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African Americans in the Great Depression and New Deal  

Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy

For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.

Article

American Film since 1945  

Joshua Gleich

Over the past seventy years, the American film industry has transformed from mass-producing movies to producing a limited number of massive blockbuster movies on a global scale. Hollywood film studios have moved from independent companies to divisions of media conglomerates. Theatrical attendance for American audiences has plummeted since the mid-1940s; nonetheless, American films have never been more profitable. In 1945, American films could only be viewed in theaters; now they are available in myriad forms of home viewing. Throughout, Hollywood has continued to dominate global cinema, although film and now video production reaches Americans in many other forms, from home videos to educational films. Amid declining attendance, the Supreme Court in 1948 forced the major studios to sell off their theaters. Hollywood studios instead focused their power on distribution, limiting the supply of films and focusing on expensive productions to sell on an individual basis to theaters. Growing production costs and changing audiences caused wild fluctuations in profits, leading to an industry-wide recession in the late 1960s. The studios emerged under new corporate ownership and honed their blockbuster strategy, releasing “high concept” films widely on the heels of television marketing campaigns. New technologies such as cable and VCRs offered new windows for Hollywood movies beyond theatrical release, reducing the risks of blockbuster production. Deregulation through the 1980s and 1990s allowed for the “Big Six” media conglomerates to join film, theaters, networks, publishing, and other related media outlets under one corporate umbrella. This has expanded the scale and stability of Hollywood revenue while reducing the number and diversity of Hollywood films, as conglomerates focus on film franchises that can thrive on various digital media. Technological change has also lowered the cost of non-Hollywood films and thus encouraged a range of alternative forms of filmmaking, distribution, and exhibition.

Article

The Department Store  

Traci Parker

Department stores were the epicenter of American consumption and modernity in the late 19th and through the 20th century. Between 1846 and 1860 store merchants and commercial impresarios remade dry goods stores and small apparel shops into department stores—downtown emporiums that departmentalized its vast inventory and offered copious services and amenities. Their ascendance corresponded with increased urbanization, immigration, industrialization, and the mass production of machine-made wares. Urbanization and industrialization also helped to birth a new White middle class who were eager to spend their money on material comforts and leisure activities. And department stores provided them with a place where they could do so. Stores sold shoppers an astounding array of high-quality, stylish merchandise including clothing, furniture, radios, sporting equipment, musical instruments, luggage, silverware, china, and books. They also provided an array of services and amenities, including public telephones, postal services, shopping assistance, free delivery, telephone-order and mail-order departments, barber shops, hair salons, hospitals and dental offices, radio departments, shoe-shining stands, wedding gift registries and wedding secretary services, tearooms, and restaurants. Stores enthroned consumption as the route to democracy and citizenship, inviting everybody—regardless of race, gender, age, and class—to enter, browse, and purchase material goods. They were major employers of white-collar workers and functioned as a new public space for women as workers and consumers. The 20th century brought rapid and significant changes and challenges. Department stores weathered economic crises; two world wars; new and intense competition from neighborhood, chain, and discount stores; and labor and civil rights protests that threatened to damage their image and displace them as the nation’s top retailers. They experienced cutbacks, consolidated services, and declining sales during the Great Depression, played an essential role in the war effort, and contended with the Office of Price Administration’s Emergency Price Control Act during the Second World War. In the postwar era, they opened branch locations in suburban neighborhoods where their preferred clientele—the White middle class—now resided and shaped the development and proliferation of shopping centers. They hastened the decline of downtown shopping as a result. The last three decades of the 20th century witnessed a wave of department store closures, mergers, and acquisitions because of changing consumer behaviors, shifts in the retail landscape, and evolving market dynamics. Department stores would continue to suffer into the 21st century as online retailing exploded.

