The Economic Panic of 1873 and Labor Relations in New Albany

By the early 1870s, New Albany became a bustling river town with extensive commercial activity and a large number of industrial facilities. Nationwide economic trends disrupted New Albany’s economic prosperity. The Great Panic of 1873 swept across the nation. Once referred to as the “Great Depression, it caused over 18,000 businesses to fail between 1873 and 1875. Employers cut wages, property values dropped, and profits vanished.

The depression did not immediately hurt New Albany. Local newspapers boasted that the city escaped the rough economic times and that no businesses experienced much trouble despite the reports of hardship elsewhere. As the effects of the depression crept into New Albany, the 1870s became uncertain for workers and their employers. Fearing possible losses in wages and limits on their rights as workers, trade unions of iron molders, glass blowers, boil makers, and shoemakers formed.

Growing tensions between employers and employees led to strikes throughout the 1870s. In July 1871, blowers at the New Albany Glass Works walked out to protest the business practices of their employer. They demanded payment in defined wages rather than payment based on production. Already in financial trouble, the glass works refused to meet workers’ demands. The plant lay empty until 1875, when it burned down. In contrast to the New Albany Glass Works, Washington C. DePauw’s Star Glass Works sought to negotiate with workers. In 1877 after a group of English workers protested the debt incurred from their transatlantic passage from Britain to the United States, DePauw forgave their debt. This resulted in a forty percent rise in their wages, keeping workers satisfied and production strong.

Many other strikes ensued with varying success. The New Albany press and other members of the business and political communities looked down upon unions. To ease the stress of the era, New Albany workers held “Have – Nothing” carnivals. At these celebrations, the unemployed and strikers “[mixed] a little fun with their poverty.” Filled with drink and song, workers wore ragged costumes to mock their depressing economic conditions. Parodies of politicians and businessmen caused crowds to roar with laughter.

Today a variety of unions are represented in New Albany, including the Laborers International and the International Brotherhood of Barbers.