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Two Factory Workers, c. 1912

Two workers:  unguarded machinery, dirty condition
New York State Archives, NYSA_A3029-78_B1_F4
Document Description
Two factory workers pose among industrial equipment with no safety guards and in unsanitary conditions, c. 1912.
How do you think these men like working there?
Would you like working there?
What do you notice about how these men are dressed?  Why doesn't one of the men have shoes on?
How do you think it smelled in there?
What potential problems could arise from conditions like these?
What would happen if this situation occurred today?
Historical Challenges
What was the first company to use an assembly line in production?
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: Mary’s quota is to make 180 gadgets a day at a brake factory. It takes her 4 minutes to create one gadget. How many hours does she have to work to fill her quota? It takes Bill only 3.5 minutes to create one gadget. How much longer will Mary have to work than Bill to reach her quota?
Science: What diseases could you get from working in a coal mine? A chemical plant? A food processing plant?
English Language Arts: Write a mock report from the Factory Investigating Commission. What did you see, and where?
Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Growing up in Coal Country. Houghton Mifflin Company, September 1999. ISBN: 0395979145
Macaulay, David. Mill. Houghton Mifflin Company, September 1989. ISBN: 0395520193
Aiken, Joan. Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Random House Children's Books, February 1981. ISBN: 0440496039

Historical Context
The United States underwent an Industrial Revolution in the 1880s, approximately 100 years after the start of the British Industrial Revolution. Three general developments helped spur the birth of the large-scale American factory. First, the United States had dedicated itself in the previous fifty years to the development of a vast network of transportation and communication possibilities. The nation had railroads, steamships, telegraphs, and canals, which created larger economic opportunities. Second, the use of electricity allowed for a more flexible, longer workday because the factories were not dependent on sunlight or candles. Third, scientists and engineers of this era began to apply their expertise to the manufacturing of goods. The result of these trends was innovations in the production of machines, metal, chemicals, and food. Thus the age of the large American factory was born.

Factory life was harsh and treacherous. Factory owners largely ignored safety regulations and working conditions in their factories.  With no legislative body overseeing the many industries, workers toiled in inhumane and deadly conditions. In Monongahela, West Virginia, in 1908, a major accident caused by the lack of safety inspections and regulations killed 354 coal miners in a single day.

Conditions were appalling here in New York as well. In New York City in 1911, a major fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory killed 146 people, mainly women. This tragedy occurred when a fire broke out in the factory, which occupied the top three floors of a ten-story building. Although the workers panicked, the people on the eighth and tenth floors were able to escape. But workers on the ninth floor were trapped by illegally blocked exits. A few days later, a massive funeral parade was held throughout the city.  Within a week of this tragedy, a fire broke out in the Albany Capitol Building, destroying many important state documents and artifacts.

These two events had a major impact on fire and safety regulations. New York State formed a Factory Investigating Commission to inspect factories in all the major cities of New York. The committee was charged with finding fire hazards, unsanitary conditions, and occupational diseases, and with inspecting tenements. This committee inspected 3,385 locations in 1911 and 1912, including meat packaging plants, bakeries, clothing manufacturers, chemical plants, and lead trade manufacturing plants.

Essential Question
How does industrialization change a society?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and evaluate the affect of industrialization on these individuals and their working environment.