Child workers were usually immigrants or from poor families that moved to America’s industrial cities in recent years. In 1870 the U.S. census first started recording child labor statistics and reported about 750,000 child workers not counting those who worked for their family on their farm or business. By 1911 the census reported there were over 2 million children under the age of 15 working long and hard hours for low pay.
Reformers and labor advocates called for an end to cruel child labor practices. They wanted a better lives for child workers who were trapped in lives of poverty and misery with no opportunities to improve their lives. One of the most influential reformers was a New York City photographer named Lewis Hines. Hines worked for the National Child Labor Committee photographing child laborers and writing reports on their working and living conditions that shocked the American public.
Hines often had to sneak his photographs and reports, tricking his way into factories and covertly interviewing children while scribbling notes with his hand hidden in his pocket. The results, as you can see below, are powerful depictions of the face of child labor. Congress responded to Hines’ work (and the public’s shocked response) by passing the Keating-Owens Act in 1916 that created minimum working ages and made conditions much more bearable for child laborers. By 1920 there were about half as many child workers as there had been a decade earlier. Continue reading “Messengers of a Cruel Society: Lewis Hines Photographs of Child Telegraph Messengers”
Long distance communication and transportation have historically been struggles in America. Long roads, bad roads, and many times no roads at all have slowed the movement of people, goods, and ideas all over. Fortunately, Americans turned this challenge into an opportunity with new inventions and industries that have improved our lives in many ways.
It’s easy today to take long distance calling, good highways, and next day delivery for granted, but these were all distant dreams in the 19th century. As new inventions were created and became available for use, they had dramatic impacts on the every day lives of ordinary Americans- sometimes in ways you might not expect.
Maybe it was just pure luck, but Pennsylvania happened to be at the heart of many 19th century technological advances that made transportation and communication possible over long distances. Conestoga wagons, invented by Pennsylvania Dutch settlers, made travel easier on the region’s rocky, rutted, and muddy roads (and also where there were no roads at all). No surprise that generations of settlers moving out west made Conestoga wagons the vehicle of choice to move their families and possessions westward across the continent. Pennsylvania’s Delaware and Hudson Railway was one of the first American railroad companies and was the first to operate a locomotive on rails in the United States in 1829. The Pennsylvania Railroad, chartered in 1846, became the largest railroad in America and helped move freight and good all over the country.
One story from Pennsylvania’s innovative past you may not have heard of comes to us from Lancaster County. In the late 1840s, both the curious and the suspicious were introduced to a rudimentary new technology: the telegraph. We all know that the telegraph was the basis for our modern electronic communication networks, but the first people to see a telegraph had mixed feelings about the new machine.
Just a year after Samuel Morse tested the first experimental telegraph in Washington D.C., the first commercial telegraph was completed between Harrisburg and Lancaster. According to an 1897 lecture by telegraph pioneer William Bender Wilson, the line raised the eyebrow of more than one Pennsylvania Dutch farmer when operators were finally able to get everything working properly:
“During the short life of the line it created quite a stir in the sister counties of Dauphin and Lancaster. The copper wire conductor, stretched tightly between poles, gave the wintry blasts the opportunity of producing somewhat musical, weird and fantastic sounds that could be heard for some distance, to the great discomfort of the rustics. The public mind having somewhat of a superstitious bend, many people in the neighborhood of the line, alarmed by the sounds proceeding from the wire as the wind swept over it, would walk a very considerable distance out of their way, often placing themselves at great inconvenience, particularly after sundown, to avoid passing under or near it. Many dismal stories were told of its supernatural powers, and one woman actually fenced in a pole to prevent her cow rubbing against it, fearing that the milk might be spoiled.”
