Lesson Plan: The Industrial Age in America, 1880-1920 Documenting Working Conditions Twelfth Grade Purpose of Lesson

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Lesson Plan: The Industrial Age in America, 1880-1920

Documenting Working Conditions

Twelfth Grade
Purpose of Lesson:

This lesson can be used to introduce students to the parameters of America’s industrial age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and to demonstrate to them the conditions under which a variety of industrial workers toiled.


At the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Analyze and discuss the significance of primary source documents

  • Describe working conditions in various American industries at the turn of the twentieth century

Historical and Methodological Context for the Lesson:

After the Civil War, the availability of natural resources, new inventions, and a receptive market combined to fuel an industrial boom. The demand for labor to fill these positions in mines, mills and factories was high, and because there was such a huge immigration wave during the time, a steady supply of workers was available.

These industries were incredibly profitable, but the workers who toiled in them did not enjoy the profits of industry to the same degree as the owners of the industries. In addition to very low wages, workers’ complaints included very long hours and unhealthy and dangerous working conditions.
Lesson Activities:

Students will analyze photographs of workers in industrial jobs, noting the type of work being done, and what dangers might be apparent from the photograph.

Distribute chart for students to complete individually, in small groups or as a class
Distribute photographs or post them around the room:


Coal Breaker Boys (boys who broke up larger pieces of coal in processing plant)


Seafood Workers

Steel Workers

Note that many of the workers in the photographs are children. In 1895, the average income of an urban male worker was only about $400 a year, a sum insufficient to support a family. The labor of their wives and children helped to supplement the household income. Children under the age of 16 contributed about 20 percent of the income. These children worked not because their parents were heartless, but because their earnings were absolutely essential for their family's well-being.


Ask students to share their observations, answering the question, “What did you see?”

Point out what one can actually observe in the image by posing such questions as:

Is safety equipment visible?

Is the worker working in isolation or not?

Is there protective equipment around the machinery?

Is the worker old or young?
Discuss what can be inferred about industries, workers and working conditions from the image.

**This lesson may be used alone as a connection to the process of industrialization, or it may be linked to another lesson on the rise of labor unions (as a means of protection for workers).**

Chart: Assessing Industrial Working Conditions


Who is working?

What are they doing?



Coal Miner





 “Breaker Boys”










 Seafood Processor




Steel Mill Worker

Coal Miners

Breaker Boys”


Seafood Processor

Steel Mill Workers

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