Article

Home-Based Labor  

Eileen Boris

Home-based labor has persisted over time and space but has varied in processes performed, earnings gained, and working conditions. Women and men have made and assembled goods, copied and manipulated data, minded dependents, and conducted enterprises in their residences or entered other people’s homes as domestic workers and caregivers. They have done so as unwaged family laborers and slaves, as employees, and as the self-employed. From rural outworkers in early America to urban immigrant homeworkers into the 20th century, from New England to the South and Puerto Rico, mothers and daughters sought to generate income along with engaging in unpaid work for the family. Most found it impossible to combine caring and earning without lengthening the workday into the night. Concentrated in seasonal and fashion industries, in which workers were paid by the piece, homeworkers were at the mercy of national and global markets. Though a family survival strategy, home-based labor challenged the ideology of separate spheres, the separation of home from work that made such labor invisible. Trade unionists joined women reformers to campaign against the home sweatshop for violating domesticity and undermining the male breadwinner wage. The resulting protective laws—minimum wages, maximum hours, and limits on child labor—rarely included home-based work, while the tenement location complicated enforcement of labor standards. New Deal reforms banned the most pervasive forms of industrial homework but excluded the often home-based domestic and agricultural sectors in which African Americans predominated. By the 1990s, new campaigns against the sweatshop linked the local and the global, while domestic workers organized to fight for inclusion in standards related to wages, working hours, and health and safety. Emerging after World War II, white-collar, home-based labor only expanded with the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding new forms of surveillance, such remote work continued to extend the working day, especially for women with care responsibilities.

Article

Indentured Servitude in Colonial America  

Anna Suranyi

Indentured servitude was a constitutive factor in the development of colonial America and helped shape patterns of immigration, labor relationships, citizenship, and the economy of the colonies. During the 16th through the 18th centuries, about 320,000 indentured servants, primarily from England but also from Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the British colonies in the Americas, making up about 80 percent of white immigrants. About three-quarters of them were male, a quarter were female, and approximately a tenth were children. Most indentured servants were impoverished individuals, aged 18 to 25, who had agreed to a term of four to seven years of servitude with a payment of “freedom dues” at the end, but some were shipped or “transported” overseas involuntarily by the government, as vagrants or to serve criminal sentences, or were trafficked into servitude by kidnappers. Even those servants who had nominally agreed to indentured servitude had little understanding of what awaited them on the North American continent, because the indenture relationship gave their masters and mistresses much greater control over servants’ lives than employers had in Britain. Once indentured servants began their term of labor, many found themselves in abusive situations, with women and children particularly vulnerable to mistreatment. However, their circumstances were better than that of enslaved people of African ancestry, as a consequence of the limited duration of indentured servitude as opposed to lifelong enslavement and because indentured servants possessed legally and culturally defined rights as members of British society that were unavailable to the enslaved, including guidelines regulating their terms of labor, protections against abuses, and the ability to sue in court if mistreatment occurred. After servitude was completed, indentured servants were expected to join colonial society, and while many remained in dire poverty, some prospered.

Article

Irish American Working Class  

David Brundage

Between the 1790s and the 1990s, the Irish American population grew from some 500,000 to nearly 40 million. Part of this growth was due to immigration, especially in the years of the Great Irish Famine, though significant emigration from Ireland both preceded and followed the famine decade of 1846–1855. For much of this 200-year period, Irish-born men and women and their descendants were heavily concentrated in working-class occupations and urban communities. Especially in the years around the opening of the 20th century, Irish Catholic immigrants and their descendants put a distinctive stamp on both the American labor movement and urban working-class culture and politics as a whole. Their outsized influence diminished somewhat over the course of the 20th century, but the American Irish continued to occupy key leadership positions in the U.S. labor movement, the Democratic Party, and the American Catholic Church, even as the working-class members or constituents of these institutions became increasingly ethnically diverse. The experience of Irish American working people thus constitutes an important dimension of a larger story—that of the American working class as a whole.

