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The Just & Honest Thing: Carhartt & The Eight-Hour Day

By Alexandria Rayburn, Archive Intern

Carhartt has been around for a long time. Beginning in 1889, we emerged during a demanding time for the American industrial worker. During the Industrial Revolution, laborers were expected to work long hours in unsafe conditions to produce as much as possible, as it was standard practice for companies to prioritize profits over people.

It’s estimated that in the mid to late 1800s the average American worker was working 60 to 70 hours per week. When Hamilton Carhartt started his company, he had the choice to follow suit with other manufacturers at the time, yet decided he wanted to run his company in a humane way. He did this by encouraging his employees to organize and following trade union recommendations from the beginning of his company. In an early 20th century advertisement, Hamilton Carhartt stated:

“Back in the early ‘90s [1890s], when organized labor was battling for its life, I began making Carhartt overalls under Trade Union conditions. Those were dark and troublesome days for Union men, or those who believed in them, but though deserted by friends and persecuted by foe, I stuck to my task of making Carhartt overalls under Trade Union conditions… I glory in the fact that I have made the manufacture of overalls under Trade Union conditions possible all over America, and have improved working conditions and secured higher wages and shortened the working hours for a multitude of deserving men and women.”

enlarge image Carhartt Advertisement, circa 1915
Carhartt Advertisement, circa 1915

By 1910, Carhartt had grown to include mills in South Carolina and Georgia, as well as sewing facilities in Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas, and San Francisco. The company expanded internationally to Canada, England, and France. As Carhartt grew, being a union company was a fact Hamilton Carhartt prided himself in, as he not only wanted to provide an honest product to hardworking people, but also wanted those products to be produced in a fair and ethical way. Shown below is an excerpt from a 1900 Carhartt catalog. Carhartt proudly boasted pictures of women employees at Carhartt with the label, “Officers of Union No. 74 United Garment Workers of America.” Having an active union presence in his company was a source of pride for Hamilton Carhartt.

enlarge image Excerpt from Carhartt catalog, 1900
Excerpt from Carhartt catalog, 1900

One of the main causes that unions were fighting for during Hamilton Carhartt’s era was shorter days with higher wages. It was common for factory employees to be working six to seven days a week for 10 to 12 hours a day. This was an area in which unions and workers were demanding reform, and it became the goal in multiple industries for employers to implement the eight-hour workday. Hamilton Carhartt had implemented this policy in his company and was publicizing it as early as 1898.

Featured in a Carhartt booklet from 1911 was a poem titled “Blessings of Eight Hours.” This was just one way Hamilton Carhartt was trying to follow his word to create an honest and just product.

“Eight hours means higher wages.
More hours of blissful pleasure.
Less robbery of school and playground.
More comforts to each family bringing.
Less outrage of the poor and needy.
More things produced for more and better people.
More things consumed a greater, grander market.
More work for willing workers.
More health, more wealth, less poverty and sickness.
A nobler manhood, woman and childhood glorified.
A sure protection for the unprotected.”

enlarge image Memento book, circa 1911
Memento book, circa 1911

In addition to the eight-hour work day, Carhartt had already implemented a profit sharing plan in 1905 to allow his workers to benefit from the company’s growth. This meant giving employees preferred stock, allowing them to prosper when the company did. In a 1911 booklet, Hamilton stated, “Kindly understand that I do not wish to pose as a philanthropist, as I am simply carrying out a long cherished idea: To make those who have helped me to build up this tremendous business partners in it and sharers of its profits.”

enlarge image Memento book, circa 1911
Memento book, circa 1911

Even as the leadership of Carhartt changed, Hamilton’s business practices followed the company throughout its history. In 1937, Hamilton Carhartt’s son Wylie took over the company and saw it through World War II. At a time when the nation was being pushed to manufacture at astronomical rates to support troops overseas, Carhartt still held true to its values. Below is an advertisement noting Carhartt as “[Over] 50 Years A Friend to Organized Labor”:

“Whether he carries a gun, mans a battle wagon, mounts guard on deck of a merchant ship – or whether he’s ‘on the job’ in [a] factory, mine, mill or farm – handling the throttle of a locomotive or the wheel of a truck – he’s doing his best to hasten the victory.”

enlarge image Carhartt WWII advertisement, circa  1943
Carhartt WWII advertisement, circa 1943

Still today, Carhartt prides itself as an ally to its employees. Many of Carhartt's more than 1,300 associates in Kentucky and Tennessee are members of the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers). Also, since 2012 Carhartt has maintained a partnership with the Union Sportsmen's Alliance (USA), a non-profit conservation organization based in Nashville, Tennessee. Founded in 2007, the USA aims is to unite millions of AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) union members who have a passion for hunting, fishing, shooting, and outdoor recreation. In support of its mission to preserve North America's outdoor heritage, Carhartt provides apparel to USA volunteers as well as sponsorship support for the organization's annual fundraising events.

Simply put, Carhartt to this day is still doing its best to follow the powerful words of Hamilton Carhartt: “My business was not started to do the gainful thing alone, but the just and honest thing – gainful if possible.”

enlarge image Railroad Time Book, circa 1903
Railroad Time Book, circa 1903
enlarge image Carhartt ad print, circa 1945
Carhartt ad print, circa 1945

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