Three years into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, almost one in ten Americans is still out-of-work. In many parts of the country, the situation is even worse.
On this special Labor Day episode, the Backstory hosts ask what joblessness has meant for previous generations of Americans. How has the changing nature of employment shaped the experience of not having a job? Have the moral connotations of work evolved?
Over the course of the hour, we hear from historian Alexander Keyssar, take calls from BackStory listeners, and hear an imagined testimonial from an itinerant worker in the “New Northwest” at the turn of the 20th century.
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Voiceover: From VFH Radio in Charlottesville, Virginia, this is “BackStory.” [music]
Peter Onuf: All over the country, Americans are out of work. At last count, the unemployment rate was scratching 10%, a 25-year high.
Ed Ayers: Peel apart that number and the situation looks even worse, because the government only counts people actively looking for work and that practice began in the wake of another financial collapse way back in the 1870s.
Tape (Alexander Keyssar): A directive was sent saying only count those who really want to work. Don’t count any of these maligners, leaving it up to the subjective judgment of the people doing the counting.
E. Ayers: Today, on “BackStory,” “Looking for Working,” what has it meant for immigrants, for the children of slaves, for vets returning home, when the promise of a better job, of a better life, runs up against the harsh realities of our economic system.
P. Onuf: “The History of Unemployment in America,” coming up on “BackStory.” First, the news. [music] This is “BackStory,” with us, the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century guy.
E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, your 19th century guy.
Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy.
Tape (Franklin D. Roosevelt): I am appealing to the people of America tonight for help in carrying out a path that is important to them and to their government.
E. Ayers: That, of course, is Franklin Delano Roosevelt in one of his famous Fireside Chats. It was November 1937. The Depression had been going for eight years and the government was still trying to figure out just how bad things were and so FDR went on the radio and he appealed for help in conducting a nationwide census, a census of the unemployed.
Tape (FDR): Enforced idleness embracing any considerable portion of our people in a nation of such wealth and natural opportunity is a paradox that challenges our ingenuity.
E. Ayers: Seventy-two years later, it looks like that paradox is still very much with us. At last count, the national unemployment rate was hovering just under 10%. That’s a 25-year high and just a few percentage points under where it was when FDR got on the radio that night.
P. Onuf: On each episode of “BackStory,” we tear a topic from the headlines and spend an hour exploring its historical context. Today, almost two years into the worst recession since the 1930s, our topic is unemployment and the experience of looking for work in America. What does it mean to be out of work here and what has it meant in the past? How has the search for work shaped people’s lives throughout our history?
E. Ayers: Those are great questions, Peter, but, you know, one thing really bothers me and I heard it on today’s show —unemployment almost always conjures up images of the Great Depression in Brian’s century.
B. Balogh: Right.
E. Ayers: And it just seems to me that it’s very likely that people were out of work and looking for work long before the Great Depression, so Peter, as my colleague in the pre-20th century era, help me out here.
P. Onuf: Well, I want to assure you, Ed, before I talk about my period that you invented unemployment [laughter] and you can explain why in a minute. I mean, simply, it’s that you couldn’t have unemployment until there was employment meaning that you had to have parts of the population depending on regular work, on wages, and that’s not the experience of the vast majority of Americans in the Colonial period. People who worked in Colonial America were largely self-sufficient farmers and even if it was hard producing surpluses from market in order to get that little extra income that Americans have always loved to have, it was never a problem about living. The whole idea of famine, dearth, people dying of starvation, that was not an American experience.
E. Ayers: So, Peter, I get it—there’s not employment so there can’t be unemployment but, you know, there must’ve been good years and bad years, people’s lives must’ve been affected by that. Okay. Maybe we didn’t call it unemployment. Like, what happens when it doesn’t rain and there’s a drought?
P. Onuf: Well, in Colonial America, there’s plenty of rain. [laughter]
B. Balogh: You’re going to be difficult, aren’t you, Peter.
P. Onuf: I should say there’s plenty of land. People move a lot. Mobility is crucial on the employment front. The great challenge in New England is big families. People would have to move out into new areas. New townships were granted in western Massachusetts and what became Vermont and New Hampshire and later, New Englanders move all over.
E. Ayers: So, you might call that looking for work, kind of.
P. Onuf: You could indeed. Looking for, but I would say looking for subsistence or a word that’s better in this context is looking for competency.
B. Balogh: Something I’ve been looking for for years.
E. Ayers: Keep on looking, man. Keep on looking. [laughter]
P. Onuf: There’s always a market for competency.
B. Balogh: Okay. I’m done with my popcorn. I’m done with these previews. Let’s get to the main feature. Let’s clear the mics. Let’s clear the mics.
P. Onuf: I’m unemployed.
B. Balogh: You are out of work. You are looking for work. Let’s clear the mics for the all important 19th century. [trumpet]
E. Ayers: Okay. I’ll tell you. With an introduction like that, it’s like that “Star Wars” introduction with the big letters, sort of screaming. Unemployment really is a byproduct. We used to call it the Industrial Revolution. We pulled that apart into various components now and don’t speak about it such sweeping ways which was really accelerated, ironically, by something you might not associate with this process which is the War of 1812 when trade with England slowed or stopped. It created sort of an artificial environment for industry in the American North to begin flourishing.
