Being a Schuylkill coal-heaver wasn’t much of a life. Bosses hired fresh arrivals from Ireland to unload canal boats at the coal yards. By the hundred, crews manned wheelbarrows on the riverbank for a dollar a day, dawn to dark, six days a week. As many as 14 backbreaking hours during the summer months. One hour break for breakfast, another for supper.
Philadelphia’s appetite for anthracite had mushroomed. More than 6,500 tons passed through the docks in 1825. Nine years later, the coal heavers moved 227,000 tons. As the days grew longer in the Spring of 1835, and the coal-laden canal boats lined up along the Schuylkill’s banks, the heavers appealed for shorter working hours. Laborers in Pittsburgh and Boston had tried, and failed, to get a ten-hour work day. But a few trades in New York City did win their bid.
Now, in the Spring of 1835, Philadelphia’s laborers seized their moment to organize, and to strike.
All 300 coal heavers walked off the job, abandoning 75 coal-laden vessels at the Schuylkill docks. Marching along the riverbank, strikers threatened anyone intent on replacing them. Mayor John Swift visited as many as four times, reported the Inquirer on May 29, and found the strikers “quiet but determined”—and absolutely unwilling to back down.
The “Working Men of Schuylkill” as they called themselves, had an evolving, two-pronged strategy. As they marched, especially at the start of their strike, their leader brandished a sword. When they spoke, their words were impassioned, yet reasonable. In an “Appeal to the Public,” they wished “for nothing but peace, quietness and good order.” But under the “present aristocratic system” that requires work “from daylight to dark,” the coal heavers claimed to be worse off than “galley slaves.” They asked not for more pay, only the guarantee of a twelve hour day—a ten-hour workday—with a one-hour break for breakfast and dinner.
The coal merchants mulled over the strikers demand and presented their counter offer. The dawn-to-dark working hours would remain so would the pay. But laborers would be granted a third hour-long break.
More than a week into their strike, the coal heavers had the entire city’s attention and an increasing amount of sympathy. The humane logic of the “Six to Six” campaign had found a broader following. The coal heavers rejected their bosses counter offer, and on Saturday, June 6th, they marched from the Schuylkill into the very heart of the city—to Independence Square.
Led by fifes and drums, the coal heavers chanted “From Six to Six,” a slogan seen and heard in headlines, on broadsides in store windows, and “scrawled in chalk on fences.” They marched with it on banners, along with another proclaiming “Liberty, Equality and the Rights of Man.”
As the procession closed in on Independence Square, workers from other trades dropped their tools to join in. Still others carried tools as they marched. In the shadow of the State House, speeches called for a ten-hour day in all trades. Philadelphians heard a fiery reading of the “Ten-Hour Circular” from Boston, which argued “the odious, cruel, unjust, and tyrannical system” leaves workers unable to do anything “but to eat and sleep…” Work prevented them from performing “duties…as American Citizens and members of society.”
“We cannot, we will not,” stated the circular, “…be mere slaves to inhuman, insatiable and unpitying avarice.”
“The effect was electric,” wrote John Ferral, an organizer from Manayunk. And in the following days, coal heavers were joined by hod carriers, brick layers, plasterers, carpenters, smiths, sheet iron workers, lamp makers, plumbers, painters and leather dressers—20,000 workers from 20 trades. What started as a strike on the Schuylkill had grown into the first general strike in the city—the first in American history.
“The hum of business is hushed; the coal yards are deserted and shut; and every kind of business is completely at a stand,” reported Niles Register the day of the march. “The militia looks on, the sheriff stands with folded arms,” observed a visitor from France. “The times,” worried editors at the Philadelphia Gazette, “are completely out of joint.”
But the public had aligned with the strikers. By June 8, the Inquirer reported “the opinion is almost universal that the term of ten hours per day during the summer season, is long enough for any industrious man, whether mechanic or otherwise…” Scharf and Westcott later wrote of the “strong feeling that the demand was just… that the concession ought to be made to toiling men.”
And one by one, the city’s largest employers, from the City of Philadelphia, to Eastern State Penitentiary, to the Commissioners of Southwark, to Cornelius and Son, Lamp and Chandelier Manufacturers, adopted “six-to-six” work days. The coal heavers, and thousands of other advocates of “Six-to-Six,” had won a quick and “bloodless revolution.”
[Sources: From The Inquirer: “The Strike,” May 30, 1835; “Councils,” and “From Six to Six,” June 6, 1835; “From Six to Six,” June 8, 1835; and “From Six to Six,” June 11, 1835. Leonard Bernstein, “The Working People of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the General Strike of 1835,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 74, No. 3 (July, 1950); John R. Commons et al, History of Labour in the United States. Vol. 1 (1921); Philip Yale Nicholson, Labor’s Story in the United States, (Temple University Press, 2004).]