History of Delaware County Pennsylvania - Chapter 15

Created: Tuesday, 12 April 2011 Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 February 2014 Written by Nathan Zipfel Print Email



One of the most important movements, and, in the results which have flowed from it, of great moment to the people of Delaware County, the State of Pennsylvania, and, more or less, to the country at large, was first put into practical effect in the eastern portion of this State, and mainly through the efforts of a comparatively few individuals in the county of Delaware.

Much has been said and much controversy elicited as to the policy of attempting to regulate merely social or business questions by the aid or power of law. A great deal may be said on both sides, much of it probably to little or no good purpose. But the regulation of the time during which labor may be carried on in large manufacturing establishments has worked so well, and been productive of so vast an amount of unmixed good to at this time a full generation of factory operatives; the benefits and blessings derived from it by old and young, by both employer and employé during more than a third of a century, establish the beneficial effects of the policy beyond doubt or cavil. For many years in England after the introduction of labor-saving machinery and the consequent aggregation of large numbers of persons of all ages and of both sexes in manufacturing establishments, it became necessary for the successful prosecution of the business that some certain regulations be adopted to that end. Much of the machinery and many of the processes are of that character that can be operated with much greater success and far more advantageously by children and young persons than by adults. Indeed, if children were entirely banished from such establishments, it is a question whether many articles now made both for use and ornament would not have to be abandoned altogether, to the manifest disadvantage of the whole community. As time went on, and as manufacturing by machinery instead of mere manual labor became a success, it was altogether in human nature to endeavor to make as much out of it during a given time as possible; and as farming the soil and what is generally known as the mechanical trades were the chief employments of the people, and as each individual was his own "boss," it necessarily followed that every one was free to work as his necessities or his inclinations impelled him, or to lay off and rest when physical or other causes induced him to do so. Not so in the new system of combined labor in factories. The single individual must give way to the aggregate. Rules had to be made. The machinery must be started at a certain agreed-upon time, and must all stop together. There had to be order and uniformity, or the thing would not work. In this, the new system, precedent was followed. The old custom on the farm and in the shop was adhered to, to begin as soon in the morning and work as late at night as they could see. Of course, in the beginning, when the institutions were small and not yet fully organized or developed, there would be breaks from one cause or another, and the ill effects of the system would not be felt. It was only as it progressed, and the numbers engaged therein increased, and the necessity of all being employed at one time for the general good, that it became monotonous. Then was felt the depressing influence on the human mind and body of this then recognized custom. It has been described as worse than the British treadmill discipline, established for the punishment of crime, or the system of slavery as then existing in our own Southern States, the only difference being that the one was free to leave it and learn something new to enable him to live,  better if he could, or worse if he had to; the other had not that option. In England, where the system was first established, it made much slower progress than in the United States at a later period. But it was there that the depressing influence of the daily routine on the minds and bodies of those subject to it began to make itself heard in complaints both loud and deep. Unfortunately, at that time the masses of the people in England were without political power or influence. But a few humane and intelligent gentlemen of education, outside of their ranks, took up their cause, purely from motives of humanity. Notably among these was the late Richard Oastler, Esq., afterwards known among his humble adherents, from his zeal in their cause, as "the Old King." Some time after this their complaints reached the Houses of Parliament, when the late Lord Ashley took up the matter, and pressed it with such vigor and earnestness that it resulted in the passage of a law making eleven hours a day’s work in all factories, and establishing Good Friday an additional legal holiday. A few years after this was followed by an amended law, reducing the time to be worked to ten hours a day, which remained in successful operation from that time to this. About the years 1846-47 the subject began to be earnestly discussed** in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia and Manayunk moved in the matter, and correspondence was had with Delaware County for organization there to obtain, if possible, the passage of a law establishing ten hours as a legal day’s work in this State. The first general meeting of operatives appertaining to that end was held at the Seven Stars Hotel, now Village Green, in a hall generously loaned for that purpose by the late John Garrett.

