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Irish Immigration to New York City >The Irish at 97 Orchard Street > 19th Century Dublin > Irish Immigrants in the Workplace > Irish Immigrants and the Catholic Church in America > Tammany Hall and Irish Political Participation > Irish Nationalism > Irish Fraternal and County Organizations > 19th Century Health Care and the Immigrant Irish > The Irish Wake Irish Immigrants in the Workplace
According to the 1870 census, nearly 52 percent of all Irish gainfully employed in New York City worked as unskilled laborers, domestic servants, and launderers; saloon, restaurant, and hotel keepers and employees; livery-stable keepers and hostlers; sailors, steamboatmen, and watermen; and carmen, draymen, and teamsters. Unskilled laborers (21,496) and domestic servants (24,269) made up much of this number; forty-three percent of the Irish workforce (106,362) and nearly fifty-nine percent of the total workforce in these categories (77,891).1

Irish Men
The harsh reality for Irish immigrants throughout the nineteenth century was that their primary source of work lay in the least skilled, lowest-paying jobs that New York City had to offer. Laboring on the docks as longshoreman, in the factories as unskilled operatives, as porters, coachmen, boatmen, ferrymen, stage drivers, carters, and undifferentiated common laborers, they performed jobs requiring physical strength and occupational flexibility. The same was true of Irish laborers in the building trades, where they served as bricklayers, hod-carriers, and carpenters and played an indispensable role in the continued expansion of the city. Gravitating to jobs that no longer functioned on the artisinal craft system, they strengthened the ties of work and ethnicity.2

The largest single occupational group among New York's 19th century Irish male population, menial day laborers, would have made about $1.00 for a 10 hour day during the mid-19th century. They ordinarily would work 6 days a week, but such work was seasonal and subject to fluctuations in the economy. In comparison, Irish immigrants who worked at a skilled trade made considerably more. Carpenters took in $8-9 a week, bakers $9-10 per week, cabinetmakers up to $10 a week, and ship's carpenters $12-15 a week.3

Late nineteenth-century New York also had a booming hotel, restaurant, and entertainment business. As such, it is likely that waiters and bartenders found opportunities for employment throughout the year, but might have had to move to different establishments. For example, most wealthy New Yorkers left the city during the sweltering summer months, so it is likely that some of the more exclusive hotels like the Waldorf-Astoria and restaurants like Rector's and Delmonico's thinned their staffs during this time.4 In letters written home to his family in Ireland, John Nolan describes his frequent migrations to various hotels both in the United States and abroad in search of better or more remunerative work. If Nolan's experience was at all typical, Irish waiters and bartenders made about $5 a week, or $20 a month, a wage not much better than that of the common laborer.5 The possibility that waiters enjoyed a better social or psychological wage is likely.

Working-class saloons and restaurants were usually full year-round, given the male-dominated drinking culture of various immigrant groups and the fact that many single men lived in boardinghouses without cooking facilities. Many saloons, for example, offered a "free lunch" of cold meat, pickles, tomatoes, and onions, which patrons could partake of after purchasing two-nickel beers.6

The most likely place for an Irish waiter or bartender like Joseph Moore to look for work after arriving in New York would be with those he was most familiar, which would be Irish saloon and restaurant owners on the Lower East Side. Following the separate social spheres they followed in Ireland and other European countries, workingmen did not spend their free time at home as much as at the pub, which served as an informal club for many working-class immigrants in the period. Bartenders and waiters encouraged this culture, serving as their patrons' advisor, political debater, counselor, and gossipmonger. As such, owners hired their own countrymen whenever possible, recognizing that their customers would feel most comfortable with them.7

Opening a saloon was the pinnacle of success for many Irish immigrants. Irish saloons could be small cellar oyster saloons, or grandiose hotel/billiard parlors. By the 1840s, such places dotted the Bowery and Broadway, catering to working-class Irishmen. Successful saloonkeepers often gained influence in Tammany Hall and became politicians, while politicians would open saloons with the profits they gained through graft. For example, Peter Barr Sweeney owned a saloon in the Sixth Ward and was a member of the Tweed Ring. While avoided by "respectable" people, it became a place to make oneself known and gain political supporters.8

It is possible that bartender and waiter positions became prizes in exchange for votes or other services, much like public positions were. In addition, it is also possible that Irishmen became bartenders in the hopes of learning how saloons were run to prepare for their own future establishments or to prepare for a career with Tammany, since saloons were the political centers of ward politics.
Irish waiters and bartenders were not limited to Irish establishments, however. The city directory lists a number of hotels, saloons, dining rooms, and oyster houses-of both a respectable and questionable nature-along the Bowery, Broadway, and the vicinity. These establishments, along with those further uptown in the Tenderloin district and the more exclusive restaurants located in midtown (such as Delmonico's, Rector's, and the Waldorf-Astoria), had late hours and often had entertainment, allowing for ample opportunities for employment.9

Significantly, Irish immigrants made up over one quarter of all government employees, pointing to the influence of the Irish in Tammany Hall by 1870. They made up the second-largest percentage after native-born Americans, who totaled sixty percent. As many of these Americans were probably of Irish parentage, the total Irish number is probably much larger.10

