Visualizing Labor Strife in the Gilded Age

Friday, January 8, 2010: 2:50 PM
Manchester Ballroom H (Hyatt)
Edward T. O'Donnell , College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA
Visualizing Labor Strife in the Gilded Age

One of the great challenges associated with teaching the industrial revolution is finding effective ways to bring students to see strikes and other forms of labor-capital unrest as conflicts over ideas and values, rather than simply disputes over wages and hours.   This presentation demonstrates how visuals, in combination with related primary sources, can reveal central elements of this ideological debate. The opportunities for teaching students about the deeper conflict within the industrial revolution through images are enhanced with the addition of several primary source documents. 

Free Labor

Free labor ideals such as equal opportunity, upward mobility, and independence shaped the way many Americans—not jut wealthy industrialists—responded to growing labor unrest in the Gilded Age.  Political cartoons and editorials from labor newspapers from the era capture these ideals effectively for students.

Labor Republicanism

That workers in the Gilded Age were concerned about more than higher wages and shorter hours is made clear in their decision to establish the Labor Day holiday in September 1883.  Political cartoons and official reports on working conditions from the era capture these ideals effectively for students.

The Clash of Visions

Competing notions of the definition of economic liberty, republican citizenship, and the proper role of the state emerge vividly in the New York City streetcar strike of April 1886.   Images and editorials reveal the anti-labor bias of the press, while at the same time unintentionally illustrating that key elements of the worker’s grievances and collective response.