The emergence and consolidation of the new industrial order meant, first and foremost, that America was becoming a nation of wage earners for the first time. At the start of the nineteenth century. wage labor was but one of many competing forms or systems of organizing productive activity. Skilled artisans produced in small shops, textile operatives labored in large factories, rural men and women made goods at home through the putting-out system, farm families tilled their land, garment workers toiled in sweatshops, and African and African-American slaves performed forced labor on plantations or in rural industries and cities. While this diversity never completely vanished, it did change dramatically over the course of the century. According to the 1870 census, the United States remained a predominantly rural nation, but it had become a nation of employees. Some 67 percent of productively engaged people (involved in gainful occupations) — a majority of the population — now worked for somebody else, dependent upon another person or business for their livelihood. Self-employment was the exception, not the rule. By the century’s end, the “wages system,” as labor critics called it, was dominant.
Eric Arnesen, “Americans Workers and the Labor Movement in the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Charles W. Calhoun, ed., The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America, pp. 55-6