Child Workers and Workplace Accidents: What was the Price Paid for Industrializing America?

March 10, 2018

It was Friday morning the 28th of August, 1885 and Michael Markham, age 30, was eager to get to work. He was proud of his job at the screw factory in New Britain, Connecticut. Michael was a loyal and experienced employee, and he had worked his way up to be in charge of the largest machine in the factory called the nail heading machine. Soon after arriving that morning, however, he was involved in a terrible accident. This is how the Boston Herald reported what happened, “He was bending down to see how it was running, and his head was caught between the balance wheel and bent over sides breaking his neck.” Before others could switch off the machine, Michael’s body was badly mangled and he died quickly. He was survived by his widowed mother and a sister. Michael was the family’s only source of income. The paper stated, “he lost his life from an over assurance of his ability.” The New York Times said that the worker’s death was due to his own “carelessness.” Other news articles echoed similar condemnation – – that Michael Markham accidentally killed himself.

American factory at the turn of the 20th century.
American factory at the turn of the 20th century.

In industrial America, the story of Michael Markham was one of many frequent tales of blaming the victim. Ten men were killed in a mining accident in Hibbing, Minnesota and the local headline was “Company Not Blamed for the Clark Mine Disaster, One of the Victims Was Probably Responsible.” The hastily prepared Commissioners Report determined, and without any proof, that one of the miners was probably smoking near dynamite. Placing blame, especially publicly, was part of a system of protecting the industrial bosses from having to deal with workers’ problems. More importantly, the system was structured to dehumanize workers. By erasing their human value, the worker was reduced to nothing more than a commodity, the same as the raw materials used in the factories. If a commodity was damaged or destroyed, it was discarded and forgotten. In industrial America, workers had no voice in the workplace. Public pressure was the enemy to the industrialist.Taking care of workers would be expensive, possibly disastrous; and a door industry bosses were determined to keep closed. There were no required safety standards and employers generally were held harmless when accidents or injuries occurred. The success of the industries depended on that silence, and the laws of the land practically guaranteed it.

The workplace of millions of Americans.
The workplace of millions of Americans.

The official numbers of injuries and workplace fatalities are staggering. Many of the accidents were catastrophic in nature – – collapsed mines, derailed trains, factory explosions, and others. Between 1870 and 1910 there were over 10,000 major explosions from inside America’s factories. In 1910 alone, 3383 railroad workers were killed and another 95,000 railroad workers were seriously injured. Some factories stated that they had their own safety rules and did factory inspections, but the numbers of accidents continued to increase. Dangerous machines and boilers did not have shut-off devices built into their mechanisms. And, it would be decades before workers’ eyes, ears, hands, and heads were protected from the growing number of workplace injuries.

With an absence of rules and regulations, employers widened the demands of workers. Coal mining companies employed children as young as 5 years old, and used them to slip through the small tunnels and cracks where men could not fit. Children, both male and female, were sometimes strapped to coal sledges which they dragged while crawling on their hands and knees. Many of the textile factories employed large groups of women and children in their sweatshops. The buildings were usually unsafe and the employers kept the windows and doors locked to prevent employees from leaving prematurely. The risk from fire was enormous. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, March 25, 1911, killed 146 people. Many other workers were injured or killed by the whirling machines. There are many stories of injuries and fatalities related to a worker’s hair getting caught in a machine, or limbs crushed or torn off. As in the coal mines, the smallest of children were made to crawl under these working machines to collect fallen material. The work days were very long, sometimes twelve hours, and even fourteen hours was not unusual. Between the years 1830 to 1880 the overworked generation of Americans reached adulthood with hunched backs, weak knees, bowed legs, and damaged pelvises from carrying heavy loads and standing too many hours a day. It was a generation of individuals with missing limbs, damaged vision and hearing and the average mean height of an individual had reduced by 2 inches.