Some Pennsylvanians like Wilson were quick to embrace the telegraph and set to work building more lines and integrating telegraph communication into government and business routines. The U.S. Army was an nearly adopter, and had a large telegraph corps ready for action by the time the Civil War began. But some locals didn’t quite understand the uses and limits of telegraph technology. As Wilson recorded, there were also people ready to take advantage of their misunderstanding to trick their neighbors:
“David Lechler, a well-kept and humorous man, was the proprietor of ‘The North American House,’ where the office in Lancaster was located, and made the telegraph the basis for playing many pranks upon the public. At this day few can credit the curiosity and credulity which characterized the people in connection with the telegraph, and how few had even an idea of the principles governing it. Lechler, discerning the trend of the mind of the people, turned it to advantage in fun-making, and undertook to unfold the mysteries to those who visited his house. It was his great delight on market mornings together a crowd of countrymen and women in the barroom, and then explain to them in Pennsylvania Dutch the wonders of the great invention. There was no story that he could invent or apply, or that credulity would accept in connection with the telegraph that he did not relate. As soon as his harangue had raised the curiosity of his hearers to the highest notch he would hurriedly enter the room where the telegraph office was located and immediately returning, would show a pair of hose, a handkerchief or a newspaper which he had previously punctured with holes, as specimens of the telegraph’s possibilities, at the same time gravely saying: ‘I received these in just forty seconds from Philadelphia.’ There were none to doubt Lechler’s word or to take into consideration that the line did not extend to Philadelphia, but all, with open-eyed wonder, tried to account for the articles passing over and around the cross-arms [of the telegraph poles] They were satisfied, however, with Lechler’s explanation, that the process was the inventor’s secret which he dared not divulge.”
The pranks and falsehoods that Lechler pulled over the people of Lancaster sound to me a little like the humbuggery that P.T. Barnum was famous for in New York City and all over the east coast in the mid 19th century. If you ever get a chance to read Barnum’s autobiography, you can find dozens of stories like this one, though Barnum was always deceiving other for profit or personal gain. I’m sure Barnum would have been impressed with Lechler’s telegraph prank, though he would have been disappointed that he didn’t make any money off of the trick. The telegraph was one of many new inventions of the 19th century that clever/deceitful operators were able to use to fool the general public- sometimes for a laugh and sometimes to make a buck (to learn more look up Ajeeb the checkers playing robot or the legions of patent medicine inventors of the day).
Despite misunderstandings and misrepresentations, it wasn’t long before telegraph lines criss crossed the United States. William Wilson began his career as a messenger boy for the Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company in 1852, and a few years later began working for the Pennsylvania Railroad as an expert telegrapher. During the Civil War he served in the United States Military Telegraph Corps and opened the world’s first military telegraph office in Harrisburg, PA. When Wilson died in 1919, telegraphs and telephone lines linked practically every town and village. And a few years after that, radio would come to prominence and connect everywhere that lines couldn’t go.
New technology, especially when its not widely understood, can be seem equally wondrous and dangerous. The first few years of the telegraph were no exception for many Pennsylvanians. Lots of people today are pretty anxious about new technology too- from drones to internet hacking and the government surveilling our every move. I wonder how historians will write about the impact of technology on early 21st century America?
Sometimes as a historian I’m caught between my desire to interpret/contextualize a historical source, and the importance of letting individuals from history have their own, unmediated voice. Some posts in my blog contain lots of extra explanation and analysis that can shape how you read the quotes and copied passages , and others I’ve simply copied and left the reading and understanding up to you readers. It’s always a struggle for me and I’m hoping that I can get at finding the right balance as I keep on writing.
Especially when I was in graduate school, the pressure was always on not just to find important historical sources, but to fit them in larger narratives and use them to build up some sort of argument or larger point. And though (I think) I’m pretty good at finding those great sources, there’s always been a nagging voice in my head that wonders what the original authors/speakers would think of how I’m using their words. Did I get it right? Am I using their material in ways that they had never considered? What would they think? These are just a few of the questions I ask myself as I write and especially as I got back and look at pieces I’ve written in the past.
Every situation is different. Some historical sources are made even more powerful or can lend themselves to discussions that the original authors might not have thought about but nonetheless might have engaged in given the opportunity.