Article

McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare  

Landon R. Y. Storrs

The second Red Scare refers to the fear of communism that permeated American politics, culture, and society from the late 1940s through the 1950s, during the opening phases of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This episode of political repression lasted longer and was more pervasive than the Red Scare that followed the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I. Popularly known as “McCarthyism” after Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), who made himself famous in 1950 by claiming that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department, the second Red Scare predated and outlasted McCarthy, and its machinery far exceeded the reach of a single maverick politician. Nonetheless, “McCarthyism” became the label for the tactic of undermining political opponents by making unsubstantiated attacks on their loyalty to the United States. The initial infrastructure for waging war on domestic communism was built during the first Red Scare, with the creation of an antiradicalism division within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the emergence of a network of private “patriotic” organizations. With capitalism’s crisis during the Great Depression, the Communist Party grew in numbers and influence, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program expanded the federal government’s role in providing economic security. The anticommunist network expanded as well, most notably with the 1938 formation of the Special House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, which in 1945 became the permanent House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Other key congressional investigation committees were the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Members of these committees and their staff cooperated with the FBI to identify and pursue alleged subversives. The federal employee loyalty program, formalized in 1947 by President Harry Truman in response to right-wing allegations that his administration harbored Communist spies, soon was imitated by local and state governments as well as private employers. As the Soviets’ development of nuclear capability, a series of espionage cases, and the Korean War enhanced the credibility of anticommunists, the Red Scare metastasized from the arena of government employment into labor unions, higher education, the professions, the media, and party politics at all levels. The second Red Scare did not involve pogroms or gulags, but the fear of unemployment was a powerful tool for stifling criticism of the status quo, whether in economic policy or social relations. Ostensibly seeking to protect democracy by eliminating communism from American life, anticommunist crusaders ironically undermined democracy by suppressing the expression of dissent. Debates over the second Red Scare remain lively because they resonate with ongoing struggles to reconcile Americans’ desires for security and liberty.

Article

The New Deal  

Wendy L. Wall

The New Deal generally refers to a set of domestic policies implemented by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Propelled by that economic cataclysm, Roosevelt and his New Dealers pushed through legislation that regulated the banking and securities industries, provided relief for the unemployed, aided farmers, electrified rural areas, promoted conservation, built national infrastructure, regulated wages and hours, and bolstered the power of unions. The Tennessee Valley Authority prevented floods and brought electricity and economic progress to seven states in one of the most impoverished parts of the nation. The Works Progress Administration offered jobs to millions of unemployed Americans and launched an unprecedented federal venture into the arena of culture. By providing social insurance to the elderly and unemployed, the Social Security Act laid the foundation for the U.S. welfare state. The benefits of the New Deal were not equitably distributed. Many New Deal programs—farm subsidies, work relief projects, social insurance, and labor protection programs—discriminated against racial minorities and women, while profiting white men disproportionately. Nevertheless, women achieved symbolic breakthroughs, and African Americans benefited more from Roosevelt’s policies than they had from any past administration since Abraham Lincoln’s. The New Deal did not end the Depression—only World War II did that—but it did spur economic recovery. It also helped to make American capitalism less volatile by extending federal regulation into new areas of the economy. Although the New Deal most often refers to policies and programs put in place between 1933 and 1938, some scholars have used the term more expansively to encompass later domestic legislation or U.S. actions abroad that seemed animated by the same values and impulses—above all, a desire to make individuals more secure and a belief in institutional solutions to long-standing problems. In order to pass his legislative agenda, Roosevelt drew many Catholic and Jewish immigrants, industrial workers, and African Americans into the Democratic Party. Together with white Southerners, these groups formed what became known as the “New Deal coalition.” This unlikely political alliance endured long after Roosevelt’s death, supporting the Democratic Party and a “liberal” agenda for nearly half a century. When the coalition finally cracked in 1980, historians looked back on this extended epoch as reflecting a “New Deal order.”