P. Onuf: Yeah, a great point.
E. Ayers: So, when you have that, then people go, boy, there are profits to be made here and we really do have enough capital that we can organize our capital and our physical place to create these manufactories which are nothing like what we would think of today as factories. They’d be something more we’d think of today as shops where you’d have maybe four or five people working but the fact is, even when you have four or five people working, when suddenly the demand for what you’re producing is glutted, when you’ve made as many shoes or gloves or hats or whatever that the local market can bear, then what you do, you say, I’m sorry, I no longer need to employ you right now. Maybe come back next year.
B. Balogh: And, Ed, when did we start getting those cycles?
E. Ayers: Well, this came very quickly once it began, so all that’s going on in a really heated way throughout the 1830s and ’40s and ’50s. The Civil War comes along and what it does is really turns it up even more in the North. There’s a boom economy and unemployment’s very low, but at the end of the Civil War, slam. All that demand ends. You have all these hundreds of thousands of soldiers coming back home and this is when you start having the word tramp first enter the American lexicon because tramping had been what Sherman’s soldiers were doing in Georgia, a sort of living off the land, feeding yourself, and then people are trying to get back to that superheated environment of the late antebellum wartime period and people are pumping all kinds of money into building railroads and factories and this is happening in the South as well and then as a result of that superheated environment, the Panic of 1873, the worst that the United States had ever seen here eight years after the War, and it dislocates the entire American economy, sets everything back and sets enormous numbers of people at loose across the American landscape looking for work.
B. Balogh: Yeah, well, that’s pretty impressive, Ed, but there’s something that you left out of that account. You left out the genesis of the term itself, “unemployed.” Conveniently enough, I recently sat down with a Harvard historian who’s written about this precise issue. His name is Alex Keyssar and the book is Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts. Alex explains that the word “unemployed” does show up in the state census roles going all the way back to the Civil War but before the 1870s, it referred to a very different class of people.
Tape (A. Keyssar): The typical person was a child under the age of 10. [laughter] Or women over the age of 50. It was clear that the word meant people who were not employed. They did not hold jobs. Within a few years, the very same state agency used the word in what we now recognize as its modern meaning, meaning people who normally do work but can’t find a job.
E. Ayers: It turns out that there was one guy who was mainly responsible for this radical shift in the word’s meaning. He was a Massachusetts official name Carroll Wright who would go on to run the National Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wright was concerned about these huge estimates of joblessness that people were throwing around and so Wright came up with a new method of crunching the numbers, a method that has pretty much lasted up till now. Here’s Keyssar again.
Tape (A. Keyssar): A directive was sent around the state saying only count those who really authentically want to work and you know will work. Don’t count any of these malingers, leaving it up to the subjective judgment of the people doing the counting and so he was really setting out quite deliberately to establish that unemployment rates were lower. Right now, since the late 1930s, 1940s, our unemployment statistics are drawn out of something called the “Current Population Survey” and there it’s not the judgment of an examiner so much as there is a criteria that you have to meet which is that you have to demonstrate that you have been searching for work or looking for work. Someone who is not employed and cannot demonstrate that they have been looking for work in recent weeks ceases to be counted as unemployed and is counted as “not in the labor force.”
E. Ayers: So, do you tie this to some great capitalist conspiracy or are you more inclined to say that there really is something called the Protestant work ethic that Americans care deeply or intensely about and it somehow has worked its way even into the way we collect data about work?
Tape (A. Keyssar): Well, I don’t think it’s a great capitalist conspiracy. It was far more inchoate than that. I think what the fear is finally grounded in or the apprehension is grounded in, is if these people are really unemployed through no fault of their own, if they’re really suffering, then society should have some obligation to help them, but God forbid, what if we help people who are just lazy.
B. Balogh: Right.
Tape (A. Keyssar): And, you know, just don’t want to work and that keeps surfacing all the time and even with the charitable organizations which had a little bit of public funds but mostly private funds in the 1890s, to get relief from one of these charitable organizations and relief meant really a pittance. I mean, some wood, some food, a little bit of money maybe to pay a doctor to get relief, they sent somebody to your house to make sure that you were genuinely impoverished and had nothing. And so willingness to perceive poor people as being lazy, as being shiftless, I think that current runs throughout U.S. history and certainly is present in policies up through the present.
B. Balogh: Well, I would add another component which really comes from my reading of your book and that is that there is a hesitancy to acknowledge the permanent amount of unemployment that is there. Something like 20% of workers experience unemployment during the course of year, even in good years.
Tape (A. Keyssar): That’s correct. In the late 19th century and in the 20th century up until the 1930s, the percentage of the labor force who were unemployed at all in the course of a year, that figure, in a good year, looks like it’s somewhere between 17% and 22% of all people experience some unemployment for an average of about three months.
