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American Labor in Comparative Perspective Previous Next
Digital History ID 3186


In 1905, Werner Sombart, a German social democrat who became a Nazi party supporter in the 1930s, asked why the American working class--unlike the workers in every other industrialized country--never produced a genuinely mass-based political party of its own. In Europe, the working class created Labor, Social Democratic, and Socialist parties with massive popular support; in sharp contrast, American workers threw their support to the Democratic and Republican Parties, which were broad-based coalitions that included business, middle-class, and labor interests.

Sombart's explanation was that the political and economic position of the American working class made it much more conservative than its European counterpart. In contrast to Europe, where the working class had to struggle to win the vote, universal manhood suffrage was the practice in the United States. Further, American workers, Sombart insisted, enjoyed a much higher standard of living than their European counterpart and had a much greater chance to rise into the middle class.

Sombart overestimated the economic well being of the American working class. While the average income of industrial workers in the United States were indeed higher than in Europe, between 1860 and 1913, working-class wages, adjusted for inflation, rose more slowly than in Britain, France, Germany, or Sweden. In addition, the American economy between the Civil War and World War I was even more subject to boom and bust cycles than the economies of other industrial countries.

During the late 19th century, the average American worker was jobless for three or four months a year due to illness, inclement weather, or seasonal unemployment.

In the late 19th century, the average income of an urban worker was only about $400 or $500 a year, a sum insufficient to support a family. The remainder was made up by wives and especially by older children. Children under the age of 16 contributed about 20 percent of the income. These children worked not because their parents were heartless, but because their earnings were absolutely essential for their family's well-being.

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