Article

Progressives and Progressivism in an Era of Reform  

Maureen A. Flanagan

The decades from the 1890s into the 1920s produced reform movements in the United States that resulted in significant changes to the country’s social, political, cultural, and economic institutions. The impulse for reform emanated from a pervasive sense that the country’s democratic promise was failing. Political corruption seemed endemic at all levels of government. An unregulated capitalist industrial economy exploited workers and threatened to create a serious class divide, especially as the legal system protected the rights of business over labor. Mass urbanization was shifting the country from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one characterized by poverty, disease, crime, and cultural clash. Rapid technological advancements brought new, and often frightening, changes into daily life that left many people feeling that they had little control over their lives. Movements for socialism, woman suffrage, and rights for African Americans, immigrants, and workers belied the rhetoric of the United States as a just and equal democratic society for all its members. Responding to the challenges presented by these problems, and fearful that without substantial change the country might experience class upheaval, groups of Americans proposed undertaking significant reforms. Underlying all proposed reforms was a desire to bring more justice and equality into a society that seemed increasingly to lack these ideals. Yet there was no agreement among these groups about the exact threat that confronted the nation, the means to resolve problems, or how to implement reforms. Despite this lack of agreement, all so-called Progressive reformers were modernizers. They sought to make the country’s democratic promise a reality by confronting its flaws and seeking solutions. All Progressivisms were seeking a via media, a middle way between relying on older ideas of 19th-century liberal capitalism and the more radical proposals to reform society through either social democracy or socialism. Despite differences among Progressives, the types of Progressivisms put forth, and the successes and failures of Progressivism, this reform era raised into national discourse debates over the nature and meaning of democracy, how and for whom a democratic society should work, and what it meant to be a forward-looking society. It also led to the implementation of an activist state.

Article

Puerto Ricans in the United States  

Lorrin Thomas

Puerto Rican migrants have resided in the United States since before the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898, when the United States took possession of the island of Puerto Rico as part of the Treaty of Paris. After the war, groups of Puerto Ricans began migrating to the United States as contract laborers, first to sugarcane plantations in Hawaii, and then to other destinations on the mainland. After the Jones Act of 1917 extended U.S. citizenship to islanders, Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States in larger numbers, establishing their largest base in New York City. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, a vibrant and heterogeneous colonia developed there, and Puerto Ricans participated actively both in local politics and in the increasingly contentious politics of their homeland, whose status was indeterminate until it became a commonwealth in 1952. The Puerto Rican community in New York changed dramatically after World War II, accommodating up to fifty thousand new migrants per year during the peak of the “great migration” from the island. Newcomers faced intense discrimination and marginalization in this era, defined by both a Cold War ethos and liberal social scientists’ interest in the “Puerto Rican problem.” Puerto Rican migrant communities in the 1950s and 1960s—now rapidly expanding into the Midwest, especially Chicago, and into New Jersey, Connecticut, and Philadelphia—struggled with inadequate housing and discrimination in the job market. In local schools, Puerto Rican children often faced a lack of accommodation of their need for English language instruction. Most catastrophic for Puerto Rican communities, on the East Coast particularly, was the deindustrialization of the labor market over the course of the 1960s. By the late 1960s, in response to these conditions and spurred by the civil rights, Black Power, and other social movements, young Puerto Ricans began organizing and protesting in large numbers. Their activism combined a radical approach to community organizing with Puerto Rican nationalism and international anti-imperialism. The youth were not the only activists in this era. Parents in New York had initiated, together with their African American neighbors, a “community control” movement that spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s; and many other adult activists pushed the politics of the urban social service sector—the primary institutions in many impoverished Puerto Rican communities—further to the left. By the mid-1970s, urban fiscal crises and the rising conservative backlash in national politics dealt another blow to many Puerto Rican communities in the United States. The Puerto Rican population as a whole was now widely considered part of a national “underclass,” and much of the political energy of Puerto Rican leaders focused on addressing the paucity of both basic material stability and social equality in their communities. Since the 1980s, however, Puerto Ricans have achieved some economic gains, and a growing college-educated middle class has managed to gain more control over the cultural representations of their communities. More recently, the political salience of Puerto Ricans as a group has begun to shift. For the better part of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans in the United States were considered numerically insignificant or politically impotent (or both); but in the last two presidential elections (2008 and 2012), their growing populations in the South, especially in Florida, have drawn attention to their demographic significance and their political sensibilities.