The struggle to change the workday from sunrise to sunset to a ten-hour day was long and contentious. There were legal challenges to overcome in a country that had long followed English laws and customs. As journeymen formed their own societies and began to protest work conditions they took advantage of a free press and improved communications between “brother” societies in other towns and cities. And they took inspiration from the ideas and language used during the Revolutionary War.
English Law in the American Court
In the first quarter of the 18th century Philadelphia’s cordwainers, tailors and carpenters had incorporated guilds that operated much like their British counterparts. Close to the end of the century the first journeymen’s society, the cordwainers, was formed.
In 1791 journeymen cordwainers (shoemakers using new leather) had formed their own society to protect against the hiring of non-members during “turn-outs.” A “turn-out” or walk-out was usually peaceful and might last for hours or a few days. Shop owners in turn tried to hire “scabs.” In 1805 the cordwainers staged a turn-out to uphold a closed shop and things turned violent. Scabs were beaten and employers intimidated. The cordwainers were indicted and charged with “combining to raise their wages.” The cordwainers appealed to the public in the Aurora newspaper of November 28, 1805:
The charge of combining came from English common law. The defense lawyer for the cordwainers was Caesar A. Rodney (later he would be the Attorney General under Jefferson) and he argued the employers were hiding behind an English statue passed in 1349 to halt the rise of wages following the Black Plague. In his closing argument he said:
The cordwainers lost. The charges of combining and conspiracy as defined by English common law would continue to be used against striking workers. This legal battle between Federalists (often employers and merchants) who favored English law and Jeffersonian democracy (journeymen and the emerging working class) was another conflict that needed to be resolved in the new Republic.
The use of “unlawful combination” and English common law to bring charges against strikes by American journeymen societies was challenged again four years after the trial of the Philadelphia cordwainers. This time it was the New York cordwainers and their lawyer “ridiculed reliance on non-applicable English precedents” and asked, “How long shall this superstitious idolatry endure?”
In 1810 Judge DeWitt Clinton (driver of the construction of the Erie Canal) said in the case of New York journeymen that they had the “right to meet and regulate their concerns, and to ask for [higher] wages, and to work or to refuse to work.” He advised that the means should not be too arbitrary and coercive. The defense lawyer in this case asked, “Shall all others, except only the industrious mechanics, be allowed to meet and plot and yet these poor men be indicted for combining against starvation?”
In 1842 the precedent set in the trial of the Philadelphia cordwainers was put to rest by Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Court: “…it was contended on the part of the defendants, that this indictment did not set forth any agreement to do a criminal act, or do any lawful act by criminal means, and that the agreement therein set forth did not constitute a conspiracy indictable by the law of this state…”
Ruinous Free Time
The journeymen shipwrights of New York formed a society in April 1803 and along with the caulkers thought it unreasonable to work a 14-hour day. The shipyard owners and merchants published resolutions that included:
The yard owners follow this with a declaration to blacklist any member of the journeymen’s society.
Close to 600 journeymen carpenters in Boston went on strike in 1825 for a shorter workday because “on the present system, it is impossible to maintain a family at the present time…” The response to the strike was met with the usual arguments that the current workday was “customary from time immemorial” and fewer work hours would expose workers to “many temptations and improvident practices.” There were also veiled threats that any journeymen who thought themselves worthy of becoming a master should reconsider their actions.
Boston shipyard owners spent large sums to defeat the ten-hour movement. In 1832 Boston shipyard workers met and published a resolution that from the 20th of March until the 1st of September they would “not labor more than ten hours per day unless being paid extra for each and every hour; and that we are willing, if requested, to begin at half-past four in the morning, and labor not exceeding ten hours…”
The shipyard owners published their response:
The journeymen ship carpenters did not gain their ten-hour work day but were allowed a two-hour break at noon during July and August because of the extreme heat and the “fear of pestilence.”
The lives of journeymen had long been controlled by master craftsmen. Previously, there were restrictions on being married. Now, many were family men and faced the requirement of excessive work hours and no prospect of becoming a master. The justifications for not granting a ten-hour work day had twisted paternalistic reasoning. It was better to work than have free time: “…for to be idle several of the most useful hours of the morning and evening will surely lead to intemperance and ruin.”
Philadelphia was one of the few cities that did not require property ownership to vote. In 1827 a newspaper article circulated in the city calling for a ten-hour work day. One of the points made was how could one be a good citizen and participate in, and contribute to, civic activities if you were too tired from unceasing exertion. Working from sunrise to sunset “was incompatible with citizenship, for it did not afford the workman the requisite leisure for the consideration of public questions and therefore condemned him to an inferior position in the state.”
In the Boston Post of April 17, 1835 one worker wrote, “By the old system we have no free time for mental cultivation—and that is the policy of the big bugs—they endeavor to keep people ignorant by keeping them always at work.” And the irony is one of the aims of many of the mechanic societies, including the one in Boston, was to maintain a library for skilled craftsmen.
When mechanics walked out for a short time or went on strike for days or weeks, the opposing party was no longer just the master of a shop. Merchant-capitalists financed production, the master was now the manufacturer-employer and the journeymen was the “property-less wage earner.” The journeymen needed better and stronger organization to gain changes in their work lives.
A first step occurred in June of 1827 when the journeymen carpenters of Philadelphia went on strike for a ten-hour workday. Other trades joined the strike and in October the Mechanics’ Union Of Trade Associations was formed and with it their own newspaper, the Mechanics Free Press. The Working Men’s Party, the “Workies” organized as the political arm of this first cross-trade association. Roughly four years later the Mechanics’ Union dissolved.