At this meeting an organization was effected, and a committee of two from each mill in the county appointed as a central body. The committee met at the house of Mark Clegg, on the road leading from the Red Bridge to the Union Methodist Episcopal Church, opposite Crook’s (now Bancroft’s) lower mill, in Nether Providence, where they continued to meet weekly until the completion of their labors, which resulted in the passage of a law by the Legislature making ten hours a legal day’s labor in all cotton, woolen, flax, paper, and glass manufactories in this commonwealth. Such is a brief epitome of this important work; its influence for good is, and has been, felt, not only in our own State, but measurably in every State where manufacturing exists, or is likely to exist, throughout our broad domain. But this is a general history of this excellent and most highly important law, there are many incidents connected therewith, and the chief actors engaged in the work of bringing it about, that should not, in the interest of the present generation as well as those which shall succeed it, be lost entirely in oblivion. It is not to be expected that a measure, even of much less importance than this, entirely in the interests of labor, but at that time supposed to be in antagonism to capital, should be brought to completion in so short a time without opposition. The antagonism to it was persistent and strong. We impugn no man’s motives. It was undertaken in the interests of humanity, and the result has proved the justice of the cause.

At the above meeting, in addition to the appointment of the committee alluded to and other routine business, a most inspiriting address, written by the late John Wilde, was adopted, and ordered to be printed. It was also inserted in the Upland Union an4 the Delaware County Republican, and signed by Thomas Ashworth as president, and Joseph Holt as secretary. The address was extensively circulated, and followed by a series of meetings at different points contiguous to the various mills and factories in the county. At these meetings speeches were made and other legitimate means used to concentrate public opinion to the importance of endeavoring to obtain a law to restrict this then great and growing evil.

In the Delaware County Republican of Nov. 19, 1847, appears the following editorial: "The press is taking hold of the ten-hour system now about being petitioned for by the factory operatives in good earnest…Let those who oppose it just drop into a factory and work among the dirt and grease for fourteen hours each day for a twelvemonth, and tell us at the expiration of that time their opinion of the matter."

The next general public meeting of the operatives was at the old Providence Inn on Saturday evening, Nov. 20, 1847, when the following resolutions were unanimously adopted:
     "Resolved, That the persons composing this meeting have been long and practically convinced of the injurious effect of the great number of hours now constituting a day’s work in factories, upon the mental and physical powers of those subjected to such long-continued toil and confinement.
     "Resolved, That this meeting hails with a lively satisfaction the increasing interest manifested by all the producing classes, and more particularly the expressed sympathy and support of the public press in aid of the present movement to ameliorate the condition of the factory operatives.
     "Resolved, That we will continue our united exertions to procure by constitutional and legal means the passage of a law reducing the time of labor in factories to ten hours a day, or fifty-eight hours per week."

These resolutions were urged in stirring addresses by Messrs. Webb, Cotton, Ashworth, Walker, and Fawley.

A meeting of operatives and workingmen generally was held at Sneath’s Corner on Saturday evening, Dec. 4, 1847. Dr. Jesse Young having suggested some doubts about the constitutionality of a law regulating the hours of labor for adults, a spirited debate arose between him and Messrs. Ashworth, Fawley, and Walker, which continued for more than an hour. Hon. Joseph Engle (one of the associate judges for Delaware County) being present was solicited for his opinion, and stated that he believed the Legislature had power to pass laws to promote the moral and physical well-being of the citizens of the State, and as the present object of the operatives appeared to him to be expressly designed for that highly commendable purpose, he had no doubt of either the right or justice of such legislation.

The following Saturday evening, Dec. 10, 1847, a meeting was held in the school-house at Hinkson’s Corner, which was addressed by Messrs. Ashworth, Holt, F. Pearson, and Greenwood. The following resolutions were adopted:
     "Resolved, That in the opinion of this meeting the present system is more particularly injurious to children employed in factories, depriving them in a majority of cases from ever acquiring the rudiments of a common education, so essentially necessary to enable them to perform the duties devolving on them as citizens of this Republic.
     "Resolved, That we believe that the confinement of female operatives for twelve or fourteen hours in a day is highly injurious, depriving them of the opportunity of acquiring the necessary knowledge of domestic duties to enable them to fill their stations in well-regulated households, and deprives them of the means of acquiring a practical and useful education."

Similar meetings continued to be held, and petitions forwarded to the Legislature, and all other legitimate means used to obtain the passage of the much-desired law. On the 25th of March, 1847, the Senate passed the bill making ten hours a legal day’s work in all factories in this State. It afterwards passed the House and became a law, to take effect on and after the 4th day of July, 1848.

