Thursday, December 19, 2013

New England's Wage Slaves


New England sold its slaves southward while developing a new factory labor system more efficient and practical.  For workers at the Lowell, Massachusetts mill it was reported that "there is no privacy, no retirements here; it is almost impossible to read or write alone." Another contemporary hinted that some of the girls eventually moved from mill work into prostitution; and few of the mill girls would return to their native towns with reputations unimpaired.  That "she has worked in a factory" was almost enough to damn to infamy the most worthy and virtuous girl."

Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman

North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission

"Unsurpassed Valor, Courage and Devotion to Liberty"

"The Official Website of the North Carolina WBTS Sesquicentennial"

New England's Wage Slaves

"Chapter XII:  In Which is Explained Why Yankees Discarded Negro Chattel Slavery and Recalled the Plight of the White Wage Slaves and a Comment by Abraham Lincoln.

Negro slavery was a flop in the North.

The accent up there was on manufacturing and the Negro was at his best when teamed up with a hoe and a cotton-patch. The thrifty manufacturers of New England had a cheaper and more efficient labor supply readily at hand in the white wage slaves already there and the immigrants from Europe who came flooding in.

A healthy Negro field hand in 1860 cost $1,000 in Virginia and as much as $1,500 in New Orleans.  A new-born slave baby was worth $200.  The chattel slave had to be fed and clothed and taken care of in sickness and in health. When he got too old to work he had to be provided for.

Some States made it illegal for slaves to be worked on Sundays under pain of a fine of five pounds. It was against the law to work a slave more than fifteen hours a day in the summer and fourteen hours a day in winter. The average work day was about eleven hours. The slave was given a holiday between Christmas and New Year's.  Louisiana prescribed by law that every slave had be given a minimum of 200 pounds of pork a year.

The New England white wage slave wasn't nearly as expensive and a lot more efficient. He represented no capital outlay. He worked for starvation wages.  Laborers in the North in 1860 were earning 60 cents a day, and a day was often 14 to 16 hours.

The plight of women workers was even more appalling. In New York City, during the Civil War, women umbrella workers, after laboring 18 hours from six in the morning to midnight, earned three dollars a week.  Seamstresses in the underwear crafts got seventeen cents for a twelve-hour day.

When the wage-slave got sick he went off the pay-roll. When worn out by age and hard work, he [or she] was discarded like an old shoe.

Bells rang at daybreak in most factory towns. The wage slaves – men and women – had to report at the factory gates in fifteen minutes. An hour later they were allowed twenty-five minutes for whatever breakfast they had brought.  They got another twenty-five minutes at mid-day.  The gates opened again at 8 o'clock that night to let the wage slaves go home.

In the Eagle Mill at Griswold, [Connecticut], the work day lasted fifteen hours and ten minutes. At Paterson, New Jersey, women and children began the day's work at 4:30 o'clock in the morning.  Overseers in some textile mills   cracked a cowhide whip over the backs of women and children.

That isn't to say that chattel slavery was to be preferred to wage slavery. There were folks who used to say that back in the middle of the past century but whenever Abraham Lincoln heard them Old Abe would sort of hunch those bony shoulders of his and cock his head to one side and burn them down with a single sentence.

"They've written volume after volume to prove slavery a good thing," he'd say, "but I never heard of a man who wishes to take the good of it by being a slave himself."

(Then My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!, W.E. Debnam, The Graphic Press, 1955, pp. 30-32)