Other sources don’t need as much assistance from the historian and are more effective when you let the original author’s voice speak as loudly as possible. I think this is especially the case when you’re dealing with authors from communities that have traditionally been silenced or misinterpreted by the dominant voices in out society.
These sources are more compelling on their own and as a historian I feel it’s just my job to give the proper introductions and step to the side. I’ll leave my readers with a few short thoughts on why I’m interested in the source and what I was thinking about as I read it.
In the past few weeks I’ve been debating on how best to write about a 1930s ex-slave narrative and have finally decided that this is another good candidate for a brief introduction only. This is a story by Tom Randall about life as a slave in Ellicott City, Maryland. Randall was interviewed towards the end of his life by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1937, part of a larger project to collect oral histories from former slaves before they passed away. Randall hadn’t moved very far from his boyhood home in Ellicott City- he was living Oella (just a mile away) at the time of the interview. I grew up in this area and was really happy to learn more about the experience of slavery in Civil War-era Maryland. Continue reading “Creating the Right Narrative: Tom Randall’s Slavery Story”
In 1913, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed an act establishing the Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, about 20 miles east of Williamsport, PA. The first woman was admitted in 1920 and Muncy’s population grew steadily in the following years. Many new buildings were built in the 1930s, some of which are still in use today. Originally, the institution was built to house first-time female offenders between the ages of 16 and 30, but the maximum age limit was removed when Muncy was transferred from the Department of Welfare to the Department of Justice (now Corrections) in 1953.
By 1955, 11 cottages were built on the grounds. According to one report,
“The cottages are homelike in atmosphere with pianos, radios, and record players in the living rooms where each evening, except Sunday, the girls may congregate, play the piano, listen to the radio, sing, play cards, crochet, embroider, and on Saturday nights dance until 8:00 o’clock…the beautiful campus and well-kept, mountain stone buildings compare most favorably with those of the best of our modern American colleges. It is hard to believe that such beauty and freedom could ever be associated with a penal institution.” At Muncy, “each girl is encouraged to use nail polish, rouge, and lipstick, and to arrange her hair attractively. Every individual girl is issued three print dresses which she wears to religious services and movies, as well as at all other appropriate times.”
Inmates were kept busy working on Muncy’s 828-acre farm and in the power sewing shop throughout the year. Inmates were paid two cents an hour for their work. In the 1950s, Muncy also offered vocational and business classes in the winter months to help women find employment after they were paroled. If an inmate was paroled, she was given ten dollars, a suitcase with several outfits, a “very stylish hair-do,” and a ride to the train or bus station.
Muncy still only holds female inmates, and is known today as SCI Muncy. The Pennsylvania State Archives a variety of documents, photographs, and other interesting stuff. To learn more about Muncy’s long history and the women who were detained there, see the Department of Correction’s history of Muncy, or this Muncy scrapbook that’s been digitized by Lycoming College Archives. Lots of interesting stories here!
Frank and Nell are finally finished with San Francisco, and are now headed north to Alaska via Portland, Oregon. Never one to leave out a stray detail, Frank describes every bit of this 600 mile train ride (I think they were riding on the Southern Pacific Railroad). My favorite parts of this are a short stop at Shasta Springs and a ride on a huge ferry boat called the “Solano” (the largest ferry ever built- it could carry an entire train on it). Frank and Nell try in vain to get some reading done on the train but the scenery is just too interesting to ignore. But who can blame them for enjoying the view?
We leave on June 2nd in the morning, and board the ferry boat which is the largest and finest I have ever seen (its capacity being 4000 people,) the whole upper deck being entirely enclosed in glass protects the passenger from the wind while offering every advantage to see around. It takes 30 minutes to cross the bay, and, arriving at Oakland (which is principally a residential city for San Francisco business men), we take the train for Portland Oregon, and nothing of interest occurs until we reach Porta Costa where our whole train (broken up into sections) is run on the ferry boat “Solano” and carried across an arm of the bay. Here one can get a good breakfast on the boat and have time to reach his seat on the cars before the train pushes off on dry land again. The Solano is 425 feet long, over a hundred feet wide, and will carry as many as 48 freight cars.