B. Balogh: That’s remarkable.
Tape (A. Keyssar): It’s a remarkable statistic. And what it tells you is how chronic a presence and a threat this was to people who held blue collar jobs and you’re quite right also that the deep reluctance in policy circles—
B. Balogh: We don’t like to admit that. We don’t like that the word exists.
Tape (A. Keyssar): Right. We don’t want to say that in any given year, even in a good year, 13%, 14% to 18% of the labor force is unemployed at some point during the year. We don’t want to think about that. We don’t want to see that. We do see this as this cyclical phenomenon which—alas, surprise, gasp—seems to have happened again.
B. Balogh: Well, I want to thank you for joining us today, Alex.
Tape (A. Keyssar): Thank you, Brian. It’s really been a pleasure.
B. Balogh: Alexander Keyssar is a Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He’s the author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy. He’s also the author of Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts. [music—“I need a job from 9 to 5.]
E. Ayers: We’re going to take a quick break now but don’t go away. When we get back, we’ll consider the experience of being out of work at the turn of the century and we’ll also hear from some of you listeners.
P. Onuf: We’ll be back in a minute. [music—“If the pay is right, I’ll work day and night. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday’ll be all right.”] [music—“Heigh Ho.”] This is “BackStory,” the show that looks to the past to explain the America of today. I’m Peter Onuf, your guide to the 18th century.
E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, your guide to the 19th century.
B. Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, guide to the 20th century. We’re talking today about unemployment and the experience of looking for work throughout American history. As we do with each of our shows, we’ve been inviting your feedback about today’s topic on our website and our producers have invited a few of you who left comments there to join us on the phone. Peter, who’s up first today?
P. Onuf: It’s Bob from St. Louis, Missouri. Bob, welcome to “BackStory.”
Caller (Bob): Hi, thanks for having me.
P. Onuf: All right. So, you’ve got a question about this, Bob.
Caller (Bob): I do. I thought that I’d ask a question about perceptions of being underemployed, the notion of not having enough to do or not living up to your full potential. What types of standards have Americans applied to decide whether or not someone’s work was adequate to their status or capacity?
P. Onuf: Well, I’m going to make a simple bold statement and suggest that from our beginnings, it’s been a central tenet of American ideology that aristocrats are bad and the definition of an aristocrat is somebody who doesn’t work or lives off the work of others. Somehow this didn’t apply to slaveowners who imagined that they were working hard in their own way.
Caller (Bob): Well, there was a lot of managing to do.
P. Onuf: Well, that’s the way they would explain it. In fact, there is a heavy premium in Protestant culture on what we call the work ethic going back to Max Weber’s famous sociological argument about how Protestants are constantly trying to prove themselves to themselves and to their God in this direct unmediated relationship. You can’t hide from God. He sees that you’re slacking so that notion of examining yourself and holding yourself to a high standard is one that in a way goes public. It becomes a public standard so people in America have to justify themselves. You notice this when Americans meet strangers. They say, “what do you do?” as if the definition of a person is the work they do whereas people from other cultures might say, “where do you come from?,” “where do you get that funny accent, that sounds posh to me,” [laughter] you must be an aristocrat.
Caller (Bob): In St. Louis, it’s “where you’d go to high school?”
P. Onuf: Where’d you go to high school? Right. They still have a few high schools in St. Louis, right? It’s the great shrinking metropolis of the middle America. What? About three hundred thousand people there now?
Caller (Bob): If that.
P. Onuf: Oh, sad story. Well, hold on. Don’t leave. [laughter]
B. Balogh: Bob, I like Peter’s answer and I think the corollary in the 20th century is the rise of credentialing when more and more Americans start going to universities and start getting fancy titles.
P. Onuf: You mean Ph.D.s?
B. Balogh: Well, not even Ph.D.s.
P. Onuf: Well, come on. Come on.
B. Balogh: But they start getting MBAs.
P. Onuf: Ohhhh—
B. Balogh: They become doctors and that opens the doorway for being underemployed because we’re not actually using that knowledge, actually deploying it.
E. Ayers: Boy, you know, boy. I’m sorry. So, Peter has the highfaluting Protestant work ethic of Max Weber and Brian of credentialing. It strikes me there’s a lot of anxiety in the 19th century. Just so happens to be my century, where people are really worried about not producing to their maximum effect and that really becomes sort of a product of the late 19th and it sort of bleeds over to the early [20th century] of Taylorism and sort of I want to have a special word, too. [laughter]
P. Onuf: What would Taylorism be, Ed?
E. Ayers: Well, Frederick Taylor, Frederick W. Taylor, Frederick Winslow Taylor, right, was a consultant, one of the first probably in the United States who came into factories and studied the most minute movements.
P. Onuf: Time motion.
E. Ayers: Time motion studies, right? And he would sit there with a stopwatch and measure how long it took the best workers to perform some task, the whole idea that you could rationalize the work process so that no one was underemployed at any moment.
B. Balogh: You know, what we figured out in the 20th century, we figured out, psychologists figured out, that the best way to squeeze work out of people was to observe them and pay attention to them, that those Taylorites that kind of tried to measure things and give people quotas, they had nothing on the soft, caring psychologists who came in to observe and study workers.
