(The UNITED STATES to 1914 – continued)

home | 1901-WW2 Index

The UNITED STATES to 1914 (4 of 11)

previous | next

Hardship and Disease

At the turn of the century, the average workweek was twelve hours a day and six days a week. Coal miners were suffering and dying in appallingly large numbers from both accidents and effects of the environment in which they worked. Poor and immigrant children often worked alongside their parents, kids as young as seven or eight working twelve hours per day – for low wages that poor families needed mainly for food.

By 1900 half the states had some sort of restrictions on child labor, such as a law that children work no more than ten hours per day. But only about ten states made a serious effort to enforce such laws. For factory owners, children were a cheap supply of labor, and employers preferred children for many jobs because their fingers were quick and nimble and because the children's small size enabled them to tend machines in cramped spaces. By 1900, 1.7 million kids under sixteen were employed in cotton mills in New England and in the South, and children were still working in West Virginia's coal mines. The view prevailed among some devout Christians that all this was good for the children because idle hands were the devil's tools. Some others claimed that children should be in school rather than working, and they were criticized for being unrealistic and utopian.

A lot of child labor was on farms, including tenant farming, where sharecroppers were turning as much as half of their crops over to the owners of the property they worked. The debts of tenant farmers often matched or exceeded the income from their share of the crops they grew. They were paying higher prices for the goods they were buying at country stores, usually on credit, and they were often cheated. Their houses were run down, some with a view of the stars through the roof or the land under the floor boards. It was widely believed that it was the responsibility of these people to raise themselves up through hard work. And a few did and became examples referred to in arguing its possibility.

At the turn of the century in the United States there was no income tax, and no social security, unemployment insurance or public housing for the aged or disabled. Families were obliged to take care of their aged and their handicapped, and grandmothers baby-sat the children of their sons and daughters.

Also at the turn of the century, many people in rural areas had to haul their water, and so too did some in the cities, where water was obtained from barrels filled by water-hauling tank wagons. Some tenement dwellers received their water from a tap in the hallway, or outside in the courtyard.

As for the comforts of central heating, only a few families among the middle and upper classes had this convenience. In the winter months most of the rest of the nation stayed together around their stove, and people used iron ingots, ceramic bricks and soapstones as bed warmers. Without electricity, many in rural areas in the West used cow manure, "grassoline," for fuel. And in rural areas, families were still being impacted by drought, soil erosion, plagues of grasshoppers, floods and boll weevils.

At the turn of the century, typhus was prevalent, and tuberculosis was rampant. Statistics claimed that the United States had 194 cases of tuberculosis for every 100,000 persons. The disease appeared mostly in areas that were crowded and lacking hygiene, such as tenement buildings that lacked indoor bathrooms and where refuse was allowed to pile up in streets and pollute drinking water.

Syphilis was also widespread at the turn of the century. Mental institutions were filled with patients whose illnesses were late-state syphilitic infections, syphilis in its late stage attacking the brain.

Infant deaths and the deaths of women giving birth were high compared to later in the century. Most births took place at home, but hospital deliveries were on the rise, where better equipment was available for emergencies. In hospitals, anesthetics were used in place of the more painful natural childbirth, while resistance remained among Christians who quoted scripture that "in pain thou shalt bear children."


Copyright © 2009-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.