Early nineteenth-century workers followed traditional workshop practices with a limited pace and intensity to their labor. Breaks for drink and food punctuated the workday in these recollections of a ship’s captain of a New York City shipyard from 1835 (published in George McNeill’s late nineteenth-century history of the labor movement). However, employers challenged these customs with the goal of obtaining greater efficiency and profit. Mechanics and artisans responded collectively by organized strikes or “turnouts.” Despite the obstacles of planning these early collective actions, the ship carpenters ’strike for a ten-hour day proved successful in the mid-1830s. Even as new manufacturing complexes rose in Lowell and other factory towns, work patterns remained irregular in many trades; some craftsmen faced a growing division of labor and accompanying loss of independence. Irregular hours and unemployment always loomed, while cold winters would thrust many of those working outdoors out of work for the harshest season.
Everywhere, from the Government ship-yards down to the ten-ton sloop set up in the woods miles from any place, the rule holds good. Hurrah ! hurry and hiring men to-day; to-morrow, or day after, or next week, the place is as quiet as a grave-yard; the crisis is passed, hurry is over; the craft launched and gone, and so all the craftsmen — scattered in as many directions, perhaps, as there are men, in search of some other three-weeks 'job.
In some four or five of our larger cities ship-work is something more continuous and reliable; but even they are by no means exempt from depressions and sudden fluctuations; and whenever the “slack time” comes if the ship-carpenter, caulker, joiner, etc., is not absolutely discharged, his wages are reduced until he finds himself wondering “what he will do with it,” his remuneration, at the highest figure, being no greater than that of some half a dozen other classes of mechanics, whose employment is constant and always under shelter, so that whatever time they may lose is voluntary.
As the order of labor in those days was to fall to in the morning at the first glance the bosses could catch at a sunbeam gilding the tallest spire in sight,
— there being no steeple in sight from the “Hook,” bosses used to catch their matin sunbeams from the vane of the 170 foot Liberty-pole over in Grand street, below Lewis,—the stretch during the summer solstice, from “commencement” to twelve o’clock, was rather a long and tedious one. It would have been far more tedious but for an indulgence that custom had made as much of a necessity in a New York ship-yard as a grind-stone.
In our yard, at half-past eight A. M., Aunt Arlie McVane, a clever, kind-hearted, but awfully uncouth, rough sample of the “Ould Sod,” would make her welcome appearance in the yard with her two great baskets, stowed and checked off with crullers, doughnuts, ginger-bread, turnovers, pies, and a variety of sweet cookies and cakes; and from the time Aunt Arlie’s baskets came in sight until every man and boy, bosses and all, in the yard, had been supplied, always at one cent apiece for any article in the cargo, the pie, cake and cookie trade was a brisk one. Aunt Arlie would usually make the round of the yard and supply all hands in about an hour, bringing the forenoon up to half-past nine, and giving us from ten to fifteen minutes 'breathing spell during lunch; no one ever hurried during “cake-time.”
After this was over we would fall to again, until interrupted by Johnnie Gogean, the English candy-man, who came in always about half-past ten, with his great board, the size of a medium extension dining-table, slung before him, covered with all sorts of “stick,” and several of sticky, candy, in one-cent lots. Bosses, boys and men—all hands, everybody—invested one to three cents in Johnnie’s sweet wares, and another ten or fifteen minutes is spent in consuming it. Johnnie usually sailed out with a bare board about eleven o’clock, at which time there was a general sailing out of the yard and into convenient grog-shops after whiskey; only we had four or five men among us, and one apprentice—not quite a year my senior—who used to sail out pretty regularly ten times a day on an average; two that went for whiskey only when some one invited them to drink, being too mean to treat themselves; and two more who never went at all.
In the afternoon, about half-past three, we had a cake-lunch, supplied by Uncle JackGrider, an old, crippled, superannuated ship-carpenter. No one else was ever allowed to come in competition with our caterers. Let a foreign candy-board or cake-basket make their appearance inside of the gates of our yard, and they would get chipped out of that directly.
At about five o’clock P. M., always, Johnnie used to put in his second appearance ; and then, having expended money in another stick or two of candy, and ten minutes or so in its consumption, we were ready to drive away again till sun-down; then off home to supper....
