Davis’s Call to Laborer’s Harsh Reality

By Sukhvir Singh:

Rebecca Harding Davis does not hold back when discussing the lives of immigrant factory and mill laborers in Life in the Iron-Mills. Narrating the life of Hugh Wolfe, a welsh immigrant who works as a furnace hand in a Kirby&John iron mill, the hardships and struggles that he faces apply to many individuals at this time. His life is a tragic but a common one amongst poor workers, who were often immigrants. Working long shifts for little money, and fighting the struggles of poverty like not always having enough to eat and not getting a break from work. Life in the 19th century urban setting was one filled with smoke and filth. As Davis explains in detailing the city in which Mr. Wolfe works,

“The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke”.

A strong example for the lack of regulation and difficult working conditions is the well known hours and shift lengths the laborers endured through. Deborah after working a dozen hours at the spools, must deliver her cousin Hugh food to his iron mill which is located almost a mile away. Through the stormy and cold night she makes the journey there for him so he may eat the cold potatoes and have some stale ale for dinner. The circumstances made it easy for disadvantaged people like Wolfe to be caught in a never ending cycle of work. Mill owners and managers tied down the work force with contracts that included length of employment, often passed what was verbally agreed upon by the employer, a very low starting wage with the ‘opportunity’ of a raise, but that was a hopeless causes, and as Zonderman explains,

“These legal contracts were one of the commonest devices used for controlling the labor”.

People like Wolfe often had no other choice but to agree to the terms presented because jobs were scarce and long term employment was even rarer. Employers knew they could take their pick of the desperate work force and get away with unfair and unreasonable conditions and terms.
Labor injustices presented in Life in the Iron-Mills are rooted in a larger societal problem of the increasing gap between classes in antebellum America. In the poem, wealthy men like Mitchell and Kirby, who were the son and son in-law of Mr. Kirby, the factory owner make their rounds and comment on the unfortunate conditions of the workers but their tone and actions imply that they believe it is almost a natural happening, this division of wealth. For example, when Wolfe asks what make can make him happy, Kirby and Mitchell response is money, but when Wolfe asks them to spare some for him, they say they cannot help him.
The point of Davis writing this piece was to bring attention to the terrible conditions so many workers in america faced on a daily basis. Davis knew that to really call the american people and governments to action she had to highlight in detail the lives of people like Hugh Wolfe. To Davis, factories and industrialization represented a dark time, clear from the way she describes how smoke and residual effects of factories smother towns and cities. And to a degree Davis has a point, as Daniel notes when discussing nineteenth century labor,

“The ascendency of trade and commercial competition was accompanied by class conflict” .

This lifestyle was the foundation of many american and immigrant persons who simply wanted to make a living and although many took advantage of them, people like Rebecca Harding Davis took notice to what was happening and spoke up to make it known to spark change.


Wetherill & Son White Lead Factory

The painting above is of a Wetherhill & Son lead and chemical factory located in Pennsylvania. This factory is relatively small and rather open than most mills and factories found during the mid nineteenth century yet the amount of smoke produced is clear. The painting showcases how much smog and filth these building brought with them to towns, and that no matter how harmful the work may have been to the laborers, especially during a time before health and safety codes and regulations, one would endure to be able to have a job and income.




Aspirations and Anxieties : New England Workers and the Mechanized Factory System,      1815-1850. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2014. Accessed November 4, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Daniel, Evan M. “Nineteenth-Century Labor and Radicalism.” Workingusa 17, no. 4 (December 2014): 597-603. Business Source Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 4, 2017).

Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron-Mills. (The Atlantic Monthly, 1861), 

Breton, William L., ca. 1773-1855. Wetherill & Brothers white lead manufactory & chemical works, corner of 12th & Cherry streets, Philadelphia.[Philadelphia]: Kennedy & Lucas]. 1831.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s