Special Report

What It Was Like to Work in America's First Factories

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1. Working conditions were better than in England

Though factory work in earlier times could be repetitive, dangerous, and bad for employees’ health, conditions were likely to be better in American factories than in their English counterparts. Working conditions in the U.K. were notoriously bad, and at least some businessmen in the United States tried to create an environment that was safer and fairer.

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2. Factory work was still dangerous

Few accurate accountings of work-related injuries and deaths are available from the 18th and 19th centuries (factory bosses had no incentive to record them), but it was estimated in 1913 that almost 25,000 Americans died on the job in factories and another 700,000 suffered injuries that kept them off work for at least a month.

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3. Factory fires could be deadly

One of the earliest recorded factory fires in America was in 1878. An explosion at the Washburn A Mill in Minneapolis, then the world’s largest flour mill, killed 14 workers. Another four died as the fire spread to nearby factories. Garment industry fires became particularly common. The most tragic and infamous of those was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1911, in which 145 workers — mostly immigrant teenage girls — perished.

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4. Air quality was often poor

In winter, when the natural light died early, factories were frequently illuminated with smoky whale-oil lamps, and machinery ran on steam produced by wood or coal fires. In textile factories, where dry air could cause threads to break more easily, windows were sealed shut and the environment was kept very humid, further degrading air quality.

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5. Factory employees were used to working on farms

Until the early 19th century, most American workers were farmers, used to working on their own schedules and profiting directly from their labors if they had a good harvest. If they left the land to work in factories, even though the hours might be shorter, they found themselves having to work under supervision at a constant pace, and they earned only what their bosses agreed to pay them.