The History of New York State
Book 12, Chapter 18, Part 3

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


1914-1921.--For the manufacturing industries as a whole throughout the State of New York the greater part of the period from 1914 to 1921 enjoyed unusual prosperity. Between the depression of the first and the last years an expansion occurred and was maintained with only minor interruptions for five years. Normal production was to a considerable extent neglected during the war, but was more than offset by the production of materials for the conduct of the war and supplies for the civilian consumption of European Nations. The post-war expansion was the result of the release of the pent-up domestic requirements, together with the inability of European countries to provide for their own needs. The tendency toward a depression that was developing during the year previous to June, 1914, was made acute by the outbreak of the war in Europe. The demoralization of the export trade that followed immediately, added to the slowing up of domestic business, produced a severe depression and widespread unemployment in the industries of New York State during the period of 1914-1915

There was a decline in employment in the summer of 1914 and this was due to the combined effects of the usual midsummer slackening and the sudden interruption of foreign trade. Fall work caused a partial revival in September, but a slow decline followed to January, 1915. The stone, clay and glass products group of industries showed the most severe reeducation during the latter half of 1914, but part of the reduction was due to the approaching dull season. The reduction in the metal industry group was next in size. The other chief industry groups showed the effects of the prevalent depressions in varying degrees.

It soon developed that the needs of European nations during the war would probably exceed their ordinary requirements. Chiefly as the result of foreign demands, a definite improvement appeared by the middle of 1915 in the metal industries, in the leather products industries, and in the chemical industries. At the end of the year the growing prosperity of such industries was reflected in a general improvement in domestic business, and employment had increased in practically all manufacturing industries. In the metals, machinery and conveyances, furs, leather and rubber goods, chemicals, oils, paints, and so on, and in the textile industry groups, the number of employees reported in December, 1915, was from five to twenty-two per cent greater than the number employed in June, 1914. The year 1916 was one of general prosperity for the manufacturing industries. The greatest expansion occurred in the metal products industries, chiefly as the result of European war orders. All the main divisions of manufacturing reported enlarged working forces. The increasing demand for labor together with the great reduction in immigration produced a steadily increasing shortage of labor.

The highest point of factory activity prior to the participation of the United States in the war was reached in March, 1917. In that month the number of workers reported in the metal industries was nearly fifty per cent greater than the number employed in June, 1914. The furs, leather and rubber goods and chemicals, oils and paint group followed with increases in employment over June, 1914, of more than thirty per cent.

The declaration of war by the United States temporarily unsettled business in the spring and summer of 1917. This, together, with the completion of European war orders by some factories resulted in a recession of manufacturing activity for a few months. During the latter part of 1917 the reorganization of industry for the conduct of the war resulted in a renewal of industrial activity. The priority given to industries engaged in the production of munitions or army and navy supplies in securing labor, fuel and raw materials and other governmental restrictions placed on "non-essential" industries resulted in a further expansion of some of the war industries and the maintenance of a high level of operation in others, while the industries that were not considered directly or indirectly necessary to the conduct of the war were curtailed, rather severally in some cases. The movement of men from industrial to military life increased the existing shortage of labor. This situation prevailed through the greater part of 1918.

The peak of factory employment during the war years was reached in July, 1918. The number of factory workers reported in that month was twenty-five per cent greater than the number reported in June, 1914. While this is little higher than during the early part of 1917, the fact that hundreds of thousands of men from New York State were in the army or the navy by the middle of 1918 indicates that the manufacturing industries drew heavily on other industries for labor and enlisted the services of a large number of persons who were not previously engaged in the industries of the State. The continual withdrawal of men for military service caused a slight reduction in factory employment from July to November. The temporary drop in employment in October was due to the epidemic of influenza.

