One-Minute Essays
The Lives of Pre-Industrial Workers Arts & Humanities Reading, Writing, Speaking, ListeningScience/Technology
The Nature of Work, its Rewards, and Success
Neither life nor labor in the pre-industrial world were as divided into separate stages as both are today. After the age of five, modern lives usually have three distinct periods:
  1. Twelve years of schooling often followed by four or more years of college or vocational training;
  2. Four decades or so spent working or pursuing a career; and finally
  3. Retirement at about age 65 when one starts living on accumulated savings, a Social Security pension, and possibly a pension from his or her employer. 
Prior to the 19th Century, with few exceptions, people spent their whole lives working, the great majority as farmers. If they had schooling it consisted of a few weeks each winter (when there was less field work to be done) and lasted usually no more than eight years. The young were taught the basics: how to write (penmanship), reading, and enough arithmetic to calculate wages and make change.
As they grew up, the children of working families were expected to help with chores suited to their strength—running errands, carrying water, bringing in firewood, tending younger brothers and sisters. Boys soon learned to milk cows, "slop" (feed) the pigs, clean stables, and chop wood. Girls helped their mothers cook, clean, sew, tend garden, bake bread, and the like.  Depending on size and strength, boys sometime in their ‘teens went to a job either because they wanted to; they thought it their duty; or they were pushed to it by their parents. If they were hard workers, thrifty, and perhaps lucky, they in time might acquire some land for a small farm of their own, or tools and skill in using them for some sort of shop or business.
Those less fortunate would work for others all of their working years.  Few if any workers retired.  That was a privilege of the wealthy and of successful professionals (lawyers, ministers, physicians).  Workers whose health failed and could no longer work became dependent on their children or went on “relief,” moving to a publicly supported “poor farm.”   These conditions were the same for all working families in most industries, not just iron workers.
Boys who lived and worked on iron plantations usually began work in their mid teens. They had no vocational school or other preparation for any job. They frequently started by working as a helper to their father, an uncle or older brother.  These “helper” jobs were a sort of apprenticeship where they learned by watching and assisting.  In this way boys discovered which jobs they liked or disliked even as the ironmaster was noting those who looked promising for the more important and better paying jobs. The ironmaster also decided which boys were unlikely to be good at anything but supplying an extra hand.  The wisest course for a young man was to learn something about several or even all of the various jobs on the iron plantation.  Persons able to do anything that needed doing usually were assured steady work, if not at the establishment where they started, then at another.
Daughters in working families learned to do all the things necessary for the feeding, clothing and care of their worker fathers and brothers and of younger children.Some found work at the ironmaster’s mansion doing the same kinds of “women’s work.”  Their chief goal (and that of their family) was that they marry well—preferably a good worker or better, a prosperous farmer.
Before long the young male worker would find a particular task or two that he preferred.  If the ironmaster or manager agreed, he would be allowed to help at the position he wanted and move to it full-time if he did well and was needed.  Some workers preferred a single task and became especially good at it.  Others found doing the same thing repeatedly boring and preferred to change from time to time.
If a worker was injured on the job and could not work for a while or permanently, he would have no income or company housing unless the ironmaster gave him charity.  Sometimes the master would pay for a doctor, or his fellow workers might go together to assist him.  If even the best worker’s health failed or he lived too long, he again ran the risk of having to live off charity.  No laws protected workers in their jobs—they could be fired anytime at the whim of their employer who told them what to do, paid them what he thought they were worth to him—unless a labor shortage obliged him to pay more.  When a worker could no longer perform duties to his employer’s satisfaction, he risked losing his job.
Some workers seemed to lack ambition.  However, it was often opportunities to move ahead that they lacked.  And so the great majority came to accept the reality of their situations, working hard when work was available, enjoying prosperity when it came, and suffering from poverty when work was scarce.  Satisfaction, of necessity, had to come from doing their jobs well, from their relationships with one another and their families.  It almost certainly could not come from the amassing of material possessions.
“Success” for most did not mean becoming wealthy—that was so rare as to be unrealistic.  To acquire a “competence,” a farm or a job that was sufficient to support one’s family in comfort, free of debt, was success for most working people.   If their farm was large and fertile, it would carry the workman and his wife until their deaths.  Usually the child who agreed to stay and manage his parents’ farm or business and live with and care for them in their declining years would inherit the property.  The custom that the family home would pass to the eldest son was accordingly weakened in practice.