Special Report

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

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6. There were no assembly lines until the 20th century

Though they may have worked together in a factory setting, workers at first tended to be skilled craftspeople, who would see the product they were making from start to finish. In contrast, in assembly-line factories, workers performed just one or two functions without necessarily ever seeing the finished product.

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7. Work was repetitious

On the farm, though labor could be grueling, tasks changed with the seasons and even with the time of day. Making the transition to factory work must have been difficult for one-time farmers, because even before automated assembly lines they typically had only a small number of tasks to perform, over and over and over.

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8. There was no workers’ compensation

Though the concept of workers’ compensation — payment by employers for work-related injuries — can be traced back 4,000 years to ancient Sumeria, and was codified in modern times by the Prussian chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in 1884, it took a long time to come to America. Wisconsin passed the first comprehensive workers’ comp law in 1911, with other states following — though it took Mississippi till 1948.

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9. There was no minimum wage

Because there were more job-seekers than jobs in the 19th century, factories got away with paying very little — about 10 cents an hour for many unskilled workers (less for women and children). It wasn’t until the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 that workers were guaranteed a minimum wage (low though that may be) and became eligible for overtime pay if they worked more than 40 hours a week.

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10. Hours were long

It is estimated that agricultural workers engaged in hard labor for eight to 10 hours a day — or from “first light to dark” — for at least part of the year. Factory shifts, in contrast, typically ran for 12 to 14 hours a day, with only a half-hour lunch break. And while workers labored only six days a week, with Sunday observed as a day of rest, the work continued all year long and wasn’t curtailed by bad weather.