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Immigration During The Period Of Gilded Age

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If one were to say that the United States was completely integrative and accepting towards immigrants during the Gilded Age, that person would be wrong. And, that person would also be wrong in saying that there wasn’t a huge schism between blue-collar and white-collar works during the same time period, even if they were American; because there was. Hardships faced during the Gilded Age by industrial workers were numerous, regardless of country of origin, although foreigners generally had it even worse off. Working conditions were horrendous, with no safety standards, breaks, time off, and incredibly long work days. Industrial workers were underpaid, overworked, and disrespected for not being skilled workers. Although, the opportunities for skilled workers decreased markedly during this time period due to assembly-line production and enhanced technology. Increasing competition for unskilled industrial work led to strife between ‘Americans’ (this is in quotations because the Americans referred to here are simply an early wave of immigrants, not actual Americans) and immigrants; as the immigrants were willing to work for less money. This strife continued the American legacy of racism and discrimination.

The Gilded Age is a time full of schisms, and one such schism is that between the blue collar and white collar workers. Blue collar refers to both skilled and unskilled workers in an industrial setting. They were paid (well, underpaid) hourly, or by unit produced. White collar workers, or “brain-workers” didn’t make things, rather worked as accountants, marketers, lawyers, etc. and were paid generous salaries. Within the blue collar workers there existed a division between skilled and unskilled workers. Skilled workers were rapidly declining due to the mechanization of labor and the introduction of assembly line manufacturing. “Although skilled workers did not disappear entirely, they were significantly reduced in number and removed from the production process. Most shop floors needed only a few skilled workers to fix machinery or make tools for machines operated by unskilled workers.” Conversely, positions for unskilled workers were increasing due to the growth of industrial industry. Just because unskilled positions were increasing, however, does not mean that competition for these positions decreased. These divisions and mechanical conversions began and led to the ultimate downfall of handmade goods in the U.S.

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OSHA is a government organization that was formed in 1970, so unfortunately for the laborers of The Gilded Age, it did not exist. Working conditions were abysmal, and work was often at least 12 hours a day, 6 times a week; 72 hour weeks of mind-numbing labor. Factories were often freezing or sweltering, depending on the time of year, and workers rarely got breaks from the monotony. Machinery that replaced human work was often unsafe, and led to a plethora of uninsured injury. The lack of insurance in the workplace meant that a single injury to a family’s breadwinner was complete economic disaster. In addition, child labor flourished during The Gilded Age.

“Physical ailments were common. Glassworks employees were exposed to intense heat and heavy fumes. Young miners sat on boards in cramped positions, breathing heavy dust, sifting through coal. Seafood workers stood for hours shucking oysters at five cents a pail. The sharp oyster shells sometimes cut their hands. Industrialization did not create child labor, but it did contribute to the need for child labor reform. The replacement of skilled artisans by machinery and the growth of factories and mills made child labor increasingly profitable for businesses. Many employers preferred hiring children because they were quick, easy to train, and were willing to work for lower wages.”

During the Industrial Era, horrible treatment of people in factories was unanimous across the board, regardless of age. A factory that did, however, influence the treatment of workers was race; as in much of American history. The work during this time was underpaid, and especially risky. This unfair treatment set the stage for the Progressive Era and the rise of muckrakers.

Despite harsh realities, foreigners viewed Industrial America as the land of opportunity, and as a result of such, immigrants flocked to America seeking a better life.

“A large pool of cheap, mobile labor made the new industrial order possible. Tens of millions of men, women, and children left the countryside to work in industrializing nations on both sides of the Atlantic. Migration reached unprecedented levels in the late 19th century. As railroads and steamships provided cheap transportation, European migrants-facing overpopulation, a scarcity of land, political unrest, and stiff competition from mechanized American agriculture-extended traditional seasonal sojourns to European industrial jobs by crossing the ocean to work for higher wages in American industry.”

As one can infer from the above quotation, immigrants came to America seeking better industrial opportunity. Unfortunately, immigrants were most often faced with the harsh realities of industrial cities of the time, such as poverty, racism, and disease. European immigrants wanted the same factory jobs that ‘Americans’ did, which led to more competitive wages, higher unemployment, and rampant nativism.

“Not all Americans welcomed the new immigrants with open arms. While factory owners greeted the rush of cheap labor with zeal, laborers often treated their new competition with hostility. Many religious leaders were awestruck at the increase of non-Protestant believers. Racial Purists feared the genetic outcome of the eventual pooling of these new bloods…. Criminals, contract workers, the mentally ill, anarchists, and alcoholics were among groups to be gradually barred from entry by Congress. In 1917, Congress required the passing of a literacy test to gain admission. Finally, in 1924, the door was shut to millions by placing an absolute cap on new immigrants based on ethnicity. That cap was based on the United States population of 1890 and was therefore designed to favor the previous immigrant groups.”

The influx of immigrants during the 19th century led to increasing legislation limiting immigration into the United States. “Americans began to associate many of the societal ills related to urbanization—such as overcrowding, the spread of disease, and lack of jobs—with incoming immigrants. In 1882, the federal government attempted to address those concerns by reforming immigration policy with the Immigration Act of 1882.”

Mark Twain is the man who coined the term “Gilded Age.” It means that while the era seems golden on the outside, it is really just a silver lining that hides a very dark cloud. This is especially true in regards to factory labor during the time. Despite the creation of a middle class, most unskilled workers lived in poverty, and suffered through horrible working conditions, alongside children, for minimal wages. Immigration increased exponentially during this time period, as many Europeans sought to create a better life by chasing the effervescing “American Dream.” In the end, the Gilded Age paved the way for Progressivism and reform, muckraking and economic gain; making actual improvements on the American quality of life.

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