Chicago Workers during the Long Gilded Age

What were working conditions like in Chicago during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? What efforts did workers make to change these conditions?

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 08.29.2017, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.


The United States experienced extraordinary social and economic change between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of World War I. In 1870, only one-quarter of Americans lived in cities. By 1920, over one-half did. The city of Chicago grew from a population of 298,977 in 1870 to over 2.7 million in 1920. This process of urbanization was inseparable from two other areas of enormous change: industrialization and immigration. Technological advances, particularly in the making of steel, allowed the construction of large factories for mass production. Large-scale, well-financed companies came to dominate most industries. With these changes in the scale and organization of industry came significant changes in workers’ opportunities and experiences. Factories no longer needed many skilled artisans or craftsmen, whose work could now be done by machine. Instead, they needed numbers of unskilled or semiskilled workers to operate the machines. Many of these workers were recent arrivals from abroad. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 23 million immigrants came to the United States. Earlier generations had arrived primarily from Northern and Western Europe. But, by the 1900s, the great majority came from Eastern and Southern Europe, including Jews, Italians, Czechs, Russians, and Poles.

Industrialization, immigration, and urbanization became new sources of social conflict and instability. Industrial workers who experienced dangerous or exploitative conditions had little leverage to negotiate fair wages or workplace protections. New immigrants often faced suspicion and hostility from Anglo-Americans and older immigrants. Cities struggled to meet the demands that such rapid growth placed on housing, transportation, water, and sewage systems.

Traditionally, historians have divided this period from 1877 to 1919 into two, contrasting eras: the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century and the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century. In this model, the Gilded Age produced the problems—related to economic inequality, industrialization, urbanization, and immigration—that the Progressive Era attempted to solve through social reform and legislation. But many historians now argue that the problems that emerge in the 1870s continue through the 1910s, as did efforts to contend with them. Labor historians, in particular, find that many of the demands made by industrial workers in the 1870s—for example, for an eight-hour workday—were not fulfilled until World War I, or even the 1930s. The documents that follow therefore span the “long Gilded Age” to portray working conditions, workers’ organizations, and demonstrations in Chicago from the Haymarket Affair in 1886 to the reform campaigns of the 1910s.

The Labor Movement and the Haymarket Affair

A broadside advertising the May 4, 1886, rally at the Chicago Haymarket that would become the scene of violent clashes between police and demonstrators.
“Too Heavy a Load for the Trades-Union”: This cover story from Harper’s Weekly shows a worker carrying the bloated weight of a union “agitator.” / Thomas Nast. From Harper’s Weekly, May 15, 1886

Nineteenth-century employers often expected workers to spend 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week on the job. In the 1880s, workers’ organizations, led by the Knights of Labor, joined with political radicals and reformers to organize a national effort to demand an eight-hour workday. During the first week of May 1886, 35,000 Chicago workers walked off of their jobs in massive strikes to protest their lengthy work weeks. Some of these strikes involved violent skirmishes with the police. At least two strikers were killed on May 3. In response, the next evening, roughly 1,500 people gathered at the West Randolph Street Haymarket, a market on the edge of the city where people bought hay for their horses. Although the May 4 rally featured fiery speeches from political radicals and labor leaders, it was a peaceful gathering. As the rally drew to a close, hundreds of policemen moved in to disperse the crowd. Someone threw a bomb at the police brigade, killing one officer instantly. The police responded with a barrage of bullets. An unknown number of demonstrators were killed or wounded. Sixty police officers were injured and eight eventually died. Politicians and the press blamed radicals for the violence. Although there was no evidence linking specific people to the bomb, eight men were convicted of murder on the basis of their political writings and speeches. Four men were executed; one committed suicide. The trial was later considered grossly unjust and, in 1893, the Illinois governor granted absolute pardon to the three, remaining imprisoned defendants. The labor organizations, however, were severely damaged. The documents that follow include the Knights of Labor’s statement of principles, a broadside advertising the Haymarket rally, and the May 15, 1886, cover of Harper’s Weekly, a national political magazine.

Wages and Nationalities in a Chicago Neighborhood

TOP: Wage Map No. 1-4, Polk St. to Twelfth, Chicago. BOTTOM: Nationalities Map No. 1-4, Polk St. to Twelfth, Chicago This map depicts the weekly family incomes of each household in the neighborhood surrounding Hull House on Chicago’s Near West Side. / Samuel Sewell Greeley. 1895

Samuel Sewell Greeley’s Wage Map and Nationalities Map were published by Hull House in 1895 as part of a project to document and describe how people lived and worked in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Hull House was a settlement house established in Chicago’s Near West Side slum as part of a movement to redress the widening gulf between the poor and the affluent in America’s cities. Middle-class women and men lived at Hull House and provided services, classes, and organizational support to people in the neighborhood. In order to gather information to create the maps, staff from Hull House and the federal Bureau of Labor went through the neighborhood house by house and asked residents about their ethnic origins, their work and wages, and the number of people in their households.

The Pullman Strike

This image depicts the destruction of Pullman cars in response to industrialist, George Pullman, laying off workers and slashing wages during an economic downturn. / G. A. Coffin, Charles Mente. From Harper’s Weekly, July 21, 1894

In 1867 George Pullman founded the Pullman Palace Car Company to manufacture passenger coach railroad cars and, by the end of the century, he had monopolized the industry. Company headquarters moved to the outskirts of Chicago in 1880, where Pullman built a large factory and a company town with his name.

