For generations Iowa's workers have provided the foundation on which the state's businesses and industries have thrived. Skilled, industrious and resilient, the men, women and children who have toiled in mills, on farms, in shops and factories have made Iowa renowned for its fine workforce.
On the Farm
When Iowa was a new state almost all new settlers came from the eastern United States and many worked on farms. There were no factories in Iowa beyond a few small mills that ground flour, sawed lumber or wove fabric. The days were long and the work was hard on the farm. Each member of a farm family had his or her own job to do during the day. While men worked in the fields, women cooked meals, produced clothing, washed clothes, maintained gardens, tended flocks of chickens, churned butter and preserved food for use in the winter. Small children helped with lighter jobs but quickly moved into adult labor, such as feeding the livestock or cooking, before they were teenagers. Sometimes children had to stay home to help on the farm. Some parents considered farm work more important than education and did not send their children to school.
For people living in towns and cities, work often meant operating a small shop that made and sold items such as shoes, tin ware, buckets, harnesses, wagons and furniture. Most women worked at home, since people felt that only men should have a job outside of the home. As time passed, some women were able to become maids, teachers, saleswomen, typists and nurses because people thought that these jobs were "proper" for women. Typically, women earned a third to half of the pay that men received for the same work. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that women began to perform other jobs.
New Industries Invite New Workers
In the 1870s new industries, such as grain processing, coal mining and meatpacking, helped to change the Iowa workforce. In order to run coal mines and meatpacking plants, company owners encouraged people to move to Iowa as workers. Because these jobs were dirty, hard and paid badly, many of the people who came to work in the coal mines and packing houses were poor and had little education. Thousands of people fleeing economic hardship in what are today the Czech and Slovak Republics, Poland, Russia and Lithuania in Eastern Europe came to work in packing plants in Cedar Rapids and Sioux City, while thousands of Italian, Croatian, Slovenian and Serbian workers came to Iowa around the turn of the century to work the coal mines. Many African-Americans came to Iowa to work in coal mines too, fleeing racism in the southern United States.
Life for these workers was hard, with very little pay and their families often lived in the worst sections of Iowa cities. In 1885 the average worker in Dubuque worked ten hours each day, six days a week. The average annual wage for an Iowan working in manufacturing was $549 in 1910, or about $14,000 today. Some children worked in Iowa factories until new child labor laws passed in 1915 made this illegal. By 1900 over 14,000 people worked in Iowa factories. In the coal camps, miners went below ground in the early morning and came up after sunset in the evening.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Americans formed unions in order to negotiate with business and factory owners for better wages and working conditions, especially better working hours. Among the most famous of these early national unions were the Knights of Labor, which first organized in Iowa in 1885, the American Federation of Labor and the United Mine Workers, which was headed by former Iowa coal miner, John L. Lewis.
World War II Brings Changes
After World War II the types of jobs available in Iowa began to change. Coal mines and meatpacking were replaced with manufacturing jobs. Iowa workers began to make home appliances, radio equipment, cereal and motor homes. Women began to enter the workforce in larger numbers during and after World War II. New laws limited the amount of time that people had to work each day and also set safety standards for equipment that helped to make working conditions safer.
Farm families, at the same time, were able to buy new farm equipment that relieved some of the harder jobs that they had performed manually in the past. New paved roads made it easier for farm families to visit towns, ending rural isolation. Although farm women continued their farm work, changing technology meant that they no longer had to raise chickens or large gardens for food since they could now buy these things in town. As a result, many farm women began to work at jobs outside the farm, providing needed income for the farm family.
As in the past, Iowa's workers represent a diverse community. Immigrants from around the world work along side Iowa natives in the state's factories, stores, educational institutions, healthcare facilities, government offices and businesses. Iowans continue to work in industries that have long been a part of the state's history. At the same time Iowa's workers have moved into new, innovative industries. Not only do Iowans work in factories that process meat and dairy products, they also design software and develop biotech products. As economic conditions have fluctuated and technological advances have evolved, Iowa's workers have adapted. They have remained steadfast in uncertain times and prospered in the good times.
- Amy Ruth, “Iowa: A State at Work,” The Goldfinch 17, no. 4 (Summer 1986): 4-6.
- The Iowa Heritage A Guide for Teachers, Iowa PBS, Johnston, Iowa.
- Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa Past to Present: The People and the Prairie. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 2002.
- Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State Press, 1996.