P. Onuf: This is like Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.
B. Balogh: They found out that when you observe workers and pay attention to them and make them feel wanted, you can get all kinds of [work out of them].
E. Ayers: But you know what?
P. Onuf: I think the real question is the extent to which we’ve internalized this surveillance or observation regime you’re talking about and we over-educated humanists, we observe ourselves constantly.
E. Ayers: And now we Twitter about it, Peter.
P. Onuf: Right. This is a depressing thought. It’s been great talking to you, though, Bob. Thanks for calling.
Caller (Bob): Thank you for having me.
P. Onuf: Thanks a lot. [music]
B. Balogh: If you’re just tuning in, this is “BackStory” and we’re talking about the history of looking for work in America. You know guys, so far we’ve talked about the “how,” how we wound up with this phenomenon of unemployment, people moving from farms, industrialization, but we haven’t said much about the “who” of all of this, so tell me—who exactly are we talking about when we talk about unemployment and who are we talking about when we talk about employment, for that matter, in the 19th century.
E. Ayers: Well, Brian, that would’ve been a huge part of the American population, so let’s talk about the people who were notorious by natives for being unemployed and that’s the immigrants and especially the Irish who come in the 1840s and 1850s in desperate need of work but to the eyes of people who were already living here just didn’t really seem that interested in working. Now, the irony, of course, is that the Irish did a lot of the heavy work of the whole United States at this time, especially in the North of digging the canals and unloading the ships and all that.
P. Onuf: But it wasn’t as if those Yankees were inviting the Irish to employment. Irish Need Not Apply and other kinds of invidious distinctions.
E. Ayers: Well, if Irish Need Not Apply, then they needed to go on to somewhere else.
P. Onuf: You’re exactly right.
E. Ayers: The Irish became known really for being iterant, of constantly being on the move looking for work and they were famous for living in shanty towns and so forth, so unemployment I think would first become visible with a kind of an ethnic face on it of the Irish. Does that make sense to you, Peter?
P. Onuf: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
E. Ayers: But the largest group of Americans who had jobs would have talked about, worried about, become enraged by, was the enormous enslaved population of post-Civil War South and there’s a case where they worked so hard and had been working so hard their entire lives and wanted only to be left free to work hard for themselves.
P. Onuf: Right, exactly.
E. Ayers: And almost immediately were sucked into having to work for somebody else and if they didn’t do that, they were considered lazy.
P. Onuf: One of the interesting things that happens is, of course, labor markets closed down for free blacks in the North and there’s a good deal of segregation, both residentially and at the workplace and it’s a sense, I think, that Americans had, a kind of a sense of themselves as American patriots and citizens. They had a kind of a right to work, almost a property in certain occupations and jobs. It’s as if they take the idea of an independent land-holding and extend it. Even when they leave the farm, they take with them a sense of privilege, a sense of being somebody who ought to be favored and people like the Irish or freed blacks or any group that’s strange and unfamiliar that threatens their traditional way of life, it’s very very upsetting. I think you can’t talk about unemployment and employment without talking about nativism, about prejudice, racial and ethnic.
E. Ayers: And that’s a great point because today you think about how unemployment is defined. We’re going to lose our jobs to all those foreigners—
P. Onuf: Exactly.
E. Ayers: And you’re shipping off American jobs and these kind of things. It’s very rare that unemployment is just seen as a neutral social fact. It’s usually entangled in other identities.
B. Balogh: Both in terms of the threat and in terms of the reality. I mean, today and this is one of the saddest facts about unemployment. The unemployment rate among African Americans is twice what it is for white Americans.
E. Ayers: And among Hispanic Americans, it’s enormously high as well.
B. Balogh: Exactly.
E. Ayers: But the irony is, of course, is that the people who are working hardest to find jobs are then are somehow stigmatized as not wanting to work. [music] So, in the wide-ranging discussion, we covered vast expanses of American history but, you know, there’s some times in American history some places where we simply can’t really imagine unemployment and the West is one of those places. Now, you picture it being the scene of unlimited opportunity but as it turns out, the American West was a place where the very expectations of high employment led to a lot of social unrest surrounding it. To really help us enter into that understanding of that moment, we’re really fortunate to have a historical recreation by our own Catherine Moore of an imagining of what it might’ve been like to have been one of those men who caught a train in the East to head West, so here’s the scenario. You’re in Seattle. The year is 1910. You’re a new arrival from back East and you find your way down to skid row where you hear you might be able to get work for the day on a lumber crew. No such luck. But what you do find is a grizzled old man who buys you a drink and launches into the story of how he wound up out of work in the new Northwest.