Two Sons of Revolutionary Soldiers
Lambert Hitchcock was born in Cheshire, Connecticut in 1795. His father, John Lee Hitchcock, was a soldier in the Revolutionary War. Lambert set-up a cabinet and chair shop in western Connecticut in 1818. His shop made chair parts for shipment to Charleston and other cities in the South. His business thrived and eventually he was sending chair parts as far west as Chicago. By 1825, production shifted to making complete chairs and a new three-story brick building was built to accommodate 100 men, women and children workers. The price of a chair was around $1.50.
Seth Luther was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1795, the son of Thomas Luther, a Revolutionary War veteran. Seth learned the carpentry trade from Caleb Earle. As a young man he traveled extensively. In the 1830s he worked as a house carpenter and in cotton mills where he encountered the horrendous conditions of mill workers. He wrote and gave speeches about the mill workers and the lack of education for mill children.
In 1834 he was one of the founders of the Boston Trades Union and in April 1835 he, and two others, wrote a circular that became pivotal to the ten-hour day movement.
The Boston Circular
In 1835 the carpenters of Boston went on strike and were joined by masons and stonecutters. They chose Seth Luther and two others to be their leaders and a traveling committee formed to explain their demands and ask for assistance. Although the strike did not accomplish a shorter workday the Boston Circular (or Ten-Hour Circular) written by the three leaders became an important document in strike actions elsewhere. The circular was first published in The Man newspaper in May of 1835. Soon, it was published throughout the Eastern Seaboard.
What became known as the 1835 General Strike in Philadelphia, and would involve both skilled and unskilled workers, began in late May when the coal haulers on the Schuylkill River docks walked out demanding a ten-hour day and higher wages. They paraded along the dock to prevent others from unloading or transferring cargo to the 75 barges waiting in the river. And they chanted “from six to six.” Shortly after the dock strike began the Boston Circular was published in Philadelphia and the mechanics of the city were galvanized to support the coal haulers. The house painters joined and were followed by carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, bricklayers and several other trades. Trades already on strike for higher wages joined the ten-hour strike. Store clerks joined, as did the bakers, who wanted to end baking on Saturday night and Sunday.
The banner of the Journeymen House Carpenters at the top of this post was painted and used during the General strike. One carpenter taps another on the shoulder and points to the setting sun and the clock on Carpenter’s Hall. In the bottom right corner, “6 to 6” is written on one end of a tool chest.
The strike continued well into June and strike leaders urged the public to give their patronage to merchants that supported a ten-hour day and to boycott those that didn’t. Eventually, the city workers joined the strike, and shortly after the Common Council met and approved a ten-hour day. By the end of June most workers were granted a ten-hour day.
Here’s an excerpt of the letter John Ferral, a Philadelphia labor leader, wrote to Seth Luther to tell him the effect the Boston Circular had had on the the workers of his city:
Carried by the labor press (not the employer press) the Boston Circular and news of the success in Philadelphia spread rapidly. Strikes ensued in mid-size and large cities and by the end of 1835 many more workers gained a ten-hour workday. The exception was Boston. And it has to be noted, the ten-hour workday would be suspended when there was an economic down turn and the fight had to start once again.
The Language and Symbols of Liberty
When the General Strike of 1835 led to the ten-hour workday in Philadelphia it was just over a half-century since the Constitution had been ratified. In their efforts to achieve better work hours and wages, which began before the ratification, the craftsmen of the new Republic often used phrases and concepts found in the Constitution as well as the writings of Thomas Paine.
In shipyards could be found the Mechanics’ Bell which proclaimed “the liberty of leisure for sons of toil.” The bells rang to start the workday, for the start and end of meal breaks and to signal the end of the day.
The New York Mechanics’ Bell was moved to another shipyard when the yard where it was originally placed was closed down.
Baltimore’s first Mechanics’ Bell was located on Federal Hill. It was torn down and moved sometime in the late 1880s. The bell was still in use early in the 20th century. Visit a maritime museum and you are likely to find an old Mechanics’s Bell on display (if it wasn’t melted down for scrap).
The Philadelphia House Carpenters banner from 1835 was donated to the University of Maryland Library in 1994. It was encased in a frame and when the frame was removed for restoration the back of the banner was revealed. Like the front of the banner, the painting on the back is rich in symbols.
The motto at the bottom of the banner reads “Union and Intelligence – The Path to Independence.”
The banner displays figures used in the cartouche of an early map of North America and were often later used as symbols of America: Indians and the female figure of Columbia in a white gown. Columbia holds the American flag and atop the flagstaff is a red cap. The red cap, also known as the Liberty Cap of the Revolutionary War, was the Bonnet Rouge worn by the sans-culottes during the French Revolution. The background displays the natural wonders of young America.
The struggle to get and keep a ten-hour work day was followed by an equally difficult, and very long fight, to achieve the eight-hour workday. Women’s suffrage, child labor and education would also become part of the labor movements. In 1938, one hundred and three years after the General Strike in Philadelphia, the Fair Labor Standards Act created a 40-hour work week, minimum wage, overtime rules and limited the labor of under-age children.
Rest for the Weary
Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
This ends where my previous post ended. “Rest for the Weary” was the motto used by the Chair-makers Society in the Erie Canal celebrations of 1825. Considering the the walk-outs and strikes that were happening in that same year I do wonder if the motto was also a plea from the journeymen marching in the procession.