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6. Labor & Capital

"Labor and Capital"—the phrase was as common in postwar headlines as "Wets and Drys," "Science and Religion," "City and Country," and other social-political divides of the American Twenties. Industrial workers and their unions were LABOR. Industrialists and financiers were CAPITAL (capital meaning, very simply, money used to make more money through business, investments, or loans). Their escalating battle after World War One mirrored their longtime conflicts over wages, working conditions, and union recognition, aggravated by wartime inflation, a severe postwar recession, immigration pressures, the yearning for "normalcy," and the widespread fear of Communist infiltration after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Here we examine the labor-capital divide through commentary and political cartoons of the period. Hang in there during the economics lessons; remember that discussions of wages, prices, high cost of living, etc., reflect a struggle for security, reason, and the "American sense of fair play"—as separately defined by Labor and Capital.

    Collected Commentary Labor and Capital PDF file
  • Collected commentary. Presented in chronological order, these selections from news periodicals, labor and business publications, novels, memoir, song, etc., reflect the broad range of opinion about labor unions, strikes, the worker-employer relationship, and the appropriate labor-capital balance within American democracy and the free marketplace. What issues, anxieties, and recommendations appear throughout the commentary? Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (11 pp.)

  • Political cartoons, Labor & Capital PDF file
  • Political cartoons. This collection presents thirteen political cartoons from labor, African American, and general circulation newspapers, spanning the years from 1919, the first year of massive nationwide strikes and the Red Scare, to 1926, as labor unrest continued to erupt in violence. Be sure to note the objects or persons labeled "capital" and "labor" in the cartoons. What general viewpoint was prevalent in the big-city general circulation newspapers? What additional perspective appeared in the labor and African American newspapers? Study the cartoons with the five other cartoon collections in this Theme DIVISIONS and complete the cartoon analysis chart. (Cartoons, 15 pp.; Chart: 2 pp.)

See also Labor Union, Labor Strike, and "Reds" & "Americans."

Discussion Questions

  1. Study the contemporary commentary to identify main arguments. How and why did:
  2. Below is an alphabetical list of ten speakers and cartoonists included in this section. As an exercise in determining viewpoint, re-order the list from extreme anti-union to extreme pro-union position. Upon what criterion will you decide where to list the moderate commentators in the middle range of opinion? Add other commentators from these resources and from the Labor sections in the Theme PROSPERITY.
  3. Judging from the evidence in these resources, what was the perspective of the groups below on the labor-capital divide? What specific factors influenced the position of each group?
  4. Identify specific concessions or compromises recommended by moderate observers to de-escalate the capital-labor conflict. Begin with the recommendations of army general Leonard Wood and of Forum editor Alfred Keet. What did their recommendations have in common? How realistic were the recommendations, in your opinion? Why?
  5. Contrast the editorial response in labor and business periodicals to labor violence in the 1920s, especially
  6. Explore humor as a device for political commentary by composing several brief quips similar to those in "Life Lines" that satirize or illuminate a factor in the labor-capital divide.
  7. Below are pairs of items that represent Labor and Capital in the political cartoons. Select two pairs that you found effective in communicating the cartoonists' messages. Explain your selections. You might also explain why another pairing was less effective for you.
  8. Create a political cartoon that represents one of these pairs of opposing opinions about the labor-capital divide. Use as few words as possible.
  9. Complete this chart of phrases often used in the rhetorical battles of Labor and Capital. How did each side define the phrases? How did each use them as persuasive rhetoric in the public debate? How did each side object to the other side's use of the phrase? Strive to represent the range of opinion within each side (e.g., the AFL and the IWW). Identify more examples in the resources in Labor Union and Labor Strike.
    Common phrase in
    labor-capital debate
    as used by
    as used by
    "a living wage"      
    "high cost of living"      
    "open shop" and
    "closed shop"
    "the people" or
    "the American people"
    "the boss" or
    "the bosses"
    "class struggle" or
    "class war"
    "radical agitators" or
    "outside agitators"
    Bolshevism, Bolsheviks      
  10. Write a dialogue with two characters, LABOR and CAPITAL, that presents a dramatic overview of the labor-capital divide in postwar America. Consider adding a third character who functions as a commentator (Uncle Sam, a Greek chorus), a neutral arbitrator (Lady Justice, the Statue of Liberty), a source of insightful humor (court jester, standup comic), a stimulus to reflection (a fairy godmother, a father-confessor) or a voice from the 21st century (U.S. president, you). Include one of these statements in the introduction or conclusion of your dialogue, or select another statement from the resources.
  11. Complete the cartoon analysis chart for this Theme DIVISIONS to study the cartoonists' viewpoints and the visual devices they used to convey them.

Framing Questions

  • What factors precipitated and fueled the social divisions of the 1920s?
  • How did each division reflect postwar adjustments and the "modern age"?
  • What issues overlapped the multiple social divisions of the period?
  • How had each issue evolved by 1930 as the nation entered the Great Depression?


Collected commentary
Political cartoons
      Cartoon analysis chart
11 pp.
15 pp.
  2 pp.
28 pp.

Supplemental Sites

U.S. labor history overviews, timelines, primary sources (also search by state and "labor history")
Labor and Capital in online exhibition Life of the People (Library of Congress)

Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York)
1871 cartoon, "'Put Yourself in His Place' (Labor and Capital)," Harper's Weekly (Georgia State University)

Analyzing political cartoons: guides from

– Harry Grant Dart, "And in the Meantime the Lady Drowns," political cartoon, Life, May 8, 1919 (detail). Search in process for copyright holder (estates of Henry T. Rockwell or Henry Grant Dart). Digital image from original publication.
– Nelson Harding, "And We Also Have Class Unconsciousness," political cartoon, Brooklyn Eagle, ca. Oct./Nov. 1919, reprinted in the Chicago Tribune, Nov. 4, 1919. Permission request to the Brooklyn Eagle in process. Digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– Nelson Harding, "There Must Be Cutting from Both Sides," political cartoon, Brooklyn Eagle, ca. May/June 1921. Permission request to the Brooklyn Eagle in process. Digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– Jay N. "Ding" Darling, "Wonder How Much Longer He Can Stand It," political cartoon, Des Moines Register, May 3, 1922. Reproduced by permission of the Jay N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society. Digital image courtesy of the University of Iowa Libraries.
– Edwin Marcus, "It's Always after the Fake Medicines Fail That the Doctor Is Called In," political cartoon, The New York Times, ca. July/August 1922, reprinted in the Literary Digest, August 26, 1922. Reproduced by permission of the Marcus family. Digital image courtesy of Google Books.
– H. Canty, "A Real American Federation of Labor," The Pittsburgh Courier, Sept. 1, 1923. Reproduced by permission of the Pittsburgh Courier. Digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

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