Brad DeLong is absolutely stunning when he writes about economic history:

A quarter of American households in 1900 had boarders or lodgers (compared to two percent today). Half of American households in 1900 had fewer rooms than persons (compared to five percent today). A quarter of American households in 1900 had running water (compared to ninety-nine percent today). An eighth of American households in 1900 had flush toilets (compared to ninety-eight percent today). Less than a fifth had refrigerators, less than one-twelfth had gas or electric lights, less than one-twentieth had telephones or washing machines, and of course there were no radios or televisions or vacuum cleaners or central heating, to list just those major appliances that have greater than ninety percent coverage today.

And even if you did have a four room house, could you afford to heat more than one room of it? Many Homestead four-room houses became two-room houses--the kitchen and the bedroom--in the depths of the western Pennsylvania winter.

The diets of workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania at the turn of the century were composed primarily of meat of widely variable quality, bread, butter, potatoes, oatmeal, and tea and milk–with luxuries such as sweets added in more or less regularly. We would find the diet somewhat monotonous (however, a lot of time and effort went into Þnding different ways to make potatoes). Almost always the first luxury that a working-class family moving up would purchase would be the services of a laundress: since laundry was expensive and difficult, few working-class families could maintain upper-middle-class standards of cleanliness. How often would you take baths if the water had to brought in from an outside pump, and then heated on the stove? How often would you wash your clothes if everything had to be washed out in the sink, if the fabrics were three times as heavy and the detergents one-third as powerful as the ones available today, and if as a result the laundry was a full day’s chore? Hand laundry was not a two hour a week task. Those who could afford the resources to maintain bourgeois styles of cleanliness flaunted it. White shirts, white dresses, white gloves are all powerful indications of wealth in turn of the century America. They said "I don't have to do my own laundry and ," and they said it loudly.

As a rule married women did not work outside the home–unless they were African-American, in which case they might well do their own family’s housework and be paid for doing a share of some white family’s housework as well. Meal preparation was not a one-hour-a-day but a four-hour-a-day task. Barring a shift toward larger-scale communal or cooperative living–a shift which simply did not happen even though anticipated, hoped for, and worked for by many feminists–within-the-household production and maintenance soaked up one-third the potential adult work hours. It made it next to impossible for married women (unless they were quite rich, or quite poor) to have independent careers and still fulfill the social expectations of household maintenance.

Infant mortality at the turn of the century was high. One in five babies in Homestead, Pennsylvania died before reaching his or her Þrst birthday. Adult men died, too, like flies (and adult women faced substantial risks in childbirth). Accident rates in the factory were such as to leave 260 injured per year–30 dead–out of a total population of 25,000 and a steel mill working population of 5,000. Each year, five percent were injured enough to miss work for some time (although only one percent per year were permanently disabled), and 1/2 percent per year were killed in factory accidents.

You can do the math. Start to work for U.S. Steel when you are 20. There is one chance in seven that the factory will kill you before you reach 50, and almost one chance in three that the factory will disable you. Is it any wonder that life insurance–disability insurance--group lodges that provide benefits (because the company provides few)--loom so large in American working class consciousness at the turn of the century? And is it any wonder that the Þrst component of the welfare state put into place, in many parts of the United States, was workmen’s compensation? Of course, in 1910 Homestead (or in 1930 Detroit, or in Los Angeles today) the most arduous and difficult jobs were done by minorities and immigrants: in 1910 Homestead by Slavs, in 1930 Detroit by Blacks, and in 2000 Los Angeles by Hispanics. At the micro level, such groups are concentrated in the most arduous and lowest-paid jobs because they are poor, because they have limited other options.

Most of the Homestead workforce only worked six days a week: for four out of five workers, the mill was shut on Sundays. U.S. Steel viewed this--shutting most of the mill on Sundays–as a major concession on their part, a concession that they hoped would produce large public relations benefits. From U.S. Steel’s perspective, each hour that a modern plant like Homestead stood idle was tremendously expensive. Variable costs--wages, raw materials, and transportation--made up perhaps 2/3 of total costs. The remainder were fixed: capital costs on the construction of the plant, and maintenance that had to be performed whether the plant was operating intensively or not.

Were U.S. Steel to move from two 12-hour shifts a day to one 12-hour shift, its output would be halved but its costs would be reduced by only 1/3, so total costs per ton of steel made would rise by 1/3. This was not a margin that U.S. Steel could afford. As long as it could Þnd workers willing to work the night shift, the Homestead mill (depressions and recessions apart) stayed open 24 hours a day on weekdays. And when things did change, they changed all at once-from two 12-hour shifts before and during World War I, to two 8-hour shifts (or three 8-hour shifts) during the 1920s, and during and after World War II. Yet Homestead jobs--at least Homestead jobs taken by native-born Americans--were good jobs by the standards of the United States. As historian Ray Ginger put it:

their expectations were not ours. A man who grew up on a Southern farm did not think it cruel that his sons had to work as bobbin boys [collecting spun thread in a textile mill]. An immigrant living in a tenement and working in a sweatshop yet knew that for the Þrst time in his life he was wearing shoes seven days a week...

And Homestead, Pennsylvania jobs paid well both by the standards of the United States and much more so by the standards of the world economy of the time. White households could make around $900 (of 1910 value) a year, placing them well the upper third of the U.S. population in terms of income per household in 1910. Relative to what could be earned by people of similar skill levels anywhere else in the world, a job in the Homestead mill was a very attractive job. Even the unequal America at the turn of the century was a very attractive place compared to the rest of the world. America was exceptional. In spite of the hours, in spite of the risk of death or injury, in spite of the working conditions, these were very good jobs by international standards: jobs worth moving 7,000 miles for, from Hungary or Lithuania to suburban Pittsburgh. For the economy of the late nineteeth century was for the first time in human history a truly global economy, filled with long-distance trade and migration, so people could take advantage of the opportunities opened up by industrialization.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.