Source: Narrated by Zach Lamb
You could argue that this challenge is among the most important of the entire course, because it uncovers three of the most significant transformations in American history-- industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.
Industrialization fundamentally altered the ways that businesses organize in the United States. In the early 19th century, American manufacturing centered around households, small shops, and artisans. By the start of the 20th century, the US had shifted to a much more industrial economy, dominated by big businesses, trusts, monopolies, and mechanized industrial production.
Industrialization fostered urbanization and the growth of cities. In the early 19th century, the United States was a rural and agricultural nation. But the landscape shifted dramatically in the early 20th century, as thousands of Americans moved from the countryside to cities, such as New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago in search of work in the new industrial economy. These cities provided new amenities, opportunities, and technological advances unavailable in rural areas, like, department stores, skyscrapers, and even trolleys.
However, both industrialization and urbanization would not have occurred as quickly and as extensively in the United States without immigration. Between 1840 and 1914 more than 40 million people migrated to the United States. They came from all over the globe. They came from Europe, Asia, Central and South America. And many settled in urban areas and worked in factories, such as the one owned by Samuel, whom you met in the challenge.
As you worked through this challenge, did you notice any potential points of conflict between Samuel and the workers at his textile factory? Samuel expressed his desires to treat his workers fairly, provide them with a living wage, and if possible, reduce their working hours. But amidst the widespread reactions to labor activism following the Haymarket affair and other episodes of labor violence during this period, how unique is Samuel's concern toward his workforce?
His factory was comprised largely of female immigrant laborers, including many who did not speak English. How might such diversity hinder a factory's ability to organize collectively? How might Samuel have reacted if his workers organized, and then immediately went on strike, for better wages and working conditions? During his conversation with his employees, Samuel points out how consumers benefited from his operations.
Other companies bought the garments that Samuel's workers produced. Then, these companies sold Samuel's garments in mail order catalogs more cheaply than consumers could buy at their local stores. This raises an important question, how likely is it that consumers would support efforts of organized labor to improve wages and working conditions, if it caused price increases for the goods that they purchased?
How often have you thought about the labor that goes into the products you consume on a daily basis? Where did the food in your refrigerator come from? Who created the clothes that you wear and where were they produced? These questions have historical, as well as contemporary, implications. And they are intricately tied to ongoing global processes of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.
Samuel's compassion for his textile factory workers is admirable, but was he right to claim that they would have a tough time improving their situation? Confronting the challenges associated with industrialization, urbanization, and immigration were too large for any single worker, laborer, organization, or corporation to confront.