At the close of the war a rapid expansion occurred for a few months in some of the industries that had been restricted during the war, but the cancellation of government contracts, together with the widespread idea that prices would speedily return to lower levels, caused a temporary but rather general slackening of industrial activity. The result was that the early part of 1919 was rather dull in many lines. The industries that had diverted their production to war work to the greatest extent showed the largest reduction in working forces, as they had a greater problem of readjustment to meet. The metal industries, the best example, showed a steady reduction in employment from November, 1918 to June, 1919. Other industries, such, for instance, as the wool manufactures industries, reported a steady gain in operations after the close of the war.

In July, 1919, a general improvement was apparent. It had become evident that, for a time at least, the trend of prices was to be upward rather than downward. This was due to domestic demand that had been held back during the war and to the heavy foreign trade that resulted from the inability of European nations to meet the problems of reconstruction and return to normal production at the same time. Consequently, a period of expansion involving renewed competition for fuel, labor and raw materials occurred from July, 1919, to the spring of 1920. The expansion was restricted during the fall of 1919 by several great strikes, such as the strikes in the steel industry, in the piano industry, and in the printing industry. The highest point of factory employment during this period of prosperity was reached in March, 1920. The number of workers reported in that month was twenty-five per cent grater than in June, 1914, or about the same as at the height of war activities.

Decline in Factory Employment.--The decline in factory employment started in April, 1920, as the result of the interference with the movement of raw materials, fuel and finished products caused by the strike of railroad switchmen. Manufacturing activity failed to recover in the following month and a steady decline began, due to the refusal of the public to continue to buy goods at constantly advancing prices, the limitations placed by the Federal Reserve System on the ever-increasing credit volume, the reduction of the export trade, due to the inability of European countries to continue to pay for American goods, and the break in farm prices. The automobile industry, the leather and show industries, and the textile and clothing industries, showed the earliest signs of depressing, but gradually the depression spread to all industries and the decline in manufacturing operations fathered momentum.

A temporary low point was reached in January, 1921, due to the added effects of seasonal dullness in some industries. In a number of industries, notably the wearing apparel and allied industries, and the stone, clay and glass products industries, the lowest point of employment was reached in January or February, and a steady recovery occurred in the spring of 1921. Some important industries, such as the metals, chemicals, and paper industries, experienced the greatest reduction during the first half of 1921, and their decline more than offset the gains in other industries. The result was that factory employment as a whole was at the lowest level during the entire seven years in June, 1921. The decrease in employment between March, 1920, and June, 1921, for all industries combined does not, however, represent the whole loss of employment due to the depression, as the low points for all industries did not coincide. The total number of employees affected would be the sum of the number of employees released in each industry between its highest and lowest points.

Expansion in Factory Payrolls.--The greater part of the seven-year period was a time of great expansion also in factory workers' earnings and in factory payrolls. Part-time work in some factories caused the slight reduction in average weekly earnings from July, 1914, to March, 1915. In fact, some part-time work was reported to the end of 1915, but the greater activity in some industries and a few increased in wage rates during the latter half of the year resulted in a steady advance in average earnings. In 1916 wage rate increases and overtime were much more common. The result was that in December, 1916, average weekly earnings were twenty-three per cent higher than in June, 1914, and the total weekly payroll of the reporting factories because of the increase in the number and earnings of factory workers has risen fifty per cent above June, 1914. The advance in wages continued in 1917, and at the end of the year the average weekly earning of workers was forty-one per cent and total wage payment seventy-one per cent higher than in June, 1914. The drop in individual earnings and payrolls in January, 1918, was the result of the order issued by the Federal Fuel Administrator requiring the closing of factories in January on account of the shortage of fuel.

With the increasing scarcity of labor and steeply rising price level wage rates advanced rapidly and overtime work was extensive during 1918. The rise in earnings was halted by the time loss caused by the influenza in October, and the observance of Armistice Day as a holiday by many factories. In December a recovery from these interruptions together with the usual activity in response to the holiday trade, resulted in a temporary high record. The average earning was eighty-four per cent above that of June, 1914, and the rise in the payroll aggregate was 119 per cent. The reduction in factory employment and part-time work in some industries that resulted from the cancellation of government contracts caused a drop in factory payrolls from December, 1918 to February, 1919. A reduction in average weekly earnings also occurred, due to the reduction in average working time. No great change in total wages and only a slight increase in average earnings were reported from February to June, 1919. Increases in wage rates were quite numerous, but there was a strong movement toward shorter working hours. Some industries in which operations are continuous changed from a nine-hour day to a basic eight-hour day during 1919.