This image depicts militiamen firing into a crowd of striking Pullman factory workers during the Pullman Strike. / Jon. R. Chapin. July 15, 1894

By the 1890s, 6,000 of his 14,000 nationwide employees were based in Pullman, Illinois. Pullman was initially hailed as a forward-thinking industrialist, who provided a high quality of life for his workers. But, when the national economy took a downturn in 1893, the company laid off thousands of employees and cut wages. Pullman would not negotiate with the workers, who then went on strike in May 1894.

This image, a response to the Pullman Strike, depicts labor leader Eugene V. Debs perched atop a railroad bridge. / W. A. Rogers. From Harper’s Weekly, July 14, 1894

The American Railway Union (ARU) threw its support behind the Pullman strikers by initiating a national boycott of the Pullman Company. ARU members refused to work on any train carrying a Pullman car, crippling railway traffic across the country. The federal government, under President Grover Cleveland, intervened in the crisis, first, by requesting a court injunction forbidding the boycott and, then, by sending soldiers to Chicago and elsewhere to enforce the injunction.

This cartoon is a response to industrialist, George Pullman, laying off workers and slashing wages during an economic downturn. November 4, 1895

The ARU’s leader, Eugene V. Debs, was arrested and imprisoned for promoting the boycott. By mid-July, both the strike and the union had been broken, but not without considerable violence. Pullman himself came under widespread criticism for underpaying his workers and refusing to negotiate. The documents that follow include representations of and responses to Pullman, Debs, and the strikers.

Conditions in the Meatpacking Industry

This excerpt from Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel of the Chicago meat-packing industry describes, in graphic detail, how cattle are slaughtered and injuries sustained by workers. 1906

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, exposed the brutal working conditions and horrifying food processing system of Chicago’s meatpacking industry. It also revealed the city’s pervasive culture of corporate and political corruption and the systemic exploitation of industrial workers, particularly recent immigrants. President Theodore Roosevelt embraced Sinclair’s critique of the industry and used the novel’s public impact to push through Congress the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act later that year.

The Garment Workers’ Strike

Coverage of a 1915 workers’ strike that included many women. The article appeared in the journal of the International Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies). / From The International Socialist Review, November 1, 1915

Between 1880 and 1920, 20 percent of women over the age of 10 joined the paid labor force. In cities like New York and Chicago, a significant portion of these women worked in the garment industry as dressmakers and embroiderers. (Men worked in the garment industry as well, primarily as cloakmakers, cutters, and pressers, trades which were thought to require greater skill or the handling of heavy equipment.) Many of these women were recent immigrants who worked in sweatshops, cramped, poorly lit workplaces, often set up in tenement buildings. Sweatshop owners supplied material to larger factories. Women across the industry were grossly underpaid, whether they worked in small shops or large factories. Their wages could be as low as $3.00 per week for 60 to 84 hours of work. Garment workers were among the first women to form unions.

Two Approaches to Organizing Labor

In the following excerpts from his autobiography, labor leader Samuel Gompers describes his disillusionment with socialism and embrace of trade unionism. / Samuel Gompers. 1925

Eugene V. Debs and Samuel Gompers both emerged as important labor leaders in the late nineteenth century. By the 1900s, however, they had come to strikingly different conclusions about what the goals and methods of the labor movement should be. Debs began working in the railroad yards as a teenager, became involved in workers’ organizations and, in 1893, formed the American Railway Union. He went on to found the Chicago-based, radical labor organization, the International Workers of the World (IWW), and to run—five times—for president of the United States as the candidate of the Socialist Party of America. He was sharply critical of capitalism and believed that economic resources should not be owned by individuals or private companies, but should belong to everyone. Debs opposed U.S. entry into World War I on the grounds that workingmen’s lives should not be sacrificed for rich men’s interests, and spent three years in prison for a speech urging resistance to the draft. Like Debs, Samuel Gompers came from a working class family. He was the son of a cigar maker and began working in his father’s shop at 13. He rose quickly to become a local, then a national union leader, and, in 1886, to found the American Federation of Labor. His philosophy of labor organizing was shaped by this early experience with skilled craftsmen. While Debs urged workers to unite as a class, skilled and unskilled together, Gompers believed workers should form unions based on their specific trades. For example, under his approach, construction workers would not form a single union, instead they would organize according to their various trades, as painters, carpenters, and plasterers. Each group would then bargain independently with employers. Critics argued that Gompers’ approach excluded unskilled workers from unions and allowed employers to pit unions against each other. However, Gompers defended his methods as pragmatic and effective.

Selected Sources

  • John D. Buenker and Joseph Buenker, eds. Encyclopedia of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. 2005.
  • Chicago Historical Society and Newberry Library. Encyclopedia of Chicago.
  • Leon Fink. “Class Consciousness American-Style.” In In Search of the Working Class: Essays in American Labor History and Political Culture. 1994.
  • James R. Green. Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America. 2006.
  • Measuring Worth. Consumer Price Index [online].

By Dr. Hana Layson
Manager of School and Educator Programs
Portland Art Museum

By Dr. Leon Fink
Distinguished Professor of History
University of Illinois



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