The one great value in studying history is gaining a realistic perspective on today’s world.
Brad DeLong, Professor of Economics at Berkeley, is doing a series of essays in his blog on the economic history of the Twentieth Century titled “Slouching Toward Utopia.” The whole thing is worth reading [start here], but the second “chapter” is of particular interest for Pennsylvanians. There he looks at the life of Homestead steel-workers only a century ago.
Few households in Homestead in 1900 had running water or a hot water heater. Water came in buckets from a faucet in the street into the house, and then heat it on the stove. In the–relatively prosperous for its time–factory steel town of Homestead, Pennsylvania at the start of the twentieth century, only one in six working class households had indoor bathrooms in 1910. Half of “Slav” and “Negro” families lived in one or two room houses. Most white families lived in four room houses. And most households in Homestead in their one or two or four-room houses had boarders: male, unrelated, single workers sleeping and eating in the house….
And even if you did have a four room house, could you afford to heat more than one room of it? Many Homestead four-room houses became two-room houses–the kitchen and the bedroom–in the depths of the western Pennsylvania winter.
The diets of workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania at the turn of the century were composed primarily of meat of widely variable quality, bread, butter, potatoes, oatmeal, and tea and milk–with luxuries such as sweets added in more or less regularly. We would find the diet somewhat monotonous (however, a lot of time and effort went into finding different ways to make potatoes). Almost always the first luxury that a working-class family moving up would purchase would be the services of a laundress: since laundry was expensive and difficult, few working-class families could maintain upper-middle-class standards of cleanliness. How often would you take baths if the water had to brought in from an outside pump, and then heated on the stove? How often would you wash your clothes if everything had to be washed out in the sink, if the fabrics were three times as heavy and the detergents one-third as powerful as the ones available today, and if as a result the laundry was a full day’s chore? Hand laundry was not a two hour a week task. Those who could afford the resources to maintain bourgeois styles of cleanliness flaunted it. White shirts, white dresses, white gloves are all powerful indications of wealth in turn of the century America. They said “I don’t have to do my own laundry and ,” and they said it loudly.
As a rule married women did not work outside the home–unless they were African-American, in which case they might well do their own family’s housework and be paid for doing a share of some white family’s housework as well. Meal preparation was not a one-hour-a-day but a four-hour-a-day task. Barring a shift toward larger-scale communal or cooperative living–a shift which simply did not happen even though anticipated, hoped for, and worked for by many feminists–within-the-household production and maintenance soaked up one-third the potential adult work hours. It made it next to impossible for married women (unless they were quite rich, or quite poor) to have independent careers and still fulfill the social expectations of household maintenance.
Infant mortality at the turn of the century was high. One in five babies in Homestead, Pennsylvania died before reaching his or her first birthday. Adult men died, too, like flies (and adult women faced substantial risks in childbirth). Accident rates in the factory were such as to leave 260 injured per year–30 dead–out of a total population of 25,000 and a steel mill working population of 5,000. Each year, five percent were injured enough to miss work for some time (although only one percent per year were permanently disabled), and 1/2 percent per year were killed in factory accidents.
You can do the math. Start to work for U.S. Steel when you are 20. There is one chance in seven that the factory will kill you before you reach 50, and almost one chance in three that the factory will disable you…. Of course, in 1910 Homestead… the most arduous and difficult jobs were done by minorities and immigrants….
Most of the Homestead workforce only worked six days a week: for four out of five workers, the mill was shut on Sundays. U.S. Steel viewed this–shutting most of the mill on Sundays–as a major concession on their part, a concession that they hoped would produce large public relations benefits. From U.S. Steel’s perspective, each hour that a modern plant like Homestead stood idle was tremendously expensive….
As long as it could find workers willing to work the night shift, the Homestead mill (depressions and recessions apart) stayed open 24 hours a day on weekdays. And when things did change, they changed all at once-from two 12-hour shifts before and during World War I, to two 8-hour shifts (or three 8-hour shifts) during the 1920s, and during and after World War II. Yet Homestead jobs–at least Homestead jobs taken by native-born Americans–were good jobs by the standards of the United States….
And Homestead, Pennsylvania jobs paid well both by the standards of the United States and much more so by the standards of the world economy of the time. White households could make around $900 (of 1910 value) a year, placing them well the upper third of the U.S. population in terms of income per household in 1910. Relative to what could be earned by people of similar skill levels anywhere else in the world, a job in the Homestead mill was a very attractive job. Even the unequal America at the turn of the century was a very attractive place compared to the rest of the world. America was exceptional. In spite of the hours, in spite of the risk of death or injury, in spite of the working conditions, these were very good jobs by international standards: jobs worth moving 7,000 miles for, from Hungary or Lithuania to suburban Pittsburgh.
My how far we have come! This is the world my grandparents lived in as adults. When I hear today people complaining about the state of the economy, I can only shake my head and wonder. Even the poorest Americans today enjoy luxuries our grandparents could only dream of.