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Uneasy Allies

Working for Labor Reform in Nineteenth-Century Boston

David A. Zonderman

Publication Year: 2011

Throughout the nineteenth century, working-class activists and middle-class reformers in Boston strived to build alliances in the campaign for labor reform. Though some of these organizations have been familiar to historians for more than a century, this is the first study to trace these cross-class groups from their origins in the early 1830s to the dawn of the Progressive Era. In addition to analyzing what motivated these workers and reformers to create cross-class organizations, David Zonderman examines the internal tactical debates and external political pressures that fractured them, even as new alliances were formed, and shows how these influences changed over time. He describes what workers and reformers learned about politics and social change within these complex and volatile alliances, and speculates as to whether those lessons have relevance for activists and reformers today. What emerges from this investigation is a narrative of progress and decline that spans nearly three-quarters of a century, as an ever-shifting constellation of associations debated the meaning of labor reform and the best strategy to secure justice for workers. But the quest for ideological consistency and organizational coherence was not easily achieved. By century's end, not only did Boston look dramatically different from its antebellum ancestor, but its labor reform alliances had lost some of their earlier openhearted optimism and stubborn resilience.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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List of Maps

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

This book has been many years in the making and I have amassed many debts in bringing it to completion. Generous support from the American Antiquarian Society, American Council of Learned Societies, American Historical Association, American Philosophical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, and the National Endowment for the Humanities facilitated research for ...

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pp. 1-24

From the early 1830s until the end of the nineteenth century, more than a dozen labor reform organizations emerged and later disappeared in the streets, halls, and tenements of Boston.1 These groups brought together men and women from widely divergent economic and educational backgrounds— including ministers, “millgirls,” and machinists— to campaign for better ...

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Part I: 1830s–1870s

BOSTON’S first cross-class labor reform organizations emerged in the early 1830s as alternatives to the city’s struggling trade unions and workingmen’s party, stagnated during the economic depression of the late 1830s, then reappeared with renewed vigor in the mid-1840s as part of a vibrant out-pouring of reform enthusiasm. The early cross-class alliances debated fundamental questions concerning goals, strategies, and tactics, questions that the ...

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Chapter 1: Awakenings: The First Cross-Class Labor Reform Organizations, 1832–1848

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pp. 27-63

On February 16, 1832, at the Marlborough Hotel on Washington Street in Boston’s central commercial district, “a General Convention of Mechanics and Working Men” met “to concentrate the efforts of the laboring classes, to regulate the hours of labor, by one uniform standard, to promote the cause of education and general information . . . and to maintain their rights, as Amer- ...

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Chapter 2: Keeping The Flame Alive: The Enduring Vision of Antebellum Labor Reform, 1848–1865

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pp. 64-81

The year 1848 did not begin auspiciously for Boston labor reformers and activists. The Labor Reform League of New England (LRLNE), successor to the New England Workingmen’s Association (NEWA), ceased meeting after March. The Massachusetts legislature continued to turn back massive petition drives for a legal limit on the workday, and no other issue offered much hope ...

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Chapter 3: Acts of Commission: Labor Reformers, Activists, and the Levers of Political Power, 1865–1870

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pp. 82-113

The years 1865 to 1870 were a time of political reconstruction for the nation and of strategic reconstitution for labor reform organizations in Boston. As one observer noted: with “the breaking up of the rebellion and the return of the Grand Army of the Republic to the grand army of labor, from the process of destruction to the process of Production . . . the full force” of the labor ...

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Chapter 4: The Generation of 1869: Two Leagues, a Bureau, and a Party

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pp. 114-168

In 1869, as the nation continued to wrestle with fundamental legal and political questions surrounding Reconstruction, the Boston labor reform community exploded in a frenzy of organizing. Four new institutions formed, all in the closing year of that tumultuous decade. It was as if reformers and activists feared that the dawn of a new decade might push the emotional intensity of ...

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Part II: 1870s–1900

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pp. 169-172

The labor reform community in Boston confronted a rapidly changing city in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Boston’s population grew steadily and shifted in its ethnic composition from the Civil War to the end of the century. Fueled by ongoing inmigration from rural New England, the changing character of European immigration, and especially the annexation of surrounding towns, the city’s population more than doubled ...

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Chapter 5: Piety and Protest: Labor Reform, Religion, and Mass Demonstrations, 1872–1898

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pp. 173-211

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, religion—particularly liberal Protestantism and its more daring off shoot, Christian Socialism—assumed a more prominent role than ever before in Boston’s labor reform community. In these same decades, deep economic downturns, open conflict between labor and capital, and spreading strike waves forced these new generations of ...

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Chapter 6: Spaces, Places, and Headquarters: Workers, Reformers, and the Search for Common Ground, 1879–1900

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pp. 212-239

During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, many workers and reformers intensified their search for meeting places in Boston where they could gather on a regular basis to mobilize for social change. Ever since the Labor Reform Institute had set up Institute Hall in 1867, such sites had promoted cross-class dialogue and cooperation, organizational cohesion, and ...

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Chapter 7: New Models for a New Century: Labor Reform and the Origins of the Progressive Movement, 1891–1900

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pp. 240-260

In the 1890s, two emerging groups in Boston—the Anti–Tenement House League and the Consumers’ League of Massachusetts—stood at the crossroads of a new century, using both tactics inspired by past labor reform efforts and new techniques drawn from the emerging Progressive movement. But, faced with a burgeoning population of immigrant workers from eastern and south- ...

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pp. 261-264

Boston at the dawn of the twentieth century was certainly a different city in many respects from its antebellum ancestor. The previously modest-sized port had expanded nearly tenfold in population, and nearly thirty times in physical size. By 1900, immigrants and their children—many of them now Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe—constituted nearly ...


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pp. 265-266


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pp. 267-306


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pp. 307-312

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760550
E-ISBN-10: 1613760558
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498655
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498656

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Labor movement -- Massachusetts -- Boston -- History -- 19th century.
  • Labor policy -- Massachusetts -- Boston -- History -- 19th century.
  • Working class -- Massachusetts -- Boston -- History -- 19th century.
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