Annals of Hudson River Valley Brickmaking
Of Immigrants and Migrants
By Robert Scott
The raw materials and the tools and techniques employed in brickmaking were important. But another ingredient was even more significant: human labor. From the beginning, brickmaking was never an attractive or romantic occupation. Long hours, dirty working conditions and physically demanding tasks--all for daily wages--were the lot of those who toiled in the brickyards.
Once the industry began to mechanize the molding of bricks, the need for highly skilled workers slackened. Brickmaking nevertheless still required thousands of ordinary laborers for some of the least desirable and most strenuous jobs in American society.
The first group to fill this need was the Irish. Poverty-stricken and lacking in industrial skills, they took jobs in the brickyards because they had little choice.
England's harsh Penal Laws of the 18th century had effectively reduced Ireland to a nation of peasants by closing the professions and the skilled trades. Except for a small commercial middle class and remnants of the old gentry, the Irish were virtually all unskilled wielders of the pick and shovel.
Between 1820 and 1840, heeding the siren call of the new democracy across the Atlantic, nearly a quarter-million Irish emigrated to the United States. They tended to remain where they landed, clustering in the ports of entry--Boston, New York and Philadelphia--and forming a useful labor force. In New York, for example, the Irish made up one-sixth of the city's population and did four-fifths of the work.
Under the inspiration of Governor DeWitt Clinton, himself the grandson of an earlier Irish immigrant, New York state planned and built the Erie Canal. When it opened in 1825, one wag joked that it had been built by "horse power, steam power and Irish power.
After a plant disease called potato blight devastated the basic food crop of Ireland's rural masses in the 1840's, hundreds of thousands fled to the New World. Between 1840 and 1860, 1.7 million Irish entered the United States--nearly seven times the number that had arrived in the previous two decades. By 1860, New York had become the largest Irish city in the world, with one-quarter of its population Irish-born. Most of the new arrivals were landless peasants whose meager agricultural skills made them unsuitable for American farms.
Regarded with suspicion and loathing by the Anglo-Saxon, largely Protestant native population, and often with embarrassed rejection by earlier Irish immigrants, it was inevitable that many of them would find their way to the least desirable jobs. During the 19th century, in the building of canals, railroads and America's burgeoning cities, the Irish gave their labor and often their lives. They were the ditch diggers, track workers, hod carriers and wagon drivers. Their women were the laundresses, housemaids and waitresses.
A Prophetic View
In an 1855 book by N.P. Willis, Out-Doors at Idlewild: or the Shaping of a Home on the Banks of the Hudson, we get a hint of the low esteem in which native Americans held the Irish. Nathaniel Parker Willis was an American journalist, essayist and prolific author, who had settled in Cornwall-on-Hudson, below Newburgh, because of the region's salubrious climate.
Willis described the miles of brickyards along the Hudson near his home as "a loose and lively Irish fringe to our quiet American neighborhood of sagacious and thrifty farmers. If a Yankee condescends to be among them at all, it is in the capacity of teamster or ‘boss’--brickyarding labor for day wages being a peg below the pride of a boy born in the country.”
“Paddy likes it because there are so many of the b'hoys to work with him--farm labor being quite too lonely for his liking--and because he is at home in the mud; and there is no restraint on his dress, manners or morals; and rainy days and Sundays are 'rare holidays,' with no barn work, nor cattle to look after, not other hindrance to his going to Newburgh, where there are promiscuous attractions."
Nevertheless, Willis revealed an unabashed admiration for the Irish when compared to the dour native stock: "If not the cleanest and best behaved of wayside population, however, the Irish are a variety that comes in well for contrast and invigoration to the musing and half-conscious picture formed upon the eye upon a drive.”
"In the stout legs and arms, and rosy cheeks and honest proportions of the women who belong to, and trudge with them, or lodge near and group around the washtubs and children, there is a supply for the lacking bulk and bloom of our American race, which is a comfort to see on the same day with the slender-limbed intelligence of farmers' daughters, and the pale-faced pride and respectability of farmers' sons.”
As if anticipating the eventual absorption of the Irish into the American mainstream, Willis looked hopefully into the future: "It is an admirable graft--the Hibernian stock upon ours--for it acclimates and improves admirably, if left to itself for a generation or two. Ireland is the California whence comes the species for our health-currency; and the precious ore, though unsightly till refined and coined, looks fairer than other dirt when its value is remembered.”
