The Market Revolution caused major changes in northern society, as more and more Americans moved to large cities. New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and other major cities tripled or even quadrupled in size from 1820 to 1860 as people left their farms to find work in the cities.
One byproduct of the increase in manufacturing and mass migration to the cities was the development of wage labor. As more factories sprang up in the North, more workers were needed to tend to the machines. Rather than learn a trade skill, these day laborers worked alongside scores of others for as many as sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, for a meager hourly wage.
Though many early wage laborers were children, often under the age of thirteen, most were men. Some factories, such as the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, employed only girls and young women. These factories provided room and board and attempted to “moralize” the women with heavy doses of religious preaching and strict discipline.
Although wealthy business owners loved cheap wage labor, workers suffered, and few had any recourse to redress their grievances. Collective bargaining was illegal, and factory owners could always hire replacement workers, or “scabs,” if employees refused to work. Some workers, particularly women, risked prosecution and initiated a series of strikes in the 1820s and 1830s to improve working conditions.
These labor strikes became more prominent in the national news around the same time that the National Trades Union—one of the nation’s first unions—formed in 1834. Eventually, the government began to take action: in 1840, President Martin Van Buren succeeded in establishing a ten-hour working day for all federal employees engaged in public works projects; in 1842, the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized trade unions in Commonwealth v. Hunt . Nevertheless, it would be decades before unions gained any real power to bargain effectively.
In the 1840s and 1850s, urbanization in the North accelerated as millions of immigrants from Europe settled in northern cities. Facing starvation from the Potato Famine of the mid-1840s, over 100,000 Irish immigrants came to the United States every year in the late 1840s and 1850s to find new opportunities. Though most settled in New York, Boston, and later in Chicago, Irish quarters sprang up in every major northern city.