Irish Women
By the second half of the nineteenth century, a growing number of Irish immigrants were young adults; men and women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four were about 45 percent of all Irish emigrants. About half of this number consisted of women, many of them traveling alone. Largely unskilled and subject to the same discrimination in white-collar professions as Irish men, Irish immigrant women did not have a variety of employment options in New York during this period. However, given that many building projects and factory work was curtailed during the Civil War, they did have more opportunities than Irish men, especially in domestic service. This shortage of male employment might have been one reason why Bridget Meehan came before Joseph Moore if they were married or planned to marry.11

Domestic service was the single biggest form of employment for single Irish women in America between 1850 and 1900. Native-born women shunned service as too demeaning, particularly as the Irish came to dominate the field, while other immigrant groups did not wish their daughters to live away from home. Conversely, Irish women saw no social stigma in service, they traveled to America alone for the most part, and were long used to serving in an economic capacity at home. As early as 1855, between 75-80 percent (about 8,000) of all domestics in New York City were Irish, which included over 45 percent of all Irish women under 50. In the Sixth Ward alone, over 50 percent of all Irish women were domestics in middle-class families, while 40 percent were seamstresses. As late as 1870, four out of ten Irish-born women worked as domestics, making up half of all who worked in service in the city.12

Given these numbers many Irish women seem to have preferred domestic service. Irish domestics often negotiated terms of their service, and quit if they were mistreated, did not receive time off to attend church on Sundays, or received unfair wages. In addition, domestics received free room and board in their employers' homes and earned regular paychecks at rates much higher than factory work, allowing them to save large amounts of money to send home to their families, buy passage for siblings, or provide dowries for their own marriages. Between 1847 and 1867, for example, it was estimated that Irish immigrants had sent more than $120 million home to Ireland, with most of that amount coming from domestic servants. Irish domestics also provided much of the financial support for New York's Catholic parishes and other religious institutions; while they were stuck in Protestant neighborhoods, for the most part, they remained active in their local parish and neighborhood activities.13

The appeal of domestic service to Irish immigrant women, however, should not be overstated. Although the pay received was often higher than other available options and included room and board, living in an employer's home could prove constraining and claustrophobic. Rooted in nineteenth -century conceptions of the home, frequent tensions between the mistress of the home and her servants erupted over the conduct of housework. Time off was another arena of struggle between employers and domestics. By the mid-nineteenth century, domestics often had to wrangle for time off on Sunday alone. In addition, domestic servants were sometimes subjected to sexual harassment at the hands of male employers. As such, some women chose to explore other options.14
The needle trades were second to domestic service as a source of employment for Irish women in New York, which was quickly becoming the center of the fast-growing garment industry. Irish women worked as seamstresses, milliners, dressmakers, shirt and collar makers, embroiderers, and pieceworkers in the new factories and sweatshops. By the 1850s, 40 percent of all Irish women age fifteen to nineteen sewed and stitched for a living in the Sixth Ward alone, as did 30 percent of those between the ages of 20 and 29. Needlework was one of the worst-paying occupations in the city. Women labored under poor working conditions, with long hours, bad lighting, and exacting bosses. There was little room for advancement, and many seamstresses ended up needing to accept help from the city's charitable institutions.15

It is likely that Bridget Meehan worked as a domestic servant in New York before Joseph arrived. Service would have allowed her to earn the most money in the shortest amount of time, particularly if she was paying for his passage and saving money for their life together. In addition, getting free room and board in an employer's home would allow Bridget to save money that otherwise would have gone to rent and food while living in a boarding house or with another family (as many Irish preferred to do). If Bridget and Joseph met in Dublin and were married before she left, or planned to marry after he came to New York, domestic service would also have been a temporary means of employment with a foreseeable end, since it would only be a matter of time before Joseph arrived.16

Since Bridget Meehan came in 1863 during the Civil War, it is even more likely that she worked as a domestic rather than a seamstress. Garment slopwork was in decline at the start of the 1860s, anticipating the start of the War. Northern clothing manufacturers often sold slopwork to slaves in the South and this market was cut-off with the commencement of hostilities. Completing the circle of the global markets, in the opposite manner that Ulster's linen trade benefited from the rise of cotton prices during the war, tailors in New York would have suffered from the increase.17

At the same time, however, Bridget might have preferred the freedom, if lower pay, of working as a seamstress or in other needle trades. Presuming she came by herself, as many Irish women did, she might have wanted to live among her own people, rather than alone in a Protestant family, especially since she was still a young girl when she arrived. If Bridget came over with her parents and lived with them, she would probably have been expected to pay room and board or contribute to their family income, depending on her father's occupation, which would take away from the money she could save for her own future family.18

Irish women rarely worked outside the home after marriage. Needlework offered daughters and married women the opportunity to contribute to the family income and perhaps afford better accommodations or furnishings. Despite the low pay, sewing was one of the few means of earning money for married women and widows, especially those with small children. They often took piecework on a contract basis, enlisting the children's help in finishing buttons and seams. In addition to sewing, however, married women and widows also took in laundry or worked as scrubwomen and peddlers. Many also took in boarders, which was often necessary to pay escalating rents, but made their small apartments even more crowded.19

1 Ninth U.S. Census, 1870, volume 1: The Statistic of the Population of the United States, 793; Tyler Annbinder, Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum (New York: Free Press, 2001); Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Jay Dolan, The Immigrant Church: New York's Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1976; Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History Kerby Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Luc Sante, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1991).
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Letters of John Nolan, Personal Collection of Kerby Miller.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Tyler Annbinder, Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum (New York: Free Press, 2001); Hasia Diner, Erin's Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the 19th Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986).
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid
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