Labor Issues in Industry

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Civil War Brands

Labor Issues in 


With the explosion of growth in the U.S. garment industry due to the pressing need for military uniforms, both private industry and government operated clothing halls began to experience labor issues. These came primarily in the form of the calls for increased wages.

Despite the growth of the use in outside contracting, the United States government had thousands of seamstresses and tailors who were directly employed in government arsenals that were scattered across the North. They produced tens of millions of dollars in uniforms and as the use of outside contractors grew, they began to agitate for higher wages and better job security.

The Quartermaster Department was forced into making very difficult decisions between making uniforms in the government facilities or outsourcing the manufacturing to private industry. This became known as the “make or buy” decision.

The workers at the government-run facilities guarded their portion of the uniform business jealously. They were constantly pressuring authorities for a bigger slice of the procurement pie, at the expense of private industry. They used the early Brooks Brothers uniform scandal and the specter of war profiteering to their advantage.

Sarah Jacobs, a seamstress in St. Louis, wrote to President Lincoln when she was in danger of losing her job, “open again the workrooms (and) furnish through your quartermaster the materials to these women, which can be wrought by their hands…into clothing, better than it is being made through the mediumship of private contractors, whose only care is to make the most profit-by the least work.”

They government seamstresses also agitated for higher wages, forming themselves into groups in order to wield greater economic and political strength. One such organization was the Sewing Women’s Protective and Benevolent Association. Others sprang up across the North. Not only did they press the government but their pressure began to move the private industry workers for higher wages.

In the summer of 1861, Brooks Brothers dropped its wage rates by 20% using as a reasons the type of work involved. By that fall, they had secured additional contracts and the firm’s German tailors began to push for a return to the higher wages. They formed a committee which presented a petition to the owners, requesting the return to the former rates.

When Dan Brooks told them to negotiate with his foreman, they were not satisfied. They persisted in their demands, averring that the Brooks Brothers “were the proper persons for them to consult.”  The brothers finally met with the committee but the workers were not satisfied with the results. Eventually, the wage dispute must have been resolved because no more was reported on it.

The Civil War period would see the beginnings of organized labor in the United States. During the course of the war, workers in American industry tripled from 1 million to 3 million. Shops turned into factories that began to mass produce products rather than the formerly custom-made items. The uniform industry during the war is a case in point, as are the other industries that supplied the Union war effort.


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