by Bruce O’Hara
January 19, 2024
I can remember almost nothing of the specifics of what I learned in High School. Yet, more than half a century later, I do have a detailed set of recollections from one of Mr. Statham’s Modern History classes.
The class was about the rise and fall of the ‘Robber Barons’ in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century. Industrialization and mass production had meant that vast amounts of goods could be created by far fewer workers. The resulting mass unemployment meant employers could force punishingly long workweeks and pitifully low wages on the working population. The richest of those employers then bought out all their major competitors. Monopoly pricing then enabled such Robber Barons to amass vast fortunes.
The class featured an archived newspaper article from the 1890’s that focused on the plight of a group of factory workers who worked ten hours a day, six days a week, cutting tiny wood chips that passed for seeds in a mass-produced ‘strawberry jam’ that was mostly sugar and red food colouring.
Such ‘muckraking’ journalism helped create the social and political pressure required to rein in the ultra-rich Robber Barons that then dominated the US economy: the Rockefellers, Morgans, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Astors, and Mellons.
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