Tape (Kate Burke): Life changes quickly here. In the 30-odd years since I came to the new Northwest, I’ve been a driller, blaster, mucker, pick boy, faller, choker setter, whistle punk, separator man, oiler, driver, boomer, longshoreman and a sack sewer. Every man who comes out here brings his own dream. Mine took shape the day I saw that thing they call the old wishing train back in Chicago. [music] One day, I showed up for work and the doors of the factory were closed so I kept walking straight into the fairgrounds and sitting there next to the midway, I saw a railway car. Its sides were painted with big bright letters. Oh, [prized] railroad lands of easy terms, farming, raising, timber, irrigating garden lands, extensive coal and iron lands in rich mineral districts, admission free. Free. Free. [music] It was like walking into a treasure chest. Sheaves of grain, precious stones, honey, wild game, jars filled with fruit. There was a man with the railroad standing there. Told me that anyone with hands to work could have all that and more. He said a man could make his own life in the Northwest, work for himself, get freed from the shackles of wage slavery. I decided then and there to make my way to the land of fortune and find one of those homesteads and live off of the fat of the land.
Ha. When I got here, I found out nothing in the Northwest is really free except promises, so I fell into the steadiest work there is out here, the unsteady kind. I’m not the only one. There are thousands of us. We never stay too long in any place. That’s the nature of it. If the price of copper falls, we come pouring out of the mines and take to the rails. A month in a lumber camp. Two months in the mines. A couple of weeks of harvesting. A lot of us came here to escape the yoke of industry but sometimes I think we’re nothing but living machines, not even treated so well as horses. After all, when the horse is out of work, he’s glad of it. When the wage worker is out of work, he is up against it. To some, we’re just tramps, more polite society knows as a casual laborers but there’s nothing casual about it as far as I know. I’m a worker, plain and simple, ready and willing to work if only there’s work to be done. When there’s not, things can get ugly like the year I arrived, 1885, the Knights of Labor drove 700 Chinese from the city of Tacoma on a trail of blood and they tried the same thing in Seattle. The government had to declare martial law. Those were hard years to be looking for work and the bleaker their prospects, the fiercer men get towards outsiders.
The last time I was in Portland I saw a railroad pamphlet laying on the ground. On the cover, a farmer was plowing up gold coins from the Montana soil. It said that soon they’re going to open up the reservations to whites. Land for the asking. Land for the taking. Maybe when the snows come, instead of heading back to the skid row, I’ll make a stop in the Treasure State and see what kind of work I can dig up. [music]
E. Ayers: That was an excerpt from a piece of historical fiction written by one of our producers, Catherine Moore. It was read by Kate Burke, a Drama Professor here at the University of Virginia. You can listen to the entire piece and see some powerful images in the form of an audio slideshow on our website, backstoryradio.org. [music]
What Catherine’s piece evokes so beautifully is the sense of longing and possibility that’s always been throughout American history but was really stepped up when the railroad comes along. It’s probably the symbol of American movement and here you see the image of people just sort of trapped in a field watching possibility hurdle by them in the form of the train, but what Catherine helps us do is to imagine what happens when that train comes to the end of the line. It’s going somewhere and it’s going somewhere for a reason which was often to move people to another place for them to work to build more railroads and to feed the railroad, so there’s a kind of a cycle that we have, the romance of the railroad, but we forget that the railroad really was the engine of the American Industrial Revolution.
P. Onuf: I love that railroad engine, Ed, and it suggests that railroads are in the movement business, so they have a stake, a material stake, in the American dream. Move. Go someplace. I mean, of course, much early railroad advertising has to do with the wonders of the West. See Yellowstone. They built a special hotel there and so they’re playing very self-consciously with our dreams and our fantasies.
B. Balogh: Okay. But it seems to me that there was a huge shift in the demographics of mobility, if you will, somewhere here, because it now seems like it’s wealthier people who pick up and move. They go out to Silicon Valley. They follow the economy as it flourishes wherever and we’re talking about mainly poor people moving, looking for any kind of subsistence or in Ed’s period, a job, and when did that transition happen?
E. Ayers: Well, I think it happened in, amazingly enough, the 19th century. [laughter] And I take no great pride in this, but we can see literally before our eyes and so could Americans at the time, that things were profoundly changing, so it’s not merely that, okay, hard times come and here you are in Boston and now there’s not a job. Now, the expectation is, well, there’s a train station right there. You’ve got a whole continent waiting. If you can just get on that train, there’s got to be a job somewhere so it ratchets up the expectation by expanding the geographic scope of responsibility to go out and find a job.
B. Balogh: You have no excuse.
E. Ayers: Exactly.
B. Balogh: Yeah.
E. Ayers: And so for the first time you start seeing the creation really of a national labor market. Now, you’d had that before along the coast that people would move from one coastal city to another, north to south, as different crops came in and the cities worried about this a lot, the idea that there were this floating population, but now with the railroad, which of course really burgeons after the Civil War and what we think of as the Gilded Age, now there’s a truly national labor market that could extend all the way from Philadelphia to Seattle and all the way from New Orleans to Chicago and people now feel like there’s really no limits to how far I might move to find a job and you can’t really see what those other places look like so you just imagine that they must be better than wherever you are now.
