Just Another Day in Paradise: Nineteenth Century Living

Posted: February 26, 2013 in Uncategorized

For this weeks assignment I chose to read “Eight Hours for What We Will.” This chapter was written as an account of the life of a laborer in the late nineteenth century in New York City. The chapter is written from a social history perspective, with elements of political history mixed in. It obviously tried to hit all aspects of the common people’s lives from working conditions and housing issues, to entertainment and crime.

It opens by outlining the workers struggle against moneyed capitalists in order to achieve an eight-hour workday. Detailed are different labor organizations such as the Workingman’s Union, Arbeiter Union and Irish unions and ways they used to protected the rights of labors in their ranks.

Another problem was the living conditions of worker who couldn’t afford to commute to work and thus had to live in walking distance of their jobs. These working class families lived in a filthy mixture of not just human and animal waste, but of industrial waste as well. 

However, it seems that once one looked past the workingman’s plight on his job and the apparent squalor of his and his families living condition, he could still go and have some fun in this vibrant and ever expanding city.

 The next four pages of the chapter detail the kind of fun there was in late eighteenth century New York City. One could go and enjoy a picnic with pony and boat rides in Central Park, but only after Tweed’s charter. One could take their family and go and see the Arsenal Zoo as well as the animals P.T. Barnum had boarded there. There were theaters to go to and museums to see. And then there was the Bowery, with it’s vendors and monkeys on leashes.

But wherever there is money, there is also crime. Workers labor in order to perfect their craft, and criminals are not any different. Unlike the large gangs in the past, such as the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys, criminals in this age were in smaller groups became more and more savvy as to how to turn a coin.

In this last part of the chapter, I came across a detail that puzzled me. In the year 1868, there were only forty-eight murders in New York City. FORTY-EIGHT!! Now I realize the population in New York City today is much greater than it was then, but it seems it was actually safer in the city then, from a violent crime point of view. To me that begs the question, why? To me this contrasts the environment of New York City I imagine from reading Gangs of New York.

Also, I find it interesting that the labor unions were fighting in order to get more humane conditions for the common workers, who were being treated like slaves, but they then worked to fight African Americans, former slaves, that were moving north for better living conditions.

Overall this was a very interesting and well constructed chapter, using some very vibrant and colorful detail to tell the plight of labor in one of the United State’s largest cities.

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