrutiny and questioning, however, with the development of technology and industrialization. Immense factories, the routinization of work, need for large numbers of unskilled and semiskilled workers, growing separation of workers and owners and the rise of a managerial class—these and other changes significantly altered the nature and meaning of work. The growth of wage labor, for example, undercut the possibility of independence for most workers; in 1870, roughly seventy percent of the labor force in Pennsylvania worked for someone else, which was slightly higher than the average throughout the North. To be one’s own boss was still the dream, but it was becoming less and less the reality.

Following the Civil War, in order to counter this growing lack of independence, various individuals and organizations, particularly the Knights of Labor, established producers cooperatives. The idea reached its peak in the 1870’s, then dropped off with the collapse of the Knights after 1886. Subsequently, the concept of profit-sharing appeared as another scheme to promote independence, and caught on in limited circles. In a watered-down form it was even promoted by United States Steel Corporation, but that version showed little semblance of true cooperation between workers and owners. Another device, taken much more seriously, was to substitute payment on the basis of piecework for a standard daily or weekly wage. This method of increasing work was linked to the time-study methods of Frederick W. Taylor and his disciples. Yet these new schemes, based on regimentation and order, contradicted the traditional beliefs in independence and freedom for individual workers. By the end of World War I a new attempt was made to resolve this dilemma in the industrial democracy movement, which included the establishment of company unions and various decision-sharing schemes. This attempt also failed within a few years.

As work became more routine and degraded in the nineteenth century, writers and social commentators were slow to recognize the situation; they clung instead to their belief in progress and individual potential. Many assumed that factories in fact furthered their beliefs, and only after the turn of the century was the reality of factory life perceived by a large number of social critics. As an alternative, some, such as Elbert Hubbard, advocated the return to handicrafts; others joined arts and crafts societies, stressed the dignity of work (Jane Addams), vocational...

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