As showing how the law was received at the time, we copy the two following editorials from newspapers contemporary with its passage:
     "THE TEN HOURS’ SYSTEM.  The proprietors of Fairhill Factory, in Philadelphia, have already extended the benefits of the ten-hour law to the operatives in their employ, and we understand that most, if not all, of the manufacturers of the city and county will comply with the requisitions of the law immediately after the fourth day of next month."***

     "We understand that a portion, if not all, of the manufacturers of cotton goods in this county (Delaware) have determined to close their factories for several weeks after the 4th of July next. It is said that most of them have a large stock of goods on hand, and failing to effect sales, they have concluded to await until the market becomes better."

Such were the differences of opinion among those who were supposed to be more pecuniarily interested in the future effects of the law. The actual effects of it I now proceed to show. The late John P. Crozer who at that time was generally supposed to be the leading spirit in opposition to the new system, after a few years’ trial when established, generously admitted the errors under which he had labored, and afterwards became one of its most friendly advocates. Such was the state of feeling among the community at the time of which I write, 1848. Immediately anterior to the passage of the act many good men were divided in their opinions as to the policy of such a law. A number contended that no power existed in a free government to determine how long a man should or should not work. There was some plausibility in the point, for it had not then been ascertained that the government possessed a police power in just such cases. But by public meetings, by private discussion, and particularly by the aid of the press, the popular mind was enlightened, and the proposed law began to be favorably looked on by the people. While it had its persistent enemies, it had the most generous and warm friends. Among the operatives themselves many opposed it. The writer was present at a shop-meeting at one of our large establishments as a spectator merely, when one of the proprietors remarked that he did not think that a majority of their hands wanted shorter time. Some of the operatives ventured to differ with him. "Well, now," he says, "suppose we try?" A division was called, and while there appeared to be a majority for the shorter time, that majority was but very small. This was not the case everywhere. The representative in the Legislature from Delaware County in that year was Hon. Sketchley Morton, and he advocated shorter time with earnestness and zeal, and did all he could to make it a success. The same could not be said of our then senator. The committee sent petitions signed by nearly twelve hundred operatives to the senator and representative for the district. The one to the House was duly presented by the representative, but the one to the Senate was never more heard from. The committee wrote letters asking the reasons, but their fate was the same as that of the petition. The name of Hon. Samuel Marx, of Lehigh County, being suggested to the committee, they wrote to him; he consented, and did present the petition to the Senate, of which body he was then a member. Of course this required the circulation anew of petitions for signatures.

The friends and advocates of the cause had many other difficulties to contend against, prominent among which was to obtain a room wherein to hold their meetings for counsel and discussion. No public hall existed in the county, so far as remembered, except Garrett Hall, above alluded to, and the court-house at Chester. Sometimes a school-house could be obtained, and as the mills were long distances apart, the duties of the committee were difficult and fatiguing. Saturday evening was the only night available for the purpose, and then a distance of from two to five miles had to be walked after stopping time (stopping time then being four and four and a half o’clock P.M. on Saturdays), and when much cleaning was required it would be five o’clock before leaving the mills. Thus the operatives had only two or three hours for discussion, without infringing on the time absolutely required for natural rest. Of course, this is only intended as historical reminiscences of those times as compared with the present experiences, and not as an argument pro or con. Differences of opinion existed then as now as to the wisdom of the measure asked for. It was then comparatively an untried experiment. But the law, in its most essential features, has been fully justified, by more than a third of a century’s experience. Still, like all things human, it has its imperfections. The committee, at its first sessions, was not a unit as to the age at which a child should be allowed to commence work in a mill. Full discussions were had, and it was generally agreed, in the interests of all parties, that ten years was a suitable limit, below which the law ought to intervene, but the number of hours per day that the mill should be run at all was the objective point to which attention was mainly directed. It was contended that no power had a right to say how long or how little an adult person should be allowed to work, but that minors only were subject to the law’s restrictions. That portion of the act regulating the ages between ten and thirteen years has been practically a dead letter during all the time since its passage, until a few months ago,  1882-83. Some five or more years since attention was called to infractions of the spirit of the law,  some mills running until nine o’clock at night. This evil kept growing, until Mr. McGahee, an operative in one of the mills at Darby, in this county, called public attention to the manifest violations of the law in a letter addressed to a prominent newspaper, as also by posting copies of the act in public places in his neighborhood. This caused very general adherence to the law as it stands, while it also showed its weak points, its advantages and imperfections. Probably the time may come, and it is to be hoped in the interests of humanity that it may come soon, when all concerned, both employers and employed, may come together on common ground and agree upon some age, taking all the circumstances into consideration, the business itself, the interests of employers and employed, the claims of widowed mothers, the duties of humanity and of the State at large, and so amend the law as to be just and satisfactory to all interested, and its beneficent features kept intact. But this is a digression. Our purpose is not to recommend, but to give a history of the movement itself.

