‘A Dundee Working Man on America — No. 1.’ by a Correspondent in New York (14 January, 1882)

The following is part of a series of articles on the condition of the United States of America for working class Scottish immigrants. One of the core tenants of The People’s Journal was to encourage self-improvement for the working classes. For these reason the paper would regularly promote emigration and provide news  and publish correspondence from the major destination of Scots in the period (the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). This piece demonstrates the fear mongering surrounding the undercutting of wages, with despairingly pertinent racist attitudes towards Chinese immigrants, as well as boycotts of penal labour.

Work and Wages

To the Editor of the People’s Journal.

Sir,—As 1881 has been a year of unprecedented immigration to this country, and as the likelihood is that 1882 will be one of even greater magnitude, it occurs to me that the most of your readers are either directly or indirectly interested in this exodus, and that a few letters on how trade has been, how it is, and how it is likely to be for some time to come, together with the amount of wages paid to different trades, the cost of living, the manner of living, and other information of how things are going on in America generally, would be read with some degree of interest by many of my fellow-townsmen.

Three years ago trade of all kinds was just beginning to recover from a long depression amounting to stagnation. For a number of years before 1878 there was no stability or confidence between producer and consumer, buyer or seller; none manufactured or bought or sold goods of any kind unless they were absolutely required. These dark days were and are still called “the days of the panic.” But three years ago a blessed reaction set in; confidence was once more restored, and all the people of this great Continent began to see a silver lining in the dark cloud of their adversity. They began to get steadier work and higher wages. Then they commenced to put their houses in order. They were requiring new or better dwellings, furniture, clothing, in fact everything that tended to better their condition in life. This in itself helped to stimulate a briskness in trade and commerce. On the back of this came another incentive towards making and keeping trade better, viz., the great tide of immigration which began to flow in to all parts of the United States. The statistics of the past year will show that about half a million immigrants landed in America in twelve months. Now, some persons would think that such an influx of people almost wholly of the working class would tend to glut the labour market and retard the improvement we are now enjoying. But we must bear in mind the great, the almost fabulous extent of territory which is so sparsely inhabited or cultivated in this country. Consider for a moment that we have thirty-eight States, varying in size from the smallest, Rhode Island, with its 1306 square miles, to Texas, the largest, with its 274,356 square miles. Then there are nine territories, the smallest, Indiana, with 68,991 square miles; the largest, Dakota, with 150,932 square miles. The grand total of States and territories being no less than 3,400,000 square miles.

Besides America having plenty of room for all comers, each immigrant that lands contributes towards the prosperity of the country. For everyone of them sooner or latter requires to purchase some of the commodities which are manufactured. They all require to be fed, housed, clothed, shod, &c., thus giving trade to the farmer, the grocer, the mason, the joiner, the shoemaker, the tailor. In fact every occupation, from the operative to the banker, benefits by every immigrant that lands on the soil. Among all the nations of the world that sends their quota of immigrants here, none are more detested than the Chinese. Here is an extract from an address published to the Trades and Labour Union of America by their representative Committee, bearing on the Chinese question, as it is called here:—

The 250,000 Mongolians now living in the United States are like so many pirates sent over from the Celestial Empire to gradually undermine our political and social institutions, retard our progressive civilisation, annihilate our attained liberties, and counteract the moral and humane influences of our free and independent government. Unlike other immigrants, they come not to build their homes among us or contribute to the welfare of the country. They are sent over to rob our soil [unclear] and people and take the spoils back to the Flowery Kingdom. Trained to meek obedience by centuries of extreme poverty and semi-starvation, the Chinaman is content to work at any price his master is willing to pay him. The Chinese in California, as far as we have been able to observe them, are scantily clothed, fed on the poorest kind of food, and live crowded together in the meanest [unclear] and filthiest [unclear] dwellings. The so-called Chinatown of San Francisco in a festering and disease breeding spot in the very heart of our fair city. Here, within the narrow limits of six blocks are crowded together from forty to fifty thousand human beings, who sally forth every morning to work the white man’s destruction. Are you aware, cigarmakers of the East, that from sixteen to twenty million cigars, manufactured by Chinamen, are sent broadcast over the Union every month? Are you aware, tailors and clothing manufacturers of the United States, that from ten to fifteen thousand Chinamen are manufacturing clothing of all kinds for less pay than the poorest sewing girl of New York receives? Are you aware, boot and shoemakers of the East, that your low rate of compensation is threatened with still further reduction, owing to the manufacture of tens of thousands of articles in your trade by means of the cheap coolie labour of the Chinese?