P. Onuf: What I’d say is that the disappointment that we’re hearing in this narrative it could only exist in the context of high expectations and the dream lives, that is the American dream, what we describe as the great incentive, the end of the rainbow, all that good stuff that moves, literally moves people across the landscape, but I think we also need to think back of what it is that Americans imagine they’re escaping, that is the threat, the nightmare, the thing that really bothers people, is to be stuck in one place forever and that was the experience of America’s ancestors, the world we have lost, the old world is being born in one place and never being able to move away, so mobility in a way as an existential experience, moving is its own satisfaction. It’s a melancholy satisfaction.
E. Ayers: Well, I know that whenever the word existential comes up, it’s time for another short break. [music] When we get back, we’ll look at what happened when the endless stream of workers from abroad suddenly got cut off and we’ll hear more from you, our listeners.
P. Onuf: If you’d like to be a caller on a future show, have a look at our website to see the topics we’re working on. That’s backstoryradio.org. We’ll be back in a minute.
E. Ayers: Production support for BackStory is provided by Marcus and Carole Weinstein, Trish and David Crowe, Claire Gargalli and David Carley, Caroleen Feeney and J.W. Weinberg. [music]
P. Onuf: This is BackStory, the show that looks to the past to explain the America of today. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century history guy.
E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th century history guy.
B. Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, history guy of the 20th century. With unemployment rates at a 25-year high, we’re devoting the show today to the history of looking for work in America.
P. Onuf: We’re going to take another call now. It’s from right here in Charlottesville, Virginia, and it’s Emily. Emily, welcome to the show.
Caller (Emily): Thanks.
P. Onuf: What’ve you got on your mind today?
Caller (Emily): Well, I was wondering about some of the differences between the influx of immigrants into the U.S. workforce in the 19th century and the influx of women into the workforce in the 1970s, because I know that in the late 19th century when there was a big influx of immigrants, there was a lot of resentment. There was fear from U.S.-born workers about job shortages. I wondered if that was similar or different to the way people reacted to women coming into the workforce.
B. Balogh: Well, first of all, I think it’s a terrific question, Emily. There are some similarities in that Americans always respond with a certain circumspection when there’s kind of new types in the workforce, but the first thing that really comes to mind is a big difference which is that women were always in the workforce. Poor women were always in the workforce and married middle-class women had been entering the workforce in pretty sizeable numbers ever since they were pushed out or stepped out after World War II. Now, I think what started happening in the 1970s along with a few more women returning to the workforce was women actually getting some and I want to emphasize some, positions of real authority and that really did rankle and that Americans reacted much the way they reacted to immigrants entering the workforce at all.
E. Ayers: Well, I think one of the things that’s so discombobulated Americans who were already here when the immigrants came was that the women were often working among the immigrants. It’s sort of like one of the things that made them seem alien, sort of undomesticated, was that these women would be out working and they’d be taking in boarders into their tenements and doing all this sewing and all the things that seemed to be kind of breaking down the new industrial discipline was now sort of unraveling back into the household, so I think the big difference of what happened is that in the post-World War II era, it is that the conflicts were inside the households rather than between identifiable groups of people, especially different religious groups.
B. Balogh: Now, there is one thing, even today we know that women are not paid the same as men for doing exactly the same thing and the gap was even worse in the 1970s, the decade you talked about, and certainly men have reacted pretty strongly to the notion of women either managing and supervising men or women being paid the same as men and I would imagine there were similar issues with African Americans moving north during their great migration or during the waves of ethnic migration, but I’m looking at my buddy, Ed, to find out the real answer.
E. Ayers: Even before that, the great source of anxiety immediately after Emancipation in the slave South was would the women stay in the fields and in many ways, if the families could, they instead chose to have women devote as much of their energies to the family as they could. Now, of course, African American women were in the fields for generations after that, but not with the sort of complete dominion that white men had insisted upon before in which they have literally women in the fields to the day they had a baby and then they would have them back in the fields very quickly, so the thing is that there’s never just women’s work. Women’s work is always factored through region, religion, race, ethnicity, all those kinds of things, so if you think about when we say women turning to the workplace in the ’70s, that’s kind of coded white and middle-class, right?
P. Onuf: Right.
B. Balogh: And to just complicate that further, Ed, the women, middle-class primarily white women, who were joining the workforce in the ’70s, there was a difference from their counterparts maybe 30 years earlier and that’s that they thought they were there to stay and when people join the workforce to stay, they tend to notice unfairnesses, they tend to notice discrimination much more readily and they tend to demand more. We put up with our horrible conditions here at the “BackStory” studio because we don’t know how long we’re going to be around here, but if we knew we were going to be here for the rest of our careers— [laughter]
E. Ayers: And the strikebreakers might be right outside the door.
B. Balogh: We would demand a water cooler, I can tell you.
P. Onuf: What we’re going to do, Emily, is we’re going to keep you on the line indefinitely. They can’t stop us and we’ll keep the show on the road. No, actually, we’re going to have to cut this one off. Thank you so much for calling us, though.
Caller (Emily): Thanks very much.
E. Ayers: Thank you, Emily.
P. Onuf: Okay, guys. Another call. We’ve got James from Nashville on the line. James, you’ve got some question or insight?
