Three in a Half Leaf Clover: Irish Immigrant Labor in Philadelphia in the 19th Century – Michelle Hancock

Irish immigration to Philadelphia occurred from the 1700s to the 1800s with people escaping intermittent famines of the homeland combined with social and political inequality from the Protestant English colonists. The Irish arriving in the city “…after 1783 were more substantial, self-assured, discriminating, and politically experienced…”[1] By 1844 Philadelphia was 10% Irish with a continual flow of immigrants moving in due to the Great Famine of 1845-52. These later Irish immigrants were poor and came with large families, a dislike for cities and few industrial skills.[2] The Irish settling in Philadelphia over the course of one hundred years contributed to the labor force of the city with men, women and children working in demanding and low paying jobs.

By 1850 almost 72,000 Irish lived in Philadelphia with 51.3% Irish born working in High White Collar, Low White Collar, Artisan and Specified Unskilled areas of the workforce.[3] These jobs consisted of shoemakers, carpenters, tailors and other trades that the immigrating Irish brought with them. There were thousands of Irish men, women and children of the peasant class who brought only agricultural skills. In industrialized Philadelphia they found themselves marginalized and expendable in labor intensive jobs classified as Unspecified Unskilled. These jobs included working for the railroad, domestic services and indentured servitude. Competition for lower class jobs arose due to Philadelphia’s location. The city was close “to the upper South and received many runaways and free Negroes escaping oppression below the Mason-Dixon line.”[4] Work on the Philadelphia railroad line was in its infancy in the 1830s and laborers were in steady demand due to the rigorous demands the job entailed.

It was not uncommon for immigrant railroad workers to die on the job through accident or epidemic. In antebellum Philadelphia fifty seven Irish railroad workers employed by contractor Philip Duffy, a middle class Irishman, died from cholera in the 1830s. British novelist, Frances Trollope, wrote that Irish laborers worked for “ ‘ten to fifteen dollars a month, with a miserable lodging, and a large allowance for whiskey.’”[5] The poor Catholic and Gaelic-speaking Irish laborers were expendable as the fifty seven railroaders were secretly buried in a mass grave to secure future employment of new workers. While Irish men found employment outside the home, Irish women gained work inside the home with domestic service.

The mistress of the house and her domestic servant, the Irish “Bridget.”

The Irish immigrant woman, nicknamed ‘Bridget,’ found employment in the domestic service industry for middle class American families. Their feisty temper, self assertion, defiant nature and taste for fashionable dress caused conflict between them and their employers. Some mistresses were turned off by their heavy accent and did not want their children to pick it up. Want ads looking for domestic servants in the 1863 Boston Evening Transcript stated, “Positively no Irish need apply.”[6] Domestic service was the predominant occupation of Irish women. Wages depended on location, job duties and the wealth of the employer, but were considered favorable when compared to other female professions. In 1845 maids earned four to six dollars a month with wages increasing to nine dollars a month by the 1890s. Irish child indentures was another form of labor in Philadelphia during the 1800s.

Irish children being sold as indentured servants was a practice dating back to colonial times. Some children were contracted to be apprentices learning trades such as tanning, carpentry and blacksmithing that would lead to future employment. Many children, including orphans of the state, were put in abusive situations of being overworked with little pay. In 1830 a complaint made by a man named, Phil, against the House of Refuge in Philadelphia stated, “…our youth … are required to labour incessantly from the morning’ dawn to the going down of the sun, for almost nothing.”[7] In south Philadelphia the Indenture Book of the Moyamensing Board of Commissioners for 1836-1845 had one third of its indentures listed as Irish children.[8] Some children were bound to servitude before they turned eleven years old while in other cases they were sold as babies. They were indentured on average ten to fifteen years. One girl named, Mary Ann Callaghan, was listed as a house wife at the age of seven and was indentured for ten years.

Philadelphia’s size and economic opportunities made possible by its growing middle class provided stable jobs and upward mobility for Irish men and women of the 1800s. From 1850 to 1880 “male Irish immigrants representing all economic sectors…made major advances in attaining occupational stability.”[9] Both men and women opened up savings accounts and shipped money back home. In 1850 roughly $4.8 million was sent to Ireland from America.[10] A bank, called the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, “…recorded that 1,030 of it’s 2,375 new accounts for 1850 had been opened by women…”[11] By the 1890s most child placement societies in Philadelphia forsook the indentured service industry and instead placed children in foster care.

The Catholic Irish carved out an existence in Philadelphia, but it was not an easy endeavor. Not only were working conditions and wages substandard in numerous instances, but conflicts with  Protestants continued as Philadelphia was home to many.

-Michelle Hancock

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Bibliography

 

Beckham, Polly. “A Little Cache of Green: The Savings Habits of Irish Immigrant Women in      1850 Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 69,      No. 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 230-265.

Brennan, Margaret Lynch. The Irish Bridget (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009),    75.

Clark, Dennis. “Babes in Bondage: Indentured Irish Children in Philadelphia in the Nineteenth    Century,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 101, No. 4         (October 1977), pp. 475-486.

Clark, Dennis. “Sticking Together In The Urban Work World: Irish Immigrants in            Philadelphia In 1850,” Saothar, Vol. 17 (1992), pp. 45-50.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/23197340.

Feldberg, Michael. The Philadelphia Riots of 1844 (London, England: Greenwood Press, 1975), 21.

Gould, Eliga H. and Peter S. Onuf, eds., Empire and Nation: The American Revolution in the       Atlantic World (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 159.

Tucker, Abigail. “Ireland’s Forgotten Sons,” Smithsonian, Vol. 41, No. 1 ( April 2010), pp.14-    18. EBSCOhost, libpublic3.library.isu.edu.

[1] Eliga H. Gould and Peter S. Onuf, eds., Empire and Nation: The American Revolution in the Atlantic World (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 159.

[2] Michael Feldberg, The Philadelphia Riots of 1844 (London, England: Greenwood Press, 1975), 21.

[3] Dennis Clark, “Sticking Together In The Urban Work World: Irish Immigrants in Philadelphia In 1850,” Saothar, Vol. 17 (1992), pp. 45-50.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/23197340.

[4] Michael Feldberg, The Philadelphia Riots of 1844 (London, England: Greenwood Press, 1975), 23.

[5]Abigail Tucker, “Ireland’s Forgotten Sons,” Smithsonian, Vol. 41, No. 1 ( April 2010), pp. 14-18. EBSCOhost, libpublic3.library.isu.edu.

[6] Margaret Lynch Brennan, The Irish Bridget (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009), 75.

[7] Dennis Clark, “Babes in Bondage: Indentured Irish Children in Philadelphia in the Nineteenth Century,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 101, No. 4 (October 1977), pp. 475-486.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Polly Beckham, “A Little cache of Green: The Savings Habits of Irish Immigrant Women in 1850 Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 230-265.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.