Child workers at Wheaton Glass Works, November 1909
Child workers at
Wheaton Glass Works, November 1909

The dangers of the workplace extended past the gyrating machines, explosions and cave ins. Match companies employed women to dip the match heads into tanks of phosphorous. Over time, the inhaling of the fumes caused many of the workers to suffer from a horrible disease known as phossy jaw. They endured terrible pain in their jaw and teeth, and eventually disfigurement to the face. Bone and tissue would die and rot away causing foul odor and a disgusting discharge. In time these workers suffered brain damage and ultimately death. Workers in glass factories regularly suffered burns, sometimes severe. Additionally, too many glass workers became blind from the intense heat. Meatpackers, who were unfortunate enough to be assigned to the pickle rooms (pickling meats and sausage was fashionable before freezers became widespread), frequently developed a very nasty infection from constantly handling cold meat. Workers referred to the painful infection as pickled hands. The skin would crack and open to the bone. The palms and back of the hands would become one aching and oozing sore. Unless the worker stopped handling the meat, the infection would worsen, and even then, it took months for the hands to heal. Some of the deadliest work for both meatpackers, as well as coal miners, had to do with air-borne exposures that led to lung infections. Miners who breathed in coal dust for years frequently developed black lung disease. Meatpackers were at risk of coming down with infected lungs when working in areas that contained air particles of ground hair, wool, bone and fertilizer. For both, the lung infections sometimes developed into fibrosis, and in the worst cases,necrosis.

With the absence of government regulation, the “Captains of Industry” had an easy formula for financial success. They simply figured out what a product would sell for on the open market, and then determined the cheapest way to produce it. There were lots of fixed expenses – land, facilities, equipment, raw material, and more. Labor, however, was not a fixed expense. It was the most important investment the industrialist made, and the one that was abused. Employees worked long hours, received low wages, and benefits were rare. Many times they worked in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Fresh immigrants and an abundance of children, as young as 8 years old, made up their work force. The largest new influx of workers, however, were women. The numbers of women working in America’s factories rose from 2.4 million in 1880 to 8.6 million by 1900. Employers, however, paid women half of a man’s wages, and children made one-tenth. Inexperienced in the operation of fast moving machines, they were also innocent to the possibilities of unexpected disasters. These individuals made up the working collateral of the industries.

Newly hired children workers.
Newly hired child workers.

Cora Flipse was only fourteen years old when she was killed in a tragic elevator accident at the Bryant Paper Company on February 17, 1900. She and her friend Mary Bouterse were paper sorters at the factory. On a work break, Cora wanted to have some fun and encouraged Mary to ride the work elevator with her. Most work elevators did not have doors, and were primarily used for the transporting of heavy items from floor to floor. In 1900 an elevator in a building was rare. And, for a young girl to ride one would be exciting, especially since it was against the rules. Cora was not able to persuade Mary to jump on the lift, even telling her that they could lie down so the foreman couldn’t see them. Sadly, Cora’s head projected just outside the elevator, as if to look back at Mary, and as the lift went up Cora’s head got caught between the edge of the lift and floor. Cora was instantly killed while Mary Bouterse observed the horrible sight. The company did its own investigation, and found that Cora was negligent, which, of course she was. An inspection was done on the elevator and it was widely announced that the elevator was in good working order. The press, like the legal system, worked in tandem by continuing to distance the industrial owners from workers and their issues.

Child workers at a coal mine.

There is little doubt that the combination of cheap labor and the determined work ethic of the American worker made the vision of industrial America a reality. Much of the nation’s population moved into the cities, and the once agrarian country started to change. In time there would be more growth of jobs, better wages, cities created bringing real stability to families, as well as to the nation. The price to get there, however, was high. In its path to success the wheels of industry had crushed the financial life out of millions of workers and their families. Many would never recover.

In 1910, the first modern workmen’s compensation law in America was passed in the state of New York. The new law provided compensation to injured workers and their families without regard to fault. Within ten years the large majority of the nation also accepted the new law.


February 18, 1900, Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan
December 21, 1898, New York American (New York, New York)
Age of Industrial Violence, 1910-15: The Activities and Findings of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations
By Graham Jr. Adams
Caught in the Machinery: Workplace Accidents and Injured Workers in Nineteenth-Century Britain , by Jamie Bronstein.
Family Life in 19th-Century America, By James M. Volo, Dorothy Denneen Volo
A Survey of American History, By Joseph R. Conlin
“The Transformation of Work and the Law of Workplace Accidents, 1842-1910”
By Witt, John Fabian | The Yale Law Journal, March 1998