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Labor and Economic Effects - General

Irish in the labor pool (Boston)

From every part of the U.S. construction bosses in embankments & water projects, tunnels, canals, & RRs called on Boston for the cheap manpower they knew was always available there. Thus the city's role as labor reservoir assumed national proportions; often the Boston newspaper in single issues, printed advertisements for more than 2,000 men wanted in widely-scattered places.
Sooner or later the immigrant in search of employment discovered the labor contractor in search of men. In the columns of their weekly newspaper they saw, or heard read to them, the incredible, tempting advertisements detailing the blandishments of good wages, fine food, & excellent lodgings. This meant leaving friends & wife & children but these partings had been part of Irish life as the spalpeens [see Ireland - Annual Migration for Work in England] made their annual migration. Within a year the laborers were back, usually no better off than before.
Unscrupulous exploitation was the theme of the construction camp, with unremitting toil. Wages ranged from $1.00 to $1.25 a day. The more prudent contracted for board as part of their pay, but most were victimized by rapacious sub-contractors who monopolized supplies at isolated camps & took back in exorbitant prices what they paid out in wages. The RRs themselves frequently resorted to dishonest practice. The Irish, after traveling several hundred miles, had no recourse of the company decided to pay less than advertised. Because of the exploitation the Boston Pilot advised "all laborers who can get employment elsewhere, avoid the RRs."
- Oscar Handlin, Boston's Immigrants, p. 71

The Irish were the hewers of wood, the carriers of water. They arrived at a time when foreign labor was an article of nearly essential necessity to the progress of the country, because of the vast upsurge of canal, RR, & industrial construction. Even Marryat conceded that, though the most troublesome of immigrants, the Irish were also "the most valuable to the U.S.." For, as Dickens remarked, "who else would dig & delve, & drudge, & do domestic work, and make canals & roads, & execute great lines of internal improvements?" Thus they secured for themselves "the privilege of monopolizing all the rough & menial employment of every kind, which was otherwise set apart as only fitted for the colored population, & which but few Americans could be found to undertake" (Francis Wyse, America, {1846}, a guidebook for prospective emigrants).
Hence in N.Y. they were the porters, draymen, bootblacks, newsboys, & general laborers of the city; in N. England, the millhands; in the west they worked as steamboat firemen, teamsters, & cooks; everywhere they could be found as laborers & navies. Later they became domestics... Domestic service was attractive to them since wages & keep were higher than the 40¢ per hour paid laborers on canal construction. Robertson stated (James Robertson, A Few Months in America, 1855) that in 1856 porters were receiving $18-20 per month, waiters $12-15, boys
$8-12, & females $7-12 plus maintenance. These salaries, while not as high as those earned by native[-born] Americans, were more than they had received in Ireland.
- Max Berger, The British Traveler in America, p. 169-71

Emerson wrote Thoreau of his astonishment on discovering Irish laborers in Massachusetts who regularly worked 15 hours a day for 50¢.
Theodore Parker observed in Boston in 1846 that he rarely saw "a grey-haired Irishman," inferring that they all died young.
A newspaper commented: "America demands for her development an inexhaustible fund of physical energy, and Ireland supplies the most of it. There are several sorts of power working in the fabric of this Republic - water power, steam power, and Irish power. The last works hardest of all."
- Wm. V. Shannon, The American Irish, p. 29

Irish in the labor force

No immigrant group was so poverty-stricken or so lacking in previous training as the Irish, the great majority of whom therefore became urban proletariat.
Because of their dependence upon unskilled labor, the Irish introduced a novel element of concentration into the American urban pattern. A N.Y. state census in 1855 revealed that 1/4 of N.Y. City's Irish working population consisted of laborers, carters, porters, & waiters; another 1/4 was made up of domestic servants, & another 10% were either tailors or dressmakers. In Boston, where poor transportation facilities immobilized the laborer & the absence of industrial enterprises still further narrowed his opportunities, almost 2/3 of the gainfully-employed Irish were either unskilled laborers or domestic servants. This condition had no parallel in other immigrant groups.
While Irish virtually monopolized unskilled jobs in American cities, they were equally prominent in the construction industry. Finding urban employment sporadic when obtainable, Irishmen responded to the bait of high wages held out by employment agencies & contractors with canal, RR, & other construction projects in the west & south. In the construction camps working & living conditions were extremely harsh, and exploitation by unscrupulous contractors frequent; yet despite the warnings of the Irish-American press, Irishmen continued to be drawn to canal- & RR-building, leaving their families for months at a time in the cities where they first settled. Toward the end of the period (1860) increasing numbers found employment in industry. During the 1840s Irish immigrants began to replace native farmers' daughters in the New England textile mills; others obtained work in shoe factories, & those who had gaining experience in mining during a sojourn in England scattered throughout the Pennsylvania coalfields. Yet even in 1860 the bulk of the Irish were still at the bottom of the occupational ladder.
- Maldwyn A. Jones, Am. Imm., p. 130-31

Effect of Irish immigrants on labor market

The alien laborers simply took over menial tasks & elevated the American workers to a higher level. They did not lower the wage-scale markedly. Wages showed no downward trend from 1848-1855, & industries using immigrant labor maintained as high or higher levels than those using only native labor.
American economics in the 1850s was in an unsettled & inflationary period, partly caused by the discovery of gold in California & partly by the rapid development of new industries - RRs , reapers, sewing machines. California dumped $50,000,000 on the nation's money markets in one year & as usual in periods of expansion, prices rose more rapidly than wages. Workers did not understand these complex economic forces. They only knew that since the coming of foreigners their living standard had been lowered.
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