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Moving from farm to factory

Workers were needed almost everywhere during the fast-growing 1840s and 1850s; they were rewarded with wages that grew slowly but steadily. But life wasn't all domestic bliss, of course. Thousands of hungry workers shifted from job to job and city to city. Factory owners, trying to meet increased demand and improve their own incomes, worked factory employees for 13 or 14 hours a day, often under unsafe conditions. Unions, under state law, weren't legally allowed to organize until the 1840s, and the "easy" 10-hour day, long fought by employers, slowly started to be accepted.

The willingness of single men to do whatever it took to earn a living and support the nation without turning into a mob was a key reason the United States grew so much during this time. Peaceful, willing workers without families — an often-overlooked strength of any society — made up half the labor force.

Public education

Public schools were growing against a very real backlash among people who thought education was wrong, at least if they had to pay for it.

As late as 1860, the United States had only about 100 real high schools. Education got a boost from Noah Webster (1828), whose reading lessons and dictionary taught Americanism as well as letters. McGuffey's Readers (1850) presented patriotism along with language and were used all over the country for 100 years. Horace Mann (1850) established the model for free public education that eventually spread across the land.


Don't confuse Noah Webster (1758-1843), the teacher and dictionary-maker, with Daniel Webster (1782-1852), legendary congressman and leader of national compromise. Noah brought people together with a common approach to language; Daniel tried to keep the Union together with common laws. Noah got his name on almost every American dictionary; Daniel was no longer alive to see his compromise laws fall apart in the years before the Civil War.

As the country expanded, public education was a proud part of most new settlements. The little, red one-room schoolhouse got its start teaching farm kids the three Rs: reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. All the grades were in one room, and some kids could spare only a few months of learning in between helping out with the crops. The idea of assigning students by grade didn't really get going until after the Civil War.

Oberlin College (1837) in Ohio was the first college to admit women and blacks; Ohio's Antioch College (1852) had the first female faculty member. The fact that Oberlin College's second president was the famous Great Awakening preacher Charles Finney (1840) (a committed abolitionist, early champion of women's rights, and the most powerful revivalist in an age of renewed faith) and

Antioch's first president was Unitarian educator Horace Mann demonstrates the connection between religious revival and social action at that time. The great Northeastern universities were then still segregated: no women and no blacks.

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