Caller (James): Well, yes. Right now, President Obama is trying to come to grips with the way of ending the war in Iraq and bringing our soldiers home. Historically, what has been the result of mass return of soldiers coming home at the end of a war?
B. Balogh: Unemployment.
E. Ayers: [laughter] You beat me to it. Well, there’s a brief moment of euphoria followed by unemployment.
B. Balogh: Yes, that’s right.
P. Onuf: Right.
B. Balogh: James, you know, more important in many ways than the actual unemployment which followed both World War I and World War II, more important than in many ways was the expectation of unemployment, especially in World War II. It was the mobilization, the massive industrial build-up that was very much a part of World War II that got the country out of a period of terrible unemployment, so people even before the War ended started worrying a lot about what they thought inevitable unemployment that would follow, so as you know, James, from today’s headlines, expectations affect people’s willingness to invest, people’s willingness to hire, etc., etc., so half the battle was fighting this fear that the Depression was going to return. What helped a lot was all these payments that soldiers got that they weren’t able to spend and they had burning a hole in their pocket.
Also, Americans hadn’t been able to spend on anything because a lot of the industrial work was going into war-time materiel rather than products aimed at consumers like cars and refrigerators, so right after the War, unemployment was not a terrible problem. People were spending that money, but by 1947, unemployment was becoming a very real problem.
P. Onuf: You know, guys, I think the real difference between the 18th century and certainly the 20th is in the 18th century, people didn’t have the expectation that government was going to solve their problems during a period of depression. Instead, in the wake of the revolution, the real problem was almost the opposite, that Americans who were no longer enjoying the fruits of a war-time economy were now suffering the additional problem of dealing with taxes that were rising because of the need to service the Revolutionary War debts so rather than looking at government for answers, people were looking at government as part of the problem so that seems to me an almost complete reverse from, say, post-World War II expectations, the G.I. Bill and so forth.
Caller (James): Well, actually, what I was interested in, of course, I thought about the end of World War I and World War II, the Bonus Army and all that, but one of the things that I was really curious about was following the Civil War where you really have another time of massive industrialization, we had a lot of soldiers come home at the end of the Civil War and I was wondering what kind of affect that had on unemployment then.
E. Ayers: You’re a man of great judgment to recognize that the Civil War’s where the real questions are. [laughter] You’re right, that the 1850s had seen really the beginning of mass industrialization in the North in which it really really accelerated during the War itself. Some people have argued that American industrialization was greatly accelerated by the very fact of the American Civil War and that in a kind of a precursor to World War II, that the economy mobilized so radically for the War that it accelerated the economy and suddenly, the brakes just screech on after the War and sure enough, there is a lot of unemployment. The main thing that happens I think that makes it a little alleviated is that there’s such massive movement to the West at this time. If people are unemployed, they can set out for the new territories farther west, but it’s also the case that immigration had radically slowed during the Civil War and so much of the American industrialization before the War had been built on the expectation of a completely rampant immigration throughout the 1850s that it’s stopping help alleviate that somewhat.
Now, in the South, of course, you had nothing like this because the industrialization, while real, was limited to a relatively few places. What you had there was people just trying to put together enough food to live on so what you had there was people coming back to farms that had been neglected for years and certainly no shortage of work. There was a shortage of everything else.
P. Onuf: Well, James, thanks for the call. You inspired us to our usual extended discourse and we are grateful for it.
E. Ayers: It’s kind of a make-work program. [laughter]
B. Balogh: Thank you, James.
Caller (James): Y’all have a good day.
B. Balogh: Thanks a lot. Yeah, you know, Ed, I couldn’t help but think about my century, the 20th century, when you talked about immigration being cut off during the Civil War and how that provided jobs for a lot of people who had been unemployed right here in the United States. Kind of reminded me of a few generations later when World War I came along.
E. Ayers: And you are referring, of course, to what is known as the Great Migration.
B. Balogh: During my century, Ed—
E. Ayers: Well, earlier in the show, you pushed into my territory with that whole beginnings of unemployment thing, so I’m going to get you back now.
B. Balogh: I knew I was going to pay for this, Ed.
E. Ayers: Yep, you sure are.
P. Onuf: All right. So, Ed, the Great Migration. What are we talking about? Who’s migrating? What’s so great about it?
E. Ayers: So, let me just give you the encyclopedia entry, all right?
P. Onuf: All right.
E. Ayers: So, the Great Migration is a period from 1915 to 1930 when over a million African Americans migrated from the South to the North to work in the factories that had been vacated by the cessation of immigration during World War I.
P. Onuf: This is a great and conspicuous movement of people. In some ways, more conspicuous than the influx of immigrants to American port cities because, of course, they absorbed immigrants. There were immigrant neighborhoods but here was a movement almost the landscape that you could track in time.
