The Captains of Industry
Jeremiah Fink reigns over BioShock Infinite's Finkton, a manufacturing center that also houses minority workers that keep the city running. Fink is a posh industrialist who exploits his workers - obsessed with time, paying his workers in Fink Tokens that are only good at the company store. Too crazy to be true? Wrong.
American economic history during the Gilded Age is still a messy issue. On one hand, financiers like J.P. Morgan and steel men like Andrew Carnegie literally helped build the country and made the American economy the largest in the world, but on the other hand they undoubtedly engaged in unethical business practices and exploitation of labor. Then there's the charitable causes - long after these men have died, their fortunes are still benefiting the public through the Carnegie Foundation, Vanderbilt University, Carnegie Mellon and a thousand other museums, hospitals and libraries.
Despite this, it's unavoidable to consider how negatively the big businesses of the Gilded Age treated their workers. Around 1900, child labor was the norm. The gap between rich and poor was enormous. Workers had a hard time affording food while the Vanderbilts gave their wives multi-million dollar mansions as birthday presents. Unconstrained by laws, industrialists bought out the competition, bought their distribution chains and suppliers, even bought the towns and businesses around their factories so every expenditure a worker made - from physical work, to leisure costs, to rent money - ultimately made its way back into the company pocket. And there were, indeed, some workers paid in tokens or credit at the company store, meaning they were unable to save or otherwise better themselves financially. Industrialists bought politicians at will.
Worse still, labor laws - or lack thereof - meant that management always held the upper hand. And for every generous but problematic magnate like Vanderbilt there were a hundred smaller factory or business owners who terrorized their employees without saving face with charitable donations. Take the Triangle Shirtwaist company in New York, for instance. The girls that worked at the sewing machines, some of them no more than ten, were crowded shoulder to shoulder for twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week, for a wage of $1.50 per week. Workers were not allowed to stop to take a break or use the restroom. Mistakes like broken needles or crooked stitches were taken out of their paycheck. All the doors to the factory were locked to prevent theft. A factory overseer stood at the single open exit, checking employee's handbags to make sure they didn't steal shirtwaists or thread. The ideal employee was fast and efficient. She never made errors, never took a sick day and never needed a break.
Conditions were dangerous, a concern the workers brought up when they joined the New York Garment Strike in 1909, demanding higher wages and a union to oversee safety. They won the higher wages, but not the union, and their safety concerns went unaddressed.
In 1911 a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist building and spread to the 9th floor. Flames blocked the only unlocked exit, fueled by piles of shirtwaist material, cloth fibers in the air and a barrel of oil. The elevator managed to take two loads down to the street before the runners warped from the heat. The fire escape - which fire inspectors allowed the owners to install rather than a third staircase - pulled out of the wall and sent twenty women hurtling to the pavement. That's when the women began to jump toward the firemen's nets. "The firemen's ladders were too short and couldn't reach the eighth and ninth floors," recalled Mary Domsky-Abrams, a survivor of the fire. "Also, the nets spread to catch the jumpers were too weak ... I saw a number of firemen crying as they witnessed victims of the fire killed as they broke through the nets." A crowd of over a thousand New Yorkers stood watching helplessly as the bodies of screaming girls, trailing fire from their dresses and hair, rained down to the street.
"When we came to the bottom I could not get out of the building," said Triangle employee Sylvia Kimeldorf, in an interview decades later. "The firemen held us back in the doorway. The bodies were falling all around us and they were afraid to let us go out because we would be killed by the falling bodies."
When the police arrived to remove the dead, they found 146 corpses, mostly young women. Some of the cops sobbed as they pulled dead girls from the wreckage and the street - many of them had worked the picket line during the Garment Strike, beating the women on behalf of the factory owners. Those owners served no jail time for the fire.
It was the beginning of the end. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was so gruesome and public that it turned the tide of labor relations in the United States. Workplace safety codes flew through legislatures nationwide, piggybacked on the continuing anti-monopoly policies of reformers like Teddy Roosevelt. Industrialists continued to make money and backdoor deals the same as before, but America had lost its stomach for completely unrestrained and unregulated capitalism.
In the 19th century, politicians, social observers and scientists began to realize that it was possible to change the behavior of a person or a society through various means. This led to a century-long explosion of reform movements and academic disciplines that hoped to transform individuals and the social structure itself through the control of either the mind or the body.
Early psychologists like Wundt and Freud delved into the human mind. The temperance movement combated drunkenness in a society where alcoholism was rampant. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg claimed that he could rid the body of disease and sexual urges through a stay at the Battle Creek Sanatorium, where patients engaged in exercise, yogurt enemas, and a bland diet of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. (Kellogg also advocated genital mutilation as a "cure" for masturbation, which he considered a danger as great as war and smallpox.) However, nothing encapsulates the promise and horror of "reforming" individuals better than the prison philosophies of the time.
Around the mid-1800s, western societies made an ideological shift in how they punished criminality. Instead of punishing the offenders' bodies via torture, mutilation and widespread use of execution, increasingly governments shifted focus to punishing the soul instead. The main weapon in this arsenal was the penitentiary, a new type of prison that, as the name implies, was structured specifically to make convicts penitent in the hope that reflecting on their crimes would cause an internal change and reverse their criminal behavior.
The model for this new system of was Eastern State Penitentiary, opened in 1829 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its designers imagined Eastern State as a sort of enforced monasticism, and they designed the prison as such. Prisoners at Eastern State lived in complete isolation. Their one hour of exercise took place in a tiny "yard" outside their cell, surrounded by high walls that cut them off from other prisoners. They saw no one except their wardens, who were not permitted to speak with the convicts and knew nothing about them - not even their names or crimes - referring to them only by number. Prisoners did not receive letters or visitors, and their only human contact was during chapel or lectures on social ills like alcoholism, which they watched from a boxed-in gallery where they could see the lecturer but not each other. During transfers, exercise, or work, prisoners wore hoods so they couldn't recognize each other, and felt slippers so even their footfalls couldn't be heard by man in the next cell.
This system, much-copied worldwide in the mid to late 19th century, was meant to break the prisoner down and make him docile and obedient. It had its detractors. After a visit to Eastern State, Charles Dickens wrote: "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the human brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body." The individual cells, however, were excellent for the time - each had water taps, central heating and even flush toilets. This model of the "separate system," despite causing high rates of mental breakdown, provided the basis for 300 prisons worldwide. The competing system, known as the "Auburn system," for its development at Auburn Prison in New York, was similar except that it aimed to reform prisoners through work details. Convicts spent the night in solitary confinement much like prisoners at Eastern State and Pentonville, but spent their days in a group manufacturing boots, nails, steam engines and even cultivating silk worms - all in enforced silence.
These innovations, some humane, some terrible, encapsulate the changing social thought of the time and show America's changing attitudes to how to create a "good citizen." How they reflect BioShock? Well, that's getting into spoiler territory.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.
Image Credit: Seattle Municiple Archive