Good news! I got an article published by the New York History Blog. If you’re ever in search of interesting stories from the Empire state’s history, or news from historical organizations in the state then look no further.
My article tells the story of an 1888 presidential campaign rally for Benjamin Harrison that went horribly wrong. When local Republicans thought it would be a good idea to accompany their parade and liberty pole raising with a live cannon demonstration. The only problem was that their cannon was way too old to be used and ended exploding and killing three bystanders, including a distant relative of mine named Albert Sergeant.
In 1894, a young reporter named Ray Stannard Baker was sent on the road to cover an exciting news story. The Panic of 1893 was wreaking havoc on the American economy and unemployment was crippling millions of families all across the country. Desperate Americans were looking to more desperate and radical solutions to the country’s woes. Baker’s editor had gotten a tip that an Ohio businessman named Jacob Coxey planned to raise an army of the unemployed and march on Washington D.C. On the Capitol steps, Coxey planned to propose new legislation to the federal government to “cure the ills of the nation” and put the unemployed to work building roads. It was a call for federal unemployment aid decades before the New Deal or the Great Society. It was a grand march into the heart of D.C. a generation before the 1932 Bonus March and or the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Baker took an overnight train from Chicago to Massillon, Ohio. With a hundred dollars expense money in his pocket, he made his way to Coxey’s farm where a few dozen unemployed men and their families were gathering for the march.
Sitting in the dining room reading from a pile of letters and telegrams, Baker found an impressive looking man who looked “too good to be true:”
“He was strongly built with a heavy mustache, and a beard with two spirals. He wore a leather coat fringed around the shoulders and sleeves. A row of buttons down the front were shining silver dollars. Calvary boots, tight-fitting, well polished, came to his knees…He handed me a card with his written signature, at the end of which was a grand flourish and the words, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’” (7)
But to Baker’s surprise, the embellished card did not have Jacob Coxey’s name on it. This colorfully dressed and gregarious man was actually Carl Browne, Coxey’s friend and chief lieutenant. Realizing that this was a case of mistaken identity, the journalist then noticed a small, mild-mannered gentleman who was sitting next to Browne. Coxey was “mild-looking and of medium size, with rounding shoulders, an oily face, a straw-colored mustache, and gold-bowed spectacles. “He did not impress me as a great leader of a revolutionary movement,” (7) Baker wrote dissapointedly.
Coxey was indeed the leader of this growing army. He was a forward thinking supporter of labor rights and earnestly wanted to help the unemployed find relief. The Panic of 1893 had ravaged the US, putting ten percent of Americans out of work. There were few government or charitable support systems in place for workers back then, and going even a day without work meant that you and your family went hungry.
Coxey felt that the best way to help was with support from the federal government. His proposed legislation would have the government spend $500 million on a publics roads construction. Carl Browne shared Coxey’s concern for affected Americans and was instrumental in bringing Coxey’s plan to life. A consummate showman, he convinced Coxey to go on an epic march to Washington D.C. where he could personally present his ideas to Congress. With an army of job seeking men that Browne promised would number in the thousands, Coxey was sure to get the attention of law makers.
Coxey and his army’s march on D.C. are pretty well known, but I think his charismatic second-in-command deserves more attention. Carl Browne was a complicated man who had a huge impact on the march and can teach us a lot about politics and culture in the late 1800s. Though most reporters at the time focused on Coxey and his activities, Roy Baker became enamored with Browne, who “reminded me immediately of some of the soap-box orators and vendors of Kickapoo Indian remedies I had seen on the lake front in Chicago.” (7) Baker embedded himself in Coxey’s Army got to know Browne intimately during the long journey. Fifty years later in his autobiography, Baker remembered Browne vividly and wrote about him in detail. Continue reading “Mighty Carl Browne: Hero of Coxey’s Army”