Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

The Industrial Age in America: Sweatshops, Steel Mills, and Factories


The Lesson


Industrial Revolution

Early 20th century construction, New York

Credit: Image Courtesy ofAmerican Memory

About a century has passed since the events at the center of this lesson—the Haymarket Affair, the Homestead Strike, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. For some people in our nation, these incidents illustrated the unfair conditions faced by workers as the United States assumed its position as the most highly industrialized nation in the world. For others, they demonstrated the difficulty of managing industries. Such disagreements continue to this day. Where do we draw the line between acceptable business practices and unacceptable working conditions? Can an industrial—and indeed a post-industrial—economy succeed without taking advantage of those who do the work?

Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a complement to another EDSITEment lesson The Industrial Age in America: Robber Barons and Captains of Industry.

Guiding Questions

  • What were working conditions like during the Age of Industrialization? How did workers respond to these conditions? Where do we draw the line between acceptable business practices and unacceptable working conditions?

Learning Objectives

  • List some actions, both positive and negative, of the managers and workers involved in the incidents studied.
  • Discuss the working conditions that led to the Haymarket Affair, the Homestead Strike, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
  • Discuss the significance of the featured events to the labor movement, the industrialists involved, and the attitude of the American people toward working conditions in the United States.
  • Take a stand on sweatshops today, supported with evidence.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Background on the Industrial Age

If necessary, review with your class the historical context in which the labor actions at the center of this lesson occurred. Use your class text or other classroom resources, or refer to either or both of the following interactive timelines available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Learner.org:

Read with—or to—your class Riis the Reformer and The Gilded Age on the PBS website Big Apple History and, if possible, share some of the images and the video. Discuss the income and lifestyle disparities illustrated by these two articles. What were some of the indications of poverty Riis noted? What specifics does "The Gilded Age" article offer as evidence of the wealth of the industrialists? As they continue to learn more about the Age of Industrialization, ask students to think about the following:

  • Was the income disparity noted in the two articles the norm? Is great income disparity part of the process when a nation is undergoing rapid economic growth?
  • Is there sufficient evidence to dispel the notion that "the poor were lazy and deserved their fate?"
  • Did the enormous wealth earned by the "captains of industry" eventually benefit everyone through their investments in new factories and their charitable donations?
  • Were workers better off in the Industrial Age than they had been before? Did the benefits of industrialization eventually improve the lot of workers? Did benefits come to workers through the actions of the industrialists or through the efforts of the workers themselves or both?

Though not the specific focus of this lesson, students might also have an interest in viewing archival photos of children at work, an unregulated practice before 1906--and one that was not completely outlawed until 1938. The photographs below offer an opportunity for students to consider how the growth of documentary photography affected reform efforts at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. One of the greatest crusaders against child labor was Lewis Hine. Just as Riis had used compelling and sometimes shocking photographs to provoke a public response to the conditions of tenement dwellers, Hine used mages to make a vivid case against the use of child labor:

The National Child Labor Committee campaigned for tougher state and federal laws against the abuses of industrial child labor, and Lewis Hine was its greatest publicist. A teacher who left his profession to work full-time as investigator for the committee, Hine prepared a number of the Committee's reports and took some of the most powerful images in the history of documentary photography
—From American Treasures of the Library of Congress, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory

In his report "Child Labor in the Cotton Mills of Mississippi" (1911), Hines noted that he had taken pictures of "most of the youngest workers," as well as older workers under sixteen who worked 60 hours a week instead of 63 1/2, "reduced hours" compared to adults. Hine's colleague, Edward F. Brown, in his report "Child Labor in the Gulf Coast" (1913), identified 26 children from ages 7 to 14 (including, for example, six 10-year-olds and five 12-year-olds) working at one oyster factory at 4:45 a.m.

Share with the class some of Hine's photos, including the following, available on the EDSITEment reviewed website American Memory:

How old are the workers in the pictures? Do the students believe they were able to put in a good day's work? Were they likely paid a fair wage? Why do you think these children and young people were working or allowed to work?

Now share with the class both Hine's and Brown's comments regarding these documentary photos, and consider how Hine and Brown might have answered the questions above.

After they have read and discussed these comments, ask students to think about their earlier response to Hine's photographs and to consider the following questions: How might Brown and Hine have responded to the same pictures? Why might their responses differ from yours? How does the effect of Hine's photographs compare with that of Riis the Reformer's?

Activity 2. Workers Respond

Divide the class into three student groups (or six, if you'd like each labor incident to be covered by two groups). Assign one of the historical incidents below to each group. Distribute to the groups the "Labor Events Chart" on page 1 of the PDF. Using the following resources and/or any other approved sources available in your classroom or online, each group should fill in the chart for their assigned individual.

Note: The Haymarket Affair and the Homestead Strike were violent and the language from both sides was inflammatory. Teachers should review all websites below before sharing with students.)

When the groups are finished with their research, have each present its findings to the class. Do students think workers were justified in their actions? Were owners/managers? What lessons can be gleaned from the situations studied?

Activity 3. Sweatshops Today

Contrary to what you have heard, sweatshops in third-world countries are a good deal for the people who work in them. Why? Because work, other than slave labor, is an exchange. A worker chooses a particular job because she thinks herself better off in that job than at her next-best alternative. Most of us would regard a low-paying job in Nicaragua or Honduras as a lousy job. But we're not being asked to take those jobs. Those jobs are the best options those workers have, or else they would quit and work elsewhere… sweatshops are a normal step in economic development.
—From "The Case for Sweatshops" by David R. Henderson Hoover Institution, a link from the Hoover Presidential Library, administered by the National Archives

As part of the Clinton/Gore Administration's ongoing commitment to the improvement of working standards around the world, the Departments of Treasury and State will announce two new initiatives to protect workers, children, and families from abusive and unfair labor practices. These two new initiatives represent important milestones in the President's leadership on anti-child labor and sweatshop efforts …
The White House, January 16th, 2001, housed at the National Archives

Read with—or to—your class the essay The Case for Sweatshops, available via a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital Classroom. Make sure the students understand the argument offered. Does that argument echo ideas that were stated during any of the labor controversies studied in Activity 2.

Share with your class the following two documents available through the EDSITEment-reviewed CongressLink: the Washington Post article about sweatshops on U.S. territory and the companies that use them (one of many informative documents from U.S. Congressman George Miller's Information on Sweatshops); and the Garment Enforcement Report October 1995 – March 1996 from the Department of Labor. Students can also read Is It Getting Better? on the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia. Do these documents echo any ideas that were stated during the labor controversies studied in Activity 2.

Would students recommend that sweatshops be abolished or supported? Have individuals or student groups compose position papers, stating

The Basics

Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Essay writing
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Online research
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)


Activity Worksheets