The law as passed by the Legislature in the session of 1847-48 provided that it should go into effect on and after the 4th day of July, 1848. That time came, the law became operative, and in Philadelphia, Manayunk, and other places was observed and worked harmoniously. Such was not the case in Delaware County. Strange to say that very shortly after the passage of the law it began to be foreseen that there was a probability that so far as this locality was concerned the act would be nullified. Many of its most active and zealous friends withdrew and sought other means to secure a livelihood. A number of others remained at their homes, but went out on strikes - one of the cases where such a course can be justified in that it was a strike in favor of, and against a violation of, law.

The following incident in connection with the strike in justice to all parties should not be omitted from this record. While the strike was pending the late Simeon Lord and William T. Crook, two of the manufacturers in this county, told their hands that they, were willing to run their mills for ten hours if the rest would do so; that they would start on ten hours a day and try it for a month. If the rest did likewise they would continue so to run, but at the expiration of a month it was understood that they were free to do as the rest of the manufacturers did. This proposition was accepted and carried out in good faith on both sides during the term designated.

After a suspension for some time operations were resumed on the old system, and in violation of the law, notwithstanding the fact that by its provisions a penalty of fifty dollars was imposed on both the employer and parent of children under thirteen years of age, permitted to labor in factories. For five long years this state of things continued, when some of the more conscientious of the manufacturers not desiring to continue in this open violation of a plain law, proposed to the operatives that if they could induce the manufacturers of New England to join in the measure they would be willing to accede to their demands. Accordingly another movement was set on foot, meetings were again held, and a delegation consisting of the late John Wilde and Sandy M. Challenger was appointed. They at once attempted to discharge the duties of their mission, but were met at the outset by difficulties which were not unexpected. They were strangers (as it were) in a strange land. In an interview between the writer and Mr. Wilde after his return, the latter stated that they were somewhat at a loss how and where to commence their work. In this emergency he bethought himself of Benjamin F. Butler, Esq., then a prominent rising lawyer of Boston (now 1883 the Governor of the State of Massachusetts), who entered heartily into their plans, and gave them all the information in his power. Mr. Wilde stated that to him was to be attributed whatever of success they met with. After their return to Delaware County meetings were again called, at which the delegation gave an account of their stewardship. In the mean time the opposition to the law appeared to be dwindling away, and friends came to the aid of the workers. A general meeting was held at the court-house in Chester, at which the late Y. S. Walter, editor of the Delaware County Republican, presided, when it was agreed that a trial should be made of the effects of the new law. The late John P. Crozer was prominent in his endeavors to have the act put into practical operation, and after a few years’, trial of the new, and as yet untried plan, was enthusiastic in its praise, the firm declaring that they got more work done per hour, or at a less rate of expense than ever before. Such is a brief outline of this little speck of nullification in the hitherto loyal county of Delaware. Although opposition existed, ofttimes in quarters where it was least expected, it was gratifying to find that the press of the county was uniformly on the side of the humble and weaker party. Y. S. Walter, of the Delaware County Republican, and Alexander McKeever, of the Upland Union, not only advocated the cause editorially, but threw open their columns for discussion on the merits of the question. Most of those who took an active part in the contest on this important measure have been called from the scenes of life; few only remain. But the work performed by their toils and labors continues as a blessing to posterity. A large portion of the privileges and opportunities now enjoyed by the working class, religious, social, and otherwise, were shut out from the factory operatives of a third of a century ago. Who among us would wish to go back to that period with all that that implies? Who can tell what effects would have been produced different from what has been, if we had continued to uphold a system of fourteen or fifteen hours’ continuous monotonous labor out of the twenty-four, instead of the liberal and enlightened method now in operation?

* Contributed by James Webb

** Ten years before the date mentioned in the text, on Feb. 20, 1836, a meeting of operatives employed in cotton-mills on Chester Creek was held at the Seven Stars Tavern, of which meeting Lewis Cornog was president and John Haynes secretary. The object of the meeting was to oppose "the long-hour system enforced by employers on hands in cotton-mills against their will." In May, 1836, all the operatives on Chester Creek struck, demanding higher wages or less hours of labor.

*** July, 1848

Source:  Page(s) 108-112, History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, by Henry Graham Ashmead, Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co. 1884