"And, may I confess, at the same time, to a certain relief in a mile or two of jolly careless faces, such as the Irish on our lower road to Newburgh, after the miles of unsmiling responsibility of countenance and persevering anxiety of demeanor through which runs a gauntlet of low spirits before arriving at that part of the country? Every car in our American train is so sure to be a locomotive!"
Other Immigrant Groups
Brickyard workers included immigrants from other countries. Brought in initially as strikebreakers, French-Canadians became common in Haverstraw brickyards in the 1870's. According to an 1891 article in the Anworkers in a small brickyard there were mostly from Austria. Polish and Hungarian immigrants also found work in the brickyards.
Immigration, of course, rose and fell with conditions in the home country. German immigration in the 1860's was almost twice that of the Irish. By 1870, the number of German-born Americans nearly equaled the number of those born in Ireland. Immigration from Great Britain during the 1860's was half again as much as that from Ireland. Yet, despite the larger number of new arrivals, relatively few Germans or British worked in the brickyards as compared to the Irish.
A Profile of Fishkill Brickyard Workers
The 1870 U.S. Census affords detailed information about the role of immigrant groups in brickmaking in Fishkill, which boasted six brickyards employing 154 workers. But census enumerators could only locate 134--a situation not unlike today's unsuccessful attempts to obtain an accurate count of the population.
Of the 134 brickyard workers interviewed, 69 percent were foreign born. Another 11 percent were born in the United States of immigrant fathers. The remaining one-fifth were born in this country of a native-born father.
According to the 1870 Census, 80 percent of foreign-born workers in Fishkill brickyards came from Ireland; 12 percent were of German origin and seven percent were British. German and British immigrants suffered less discrimination in job hunting and had skills the Irish lacked, enabling them to find other employment.
Fishkill brickyard workers in 1870 were surprisingly young, with an average age of only 26 years; two-thirds were between the ages of 15 and 30; seven percent were over the age of 40.
Irish Immigration Slackens
According to the Census Bureau's Historical Statistics of the United States, in 1851, 221,000 Irish immigrants entered the United States--nearly 60 percent of all immigrants in that year. In 1900, 36,000 Irish arrived on these shores--only eight percent of total immigration into this country.
By the turn of the century, prejudice against the Irish had decreased and economic and social barriers were falling, opening wider economic opportunities to them. These changes together with the drop in Irish immigration caused a similar decline in the availability of Irish workers in brickmaking. Hudson Valley brick manufacturers were forced to seek another source of workers willing to start at the bottom of the economic ladder. The conjunction of need and new arrivals could not have been timed better. A massive wave of new immigrants arrived on these shores to take the places of the Irish in the brickyards.
In 1870, only 3,000 Italians immigrated to the United States--compared with 57,000 Irish and 118,000 Germans. Thirty years later, immigration by these groups had changed. Italian immigrants numbered more than 100,000, while immigrants from Ireland had dropped to 36,000 and those from Germany to 19,000.
Between 1900 and the outbreak of the First World War, Italian immigration averaged more than 200,000 annually. Coincidentally, this was a period of peak production in the brickmaking industry when the need for laborers was great.
In that 14-year period, more than three million Italians entered this country. By 1920, Italians constituted the second largest foreign-born group in the United States.
In many respects, the Italian experience mirrored that of the Irish. Like the Irish, the Italians had left a rural life of poverty; they also shared the same religious tradition. Both groups had arrived in vast numbers over a short period and lacked industrial skills.
Like the Irish, the Italians encountered prejudice and open hostility, made more intense because they spoke a foreign language. And like the Irish, many employment opportunities were closed to them, forcing them to take the least desirable and most laborious jobs.
Among employers of large numbers of common laborers were the railroads, which frequently used employment agents to find workers among immigrant groups--first the Irish and then the Italians. It was not uncommon for such agents to be at the pier to meet a shipload of new arrivals from overseas.
Undoubtedly, the brickyards resorted to agents as well, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many Italian workers found their way to the brickyards through contacts with countrymen from their home towns in Italy who had preceded them here.
Although the supply of brickyard workers provided by Italian immigrants was significant, as a result of mechanization and the steady decline in the number of brickyards in the Hudson Valley, their numbers never matched those of the Irish of the century before.