A Comparison of Labor Systems in 1860
Not often mentioned in discussions about the antebellum era is the labor system favored by the Northern manufacturer. Though the slavery inherited from British rule should have been allowed to die off by ongoing Southern manumission efforts, it was strengthened by Northerner Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and the eagerness for profit by New England textile mills. See "Complicity, How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery," Farrow, Lang and Frank for more on this topic.
Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402
Why the Yankees Discarded Chattel Slavery:
"Negro slavery was a flop in the North.
The accent there was on manufacturing and the Negro was at his best when teamed up with a hoe and a cotton-patch. The thrifty manufacturers of New England had a cheaper and more efficient labor supply readily at hand in the white wage slaves already there and the immigrants from Europe who came flooding in.
A healthy Negro field hand in 1860 cost $1000 in Virginia and as much as $1500 in New Orleans. The chattel slave had to be fed and clothed and taken care of in sickness and in health. When he got too old to work he had to be provided for. Some States made it illegal for slaves to be worked on Sundays under pain of a fine of five shillings. It was against the law to work a slave more than fifteen hours a day in the summer and fourteen days in winter. The average work day was about eleven hours. The slave was given a holiday between Christmas and New Year’s. Louisiana prescribed by law that every slave had to be given a minimum of 200 pounds of pork a year.
The New England white wage slave wasn’t nearly as expensive and a lot more efficient. He represented no capital outlay. He worked for starvation wages. Laborers in the North in 1860 were earning 60 cents a day, and a day was often 14 to 16 hours. The plight of women workers was even more appalling. In New York City during the Civil War, women umbrella workers, after laboring 18 hours from six in the morning to midnight, earned three dollars a week. Seamstresses in the underwear crafts got seventeen cents for a twelve-hour day. When the wage-slave got sick he went off the payroll. When worn out by age and hard work, he was discarded like an old shoe.
Bells rang at daybreak in most factory towns. The wage slaves—men and women, boys and girls—had to report at the factory gates in fifteen minutes. An hour later they were allowed twenty-five minutes for whatever breakfast they had brought. They got another twenty-five minutes at mid-day. The gates opened again at 8 o’clock that night to let the wage slaves go home. In the Eagle Mill at Griswold, Connecticut, the work day lasted fifteen hours and ten minutes. At Patterson, New Jersey, women and children began the day’s work at 4:30 o’clock in the morning. Overseers in some textile mills cracked a cowhide whip over the backs of women and children."
(Then My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night! W.E. Debnam, 1955, Chapter XII, pp. 30-31)