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The Disruption of the Artisan System of Labor Previous Next
Digital History ID 3517


As late as the 1820s, skilled craftspeople, known as artisans or mechanics, performed most manufacturing in small towns and larger cities. They made shoes and men's clothing, built houses, and set type for printed material. These craftspeople manufactured goods in traditional ways--by hand in their own homes or in small shops located nearby--and marketed the goods they produced. Matthew Carey, a Philadelphia newspaperman, personified the early 19th artisan-craftsman. He not only wrote articles and editorials that appeared in his newspaper, he also set the paper's type, operated the printing press, and hawked the newspaper.

The artisan class was divided into three subgroups. At the highest level were self-employed master craftspeople. They were assisted by skilled journeymen, who owned their own tools but lacked the capital to set up their own shops, and by apprentices, teenaged boys who typically served a three-year term in exchange for training in a craft.

Urban artisans did not draw a sharp separation between home and work. A master shoemaker might make shoes in a 10-foot square shed located immediately in back of his house. A printer would bind books or print newspapers in a room below his family's living quarters. Typically, a master craftsperson lived in the same house with his assistants. The household of Everard Peck, a Rochester, New York, publisher, was not unusual. It included his wife, his children, his brother, his business partner, a day laborer, and four journeyman printers and bookbinders.

Nor did urban artisans draw a sharp division between work and leisure. Work patterns tended to be irregular and were frequently interrupted by leisure breaks during which masters and journeymen would drink whiskey or other alcoholic beverages. During slow periods or periodic layoffs, workers enjoyed fishing trips and sleigh rides or cockfights, as well as drinking and gambling at local taverns. Artisans often took unscheduled time off to attend boxing matches, horseraces, and exhibitions by traveling musicians and acrobats.

The first half of the 19th century witnessed the decline of the artisan system of labor. Skilled tasks, previously performed by artisans, were divided and subcontracted out to less expensive unskilled laborers. Small shops were replaced by large ``machineless'' factories, which made the relationship between employer and employee increasingly impersonal. Many masters abandoned their supervisory role to foremen and contractors and substituted unskilled teenaged boys for journeymen. Words like employer, employee, boss, and foreman--descriptive of the new relationships--began to be widely used.

Between 1790 and 1850 the work process, especially in the building trades, printing, and such rapidly expanding consumer manufacturing industries as tailoring and shoemaking, was radically reorganized. The changes in the shoemaking industry in Rochester, New York, during the 1820s and 1830s illustrate this process. Instead of producing an entire shoe, a master would fit a customer, rough-cut the leather uppers, and then send the uppers and soles to a boarding house, where a journeyman would shape the leather. Then, the journeyman would send the pieces to a binder, a woman who worked in her home, who would sew the shoes together. Finally, the binder would send the shoe to a store for sale to a customer. Tremendous gains in productivity sprang from the division and specialization of labor.

By 1850, the older household-based economy, in which assistants lived in the homes of their employers, had disappeared. Young men moved out of rooms in their master's home into hotels and boarding houses in distinct working-class neighborhoods. The older view that each worker should be attached to a particular master, who would supervise his behavior and assume responsibility for his welfare, declined. The older paternalistic view was replaced by a new conception of labor as a commodity, like cotton, that could be acquired or disposed of according to the laws of supply and demand.

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