“The Man with the Hoe,” Edward B. Payne, and Labor Day, Part 1



"L'homme à la houe (The Man with the Hoe)" by Jean-François Millet - The Getty Center, Object 879, Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“L’homme à la houe (The Man with the Hoe)” by Jean-François Millet – The Getty Center, Object 879, Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The 1890s were a turbulent time in America. The growth and expansion of “The Gilded Age” collapsed with the Panic of 1893, and sent the country into a depression. Railroads, the primary long distance transportation of Americans pre-automobile, had been overbuilt with shaky financing and could not earn revenues to exceed their loans and other costs. Just ten days before the second inauguration of Grover Cleveland, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad declared bankruptcy; three large railways went bankrupt soon after. Numerous banks failed and there was a run on gold. New silver mines flooded the market, driving down the price of silver, and the value of the American dollar fell. The United States still had a large portion of the population involved in farming, but prices for agricultural commodities also plummeted, especially for wheat and cotton, and farmers could not afford to put in their next crop, nor pay workers for planting or harvesting. To add to the economic woes, the McKinley Tariff of 1890 had increased the prices of imported goods by almost 50%, thus causing a sharp increase in prices for all.

Over 3,000 Pullman railroad workers decided in 1894 that the only way to deal with layoffs, wage cutbacks, and the high prices of living in the required ‘company town’ was to stop work. Their wildcat strike paralyzed travel of people and goods, including the mail. Unions were still illegal then, but strike sentiment grew across the country. When Pullman strikers were shot and killed, 250,000 workers in twenty-seven states stopped work at the urging of Eugene V. Debs, who led the American Railway Union. The Army was called in to force passage of mail trains and break the strike. More violence and sabotage of the railroads ensued and at least 30 persons were killed, many others wounded in the strike.

A Drawing of National Guard troops firing on Pullman strikers in 1894. More than 1000 railcars were destroyed during the strike. Published in Harper's Weekly, public domain.
A Drawing of National Guard troops firing on Pullman strikers in 1894. More than 1000 railcars were destroyed during the strike. Published in Harper’s Weekly, unknown date, public domain.

President Grover Cleveland knew he had to make peace with the workers and unions or risk more riots and a worsening of the economic depression. Just six days after the strike ended, he rushed a bill through Congress to create Labor Day as a national holiday to honor all those who toil in our nation. It was a unanimous vote for the new federal holiday.

Continued concerns about the economy, however, caused bank runs and thus more panic. Some estimates place unemployment rates as high as 18.4% in 1894; unemployment continued for four more years above 12.4%. Americans were stunned, afraid, out of work, and could not feed their families or pay their rent or mortgage. (Do you sort of know how folks in those days must have felt? It was as bad as the 2008 crash- probably worse.)

Sadly, we have little of the 1890 census available to compare with 1900, so we could look at incomes, home ownership, etc and compare the two decades. Reviewing at the 1900 census, it seems that more people than usual can be found living in one home- parents moved in with their children and grandchildren (or vice versa) to save money. Rural folks were moving to the city in hope of finding a job and boarding houses were full. The disparity between the rich and the poor was more striking than it had ever been in American Society. Social evangelists worked to alleviate the effects of the depression on the poor, and debates on socialism were common in magazines and newspapers, the lecture circuits, parlors, and universities.

Edwin Markham c1899.
Edwin Markham circa 1899. Library of Congress.

Charles Edward Anson Markham (1852-1940), generally known as Edwin Markham after 1895, had grown up poor as he toiled on his family’s farm. He became a teacher in northern California. Markham was influenced by socialists such as Thomas Lake Harris, and Jack and Charmian London (both avowed Socialists) were frequent correspondents and friends. As a poet, after seeing the French painting, “The Man with the Hoe,” Markham was inspired to write about the plight of poor workers.

First presented at a New Year’s Eve party reading in 1898, the poem was published by The San Francisco Examiner on January 15, 1899. It was picked up by newspapers and magazines around the world- over 12,000 reprints in 37 languages before the computer age- and it made him famous. The poem begins:

“Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.”

 The entire poem can be found online in a number of places, but was also reprinted in The Arena, Vol. XXII, July 1899, No. 1, pages 15-16. There is an intriguing animation of Markham reading his poem, “The Man with the Hoe,” found on YouTube.


Thursday: our ancestor, Edward B. Payne’s analysis of the poem and its controversy.


Notes, Sources, and References:

1) “L’homme à la houe (The Man with the Hoe)” by Jean-François Millet – The Getty Center, Object 879, Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:L%27homme_%C3%A0_la_houe_(The_Man_with_the_Hoe).jpg#mediaviewer/File:L%27homme_%C3%A0_la_houe_(The_Man_with_the_Hoe).jpg.

2) The issues involved in the Pullman Strike are much more complex than just lowered wages and layoffs- ‘company towns’ and not lowering rents when wages are lowered,  the railroads refusing to run trains without Pullman cars, government intervention in the private sector when national issues are involved such as mail service, etc. See, among other good sources,  http://ehistory.osu.edu/osu/mmh/1912/content/pullman.cfm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pullman_Strike.

3) Note population changes with City Directories as well- look for the address, not just the name, and you may find many married children, often with children of their own, living at the same address as parents/grandparents. Remember too, that these were small houses- we have one family group of 11 living in a two-bedroom house in 1900!

4) Panic of 1893: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_of_1893 and other readings.

5) I wonder who attended that New Year’s Eve reading- Thomas Lake Harris (who later founded a Utopian religious community in New York and later at Fountain Grove, in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California), Jack & Charmian London, possibly Edward Biron Payne (who later founded Altruria, another Utopian community in Sonoma County)? They travelled in the same literary circles and all had socialist leanings, plus Markham was probably living in Oakland, California at that time. (His move to New York occurred the next year.) We still have not found a definitive link to Markham and Edward B. Payne, though it is highly likely that they knew each other due to politics, geography, and social groupings.

6) Sources for the life of Edwin Markham include:

http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/edwin-markham http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/markham/reflections.htm


7) See also previous posts about Edward B. Payne, and watch for posts to come on Altruria and the rest of EBP’s life.

8) A good article on Markhams’ poem and the origins of Labor Day: http://westchesterguardian.com/9_9_10/Abady_Cov.%20Markham%20poem.html

9) We like this digital reproduction of “To the Man with the Hoe” in The Arena, because we know it has not been changed like what has been typed into so many websites, especially those calling it “To the Man with a Hoe.” (It was originally ‘the’ hoe, not ‘a’ hoe.) : http://books.google.com/books?id=9S4ZAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP7&lpg=PP7&dq=to+the+man+with+hoe+Edward+b+payne&source=bl&ots=Rf8YvFxc1K&sig=BskDJ7PfUUjkXRBiV0KxydrNQRA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Uzb0U_qCHo6oyASOt4KQBQ&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

10) An intriguing animation of Edwin Markham reading his poem (apparently from an image of him and an actual recording, I think.): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apHsb5Xou-0

11) Edwin Markham image available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c05934.


Please contact us if you would like higher resolution images.

Copyright 2013-2014 by Heritage Ramblings Blog and pmm.

We would love to read your thoughts and comments about this post, and thank you for your time! All comments are moderated, however, due to the high intelligence and persistence of spammers/hackers who really should be putting their smarts to use for the public good instead of spamming our little blog.
Series Navigation“The Man with the Hoe,” Edward B. Payne, and Labor Day, Part 2 >>