Although the Chinese are few and far between in the Eastern States, yet it will be seen that they hurt some trades to a great extent. As far as I have seen or heard, they cannot or will not work at any job that involves hard work. But what they do work at they do it for one-half and often one quarter of the wages which other men receive. It is said that they can live on five cents a day, and that a dinner off a dead rat is quite a delicacy to them. Their chief occupation around this quarter is laundry work—starching and ironing men and women’s under wear. There are dozens of such laundries in all large cities, and it must be allowed that they are adepts at this business. When you go with your shirts or cuffs to get done up you get a check, and without this check you get no clothes back. They tell you “No checkie, no shirtie.” One of the Senators for California is going to introduce a Bill before the United State Senate to prohibit Chinese from immigrating to this country. In this he is backed up by a great many working-men. Although it can be urged that this is a free country, and that every individual of whatever nationality has a right to come here if he choose, yet we can sympathise with those you would debar John Chinaman, for more degenerated, imbecile, shrivelled-up caricatures of mankind no one can clap his eyes on.

Prison labour is a very sore subject here for a good many trades, my own among the rest. There are what are called local prisons and State prisons. When a convict is sent for a long term of imprisonment he is sent to one of the State prisons. They are the same as the Perth Penitentiary and other large jails in Scotland. Inside of these are workshops, where a foreman and a few artisans teach the convicts to work at different trades, such as moulding, shoemaking, tinsmithing, tailoring, and a host of other industries. The employers make contracts with the State authorities for so many thousand cooking and heating stoves, or so many hundred pairs of boots and shoes, and so on. These they get made at a far less cost than they would get outside of the jail, thus taking the work from honest men and giving it to felons of the worst kind. The convicts get so much work to do for a day’s labour, and all they do above the allotted task they are paid for when their sentence expires, and some of them who are in for long periods come out with a good few dollars in their pockets, and perhaps the industrious mechanic has been forced to go idle because a habit and repute thief has been doing the work at a far cheaper rate than the honest man would have got for it outside the prison walls.

The only other side to this picture is that by convict labour the cost of keeping them is defrayed by themselves instead of being paid by the rate-payers. But still it must be said that in this system of prison labour “there is something rotten in the State of Denmark.” Some of the Trades Unions here issue reports in which they give the names of employers who contract for this labour, and urge and ask the public not to purchase from such manufacturers—a sort of boycotting system which is in my opinion as much required as is boycotting by Irish Land Leaguers. This question, as well as the Chinese emigration one, will shortly come before the American Congress.

Notwithstanding all these difficulties there is plenty of scope for all who may come here. If we add Canada along with the United States (and at some points there is not half-a-mile of separation betwixt them), we find that there are only seven persons to the square mile of territory, while the relative number in great Britain is nearly three hundred persons to the square mile. This should show us that we are not in the least overcrowded. Henry Ward Beecher, in a lecture delivered here some weeks ago, said—“When anyone goes to Castle Gardens in New York and sees the multitudes of persons landing there, they wonder where under heaven all those people find places to go to. But let them go out West, and they will wonder where under heaven we can get people to till and cultivate this almost boundless amount of rich land lying waste.” Such being the case, we would say to those intending to emigrate to America—“Come on, for yet there is room.” Here is a description of one of the smallest of American territories given a short time ago by a traveller who was on a visit there:—

Washington Territory is 330 miles long, east and west, and 200 miles wide, north and south. It extends from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho and from British Colombia to Oregon. It contains 60,904 square miles or 44,706,000 acres of land. Its surface is diversified by mountain, valley, and plain, more than two-thirds being sufficiently level for settlement and cultivation. Of its lands 35,000,000 acres can be farmed, of which 20,000,000 are timber lands; 6,000,000 acres rich alluvial bottom lands; 10,000,000 prairie and plains; and 9,706,000 covered by water. A large proportion of the latter is well adapted to wheat culture [?], and all of it to [illegible] raising. The finest salmon fisheries in the world are on the Columbia River. Last year 40,000,000 pounds were caught, and no less than 22,000,000 cured. Coal has been found nearly everywhere in Washington, the coal fields [illegible] over many thousand square miles. Copper, lead, iron ore, [illegible]-stone, and bog iron abound. The fruits of Washington Territory are very fine, especially the apples. The population of Washington at present is almost seventy thousand souls, but it can subsist over three million. Here there is room for the poor people of the East and the overcrowded nations of Europe, and fortunes awaiting them. The time is not far distant when what is now Washington Territory will be one of the brightest stars in our galaxy of American States.

—I am, &c., Correspondent,

Rochester, New York, Dec. 31, 1881.

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