E. Ayers: Yeah, and people both in the North really wanted it because it would supply these jobs and we needed it for the War. On the other hand, they were really kind of worried about what would it mean to get all these black people living together in the North for the first time and to be living in cities for the first time in these massive numbers, so it was a dual migration. It was across the landscape but also from countryside to city. I want to play for you now an excerpt from an oral history that was recorded back in the 1980s. Now, this is a man named William Brown who moved North from Jacksonville, Florida during the Great Migration. You’re going to hear him describing what happened when he went to apply for a job in the office of a Philadelphia real estate agent.
Tape (William Brown): He said to me, he didn’t have no opening like that at this particular time, but he said to me, now, we do have an opening for a janitor and if you knew anybody that you would recommend, we would accept and I thanked him and walked out. And I poured over that day’s conversation and I explained it to a person that I knew and he said to me, he said, you know, he was just offering you a job. Huh, a mop and broom, that’s all he was doing and I found out, to my, ha, consternation, that the white man up North was perfectly satisfied to ride with you on the subway cars or on the elevated trains and sit by the side of you, because when he got up to go to where he had to go, he got up with his briefcase and went to his office, but when you got up, you went to a mop and broom because there was no office for you to go to up here. But in the South, when colored men rode in the back of the buses and the trains and the trolley cars in the South, when they got up, they went to their occupations which was bricklaying, cement finishing, carpentering, mechanical engineering, but they had to ride in the back of the buses and the transportation facilities, so it was the same thing, only just painted with different colors. [music—“I’m going home on the morning train.”]
E. Ayers: That was William Brown recorded by oral historian Charles Hardy in 1985. It’s part of Hardy’s five-part series on the Great Migration “Going North.” We’ll link to the entire thing on our website, backstoryradio.org. Boy, that’s pretty powerful, guys. What do you think?
B. Balogh: Yeah. I found it very moving. But I want to ask you about the nostalgia for all those supposedly better jobs in the South. I did find that a little questionable.
E. Ayers: No, that’s actually true, Brian, that if you were a free black person in the era before the end of slavery, financially you were better off in the South than in the North because there were jobs that were set aside for black people.
B. Balogh: But what about after slavery? What about between the end of slavery and World War I?
E. Ayers: No, that’s actually still true. Economic historians have studied this and found that the wage rates were actually higher in the South than the North because as Mr. Brown suggested, there was a much broader range of jobs that were available to African American men. Now, if you were an African American woman, there was virtually no job at all for you in the South, but because there were large black business districts, ironically because of segregation, there were black men who performed all those skilled trades that Mr. Brown talked about and so people would often give up jobs where they would have had a greater economic advantage in the South but simply could not stand any more the daily degradation, not having the vote, not being able to testify in court, not being able to display the property that you had, all those things people traded for a lower status job and a clean chance in the North.
P. Onuf: And that reminds me of slavery days when the escape to freedom could be from relatively benign material conditions into great uncertainty and to a highly segregated and repressive North but still, you’d be free.
E. Ayers: Exactly. They could not sell your children.
B. Balogh: Yeah, well guys, you think that that’s really one of the central tensions that we’re talking about throughout this show, this American birthright of freedom means also the freedom to lose your job?
P. Onuf: Brian, I think it’s a great question. Freedom does mean risks. Choices that may lead to unhappy outcomes, but it’s the very fact of being able to make those choices, the very ability to move and to try for a better future for yourself and your family knowing full well that you’re facing a lot of risks. I think that’s a sense in which the thing itself, that is, the sense of being a free person and making your own choices trumps the outcomes.
E. Ayers: You know what, Peter? What I like about that is that it reminds us that unemployment’s just not a matter of numbers or bureaucracies, counting how many unemployed there are. I think it’s the wonderful tapes that we’ve heard during this show remind us that unemployment is a deeply individual, deeply felt fact for each person caught in it and that while the shape of it constantly changes because American history changes, it’s also the case that even the experience of it changes. What it means from one generation to another is shifting.
B. Balogh: Yeah. It also reminds us that with all those experiences out there, we’re really just once again scratching the surface of this story and unfortunately, we’ve run out of time yet again. Fortunately, we’re going to keep the conversation going on our website. Tell us your stories about looking for work or you can just sound off about today’s show.
E. Ayers: The address is backstoryradio.org. Drop in and sign up for our newsletter and check out the video of our recent live performance on the topic of—get this—“Looking for Work.”
P. Onuf: That’s backstoryradio.org. Don’t be a stranger.
E. Ayers: “BackStory” is produced by Tony Field, Rachel Quinby and Catherine Moore with help from Bart Elmore and Lydia Wilson.
P. Onuf: Jamal Milner mastered the show and Gaby Alter composed our theme. “BackStory’s” executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. [music—“I’m taking care of business, woman, can’t you see?”
B. Balogh: Major production support for “BackStory” is provided by The David A. Harrison Fund for the President’s Initiatives at the University of Virginia, The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Perry Foundation Incorporated, Cary Brown-Epstein and the W.L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation, UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, and an anonymous donor. [music—“I got work to do, I got work, I got a job, baby”].
Voiceover: Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Brian Balogh is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia and UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. “BackStory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. [music—“I got work to do . . . “]