Monday, August 26, 2013

Labor Day-The Celebraton of Workers and Their Achievements

Labor Day, an annual celebration of workers and their achievements, originated during American labor's worst times.  In the late 1800s at the height of the Industrial Revolution and a series of depressions that had affected the American economy throughout the 19th Century, the average American worked 12 hour days and seven days a week to barely eke out a basic living.  Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 and 6 worked in mills, factories and mines across the country earning a fraction of their adult counterparts wages.  People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.

In order to understand how Americans reached this point you need to see what the economy was experiencing at the time.  This is a brief history of the economy of the 1800s.

Panic of 1819

  • The first major American depression, the Panic of 1819 was rooted to some extent in economic problems reaching back to the war of 1812.
  • It was triggered by a collapse in cotton prices. A contraction in credit coincided with the problems in the cotton market, and the young American economy was severely affected.
  • Banks were forced to call in loans, and foreclosures of farms and bank failures resulted.
  • The Panic of 1819 lasted until 1821.
  • The effects were felt most in the west and south. Bitterness about the economic hardships resonated for years and led to the resentment that helped Andrew Jackson solidify his political base throughout the 1820s.
  • Besides exacerbating sectional animosity, the Panic of 1819 also made many Americans realize the importance of politics and government policy in their lives. 

    Panic of 1837

  • The Panic of 1837 was triggered by a combination of factors including the failure of a wheat crop, a collapse in cotton prices, economic problems in Britain, rapid speculation in land, and problems resulting from the variety of currency in circulation.
  • It was the second-longest American depression, with effects lasting roughly six years, until 1843.
  • The panic had a devastating impact. A number of brokerage firms in New York failed, and at least one New York City bank president committed suicide. As the effect rippled across the nation, a number of state-chartered banks also failed. The nascent labor union movement was effectively stopped, as the price of labor plummeted.
  • The depression caused the collapse of real estate prices. The price of food also collapsed, which was ruinous to farmers and planters who couldn’t get a decent price for their crops. People who lived through the depression following 1837 told stories that would be echoed a century later during The Great Depression.
  • The aftermath of the panic of 1837 led to Martin Van Burens’s failure to secure a second term in the election of 1840. Many blamed the economic hardships on the policies of Andrew Jackson.  Van Buren, who had been Jackson’s vice president, paid the political price.

    Panic of 1857

  • The Panic of 1857 was triggered by the failure of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company, which actually did much of its business as a bank headquartered in New York City. Reckless speculation in railroads led the company into trouble, and the company’s collapse led to a literal panic in the financial district, as crowds of frantic investors clogged the streets around Wall Street.
  • Stock prices plummeted, and more than 900 mercantile firms in New York had to cease operation. By the end of the year the American economy was a shambles.
  • One victim of the Panic of 1857 was a future Civil War hero and US president, Ulysses S. Grant, who was bankrupted and had to pawn his gold watch to buy Christmas presents.
  • Recovery from the depression began in early 1859.

Panic of 1873

  • The investment firm of Jay Cooke and Company went bankrupt in September 1873 as a result of rampant speculation in railroads. The stock market dropped sharply and caused numerous businesses to fail.
  • The depression caused approximately three million Americans to lose their jobs.
  • The collapse in food prices impacted America's farm economy, causing great poverty in rural America.
  • The depression lasted for five years, until 1878.
  • The Panic of 1873 led to a populist movement that saw the creation of the Greenback Party.

Panic of 1893

  • The depression set off by the Panic of 1893 was the greatest depression America had known, and was only surpassed by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
  • In early May 1893 the New York stock market dropped sharply, and in late June panic selling caused the stock market to crash.
  • A severe credit crisis resulted, and more than 16,000 businesses had failed by the end of 1893. Included in the failed businesses were 156 railroads and nearly 500 banks.
  • Unemployment spread until one in six American men lost their jobs.
  • The depression inspired "Coxey's Army," a march on Washington of unemployed men. The protesters demanded that the government provide public works jobs. Their leader, Jacob Coxey, was imprisoned for 20 days.
  • The depression caused by the Panic of 1893 lasted for about four years, ending in 1897. 

On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. History.  The idea of a "workingmen's holiday," celebrated on the first Monday in September, caught on in other industrial centers across the country, and many states passed legislation recognizing it.  It was not until 1894 that Labor Day became a federal holiday.