Thirty years ago the mechanics of the country had no other resource, no available means of coping with and conquering capital, whenever it began to inflict upon us its more objectionable features of serfdom, than by prompt and absolute defiance in refusals to labor until demands that we believed to be just were complied with. In those days there was little of tact, diplomacy, or spirit of concession manifested in any of our strikes. They were crude in conception, stubbornly contested, and resulted always in something of humiliation to the conquered party,—a sentiment never conducive to cordiality in the future. Besides, our early strikes almost always resulted in pecuniary loss to ourselves, whether we conquered or not.
Nevertheless, firmly imbued with the belief that our strikes being justifiable, would result in something better eventually, in some form that was all vague and indefinite to us then, we persisted in our strikes, improving their features always as lime went on, doing the best we could, under the circumstances, to protect ourselves and prepare the way for future mechanical organizations more perfect in their moral and social economy.
Mechanical mankind had labored from sunrise to sunset, with only the hour of intermission at dinner-time, so long that, at the beginning of my apprenticeship, New York mechanics of all classes had no idea of a briefer term of labor; and one night, when some premature philosopher and philanthropist (I have forgotten who he was), preached ten hours to eight or nine hundred of us in the old Broadway Tabernacle, telling us earnestly that the time for a reduction of the hours of labor was close at hand, we laughed at his absurd theories, ourselves convinced that the advent of a ten-hour system of labor was ten times more remote than that of the millennium. This was, notwithstanding an honest, earnest and most eloquent appeal to our sympathies from Mr. James Harpier, then, as he has ever been since, the firm, fast, and consistent friend of mechanics. When the hats were passed around to take up a collection for the benefit of the first champion of the reduction of the hours of labor, so little did we understand our rights and necessities, and so ungrateful were we for the stout battle done in our behalf, that in every hat that went up to the speaker’s stand there were infinitely more of Mrs. Miller’s “fine cut,” "old sojers,“eyeless brass buttons, and ”bungtown" coppers than silver quarters, shillings and sixpences.
I remember distinctly the inimitably droll, sarcastic manner in which we were reproved; it made many of us hang our heads in shame, and sneak off out of the Tabernacle as though we had been detected thieves....
I think the strike continued ten days, during the whole of which time our bosses came and went about their business, just as if there was no difficulty anywhere; and when, at length, our rebels returned, saying that the bosses up the “island” had agreed to the ten-hour regulation and all hands were going to work again, the bosses said, “Very well, you can come on whenever you like.”Thus was the ten-hour rule of labor inaugurated among New York ship-mechanics, and again all went on quietly as before....
The educational advance made by the mechanical and laboring classes in the United States since the inauguration of the ten-hour rule of labor has been more than equal to every step taken in that direction since the days of John the Baptist, and, for all that any of us know to the contrary, a thousand years previous to that era. Add the other two hours to the liberty term, and we shall increase the ratio of progress threefold, with the certainty of knowing that, with the generation next following, we or our country shall have, as a rule, mechanics and all classes of laboring men and women educated to a standard of physical, mental, moral and social excellence that will be its own security against idleness, vice, degradation and misery....
The mechanics of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore have made, I think, about five times the progress towards moral and social respectability within the last twenty-five years that the Bostonians have, simply because twenty-five years ago Bostonians had five times fewer steps to climb up the moral and social ladder than the mechanics of her three sister cities above named. While a mechanical apprentice or journeyman mechanic of Boston was just, and as justly proud of being a respectable member of society, and a gentleman in general deportment twenty-five or thirty years ago as they are to-day, with us in New York, boy or man, we were rather proud to be known as one of the infamous “Chichester Gang,” "Sons of Harmony,“ or a ”Butt-Ender.“ Philadelphia mechanics of that day—boys and men, or those who ought to have been men—knew no more coveted distinction than that of a ”killer“ or a ”Moyamensing Ranger.“While Baltimoreans were prouder of the titles of ”plug uglies,“ "blood-tubs” and “roughs” under half a dozen other distinctive names than they were of being good citizens or skilful mechanics....
The constantly accumulating power of multiplied trades-unions throughout the length and breadth of the land, and the great eight-hour Magna Charta of emancipation for the American people from excessive labor are now becoming everywhere popular. Our march is shoulder to shoulder, in solid phalanx towards a common goal, that thirty years ago was beyond the orbit of Mars to the operative mechanics and workingmen of this country.
Source: George E. McNeill, The Labor Movement: The Problem of To-day (Boston, A.M. Bridgman & Co, 1887), 341–45