With the improvement in general business conditions increases in wage rated became frequent and overtime work accompanied the renewed competition for labor during the latter half of 1919, and the first part of 1920. The crest of factory wage expenditures was reached in June, 1920, when the aggregate reported by the representative list of manufacturers was 188 per cent higher than in June, 1914. The average weekly earnings of factory workers continued to advance until October due partly to further increases in wage rates, such as in the railway repair shops in August, partly to fall activity in some industries, and partly to the release of the lower paid employees first. The decline in factory payrolls was, therefore, the result of reductions in working forces, chiefly during the early months of the depression rather than the result of reduced earnings of factory workers. After October, 1920, however, the decline in employment was accelerated and took the form of part-time employment in numerous cases. Wage rate reductions were also reported in increasing number toward the end of 1920. The result was, a decline started in the earnings of factory workers who were retained ,and the added effect of the total loss of earnings of a considerable number of workers who were dropped from the payrolls caused the total amount of factory [payrolls to drop precipitately. After the low point of factory employment in January, 1921, the reduction in factory payrolls was temporarily halted. Spring activities even caused a slight increase in individual earnings, and in the aggregate of payrolls in March, but the decline was resumed from April to June. Reductions in wage rates were of increasing importance in reducing factory workers' earnings and part time work was rather prevalent at the close of the period.

Activity in the stone, clay and glass group of industries fell off during the fall and winter of 1914-1915. This was caused by the general depression of the first year of the war, which affected all division of the group, together with the usual slack season in the brick and cement industries. A general improvement occurred in 1916, and the great increase in the production of graphite and abrasives carried employment in the group as a whole well above the level of 1914. The shortage of fuel, together with the slack season in the brick and cement industry, reduced actively in the group in the early months of 1918. The inactivity of the building trades during the participation of this country in the war restricted employment in the brick and cement industries throughout 1918. The dull winter season for these industries, together with the effects of the temporary dullness of the early part of 1919, prevented a recovery in employment for the group until the fall of 1919. The prosperity of the year from June, 1919, to June, 1920, resulted in greater activity in all branches. Seasonal inactivity and the depression in buildings work was at a low level in the winter of 1914-1915, but a fair season was reported by 1915. The winter season of 1915-16, did not recede as low as the previous dull season, and a substantial amount of building was reported in the active season of 1916. The entrance of the United States into the war resulted in the suspension of building work in 1917, and stead decline proceeded until the close of the war.

Immediately after the close of the war a revival of construction work, chiefly for business purposes, was reported. With this revival a great increase in the cost of building work occurred, although costs has previously risen considerably over the pre-war level. The result was that the amount of construction was curtailed before any considerable amount for house purposes had got under way. With the approach of the depression, building for industrial purposes was largely discontinued, and authorization of building work dropped heavily during the fall and winter of 1920-21. A drop in the prices of building materials accompanied the general reduction in the price level, and as a result a substantial increase in the amount of prospective building work occurred in the spring of 1921. Taking into account the higher level of building costs, however, the estimated value of work authorized in May and June undoubtedly represented an actual amount of work no greater than is usual in that time of year. An expansion sufficient to make up for the stagnation of building during the war years began to become evident in the post-war years.



Industry Group

Entire State, 1913

Rep. List June, 1914

% of Employees in Rep List


No. Est.

No. Emps.

No. Est.

No. Emps.


Stone, clay & glass products






Metals, machine, conveyances






Wood manufactures






Furs, leather & rubber






Chemicals, oils, paints etc.












Printing & paper goods












Clothing, millinery, laundry, etc.






Food, beverages, tobacco






Water, light, power






All Industries Combined







The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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